There aren’t many places in New York, or anywhere else for that matter, that feel as cocooned from the outside world as the live room in Electric Lady’s Studio A. Designed to Jimi Hendrix’s specifications, the curvy space is stocked with shiny vintage gear, faded Persian rugs and a cosmic, wall-sized mural. On this Sunday night in September, a little after 9 p.m., the room’s sole occupant is a slight, strikingly handsome 24-year-old, whose unique combination of global fame and acute anxiety can make life outside of insulated creative oases like this one challenging, and who is currently kicked back on an overstuffed leather sofa, pulling meditatively from a joint and watching the smoke curl toward the sound-deadened ceiling.
For the last nine months, Zayn Malik — who in his solo career goes by his first name — has lived in similar womblike rooms in New York, Los Angeles, London and even rural Pennsylvania (more on that later), crafting the follow-up to his debut solo LP, Mind of Mine, which bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 last spring and spawned the Billboard Hot 100-topping single “Pillowtalk,” which has racked up over 750 million YouTube spins. That album, with its Frank Ocean-esque moodiness, bedroom vocals and, “Pillowtalk” aside, resistance to radio-friendly sonics, demarcated a clear line between Malik’s grown-up second act and his beyond-famous first one.
Seven years ago, Malik was plucked at age 17 from a small city in Northern England, teamed up with four other boys as One Direction and tornado-ed into the most intense global teen craze endured by a crew of British kids since Beatlemania. The experience left him unmoored — he abruptly quit the group in 2015 — and as a solo artist, he’s devoted to serving his own muse. In the 18 months since the release of his debut LP, he has deepened his relationship with his supermodel girlfriend, Gigi Hadid, started taking better care of his health, corralled collaborators including Taylor Swift and Sia, and determinedly honed his sound. For an artist so shaken by his time in One Direction that he has yet to launch a tour, the intensely private star has found a way to navigate, even thrive, in his highly public life. Or, as Malik himself puts it, “I don’t do things that I wouldn’t buy into. I try to explain that to people and hope that they understand — it doesn’t come from a place of being arrogant or above anything.”
It’s probably not intentional, but Malik seems dressed to match the room in an outfit you can easily picture Paul McCartney rocking in the early 1970s: a dark-red cable-knit sweater that looks both cozy and off-the-charts expensive, a subtly patterned button-down shirt, earth-toned, jean-cut pants and a pair of black Chelsea boots. His left hand is covered in a mandala-like tattoo; his right is adorned with a pair of red lips billowing smoke. His hair, which evidently grows quickly, has already returned to an appealing fuzz less than a week after he made headlines worldwide by shaving it bald. He’s in New York to take some meetings and work on the album, but the trip also lines up with New York Fashion Week, which means that he and Hadid get to be in the same place at the same time. The pair, says Malik, “pretty much live together,” whether it’s at his homes in Los Angeles and London or at her pad in New York. “It’s actually not that hard for us [to line up schedules],” he says. “It helps that she’s really organized. Thank God! Because I’m really not, so she helps organize my schedule around seeing her.” (Hadid is also one of a small group of people, including Malik’s parents, siblings and management team, who get to hear in-progress music. “She’s in the studio quite a lot,” he says cheerfully. “She likes to cook for me and stuff — when I’m here late, she’ll come down and bring me food. She’s cool.”)
The new album, says Malik, mines two main moods: one more rhythmic and pop, the other more downtempo. “The last album veered into a much more nighttime kind of thing,” says Peter Edge, chairman/CEO of Malik’s label, RCA. “This one is more of a mix than that.” The young star has been back in the studio with his first album’s main collaborator, Malay, well known for his work on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Blonde. Veteran producers like Timbaland and Rob Cavallo have contributed, and Malik also has made a bunch of songs largely by himself. He has been toiling away at the disc for months, blowing past deadline after deadline; originally slated for a late-September release, the album now won’t be out until the first quarter of 2018.
I got a preview of two tracks in late October. The first, which is built around Malik’s velvet vocals, a heartrending melody and spare, sonar-plink sonics builds — and improves — on his debut album’s sound. The other, all synths and effortless vocals, feels directly aimed at pop fans’ pleasure centers. “What impresses me about Zayn is the vision he has for his music,” says Timbaland. “How he looks at it, takes his time with it — just really thinks it out.”
Most recently, Malik has been collaborating with a musician that his management declines to name, saying only that he’s “unknown,” from Brazil and that Malik met him through friends. “I think I’m like 90 percent of the way there,” says Malik in September of the LP’s process. “But I’m still working on stuff and trying to decide what goes on the album and what comes off.”
Cavallo, who worked with Malik and a killer crew of session vets to grow a spare, downtempo demo into a Michael Jackson-inspired funk-rock tune, was most impressed by the young star’s calibrated ear. “He kind of reminds me of when I was in the studio with Fleetwood Mac,” says Cavallo. “His instinctive impulse to know what’s good or not good is like an incredibly precise laser beam. He knows which lyric to sing, he knows when the guitar part is good, he knows when the beat is right. It’s all right there at his fingertips.”
In person, Malik is polite, friendly and willing to answer questions. But he’s not exactly a chatterbox, and he’s not likely to reply with a concrete anecdote. Even softball questions sometime elicit strange responses, like when I brought up a recent Instagram post of his that compared two images of Game of Thrones’ Iron Throne — one as it’s depicted in the books, the other as it is in the show — along with the caption “Tru.” (The throne is apparently described in print as taller and spikier.) So he must be a huge fan of the show, right? “Ah, I’m not too into Game of Thrones,” he says, shrugging. “I just put that picture up because [it represents] the difference between a book and a movie. The overproduction of things is always hilarious.”
There is at least one HBO series that he genuinely loves. “I watched Girls — the whole thing,” he says. In fact, one of the stars of that show, Jemima Kirke, appears in the action-blockbuster-style video for the new album’s lead single, “Dusk Till Dawn,” which features guest vocals from Sia and is more full-bore pop than anything on Mind of Mine. Malik thought Kirke seemed cool and reached out to see if she’d be interested in playing his femme fatale co-star in the video, which was directed by Marc Webb, who helmed the 2012 Spider-Man reboot. In its first day, “Dusk Till Dawn” got over 10 million views on YouTube. Malik was enthused by the reception, in part because he wrote much of the song himself. (The video raises another question: Does he have any interest in acting? “I do, yeah,” he says. “It would have to be a good script and something that was a bit different, like an art movie. Something people wouldn’t expect.”) Malik’s a huge admirer of Sia, not only for her talent as a singer and hitmaker, but also for the way she has navigated the perils of celebrity and figured out how to perform live, on her own terms.
Malik himself has yet to tour — or even play a single major concert — since he left One Direction. During the last two years, he has canceled shows in London, Dubai and Japan, citing extreme anxiety. “The band was like being in the army for him,” notes his manager, Sarah Stennett, adding that the last few years have been a time for Malik to recalibrate. “You lose your sense of intuition and instinct about what you really need, and what’s right for you.”
In Zayn, an autobiography-slash-photo book he published in 2016, Malik made it clear that his time with 1D wasn’t just stressful — it was damaging to his mental health. He opened up about having developed an eating disorder triggered by the endless grind and total lack of anything resembling a normal life. “I’d just go for days — sometimes two or three days straight — without eating anything at all,” he wrote. “Food was something I could control, so I did.”
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.)
Part of the solution, it turns out, came from that session with Cavallo and seeing how one of his studio creations could take on new life with a great band. “It definitely helped identify in my own mind where I want to be as an entertainer,” says Malik. “For a long time I’ve struggled with, ‘Where is Zayn as a performer?’ I don’t want [my show] to be too eccentric or out there, because I’m not that kind of personality. I’m quite a reserved person, and I feel like [the vibe of that session] sort of fits me and what I want to do onstage.”
Near the end of our time together, I gently float an idea: “If there are any songs you’d feel comfortable playing for me,” I suggest, “I’d love to hear them.” Malik seems totally into it. “Yeah, of course, man,” he says emphatically. “Cool. I’ll play some stuff.” He gets up from the sofa and heads to the studio door. “I’m just going to get the songs off my manager.” I tell him I appreciate it. “No worries, bro,” he says, before he disappears through the door. And then, in probably the most Zayn-like move of the night, he never comes back.