The Weeknd Opens Up About Paparazzi & Overcoming Stage Fright In Rare Interview
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.”