When Khalid first began writing his debut album, American Teen, he was 17, at the cusp of graduating high school in El Paso, Texas. Despite his age, his soaring vocals and songwriting prowess helped him storm his way into stardom. American Teen spawned multiple charting singles, including “Location” and “Young Dumb & Broke.” At 21, the former prom king returns with an even more in-depth understanding of friendship and love on his sophomore album Free Spirit.
“I was so naive and young when I wrote American Teen. I thought I knew everything, but I knew nothing at all,” Khalid tells Billboard ahead of the release of his new album. “I’m at the point of understanding that I still know nothing at all on Free Spirit. I feel like the music right now that I’m writing is very self-reflective.”
Free Spirit finds the pop crooner embracing his newfound freedom in a sober and contemplative manner. Songs like “Bad Luck” and “My Bad” keep the melancholy side of Khalid alive, while ‘Hundred” takes on a more fame-inspired subject: fairweather friends. “Got a hundred friends, but I’ll cut ’em off, I don’t need ’em,” he sings. “Not like any of them gave a fuck if I was breathing.”
With a new album in tow, Khalid is ready to take his fresh swagger on the road. This year, he has been selected as the 2019 BMW artist for its third annual #RoadToCoachella campaign featuring an immersive, one-of-a-kind experience, connecting fans with Khalid while unveiling a custom wrapped BMW i8 + BMW i3 inspired by Free Spirit. On April 13, there will be a meet + greet with the global superstar, food trucks and a Free Spirit Shop all at the Palm Spring Pitstop. After his run at Coachella, this summer, he’ll be embarking on his first arena tour with Clario serving as his special guest.
Billboard caught up with Khalid to speak on his new album Free Spirit, his progression as a songwriter and performer, and why he wishes he wrote Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids.”
Your sophomore album Free Spirit is finally here. How are you feeling about that?
It’s crazy. It’s actually unbelievable. I mean, you have your whole life to write your first album, and you have a limited amount of time to write your second. So, for me, it was more of where should I start? After making the first album and impacting people in such a positive way, I was kind of nervous about diving into the second album. But that’s the way it started, and now it’s my favorite body of work yet.
How have you evolved as a songwriter from American Teen to Free Spirit?
There’s just a level of maturity with Free Spirit. I was so naive and young when I wrote American Teen. I thought I knew everything, but I knew nothing at all. I’m at the point of understanding that I still know nothing at all on Free Spirit. The music I’m writing right now is very self-reflective. I’m slowly but surely centering on myself and what I’m going through.
I love the fact that I get to talk about my fans and make songs for my fans for what they’re going through. But it’s cool sometimes to have your own personal therapy session, writing a song about whatever mood I’m in. I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself and how I like to write that it’s allowed the music to improve.
One of my favorite records is “My Bad.” When you were penning the album, which record was a strong release for you emotionally?
I do love “My Bad.” There’s a couple of songs that I feel like did that for me, and “My Bad” was one of them. I wrote “My Bad” in less than 10 minutes. It’s crazy. Literally, D Mile played the beat, I heard it, and went in to freestyle the whole thing. Then, 10 minutes later, I had recorded another song like that, [which became] “Bad Luck.” Freestyled that one too and went back and wrote it because those were songs that I was writing when I was really in it.
I’m just so glad that those songs floated out of me because sometimes it doesn’t happen that fast. “Free Spirit,” the title track, took me the longest to write. I’ve been holding on to that since May of last year and finished writing that song in February 2019.
Why did it take so long?
I wanted to make sure I wrote the title track after the album was done. I feel like it’s better to wrap everything up and find the common theme. With American Teen, the theme was just growing up, a coming of age, high school graduation celebration.
Free Spirit is those first few steps into the world, when you realize that the world is not as easy as you planned it to be. In high school, we all have an idea of everything we want to achieve, but we don’t really accept the fact that it’s hard. Life is hard, moving on is hard, growing up is hard. That’s why a lot of people get comfortable and they find themselves stagnant. I didn’t want to do that.
Music is my life at this point. Music is what allows me to live. But that’s an adult mentality. I still have love for it, but the fact that it pays off and people get to become impacted by the music, it’s amazing. I really wanted to make sure Free Spirit was personal.
What does it mean being a “free spirit” at 21 versus at 18?
To be a free spirit means you have no restrictions, nothing holding you back. I’ve faced anxiety every day, of course. Plus, I’m in the heat of everything right now. My schedule is far from free. But I was on the path because it’s really about the energy you surround yourself with that makes it easier.
You find freedom through conversation, through interactions with your friends, through experiences, going on vacation. I just went on a vacation to Maui — I felt free, riding on the quads going through the jungle. That’s where I felt free. But it was only midway. To be a free spirit, it has to be something that you don’t turn off. It has to be automatic. You have to feel it all the time. I know that I don’t feel that all the time.
In a recent Vogue interview you talked about how touring helped ease your anxiety. What’s your confidence level at now, knowing that you’re going to be doing your first arena tour this summer?
I’m actually extremely excited to do the arena tour. I can remember the show that I went to that I had everything on my mind [and it was when] I went to the Summer ‘16 tour with Drake, Future, all of that. It was crazy, the row that I was in was insane.
I was sitting right next to Ella Mai, and nothing had really happened for us yet at that point. “Location” was just buzzing. And we told each other, “Isn’t it crazy that this is where we’re going to be one day? We’re going to be performing in an arena by ourselves to all these people just like they are right now.”
When you speak about things like that, no one can tell the future. It’s always a dream. I’m so glad that Ella Mai and I continued on the path of our dream because of moments like that. Pivotal points of realization, manifestation more than anything.
Looking at it and being like, “Wow, this is what I’m going to be,” that’s what really drives me. Now I get to do an arena tour by myself, which is something I’ve waited for [my entire career.] I’m more excited for this tour than I have been for any of my other tours because I know that the experience is going to be bigger than me and it’s going to be something that I’ve looked forward to all my life. I’m just very appreciative that I get to be able to do an arena tour because that’s something very rare. Being 21 and being able to do my first arena tour, that’s the dream.
What made you decide to design the vans and take them to college campuses to promote the album?
I wanted an excuse to have my own personal van that I could decorate. I wanted to chill with my friends and sit in the back of my van, hot box and have conversations about life. And I did it. A couple of days ago I sat in the back of my van with all of my friends talking about this moment right now, talking about the album being out.
I’m obsessed with vans. I love them. Knowing that my fans get to see something that I love, that I can share that with them, is amazing.
I always want to have interactions with my fans, I always want to feel connected. I still want to feel like I’m giving them a piece of myself to anything that I work on. The van is literally that, because the moment that the tour’s over, I’m taking that van back and I’m driving wherever that van is allowed to go. Wherever it gets me, I’ll take it there, and I’ll enjoy it with my friends, just like everybody else enjoyed it with their friends as well.
You mentioned Frank Ocean as an inspiration. Is there a song of his that you wish you wrote, or that best describes you?
I wish I wrote “Pyramids.” That song changed my life forever. It was something that I’ve never heard before — the transition. Frank’s songwriting and his ability to connect with the audience is one-of-one. There will be no other Frank Ocean. There will only be Frank Ocean. The fact that I’m able to live in a time where I got to experience his music firsthand, released by release, is such a blessing.
I know you teamed up with BMW for its #RoadtoCoachella campaign. How did that collaboration come about?
I love BMWs. I lived in Germany for six years, and my mom had a green 2008 3 Series. I wanted to drive that car so bad growing up. Until I was able to make the source of income, then I got my own and my first BMW.
It was a 4 Series convertible, white with black rims. I loved it so much, but every time I drove I would see other BMWs. I would see an M6 and think, “I want that.” So I got an M6, dark blue. And the i8 is breathtaking. My manager was whipping around in one, and I wanted that one.
If I could, I would own every single BMW because I love them all. It upsets me that I don’t have the funds to afford them yet. The fact that I get to partner with BMW on something that I grew up with, a car that I love, it felt like I was floating on the water. It’s literally my 15-year-old boy’s dream come true.