Billboard Cover: Kygo on His Rise to Fame -- 'I Have to Enjoy It While It Lasts'
On what might be the night of his young life, Kygo is gliding around the backstage area of Brooklyn's Barclays Center with a giant grin on his face and a tall glass of champagne in hand. The 24-year-old Norwegian has just finished his first-ever performance at the arena, a sold-out headlining gig. With his lush hair tucked under a backward black baseball cap and crisp white T-shirt nicely filled out, he looks game for the meet-and-greet -- or to step in as the jovial ringer for an office softball team. The room is an interesting mix of Kygo's gray-haired family members and steely-eyed fans shoving to get selfies. Also here: Steven Reisman, a lawyer known for getting close to megastars like Kanye West and Beyoncé, who is handing out $2 bills "for good luck."
Earlier in the evening, the venue buzzed. There were Technicolor-headband girls in glowing sneakers and nearly nonexistent tank tops caterwauling en masse; there were skinny dudes in eyesore Hawaiian shirts and neon fanny packs clutching as many beers as possible. There was at least one self-aware young man stumbling by an usher and politely but urgently inquiring, "Medical office? Medical office? I'm... going to be sick." In his clipped Scandinavian manner, Kygo -- who just days before, at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert, played to an audience of international dignitaries -- rendered his verdict: "That was pretty cool. It looked like they were having a good time."
You may have never heard of Kygo. You may have never heard the term for the sound he invented: tropical house. But you know it. The kid born Kyrre Gørvell-Dahll popularized the effervescent congas and pan flutes that set apart, most prominently, Justin Bieber's career-revitalizing, first No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 single, "What Do You Mean?," and Felix Jaehn's remix of OMI's "Cheerleader" (another 2015 No. 1 smash). The sound is now so ubiquitous that when Rihanna released "Work," the island-tinged single that led off her long-awaited album Anti, fans wondered whether she had jumped on the "trop house" bandwagon. (Others astutely pointed out that Rihanna may have a superseding claim to Caribbean sounds, seeing as she is, you know, from the Caribbean.)
When Kygo signed to Ultra Records / RCA Records in June 2014, the label hadn't heard a note of his original music: It was courting him solely on the strength of remixes. These were playful reimaginings of hits like Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire"; they had been self-released, then promptly accrued millions of plays on SoundCloud and earned Kygo a fervent live following. Various label executives chased him from festival gigs to club nights, flying from Toronto to New York, London to Austin, Los Angeles to Miami (where they huddled in Kygo's manager's mother's living room and were served homemade lemonade). "There was a little bit of a bidding war between the major labels," admits Kygo.
Kygo's own tracks quickly found their audience. In 2015, he sold more than half a million downloads from a string of one-off releases like "Firestone" and "Stole the Show," which both hit the top 10 of the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs and Dance/Electronic Streaming Songs charts. In December 2015, he became the fastest artist to crack 1 billion Spotify streams. At the end of that month, he played his biggest festival gig yet, to roughly 50,000 fire-dancing hedonists at the Sunburn Festival in Goa, India. (His management allows that he can earn "hundreds of thousands" of dollars for one gig.) Kygo's fans include Diplo (who praised him on his radio show as "100 percent original") and John Legend, who popped up to sing on a remix of his "Sexual Healing" at a Kygo show in Los Angeles. Kygo and Legend are now collaborating on a semisecret song -- they plan to release it to publicly christen the genetically blessed first child of Legend and Chrissy Teigen (the baby is due in the spring).
"I'm so happy people have enjoyed listening to my tracks," Kygo offered at the time, as if all that auspiciousness was too much to fathom.
Trop house's appeal lies in its restraint: It is, as its fans would explain, extremely chill. Contrasted with the swollen, 'roided extremes of some recent EDM (nicely skewered on Saturday Night Live in Andy Samberg's homicidal, bass-drop-obsessed DJ Davvinci), it's a lungful of clean air.Its popularity and sunniness have bred dissent. As the prominent dance music lifer Black Madonna told The New York Times in January, "[A] relaxation tape with an EDM beat over it? That's not house. That's the soundtrack for a yoga retreat."
Kygo does not acknowledge, or is genuinely unaware of, these snobs and skeptics. And he's cheery and bright and uninterested -- so far -- in the overindulgence that fame and money can provide. "He makes happy music [because] it's his character," says Dillon Francis, a DJ-producer who has worked with Kygo. "He's such a sweet person. He [just] loves to be at home, making music."
Still, Kygo played The Ellen DeGeneres Show in January. He's anchoring his own festival, the inaugural Cloud Nine, later in 2016 in Norway. In a matter of months, it seems, he has mastered every form of state-of-the-art music fame. He even plans to release an old-fashioned album this spring.
"Kygo is not a dance artist, he's not a producer, and he's not just an EDM act," says Adam Granite, Sony International's president of Northern & Eastern Europe, Africa (Sony is Ultra's international partner). "He's a pop artist. I don't know if he's ever going to be dancing in videos," adds Granite, "but he is a great-looking kid."
In 2010, Kygo was a well-adjusted teen splitting time between the two parts of his sprawling family (including his mom -- a dentist with her own practice -- and stepdad, dad and stepmom, a younger half-brother, an older stepbrother and two older sisters) in a suburb of Bergen, a city of 200,000 on the west coast of Norway. Kygo, whose father had a case of wanderlust and a job in the shipping industry, was born in Singapore; later, he would live and travel with his family in Brazil, Japan, Kenya and Egypt. The upbringing foreshadowed -- even, perhaps, enabled -- his unimpeded rise to international fame.
In Norway at age 15, Kygo was a jock who dreamed of a career as a soccer pro (he played right midfield) and listened to Coldplay and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Then he heard "Seek Bromance," a dance hit by another handsome Scandinavian, the superstar DJ Avicii. Kygo had recently quit a decade of piano lessons from a woman who lived down the road. "I wanted to play the pop stuff," he says. From there, he gorged on EDM and abandoned his previous boyish fantasy for a new one: music.
After high school, he fulfilled his year of compulsory Norwegian military service by working as a fireman at a naval base. Training was serious, he recalls ("You go into the woods, live in tents, do a lot of tests -- super-military stuff"), but the downtime was plentiful. One army buddy, an aspiring producer, put him on his tools: a MIDI keyboard and the production software Logic. Kygo would spend hours in front of his computer, broken up with bouts of FIFA on the PlayStation. First it was YouTube tutorials, to teach himself Logic. Then, production sessions. It was an ascetic experience: no booze, no drugs -- sometimes, as he went from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. straight in a haze of productivity, he would even forget to eat.
Eventually, after thudding mainstream EDM began to bore him, he hit upon his sound: "I started getting the BPMs" -- beats per minute -- "slower and slower and slower," he recalls, "until I ended at my tempo." That was 100 BPM, a comparatively gentle groove. And after obsessive trial and error, he perfected "a kind of dreamy synth." The combination sounded not unlike peace-loving robots jamming on flutes on a beach at the far end of the world at dusk. In its way, it was a revelation: a rush of Bud Light Lime to the head.
Using the new sound, Kygo started dropping remixes -- Passenger's "Let Her Go," Rihanna's "Stay" -- on a Facebook page. A month in, the page had 1,000 likes. A promoter in Paris tried to book him for a show, and Kygo agreed but asked for a six-month extension -- he needed to teach himself how to DJ. By the time of the gig, for 200 people, he was up to 80,000 Facebook likes. "I'd never posted a photo of my face," he says. "Nobody even knew who I was. I was like, 'I don't understand what's going on.'" Sony approached him about signing with the company around this time, but "at that point," recalls Kygo, "I was like, 'No, I don't need a label.' I didn't even have original material."
At that time, after a stint as a mailman and a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, Kygo was studying business and finance at a university in Edinburgh, Scotland. But with his Internet fame growing, he couldn't concentrate. He was routinely bombing on exams. His father was freaking out. "So," he says, "I dropped out."
Soon after, a wondrously excitable American named Myles Shear, now 22, connected with Kygo on Facebook and then Skype; after a "loose" night out in Paris following that first gig, Kygo agreed to let Shear manage him. Then he revealed his face. "As I was going to press 'post' on the first photo of myself," he remembers, "my heart was beating so fast."
These days, when he's not on tour, Kygo lives in a houseboat on his dad's property, plays golf and squash, and goes to the gym. He has been dating the same girl for years; she's a nursing student outside Bergen who travels with him when school allows. His biggest recent purchases? A used Audi A1 and a new upright Yamaha piano.
As for the partying that is generally associated with EDM, Kygo swears he's not partaking. "I actually haven't even seen that much drugs," he insists. In studio sessions these days, he might indulge in a glass of wine: "I feel like red wine gets you in that chill vibe." Thomas Jack, another budding EDM star -- he coined the phrase "tropical house" -- describes his friend Kygo as "very calm. Very content. Very... Norwegian."
At the Barclays show, Kygo managed not to seem humble at all. At the beginning, a massive white curtain dropped to reveal him plunking out melodies on a black grand piano that was elevated -- and spotlit dramatically among cascading reds, whites and blues -- 40 feet in the air. It was a bold move but commensurate with the situation. "The Barclays show was the biggest headlining show I've ever done," says Kygo. "We did a lot of planning. We wanted to make it special. But I'm not really the type of guy..." He drifts off, reluctant to even say the words: the type of guy who actively enjoys looming godlike above his legions of loyal serfs.
It can seem like Kygo is caught in some kind of machine -- that all young Gørvell-Dahll wanted to do was post some remixes for his friends, and suddenly he found himself in front of thousands on a flying piano. But there's also a sense that he is the machine. Smooth, clean, tidy and always available: a frictionless delivery system for good-time music.
Likewise, the conventions of fame have quickly become routine. Part of Kygo appears to be looking at this all from the outside. When he talks about his first time flying in a private jet -- now a regular necessity when zipping between two tour dates in one day -- he recalls having a glass of champagne in hand, just like backstage at Barclays. He calls it "the typical thing, the classic stuff," like it's a prop. When it comes to documenting the whole whirlwind, Kygo has a photographer: "A Norwegian guy called Olav who I bring around with me. He knows what I don't like. He's good at getting those moments, like, photos of me talking that look really natural but also [make] a cool photo."
A few weeks before the Barclays show, Kygo is sitting in an Argentine steakhouse deep in New York's Queens borough, taking in some of his beloved soccer. With an eye only occasionally drifting to the highlights, he chats freely. "If I never showed my face, it would kind of be easier," he muses, as Real Madrid player Karim Benzema scores a goal. In Norway, he says, people rush up to him in the grocery store and say, "Oh, that's that guy!" "From time to time," he continues, "I think it would be nice just to go out [where] nobody can see or watch you."
Before long, Shear bounds in wearing sweatpants, high-top sneakers and a black jacket with a superfluous number of zippers. "Now is the time to show everyone," says Shear, chatting a mile a minute. " 'Hey, this is Kygo. This is the year of Kygo. It's time to go.' " Two years ago, Shear had never even heard of Lyor Cohen, the former Def Jam executive and one of the many industry people who tried and failed to land Kygo. Now Shear is legit: The lawyers have signed, the contracts are done. "I've got a plan, yeah," he says. "I've got an entire year planned. I've got an entire lifetime planned." Shear and Kygo are a strangely perfect pairing, capturing the surreal nature of their situation: One acts like this was clearly predestined; one doesn't realize that perhaps it really was.
"Making music all the time was my dream," says Kygo, "and I felt like, 'Oh, it's impossible. So many people are doing exactly what I'm doing and better than me.' Now they say, a billion streams on Spotify. I don't even... that's just insane."
A tropical house cynic might look at all this and think this is the part before the flash in the pan fizzles. Even Kygo says, "I do have in the back of my head that you never know how long it lasts. I don't know if my music will be popular three years from now. I have to enjoy it while it lasts." But that misses a key point. In his rise to this type of stardom, one almost entirely outside of the industry's old conventions, something remarkable already has happened. In Kygo's version of EDM, there's much less focus on the drop; there's no obvious, all-encompassing crescendo. Instead, there is a steadiness to the warmth that envelops you. You listen to the florid flutes and the calming grooves and the soaring spirit of his tunes, and you think, I wouldn't mind if this kept going for just a bit longer.
Later, remembering the madness swirling around the backstage room at Barclays, particularly the lawyer Steve Reisman -- the odd guy in the suit with the giant stack of bills that he constantly sent flying -- Kygo makes a rare break from his preternatural placidity. "He gave me a lot of $2 bills," says Kygo, with a smirking slyness. "I guess I'm going to have a lot of luck now."