Today, he insists that he’s in a much better place. “I’m taking things at my own pace, eating well, not going too crazy,” he says with a wry little laugh. “Making sure we have dinnertime.” (He’s clearly not on a rabid health kick, though. At one point a member of his team delivers a pack of Marlboro Lights, and he spends several minutes trying to get one lit by holding it in his hand and toasting the end with a lighter.) One of the ways that Malik has achieved a more serene mind space has been by spending much of this summer and fall in the last place any fan would think to look for him -- on a working farm in rural Pennsylvania, with a private studio nearby. “[The farm] is just out of the way and feels grounded,” he says. “There’s not a lot of things around. I do a lot of farm work.” Really? “Yeah, yeah, I take the horses out and feed the cows and that kind of stuff. It’s cool. I’ve always been interested in animals.”
The farm reminds him, he says, of the countryside around Bradford, England, the town between Leeds and Liverpool where he grew up. A rotating crew of friends, family and collaborators -- including Hadid -- join him in Pennsylvania and listen to music and offer opinions. Zayn’s father, Yaser Malik, a British-Pakistani hip-hop fan, gravitates toward lyrically sophisticated songs. “He likes the more meaningful ones,” says Malik. “He’ll be like, ‘Read more, do this, work on this lyric.’” His mom, Tricia Malik, “likes anything that’s clubby and upbeat. She’s hilarious to me. All of what I call my proper ratchet songs, she loves.” He cracks a big grin and laughs.
Malik generally avoids the topic of intolerance in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit. He’s cheerful when talking about his father’s family’s culture, though. Malik understands Urdu, although when he speaks the language, it’s a hodgepodge of Urdu and English and slang. He has never been to Pakistan but is interested in visiting someday. And he’s a fan of Pakistani food, music, poetry and movies. “My grandparents would always have that going on the TV,” he says. “So I’m pretty in the know.”
According to Malik, he no longer has any contact with former 1D bandmates Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Niall Horan or Louis Tomlinson, all of whom have also released solo music in 2017. He says this without malice, and if he feels competitive with his old crew, he’s certainly not letting on. “Our relationships have definitely changed since we were in a band together, but I think that’s just life,” he says. “Everybody grows up; two of the guys have got kids now. But no, I don’t talk to any of them, really.”
It might help that he has edged out the others on the Hot 100, especially when you count “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” the No. 2 smash that he recorded for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack with Taylor Swift -- another artist for whom he has major respect. He personally recruited Swift, who is tight with Hadid, for the track. “I worked with her because I felt like she was the right artist for the song,” says Malik. “And of course she’s also a massive artist, so that brings its benefits. I get to let her fans know that I’m doing this kind of music, and she lets her fans know she likes my kind of music -- there’s no opposition, for real. Everybody can like everybody’s music.”
While nothing has been booked yet, Malik is planning on launching a major tour behind the new album. His anxiety around performing, he explains, wasn’t just a 1D hangover -- some of it came from not having figured out how to do a solo show that felt natural, especially with only one album’s worth of material from which to draw. “Like, there were a lot of upbeat dance [songs on the album], and I don’t dance, so it would have required a lot of extra dancers and stuff going on, and I don’t necessarily want to do that.” (Fans hoping to hear Malik perform 1D hits, as they can on Styles’ recently launched tour, are likely to be disappointed.)