Twelve months after leaving the record-breaking boy band that made him a superstar, the world was presented with an all-new, almost unrecognisable Zayn Malik.
Despite the four albums he had previously co-created with One Direction, 2016’s ‘Mind Of Mine’ was resolutely a debut album. It was an introduction to Zayn: The Man. Stripped of his surname, it was an assured statement of intent from an artist in pursuit of his own identity, breaking free from the confines of his past to singly explore the musical avenues he was once forbidden to try.
The lead single, ‘PILLOWTALK, suggested a raw, raunchy R&B vibe - the song’s suggestive tone accentuated by its sensual video, featuring Zayn and his real life girlfriend, model Gigi Hadid - and paved the way for the tactile themes that dominate ‘Mind Of Mine’. The delicate, clipped beats of ‘iT’s YoU’ and ‘dRuNk’, the darker throbs of ‘sHe’ and ‘rEaR vIeW’, and the yearning piano ballad ‘fOoL fOr YoU’ revealed a breadth of influences - the affecting falsettos and hazy production immediately brought to mind the languid seduction of Frank Ocean’s sublime ‘channel ORANGE’; hardly surprising, given the two albums share a producer in James ‘Malay’ Ho.
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A little over a year later, and the redefinition of Zayn continues apace. Bradford-born, he’s all but decamped to the US, where the benefits of his freedom as an artist can best be taken advantage of. His late-2016 self-titled autobiography felt like the closure of one particular chapter, clearing the air around the Zayn we once knew, while front row appearances at fashion shows and collaborations with globally renowned designers signaled the emergence of a keenly curious creative visionary.
He’s so busy, in fact, that it takes some weeks for Clash to pin him down for his cover interview, while our shoot, subject to his schedule, switched coasts with only 24 hours notice. We find him, finally, in New York, adding the finishing touches to album number two.
Having already conquered the post-1D expectations with ‘Mind Of Mine’, the 24-year-old now faces the daunting prospect of following that record’s success - hitting Number One in the US and UK, and reaching a billion plays on Spotify. For the most part, he offers only vague details of what we can expect - he’s been working with “some Canadian guys,” and “some British producers” that featured on his debut, as well as “a couple of big names” whose identities he couldn’t reveal - but the tropical house bounce of recent PARTYNEXTDOOR-featuring single ‘Still Got Time’, alongside recent cuts with M.I.A, Snakehips and Taylor Swift, hints at a brighter, more cultivated departure from the bedroom.
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Yet despite the pressure Zayn faces, Clash learns, he’s relying on the very same instincts that got him this far to further propel him in the right direction. “I guess that’s all you can do,” he shrugs, “because there’s no crystal ball, so you’ve just got to see how it goes. If people don’t like it, they don’t like it; if they do, it’s fucking great. You hope for the best, I guess.”
You’ve spoken before about how you feel like your evolution as a songwriter only really began to develop after leaving the band. How do you think you’ve changed in the space of time between your debut album and this new one?
Even though it has been a short space of time, I think you can definitely be able to see a progression in my writing - well, I’m hoping so, anyway. But I feel that way when I listen to it: I feel like there’s definitely a bit more organisation with things, if that’s the way to explain it. Things kind of make a bit more sense to me. I feel like on the first record things were a bit experimental - I was just trying to find my feet - and with this one, I feel like I’ve found that pocket a little bit more and it’s a bit more developed. I’m just a bit more organised and a bit more structured with the way I’m songwriting now, I think.
Is that because you’re a bit more confident with what you’re doing?
Yeah, I definitely think the reaction to the first record has fueled a bit of confidence in the second one, and helps just understanding what people wanted to hear and what people were enjoying. So yeah, it’s definitely made that easier, I guess, and just knowing where I fit in the market and where I want to sit vocally, and where I want to take it with the music and the production. It’s just more assertive and knows what it’s about this time.
When you were trying to figure out who you were as an artist, you were coming out of a band that obviously had a lot of limitations on what you could and couldn’t do - musically or otherwise. Was the consequent freedom so overwhelming that you just wanted to try everything, or did you want to set your own restraints to remain somewhat focused?
It wasn’t even so much I wanted to try everything. That was just I had a lot of ideas that kind of amalgamated over the years of me just writing different things down whilst my music was changing and my musical taste was developing and evolving.
I had a load of different things and I just wanted to show people that I could do all them different things and that it was all of them different genres that had influenced my musical tastes, and that’s why I called it ‘Mind Of Mine’, because I just wanted it to represent the different types of music that I liked, and the different kind of music that I wanted to use to portray me. So, I think it was more that than just being like, ‘I want to try everything!’
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Was it intimidating to go through that process knowing that there was going to be so many people listening to it?
Yeah, it was intimidating. I did definitely think that there was a lot of pressure for the first record that was going to come out after the band, so I was super conscious of that, and I feel like them nerves kinda fueled me in a positive way. I was always going to over-analyse my record anyway - I’m that kinda person. I wanted to be the person that was going to be the most negative and get in that frame of mind and be like, ‘If I’m going to hate me, what am I going to hate about me?’ and try and get rid of all that negative shit, so even the person that wants to hate me the most still has to like my record. (Laughs)
Given the height of your fame, how hard is it for you to trust people that come into your orbit? How do you make that judgement before bringing them into the inner circle?
I think that’s just an everyday life skill. If you can judge people and you’re a good people person, I feel like you can determine who them people are that you want to have hanging around or be in that inner circle. I just try to judge people based on their actions and the experiences that I have with them, just as you can with anybody. I guess that’s the only way you can be.
You cherish your privacy, but there is obviously intense scrutiny in your life - perhaps double now given the relationship you’re in. Do you feel like you have to compromise who you are as a person to further your career as an artist, rather than just being a guy who can chill at home with his girlfriend?
Not really, no. I enjoy chilling with my girlfriend, but just as anybody else I also enjoy work and I love what I do. My girlfriend is a part of my life and so is music, so it’s just finding that balance, just as everyone does, between work, your love life, and family life.
You’ve previously spoken about how songwriting feels like therapy to you - it’s an opportunity for you to write down what you’re feeling or thinking. Are you comfortable putting down emotions that you’re going through into song for everyone to hear?
Yeah, I’d like to think that is my mentality. I think that’s why (laughs) I’m a singer and hopefully an alright songwriter; I like to express myself through music and write lyrics down and put that into something creative and something that you can give to people in that way, rather than just being outwards emotion that doesn’t necessarily have any sort of outcome - it just goes out into the world and fizzles into nothing.
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Are there any overriding themes or emotions running through the new album?
I wouldn’t say there are overriding themes; it’s more about the music this time, I think, and more about the melodies and the singing than it is specifically about the message of the lyric of the song. I’ve just tried to show different things on this album, and, again, it doesn’t really all cohesively fit together, even in terms of sound - it’s not like one body of work; it’s all different things and different types of music. It’s just things that inspired me, like odd times and places in that exact moment recording that feeling and getting it down.
I ask because, let’s be honest here, the first record was undoubtedly a shagging album. It had very sexual themes in there. What I think everybody wants to know is: will your second album produce even more babies?
Maybe! (Laughs) Who knows! I hope people like to listen to it and do whatever they do - they can listen to it and do normal activities too; they don’t just have to have sex to it. But there’s some sexual references in the second album too, for sure.
I don’t know whether you faced any criticism for having those kind of adult themes, but if so, it must be difficult for you as someone who’s trying to grow up and learn and move away from what you were, yet at the same time, your fans are growing up as well, so you hope that they’ll develop with you, but there’s always going to be that younger demographic there. Are you concerned by having to clean up what it is that you want to say, or are you always completely honest with it?
There’s some songs that I wrote and I didn’t put on my record because they were just a bit too…risqué, shall we say. (Laughs) That is something that I do think about. I never really want to be vulgar, if you understand what I mean. I don’t want to be the guy that’s just talking about sex distastefully. I try to do it in a way that has a bit of class to it. I have sisters and I have females in my family, so I don’t ever want to be too disrespectful, if that’s the word. I just try to keep it creative, and hopefully people don’t get too offended.
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Outside of music, you have worked on a couple of fashion projects: collaborating on footwear with Giuseppe Zanotti, and designing a capsule collection for Versus Versace. How important is it for you to branch out into different areas of creativity?
Just as anybody does, I have ambitions to do different things, and even just interests to make things fun and try different things out. I just like clothes and I like fashion and being involved with that and the process of designing and creating something - it’s fun for me. So I enjoy that, and any other lane as well, whether it be acting or whatever that may be - even just doing a voiceover for a cartoon or something in the future, I wouldn’t mind doing that. I think it would be quite cool.
It must have been pretty cool to be approached by Versace?
Yeah, it was amazing. We got asked to do that a while back, and obviously I love Versace - I’ve bought a couple of their things over the time that I’ve been doing my own stuff, and they’ve been super involved, so we wanted to do something with them. I drew most of the pictures on paper, so to see the clothes come to life like that was pretty mental. When you see them all stitched and stuff you’re like, ‘Shit, I designed this!’
Before you were in the band and making decent money, were you aware of Versace? What kind of brands did you wear when you were younger?
I didn’t wear Versace too much, to be honest (laughs), but I was aware of it, obviously. I’d seen people wear it, and it was obviously something that you looked forward to maybe being able to afford one day when you were older. I did used to wear a lot of sports brands when I was in school - nice tracksuits… As chavvy as it could get, to be honest!
Are there any intentions to one day create your own line?
Yeah, maybe, it’s just that it’s a lot of manufacturing work and getting all the things in place like a factory to make it, so you have to be pretty committed to it. I think somewhere maybe in the future I might think about it, but that’s a job in itself. When I’m not doing so much music, maybe I might sit back on that a bit, but right now I’m pretty focused on the music, so I don’t even know if I’ve got time to do that to be honest, but maybe in the future.
Are you spending most of your time in the States now?
I do spend a lot of my time out here. I spend some time in London from time to time, but I spend the majority of my time in LA - I’ve got a place in LA. I’m just in New York at the minute because I’m seeing my girlfriend.
Do you think living in the US is more inspirational to your music? Perhaps if you were working in the UK you’d be focused on a more localised sound, but being in a different country opens you up to wider perspectives?
Maybe. I don’t know. I feel like the truth of it is that music these days, depending on who it is, it kinda does well wherever. Even if it’s produced in the UK. I feel like a lot of British rappers are getting picked up over here in the US now, and I feel like it just depends on the songs.
I’ve got a few songs - even on the first record, and on the second one - that I did with British producers, actually, and they get picked up well; in America, they’re some of the favourite songs of a lot of my friends over here. So it’s interesting. Maybe the sound is changing now in terms of what the international sound is. I don’t even know. It’s not necessarily why I spend my time here, for the sound; I just spend time here because I have my girlfriend here and a lot of work is here. My life is here now, pretty much.
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Interview: Simon Harper
Fashion: Jason Rembert
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
T-shirts by 3.1 Phillip Lim / Alexander Wang
Trousers by Enfants Riches Deprimes / Trash And Vaudeville
Clash Issue 104 is available to buy HERE.
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