Zedd on Engaging With Fans & Appreciating His Success: 'I Think It's Good to Have Had to Sleep on Floors'

Last Friday, for a few minutes on another otherwise average weekday afternoon, bedlam broke out in downtown Chicago: teenagers and twenty-somethings, running and sweating from the previous few hours spent traversing the city, descended upon Grant Park. They were there in support of Zedd. It was the latest stop on the DJ’s ambitious True Colors promotion:  the first 50 fans to complete a scavenger hunt around the city — selfies at different locations was the task — were transported via trolley to the rented-out Shedd Aquarium where they not only met the DJ in person but also got a first listen to “Beautiful Now,” the next single off True Colors, his new album out on May 18.

A few hours later, sitting in a room off the aquarium’s main entrance, Zedd told Billboard how each of these True Colors events — there were five before Chicago, in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin and Denver; four more are still to come — is an opportunity for him to reengage with his fans after spending months locked away in a studio working on his album. “Sometimes when you work on something for too long you kind of lose perspective,” the DJ born Anton Zaslavski explained. “Just hearing the feedback from everyone who is here is very overwhelming. It’s so flattering to hear what my music means to them. It’s pretty amazing what you can achieve by sitting in your parent’s basement and making a song.

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The concept behind the True Colors nationwide promotion was Zedd’s: as the DJ carefully articulated, when he listens to music for the first time so much of his response, he said, is dictated by the setting in which he’s in. To that end, he felt it crucial to give his biggest fans a one-of-a-kind experience when hearing his new music. “Having worked on this album for so long I wanted to make sure the first people who hear it hear it in a really special way,” he said, and in Chicago when the martial-drum drop kicked into on the Jon Bellion-featuring “Beautiful Now,” those gathered to hear it were simultaneously treated to a stunning panoramic view of Lake Michigan above a mammoth whale tank laid before them. 

Zedd and his team began brainstorming location ideas six months ago for this grand album run-up promotion: each new song on his album was paired with a specific color of Zedd’s association. In Chicago, the chosen color was magenta: correspondingly, the entire Shedd Aquarium was lit up in a majestic purple hue. (Previous locations have included Joshua Tree National Park and Alcatraz Island, each corresponding to a specific color and song.)

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In Zedd’s eye, True Colors as an album marks a major moment in an already monumental career: whereas his 2012 breakout LP, Clarity, was constructed while he simultaneously logged extensive production time for artists like Lady Gaga, this go-round the 25-year-old was singularly focused on his album’s creation. “I loved the experience of making an album and being able to express much more than I could ever express with one song,” he says of meticulously piecing together True Colors over the past year in an LA studio. “I think I’m just an album artist. There are singles artists and there are album artists. I don’t think I’m the guy to just be able to put out a song and be fully satisfied with that. Because that puts you so much more into a box.”

Zedd says he made a concerted effort to scale back his touring schedule in the past 12 months while writing and recording new music. Additionally, on the occasions when he did perform, he chose to not debut any new material. Says Zedd: “I specifically didn’t want to do that because I felt like if I did play a new song and I saw the crowd wasn’t jumping or raising their hands I would change it. But that is actually no reason to second-guess anything. My goal is not necessarily for everyone to jump at the right time. My goal is to make music that is timeless — music you can listen to on the beach and also listen to in the club. Both worlds are just as important.”

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Sonically, Zedd pushes the boundaries on True Colors, veering from more traditional vocal-driven EDM bangers like the Selena Gomez-featuring Billboard Hot 100 single “I Want You to Know” to more instrumental-heavy offerings like the title track. “The title song of the album is an almost fully acoustic song,” Zedd explains of “True Colors.” “I think it is a really important statement. The song means showing somebody your true colors, who you really are, what you’re really about. The same thing goes for the album: this is my way of showing people what I’m about. I love every sort of music, I’ve worked with a rapper for the first time which I probably would have been afraid to do before; I’ve worked with rock bands; and now I had the courage to go ahead and do the title song and do it fully acoustic.”

Later in the evening, as Zedd poses with fans for pictures and spends literally hours chatting with the lucky few who’d won the day’s contest, it only further brought into focus how appreciative he said he is of his recent success. After spending years as a struggling musician in Germany — playing shows for less than 10 people, losing money on each gig —Zedd says he’s that much more grateful to be in his current position.

“I think it’s good to have had to sleep on floors,” he offered with a laugh. “Then you really realize if you want to do music for the right reasons. And then, when you suddenly have success, you appreciate it a lot more. This is what I love to do.”