In an interview with Billboard, The Weeknd shared all about where he is at with music now and how he feels now compared to back then. Check it out below:
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.