EDM Star Alesso: 'Kurt Cobain Wrote About Misery and Heartbreak. Why Can't I?'
Swedish House Mafia protege Alesso is trying to bring Nirvana-style lyricism to dance music.
There are certain cliches that come with being a globe-trotting EDM star, and at this moment, Alesso is living most of them. The Swedish DJ-producer is sitting in a friend's expansive Art Deco mansion on a cliff in the Hollywood Hills, his home for the week between headlining gigs at Coachella in Indio, Calif. Sporting glossy white sneakers and shoulder-length, soccer-star hair, he's surrounded by managers and publicists buzzing over his schedule: selling out Stockholm's Globe Arena, jet-setting back and forth to Las Vegas for his Mandalay Bay residency, unveiling his new campaign as the face of a Carolina Herrera fragrance line. It's familiar territory for a big-name DJ, even if Alesso insists his music isn't.
"Sure, that stuff gets my blood pumping, but I'm trying to dig deeper with dance music," says Alesso, 23, born Alessandro Lindblad. "People say [EDM] is this soulless, simple thing. Kurt Cobain wrote about misery and heartbreak. Why can't I?"
Alesso's approach, inspired partly by real-life hardships, is working for him. Discovered by Sebastian Ingrosso, one-third of Swedish House Mafia -- arguably EDM's biggest group before its 2013 split -- Alesso seems primed to follow in SHM's oversized footsteps. He has opened tours for Madonna and collaborated with dance's current crossover king, Calvin Harris, and in 2014, signed with Def Jam. His debut album, Forever, due May 26, has already sent three songs to the dance/electronic charts -- the biggest, "Heroes" (featuring Tove Lo), reached No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has been streamed more than 150 million times on Spotify.
OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, who joined Alesso at Coachella's first weekend for three songs, saw the DJ's star potential early on. "He's hyper-focused," Tedder says, recalling that Alesso spent months honing a 2013 remix of the band's "If I Lose Myself." "He's a perfectionist. All the best in that genre tend to be."
Raised in Stockholm in a middle-class family with Italian roots, Alesso took piano and tap-dancing lessons as a child with dreams of becoming the next Michael Jackson. At 16, he sold his motor scooter to buy a laptop and taught himself how to produce. When his girlfriend at the time discovered that one of the regulars at the coffee shop where she worked was Ingrosso's father, a demo was passed on, and the star became Alesso's mentor. He signed to the same management company as Swedish House Mafia (ATM Artists), toured and recorded with the group, developed a similar ear for pop-radio hooks over big house beats and turned many of SHM's fans into his own. But now Alesso seems more concerned with stepping out from under SHM's large shadow, one that continues to loom even after the group's breakup: SHM members Axwell and Ingrosso formed a duo and announced their own Def Jam deal weeks after he did.
"I don't want to be associated with them," Alesso says, visibly frustrated. "I don't even think my music sounds like Swedish House Mafia. They had their thing, I have mine."
Alesso is cautious not to sound ungrateful. "Everyone needs someone at the beginning of their career to help guide them," he says of Ingrosso. "But he was never involved in my production. He didn't steer my sound at all. And that's the best thing he ever did because I didn't want to be steered. I wanted someone to be like a big brother, saying, 'Do your thing, man -- I'm right behind you if anything crazy happens.' "
Besides, being a world-touring DJ can be a lonely job. Until his sold-out arena gig after Coachella, Alesso hadn't been home to Stockholm in four months. "I'm constantly on tour by myself," he says. "I don't see my family or friends, and I miss them." He worries about the effect his stardom could have on his younger sister, who's about to graduate high school. "I just hope people don't hang out with her to get close to me," he says. "It has happened already -- guys that want to give me music or whatever. I just don't want her to get hurt."
One way he has coped with the solitude is to write lyrics for the vocalists on his songs -- a rarity for EDM producers, and the perfect way for Alesso, a self-proclaimed softy, to express his feelings: about ex-girlfriends (he was rumored to be dating Swedish model Emilia Lantz in 2014), fading childhood memories, and his late friend Riccardo Campogiani, whom he saw get beaten to death by five other teens at a party in 2007, sparking a national outcry. (The 2012 "Years" video is a tribute to Campogiani, and Alesso has his friend's name tattooed on his forearm.) "Every song is an emotional experience I've gone through," he says. "I want people to feel the same way listening to me as they would listening to Coldplay or Sam Smith."
Still, each of Alesso's songs, no matter how serious the subject, seems to have a happy ending. Maybe raves aren't suited for sadness after all -- especially when you're flying first class around the world to play them.
"I want my music to look like this," says Alesso, gesturing to the view of the Hollywood Hills in front of him. "I want it to make you feel like you can take over the world."
This story originally appeared in the May 9 issue of Billboard.