Except Zedd’s not the paternal higher-up minding these artists’ income streams -- he’s the collaborator pushing them to some of their greatest commercial heights. Zedd says he’s “slow and picky” with the singers he invites onto his songs. “Oh, he’s definitely a perfectionist,” says Payne, though “it felt like I was [recording] with a bandmate or friend.” Hailee Steinfeld, who worked with Zedd on the top 20 Hot 100 hit “Starving,” agrees that he’s a “perfectionist,” but adds, “Most importantly, he cares about the people in the room.”
“I’ve never met somebody so particular in the studio,” testifies Julia Michaels, who worked extensively with him on his 2015 album True Colors, and also calls him “an awesome dude.” “He’d make me sing [lines] in, like, three different keys, over and over and over.”
Or as his friend Jared Leto, who collaborated with Zedd on a to-be-released 30 Seconds to Mars song (and has also taken him rock climbing), puts it: “He is a relentless worker and really puts in the time. He is not someone who just shows up and takes selfies all day.”
?Zedd’s first place in the United States was a cramped Santa Monica apartment with walls so thin he’d be woken by the neighbor’s cellphone vibrating at night. The spot had one advantage, though: It was paid for by Lady Gaga, who wanted Zedd to have somewhere to crash while drafting songs for her Artpop LP, often with no more to go on than an email of word cues like “dark” or “metallic.”
Now Zedd puts up his brother Arkadi, 30, who is working on his own music. (Arkadi just produced a song for Bryan Adams, a gig that Zedd handed off to him.) From age 12 to 20, Zedd drummed in Arkadi’s metalcore band Dioramic, which was big enough in Germany that the boys often skipped class to tour. Dad was a guitarist and schoolteacher. Mom was a piano instructor. When Zedd was 3, they moved from a Russian port city to a woods-encircled village in southwest Germany called Dansenberg, population 3,500. “There is one store there,” says Zedd, “if it is still open.” He started on piano at 4, and by 9 -- well, you can watch him on YouTube in a too-big navy sport coat crushing Chick Corea’s “La Fiesta” at a competition he was technically too young to win. “I wanted to prove I could do it, so I gave my sheet music to the judges,” says Zedd, who played the song by memory. When I meet his parents -- they’re in town, staying at Zedd’s house -- they’re petite and friendly like their sons. Zedd keeps a second house near them, in Kaiserslautern (it boasts “a yard, a parking space and a shed”), and always spends Christmas back home.