After burning up the pop stratosphere with his debut album, Zayn Malik has found a freedom that feels like the first time – he talks being the world’s most obsessed-over 23-year-old
Taken from the summer 2016 issue of Dazed:
If, like me, you weren’t familiar with the name Zayn Malik, odds are that changed on March 25, 2015. It was on this fateful day the 22-year-old singer announced his permanent departure from the titanic boyband One Direction. To say the internet was aghast at the news would be like saying Mount Everest is tall: a staggering understatement, the dimension and magnitude of which is nearly impossible to fathom – much like Malik’s 19 million followers on Twitter, or the 11.3 million on Instagram, or the 515 million-plus views (and counting) racked up by his debut solo music video “PILLOWTALK”. The crying emoji had never gotten so much play. Social media became a variegated trauma-rama of caps-locked teenage heartbreak.
“I AM LITERALLY SOBBING ZAYN WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS COME BACK PLEASE IT WILL NEVER EVER BE THE SAME”, tweeted someone named Kayla.
“VANESSA JUST CALLED ME CRYING IN SCHOOL,” screamed a citizen’s report from a girl called Dani. “SHES (sic) IN A BATHROOM STALL CRYING ABOUT HOW ZAYN LEFT SHE’S CALLING HER MOM TO PICK HER UP I FEEL BAD.”
Then there were the memes: Kim Kardashian’s ugly-cry face empress among them, accompanied by a chorus of girls sobbing alone in their bedrooms, surreptitiously filmed for Vine videos by siblings and parents. #AlwaysInOurHeartsZaynMalik was the number-one trending topic for a solid 24 hours, while a much more disturbing hashtag, #cut4zayn, heralded a trend of girls carving Malik’s name into their forearms with razorblades (much of the carnage turned out to be hoaxes, many of them embarrassingly rendered in ketchup, no less). It was even reported that law firms specialising in workplace rights were flooded with helpline calls asking for advice on requesting paid compassionate leave.
“Everybody was just crying,” recalls Malik, wincing and suppressing a laugh. “Yeah... Sorry about that.”
At the moment, we’re cloistered in a soundproof recording booth at Jungle City Studios in Manhattan, a state-of-the-art recording facility built by Alicia Keys’ engineer, Ann Mincieli. Although, as Malik excitedly points out, “I think this one is Beyoncé’s.” He points to the Louis Vuitton-monogrammed wall panels that flank the production console. “Someone told me she records here because it’s the Vuitton studio. It’s sick.” Later, he darts out of the room to grab some beers and comes back having verified the anecdote with studio personnel.
Before we sat down to chat, Malik, who turned 23 in January, had modelled in a stripped-back shoot with the photographer Collier Schorr at a modest photo studio in Bushwick. There were no echoes of his former life as one fifth of the biggest pop group on the planet. Surrounded by a small team – manager, day-to-day manager, personal stylist, bodyguard and publicist – Malik came across as low-maintenance, efficient on set, ever-smiling, and preternaturally relaxed. Everyone seemed to marvel at the phenomenon of such an easy celebrity sitting: no drama, no delays, no demands, and no paparazzi lurking downstairs in the surrounding alleyways. He seemed, for lack of a more exciting description, exceptionally normal.
“You’ve got to hold on to what you are and not let things get to your head, because if you do, that’s when everything comes crashing down terribly” – Zayn Malik
“I don’t tend to go out much,” says Malik. “I stick to my own bubble, as it is. Creatively and socially, I think, as I’m getting older, that’s just the way I am.” At present, that bubble includes his girlfriend of several months, Gigi Hadid, and her much-hyped squad of famous, social media savvy, millennial one-percenters. “I don’t get much feedback from my peers. I spoke a bit to Taylor,” he says, invoking the name of the imperial Swift. “At Gigi’s house we briefly spoke and she told me she really enjoyed the album. It was nice to get some feedback. She said she thought I was cool and I kind of blushed a bit and didn’t know how to take it.”
It seems that, despite nearly five wildly successful years in the spotlight with One Direction, Malik hasn’t adjusted much to hobnobbing with the rich and famous. “I haven’t done much acclimatin’,” he says in his throaty, northern English baritone. “I’m just staying the way that I am. I think that’s the best way to keep your sanity. You’ve got to hold on to what you are and not let things get to your head, because if you do, that’s when everything comes crashing down terribly.”
This year, a lot has happened that could easily cause a delirious bout of over-confidence. Malik released his debut album, Mind of Mine, exactly one year after leaving his former band, and it became the first album by a British male singer to debut at #1 on both the US and UK charts. This is after he broke records with “PILLOWTALK” for the most first-day and weekly streams for a debut artist track worldwide. Malik has also become a pervading interest in fashion circles. After sitting front row at Louis Vuitton and Valentino’s spring 2016 shows last summer, he landed a major editorial in American Vogue alongside Hadid. Three days prior to our sit-down, Malik and Hadid made the cover of the New York Post, thanks to Malik’s Terminator-like, chrome-sleeved Versace suit at the Met Gala.
“Prince created another world with the clothes he wore, and it gave him an otherworldly feel, which is all part of his legend. That was kind of what I was doing at the Met Ball... being fearless” – Zayn Malik
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” says Malik. “I know it’s a big deal in the fashion industry. Anna Wintour obviously runs the whole thing so it was an honour to even get to go. I was asked to design my own costume by Donatella Versace!” He lets out a laugh. “It was cool. I had seen a few people hitting me online, saying negative things about it. But I enjoyed it because they were saying I looked like a dude from Mortal Kombat, and it was actually based on a character (from the video game series), called Jax. He had metal arms, and the theme was technology, so I just took it from him... It’s a bit easy to just dress up in a suit. I like to do things that are a bit outside of that.”
Among Malik’s style icons is the late, great Prince, whose recent passing has had a palpable effect on him, a longtime fan. “It was obviously a surprise, I think for everybody,” he says. “A lot of starting references for me are technology and Prince. I’m conscious in the back of my head, of how he was sort of bold and fearless in the way he decided to dress. He created another world with the clothes he wore, and it gave him an otherworldly feel, which is all part of his legend, I guess. I was really upset with the fact that he passed away. But it’s nice that we can use things now to portray what inspired us about him. That was kind of what I was doing at the Met Ball... being fearless. But I was just having fun.”
Born and raised in Bradford, West Yorkshire, life wasn’t always a ball for Malik, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “It’s very industrial-looking and very old,” he says. “It has just got that kind of, like, very British feel to it. It’s very up and down. There are hills everywhere. It’s a cool place that has a lot of character – with a lot of characters that live there! It’s a place that doesn’t necessarily have too many opportunities, but I guess that’s just the way the world works.” Having recently bought his mother a new house (“She lives in a nicer area now, but it’s still Bradford,” he says), Malik splits his time between London, LA and New York, depending on work, while still finding time to visit his family up north. When it comes to being a hometown hero, he luxuriates in Bradford’s total lack of fanfare. “They are kind of hard-ass people,” he says warmly. “So even if you’re successful, I don’t know that it’s something they would kiss your ass for. They might even give you a little bit of shit for it and have a joke with you. That’s the sort of place it is — it’s more like hard love. Do you know what I mean? It’s not gushy-gushy. Growing up, I didn’t know anything other than Bradford, so that made me the way that I am, I guess.”
Malik found himself drawn to R&B, hip hop and soul from an early age, along with whichever records he could fish from his dad’s collection and convert to MP3s. “I didn’t really have pocket money to buy my own CDs,” he says with nostalgia. “So I just used to take his CDs and burn them on to a Packard Bell computer and put them back.”
“I don’t know how to explain it, but it feels good to sing that way... I wanted to mix English with an Indian sound and make something cool out of it” – Zayn on ‘fLoWer’
Raised to speak both English and Urdu, the lingua franca of Pakistan, Malik cites language as a guiding interest in his work. “I can’t understand what Arabic means, but I can read it,” he says. “I was taught to read it because I read the Islamic books and they’re in Arabic, but I couldn’t understand what I was saying. I have always liked poetry. I have always liked language and the way you can say a certain thing in a certain way and it can be perceived so differently by whoever is listening, because of whatever time they are at in their life. That is something that has always fascinated me and I’ve always enjoyed writing. English was always my strong subject.”
One of Mind of Mine’s standout tracks, “fLoWer”, is an intermission in which Malik delivers a fluttering, aerobic Qawwali vocal over plucking guitars, with lyrics written in Urdu. “It’s called Sufi,” he explains. “It’s a religious style of music that’s like a deep meditation prayer where you just sit and sing the same melody over and over – it’s meant to get you into a trance state. A lot of Indian singers used to do that back in the day, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He was played throughout my house, and my dad used to listen a lot to that style of music. So that influenced me from an early age. I just mixed my Urdu speaking with lyrics I was writing down in English and that’s what I came up with.” The lyrics translate to English as “Until the flower of this love has blossomed / This heart won’t be at peace / Give me your heart / Give me your heart / Give me your heart.” “I don’t know how to explain it, but it feels good to sing that way,” he says. “I really liked ‘Within You Without You’ on Sgt. Pepper’s, the Beatles record. I was listening to it a lot at the time. I wanted to mix English with an Indian sound and make something cool out of it.”
In a profane turn of events, Malik’s ethnicity would come under fire in the days following our interview, upon the release of his video for the single “LIKE I WOULD”. Rapper Azealia Banks accused Malik of plagiarism on Instagram before spiralling into a paranoid, racist tirade on Twitter which earned her the rare distinction of having her account suspended. Using terms like “sand nigger”, “faggot” and “curry-scented bitch”, and even referring to Malik’s mother as a “dirty refugee”, Banks became the most visible example of pop’s rampant racial bigotry and xenophobia. Unfortunately, this is something Malik has been forced to deal with since his recruitment by Simon Cowell into One Direction, a move derided by some critics as an act of tokenism. (Banks has since ‘apologised’.) During Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, Malik came under fire and received death threats for tweeting “#FreePalestine”, and reportedly deleted his account once before due to racial harassment online.
Though Malik now prefers not to discuss topics that relate to his faith, he does, at the time of our interview and prior to Banks’s assault, proffer a tight-lipped acknowledgment of his ethnic background, which he is proud of: “My mum is half Irish and English and my dad is Pakistani but born in the UK. So, yeah, that’s my heritage, and that’s what makes me, me.” Perhaps what is most poignant about “fLoWer” in this context is its tenderness and beauty as testament to acceptance and the universal experience of love. After nearly five years operating as a cog in a boyband machine, Malik is more than ready to let his songwriting do the talking, his eagerness evident in his early exit from what was most certainly a binding legal contract with Sony Music.
“I didn’t feel good. Do you know what I mean? And if you don’t feel good… You need to be able to express what it is that you are” – Zayn Malik
“I just knew it was my time,” says Malik. “I knew I wanted to do something different and start expressing the way I felt about certain things.” When RCA approached him, he says, it was a no-brainer. “I have always liked that label, just because they signed fucking Elvis and a lot of people I look up to. I went and met with Pete (Edge, CEO) and we had a couple conversations and I really liked his vibe. They seemed to treat me as though I was an artist for the first time, which felt really cool. And they respected the music. I had written a lot of it before I went with RCA and they liked where I was going and wanted to give me freedom so I was like, ‘Cool.’”
The album, produced with James ‘Malay’ Ho, the Grammy-winning producer who worked on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, introduced a dark, sexy R&B direction for Malik – something his One Direction fans didn’t expect and that the rest of us are still catching on to, slowly but surely. “I didn’t know what to expect,” says Malik of his fans’ reactions. “I wanted to make that statement, that this was something completely separate from whatever was out there before. I kind of expected the fans that followed me before to be a bit freaked out by it. It was nerve-racking for me but it worked out for the best, because people started listening to it in a more mature context. The fans took things they liked from it... and made sure to tell me about things they didn’t like, on social media. But just getting it out there was the main thing.”
Now, Malik is rehearsing for some live shows and writing his second record, which, rumour has it, will be out before the end of this year (a claim he neither confirms or denies). He cites Drake, Rihanna and The Weeknd as dream collaborators, while hinting that he may have some surprise guests on the books already. “I’m just trying to do more and more,” he says. “I’m excited to get more involved in every way that I can. Whether it’s producing or the creative for my stage direction, I just want to get down to every detail. That’s my progression, learning my craft as a solo artist. I’m kind of itching a little bit. I want to work. I’ve learned over four or five years that it’s good to work because you’re earning, not spending.”
This may be the first time Malik has been able to look back at his One Direction years having successfully made it to the next phase of his career. He clearly holds a deep appreciation for his newfound independence. “I know that musicians are seen as one-sided people a lot of the time,” he says, thoughtfully. “But we do have other elements to us as well. I didn’t feel good. Do you know what I mean? And if you don’t feel good…” His voice trails off and he takes a drag from a cigarette, his dark eyes focusing. “You need to be able to express what it is that you are,” he says, breaking into a smile. “I’m free at last.”
Fashion consultant Jason Rembert, hair Vernon Scott using L’Occitane, make-up Joanna Simkin at The Wall Group using La Mer, set design Ian Salter, photography assistant PJ Spaniol, lighting assistant Max Dworkin, fashion assistants Katy Fox, Victor Cordero, Dora Sasvari, digital operator Jarrod Turner, executive talent consultant Greg Krelenstein at Starworks Group, associate talent consultant Alexia Elkaim at Starworks Group