Avicii’s single with California songwriter/musician Aloe Blacc, “Wake Me Up!,” has become one of the biggest hits of the year — and perhaps the most unexpected, considering Blacc’s career beforehand. Formerly part of hip-hop duo Emanon, he’s been releasing music independently since the late ’90s. But “Wake Me Up!” has unlocked new, massive doors.
“It’s simple and pure. People gravitate to that,” Blacc says of the song’s runaway success. “Almost all of the response I see from fans refers to specific lyrics that touch them the most. If you’re young, it’s a feeling of freedom and living your dream. If you’re older, it’s a feeling of nostalgia. Lyrically I hit the nail on the head in a way that works for [everyone].”
In contrast, Blacc’s first two solo albums, 2006’s “Shine Through” and 2010’s “Good Things,” released on rap-focused indie Stones Throw, initially only resonated with critics and niche audiences in the United States. But, in a hint at his success with Avicii, who’s from Sweden, Blacc did pick up a sizable European fan base. “In the U.S. we didn’t have the money to engage radio, television and media in a way that could compete,” Blacc says. “But in Europe, I was on TV and in magazines all the time.”
The buzz finally boomeranged back home when “Good Things” single “I Need a Dollar” was placed as the intro music to HBO’s “How to Make It in America” and in a Boost Mobile commercial. That helped the song sell 315,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and led to Blacc’s current deal with Interscope in 2011 — after what executive VP of A&R Larry Jackson calls “one of the longest negotiations I’ve ever done.” Interscope wanted to secure rights to “Good Things,” but after six back-and-forth months with Stones Throw, “it never panned out,” Jackson says. Instead, the label focused on developing Blacc’s Interscope debut, “Lift Your Spirit,” which was released in Germany, Blacc’s largest market, on Oct. 25, and will hit most other countries in January before arriving stateside in February.
“I believe in Aloe — he’s a career artist,” Jackson says. “There’s a real clear distinction when someone is here for the moment versus someone who will be here for a while. A long process went into just focusing in on the new album and making sure it was right.”
In the meantime, Interscope hooked up Blacc with Avicii, who was looking for collaborators for his feature-heavy 2013 album, “True.” Working with Incubus guitarist/producer Mike Einziger, the pair quickly penned “Wake Me Up!,” a dance-pop mash-up that emphasizes Blacc’s muscular vocals and aspirational, everyman lyrics. Blacc wasn’t credited as a feature on the song, which is No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, but he’s capitalizing on its popularity with an EP named after it — the title track is a new, more acoustic version of “Wake Me Up!” “He took a dance record and kind of recalibrated it to make it a pop-soul record,” Interscope head of artist strategy and media Dennis Dennehy says.
Released Sept. 24 to tide over fans while they wait for the full-length, the EP peaked at No. 7 on the Heatseekers Albums chart. A video for Blacc’s “Wake Me Up!” retake is on the way, and “The Man,” a song from the EP’s digital edition, will be featured in a Beats commercial that will launch around Thanksgiving.
Blacc broke through with an EDM sound, but for “Lift Your Spirit,” he’s returning to his more R&B-based roots, working mostly with Dr. Dre collaborator DJ Khalil. “My vision for it,” Blacc says, “is songs that are as soulful as Stevie Wonder, as urgent and full of energy as Jimi Hendrix and sonically have the fidelity of Dr. Dre.”
The final song completed for the album was early-’80s-R&B throwback “Love Is the Answer,” which Blacc wrote with Pharrell Williams. That song ended up on the EP as well, and will be released as a single later this fall with a music video. However, although “Wake Me Up!” introduced Blacc’s voice to radio, Interscope is focused on pushing him off the air at first. “I work with Lana Del Rey and she’s having her first radio hit now, but we’d already been up to 5 million albums [sold] before ‘Summertime Sadness,'” Jackson says. “We did it by achieving ubiquity every other way outside of radio. I’m looking to take the same approach with Aloe.”
Blacc recently appeared on “Dancing With the Stars” and performed “Wake Me Up!” and the national anthem at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles during the playoffs. He’ll likely tour early in 2014, but only in select venues and markets.
For Blacc, these new stages feel like part of an ongoing journey rather than an unexpected breakout. “Wake Me Up!” is just part of that next step. “It’s a completely natural evolution,” Blacc says. “My hope is that people will take their experience with ‘Wake Me Up!,’ put that in their back pocket and say, ‘I’m going to look out for the next thing Aloe Blacc does.'”