If you were about to release the biggest album of 2016’s last quarter, you might be nervous about some stranger hearing it before the street date. Paranoid, even. Your team might create a password for a journalist to use at the red metal gate of a small Hollywood studio.
But if you’re Abel Tesfaye — the 26-year-old better known as The Weeknd, who on this Sunday in November is preparing to release Starboy, the follow-up to his 2015 pop breakthrough Beauty Behind the Madness — you hardly seem anxious at all, promptly showing up to play the album and sit for an interview. Here at Conway Studios, where six or so members of The Weeknd’s team gather in small rooms, chatting and laughing quietly, no one ever asks for that password or gives any indication of the commercial whirlwind that’s about to sweep them up.
A few short weeks from now, Starboy will debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling 348,000 equivalent albums for the third-biggest opening week of 2016. (He will also notch the second-largest streaming debut week ever.) But today’s just another day at the office. When Tesfaye emerges from a studio control room, he is dressed, as usual, all in black: Buscemi boots with gold details, Mr. Completely jeans and a Puma shirt under a jean jacket. His vertical Basquiat stack of hair has been gone since September, replaced by a modest Afro.
During a quick tour, Tesfaye shows me a room containing a few racks of weights and posters of Pamelas Grier and Anderson. “Here’s the gym I never use,” he says. “I’d rather be unhealthy when I’m working. I’ll start working out when I go on tour. But as long as my face looks OK, I’m good.”
Every year, the cohort of A-list pop stars seems to get smaller. Tesfaye’s only real creative competition is a young woman who moved from country to pop a few years ago, a friend from Toronto who helped Tesfaye find his audience and a Chicago rapper who recently took a medical leave from touring. (One woman from Houston reigns over them all.) “Abel is a genius,” says Halsey, who opened for Tefaye on tour in 2015. “If Adele stole our hearts by singing the stories of our life, Abel sings the story of the life you wish you had.”
Tesfaye is around 5-foot-10, calm and not given to small talk, though he answers questions openly and at length. A professional hitmaker, he’s radically different from the self-centered character at the heart of so many Weeknd songs, but after dating model Bella Hadid for much of 2016, he’s now single and living in Beverly Hills. Mention him to an L.A. music producer and you’ll likely hear, “Oh, I just saw him at a party.”
Back in the control room, Tesfaye sits and finishes a bowl of cereal. For a moment, you can imagine the stoned teenager who slept on a bare mattress in Toronto seven years ago. Before skipping out on his own, Tesfaye grew up with his mother and grandmother in a small apartment in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. Emigres from Ethiopia, his parents never married, and his father has been gone since Tesfaye was small.
Tesfaye released his first songs as The Weeknd on YouTube in 2010, gave away three mixtapes on Tumblr in 2011 and quickly — having barely performed, but with a co-sign from Drake — found himself in a label bidding war. In late 2012, Republic wrangled a deal with Tesfaye’s imprint, XO, and rereleased the mixtapes as Trilogy, which bowed at No. 4 on the Billboard 200.
After his first new album for Republic, Kiss Land, stalled, Tesfaye went to the mountain: Max Martin. Beauty Behind the Madness brought the radio hits. “The Hills” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks, “I Can’t Feel My Face” for three. This year he was nominated for an Oscar (for “Earned It,” off the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack) and picked up two Grammys.
Tesfaye has decreased the madness and darkness in his music. The voice at the center of Starboy is slightly less of a lost soul. With Daft Punk and Martin joining his longtime crew members like Doc McKinney, Tesfaye has put himself into the light and further onto the dancefloor. His well-documented obsession with Michael Jackson is no longer just talk — he’s closing in on his hero, at least in sound and work ethic. After the interview, Tesfaye and his team immediately begin discussing new music. “After this album’s done,” he tells me, “we’ll be working. I have ideas and songs that I want to get out of my head.”
Do you feel more confident now than when you started?
I used to be very nervous, especially about performing on TV. It’s usually just nerves when somebody sounds bad. People who become famous for signing are usually pretty good at singing. I think being known helps the nerves. Now, when I step out at the American Music Awards or on Saturday Night Live, I have fans. Before, I was just some indie R&B singer and I had to prove myself. You could hear a pin drop in some of those TV stations. Now, people come out and buy tickets. I hear them scream my name, so I know I’ll be fine. They want me to do well.
When did you figure out how to change?
I knew after my first Coachella [in 2012]. I looked at the tape and said, “I have to do better. This is my life.” I was not satisfied. It was my first U.S. gig, playing the second main stage at dusk. That was a big move. Everybody else was doing the tents. Trilogy was hot, no radio, all word-of-mouth.
Go back to my first show at the Mod Club in Toronto, and I was terrified. You could see it on my face. I never thought I’d love going onstage, but I do now. I’m addicted to it. My agents will be really happy to hear me say that. The label would rather me never tour, and my touring agents rather that I do. My deal with the label is pretty much a partnership, it’s like a distribution deal. But you know they’re my label, they’re my partners, they ride for me. They really respect me as an artist. My shit is all mine. I own all my music.
How long have you been working on the album?
We started six months ago, and then we shut down the entire studio for four months.
Were you consciously going for something more pop?
Well, a lot of people think “The Hills” is pop now, but when it came out, the reaction was, “What is this?” People’s definition of pop just means whatever’s playing on the radio 24/7.
I wanted to drop Starboy as soon as possible [after Beauty Behind the Madness] just to show that this is what I love doing: making music. It’s very natural, very real. There was a lot of thought behind it, but I did it frantically, very fast, off the fumes of Beauty.
So what’s different?
I tried to find different registers that I hadn’t sung in before. I sang a lot of low stuff on songs like “Secrets” and “Rockin’,” almost like Toni Braxton. On “Secrets,” I’m a different person. I’ve played it for people, and they have no idea it’s me. I even wanted to make an entire album where it was all very “Vogue”-inspired, music like Frankie Knuckles and Chicago house. That was the initial idea for “Rockin’,” which is one of the first ones I finished for the album.
When you listen to Weeknd songs, you can hear three characters — the selfish guy (“Often”), a guy who is romantic but guarded (“Love Me Harder”) and an empathic guy (“In the Night”). “Starboy” might even present a fourth character. Does that sound about right?
It’s almost schizophrenic, who I portray in my music. The vibe just represents how I feel, what relationship I’m going through, what friendships I’m going through, the success in my life, the failures in my life. It is all just documentation. I’m not going to sit here and just sing about making love, even though my favorite artists, that’s all they sing about.
When I was making the early stuff, I never expected it to be so big. I was in my own kind of bubble. I never wanted to tour, I just wanted to create music and make a diary I could put out into the world. And sometimes I became the characters. I like to look at it like a film — for every director, every film is different, with different actors, different emotions, different plots. The other albums always had a theme. On this album, every song has a theme, is kind of its own cinematic piece.
The vibe on “Starboy” comes from that hip-hop culture of braggadocio, from Wu-Tang and 50 Cent, the kind of music I listened to as a kid. Bragging just sounds good, man. I was a teenager when I saw Scarface, and even though it was unbelievable, it’s kind of cool Tony Montana could survive all those gunshots and not feel them.
And there’s more than one way to do hip-hop culture. For the chorus of “Secrets,” we used The Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” and “Pale Shelter” by Tears for Fears. It’s like hip-hop: Just grab it. We could have done the interpolation thing, but sampling the original gets the feel.
You started by deliberately obscuring who you are. You built trust by giving people music for free, and then, after a long time, you appeared.
Music sells music. SoundCloud is what YouTube was. People’s careers are being made right now, people like Bryson Tiller and Lil Uzi Vert. People are looking at the numbers, how many hits songs are getting.
How are you going to present the album on tour?
Nowadays, with live music, you’re going against DJs and rappers singing over two tracks that are just banging. So when you come out as a band, you have to know your sound, know your front of house, and make you sure you bang as hard.
Environment is very important to me. Sometimes I have to perform during the day for festivals, and my music does not work in the daytime. It is nighttime music. When you come to my show, I want it to feel like opera, like a theater. The darkness is important for me.
Es Devlin does my set design now. She has done Kanye, Beyoncé, Adele, U2. Her real passion is theater and opera. She looks at the job different than every other set designer. It’s art — it’s not about lighting or crazy effects. It’s about what you’re looking at, and the audience is part of that moment. It’s very three-dimensional. Look at Kanye’s [Saint Pablo] shows — he changed the game. We’re looking at floor seats differently now in arena shows. I want to animate the space like that on this tour.
Who are some songwriters you look up to?
For me, Bill Withers is at least top five among songwriters. His [Live at Carnegie Hall] album is even better than the studio ones. It’s all passion. I also love Chromatics — they were a huge inspiration for “Party Monster.”
You’re representing for different places — Toronto, Ethiopia. How do you approach that?
I made it known that I’m Ethiopian. I put it in my music, and my style of singing is very Ethiopian-inspired. I’ve never even been there. I’d love to go home and see my roots.
Where would you direct a Weeknd fan in terms of Ethiopian music?
Aster Aweke, for sure. You can hear her voice at the end of “False Alarm” on the new album. Her voice is the greatest thing you’ll ever hear. There’s a great composer named Mulatu Astatke, he’s probably the most famous Ethiopian musician right now. Jim Jarmusch used his music. I’d love to meet him and work with him somehow. Mahmoud Ahmed is a great singer, and so is Tilahun Gessesse. Teddy Afro is more of a pop singer, great voice. This is what I grew up on. I’d wake up in the morning, and my mom would be listening to all this stuff while she was making coffee. I’m working on University of Toronto getting its own class [on Ethiopian language studies].
What’s it like living in L.A. and dealing with things like the paparazzi?
I believe that if you’re always getting paparazzi, there’s something fishy going on. I go out, and they’re there sometimes, but I don’t tell the whole world I’m going out. A couple of times, they caught me. I had a few new cars, and I wanted to drive them. That was a mistake. They literally followed me from Beverly Hills all the way down to Hollywood. If I had a great car, with my old hair, it was hard. Now? It’s a breeze. I just put the hat on. My life is one hundred times better. I respect the paparazzi, it’s their job, I got no beef with them. Luckily, for me, my career is putting out the hits and interacting with the fans. I don’t need pictures of me being generated all the time.
Do you like being here?
Yeah, but I’m always moving around. I’m looking to buy a big property, but I want to buy a studio or something. I got no kids, no wife. I live by myself. I can’t buy a big house and live by myself. I’ll get terrified. I tried to do that in the hills, and I ended up getting out of there quick.
The Weeknd’s global fan base catapulted him into an unlikely stardom. Now that he’s on top, he keeps honing his edge, taking cues from… The Dead Kennedys?
“Abel continues to push the boundaries — and he’s making music that touches everyone. It’s not just for the U.S. or the U.K. His audience is changing the way music is consumed.” — Michael Alexander, senior vp international marketing, Universal Music Group
“There aren’t a lot of massive pop artists that are as hands-on in the studio. Songs like ‘False Alarm’ started off of as punk jam sessions. We jammed it out on guitar, like Talking Heads meets Dead Kennedys.” –Doc McKinney, Producer-songwriter, Starboy
“He’s the father of engagement, knowing just when to elegantly drop songs to connect with fans. If you want to know what he’s thinking, you just have to listen to the music.” — Charlie Walk, President, Republic Group
“He plays a bad boy, sure, but a bad boy with a vulnerable side, as far as his own personality is concerned. Women are suckers for that. ‘I am not worthy of love, don’t love me’ — it’s a hell of a come-on.” — Wendy Goldstein, executive VP, Republic Records
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.