‘So is this swearing or no swearing?” In a darkened soundstage on the outskirts of London, Abel Tesfaye is wondering if he can say “fuck” or not. Tesfaye, better known as breakout pop sensation the Weeknd, is at a rehearsal for Later… With Jools Holland, the BBC music show, about to soundcheck his smash hit “The Hills”, a four-minute horror-movie booty call featuring more than a dozen f-bombs. For Tesfaye, that’s relatively clean, but he knows the pensioners in Twickenham might disagree. So when the verdict comes back “no swearing”, he nods and smoothly pivots to a censored version – a small gesture that says a lot about the kind of professional he has become.
“The Hills” is currently enjoying its fourth straight week at Number One, a feat made even more impressive because it took the place of another Weeknd track, “Can’t Feel My Face” – Spotify’s official song of the American summer, and the only song about cocaine ever to be lip-synced by Tom Cruise on network TV. Tesfaye is just the 12th artist in history to score back-to-back Number Ones, a group that includes Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Taylor Swift. His new album, Beauty Behind the Madness, has sold more than half a million copies in a couple of months, and he launched a U.S. arena tour in November. “I’m still digesting it, to be honest with you,” Tesfaye says of his success. “But the screams keep getting louder, dude.”
Tesfaye comes over to say hi, dressed in black Levi’s and a Roots hoodie, his tsunami of hair piled high atop his head. “Sorry, I’m sick,” he says, as his handshake becomes a fist bump in midair. Since starting this promo tour a week ago, he’s been to Las Vegas, Paris, Berlin and now London. The cold caught up with him yesterday, during a signing for 500 squealing fans at the Oxford Circus HMV. (Overheard: “I wanted to hug him!” “You didn’t hug him? I kissed him!”)
This scene would not have seemed possible in 2011, when the Weeknd appeared with a trio of cult-favourite mixtapes that established both his sonic template – drug-drenched, indie-rock-sampling, sex-dungeon R&B – and his mysterious, brooding persona. A press-shy Ethiopian kid from Toronto who has given only a handful of interviews, he has cultivated a near-mythical image as a bed-hopping, pill-popping, chart-topping cipher. “We live in an era when everything is so excessive, I think it’s refreshing for everybody to be like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?'” Tesfaye says. “I think that’s why my career is going to be so long: Because I haven’t given people everything.”
Spend just five minutes with him, though, and he reveals himself: sweet, soft-spoken, surprisingly earnest. When I tell him he’s not what I expected, he nods. “When people meet me, they say that I’m really kind – contrary to a lot of my music.”
When talking about his art and his career, Tesfaye is blessed with a towering self-confidence and has no hesitation about declaring his own greatness. “People tell me I’m changing the culture,” he says. “I already can’t turn on the radio. I think I’m gonna drop one more album, one more powerful body of work, then take a little break – go to Tokyo or Ethiopia or some shit.” Hearing him boast about talking shop with Bono, or name-dropping “Naomi Campbell, who’s a good friend of mine now”, you may be tempted to see a diva in the making; or you may see a 25-year-old guy who’s stoked and incredulous to be in the position he’s in.
After rehearsal, Tesfaye is in the greenroom with his two managers, 31-year-old Amir “Cash” Esmailian and 35-year-old Tony Sal. Cash is a first-generation Iranian-Canadian sweetheart who occasionally yells things into the phone like, “You may as well bend me over a table, bro!”; Sal is a courtly charmer who grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and now dates a former Miss USA. Right now, they’re trying to figure out how to get from Norway, where Tesfaye will be for promo in a few days, to Texas, where he has a show. According to their tour manager, the only commercial flight from Oslo to Austin is at 8 a.m.
“What about noncommercial?” asks Cash. The tour manager says he’ll check, but they’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Cash looks around and grins: “The label’s paying for it, right?”
‘I feel so much better today. I feel amazing right now.” The next afternoon, Tesfaye is in a seventh-floor suite at his Soho hotel, having spent most of the previous 18 hours in bed. (There was also a B12 shot involved.) When a bellman brings in a silver tray with a selection of waters, Tesfaye pours himself a glass. “I just started being fancy, to be honest,” he says. “Like, I just started learning how to pronounce what I’m wearing.” He imitates a snooty shopgirl: “ ’It’s not Bal-mane, it’s Bal-mahn.’ ‘Oh, sorry!'”
When he first started recording as the Weeknd, Tesfaye was an unlikely star. “I was everything an R&B singer wasn’t,” he says. “I wasn’t in shape. I wasn’t a pretty boy. I was awkward as fuck. I didn’t like the way I looked in pictures – when I saw myself on a digital camera, I was like, ‘Eesh.'” Instead of his face, his album art and videos featured black-and-white photos of artful nudes – a topless girl in a bathtub, a woman’s ass in a party dress. The aesthetic was American Apparel-style hipster catnip, right down to the Helvetica font.
“I was everything an R&B singer wasn’t,” he says. “I wasn’t in shape, or a pretty boy. When I saw myself on a camera, I was like, ‘Eesh.‘”
Early Weeknd songs were atmospheric and chilly, their thick narcotic haze sliced by his broken-glass falsetto. The lyrics were an addiction counsellor’s worst nightmare: pills, pain, shame, serotonin, danger. He and his crew posted three songs on YouTube and started spamming their friends on Facebook, then watched the play counts slowly climb. “I don’t know how many it actually was, but it felt like a million,” Tesfaye says. “Five hundred plays? Holy shit!” Toronto being a small town in some ways, the songs were heard by Drake’s manager, Oliver El-Khatib, who posted them to the OVO blog, where they promptly blew up. “Apparently, Drake wasn’t even fucking with it at first,” Tesfaye says today. “Oliver was the one vouching for me.”
The then-anonymous Tesfaye declined all interviews. In part, it was because he worried he wasn’t well-spoken enough: A high school dropout, he used to do crossword puzzles to improve his vocabulary, and to this day, he often wishes he were more articulate. “Me not finishing school – in my head, I still have this insecurity when I’m talking to someone educated,” he says. “I don’t want them looking at me like this fucking retard – no disrespect.” For months, no one even knew if the Weeknd was a person or a group. That’s when Tesfaye realised he “could run with the whole enigmatic thing”, he says now. “If it backfired, I probably would have been doing interviews. But people were kind of liking me being a fucking weirdo.”
The three free mixtapes that followed – House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence (all later repackaged and sold as Trilogy) – made him a darling of indie circles, and Tesfaye isn’t shy about praising them. “I probably could have toured off Trilogy for the rest of my life,” he says. “It definitely changed the culture. No one can do a trilogy again without thanking the Weeknd. A lot of artists started doing things faster and quicker after that: Justin Timberlake dropped two albums in a year, Beyoncé dropped a surprise album.” He’s equally proud of the music itself: “I’m not gonna say any names, but just listen to the radio. Every song is House of Balloons 2.0.”
Drake gave Tesfaye a big boost when he featured the Weeknd on his double-platinum 2011 album, Take Care. But for Tesfaye, being under the wing of his fellow Torontonian was a mixed blessing: A handful of songs he’d written for House of Balloons ended up on Take Care. As Tesfaye said in a 2013 interview, “I was hungry…. I was like, ‘Dude, take anything.'” Today, he says he has nothing but gratitude for Drake, whom he calls “my closest friend in the industry at that time”. Still, he says, “I gave up almost half of my album. It’s hard. I will always be thankful – if it wasn’t for the light he shined on me, who knows where I’d be. And everything happens for a reason.” That said: “You never know what I would say if this success wasn’t in front of me now.”
It wasn’t long before the major labels came calling. But even then, few would have pegged Tesfaye for the global superstar he is now – least of all him. “Never in a million years,” he says. “At the time, I thought I’d be a punk star – grow my hair out, acne on my face, super-fucking-skinny. I was looking at artists like Iggy Pop and the Ramones, or Afropunk. But you evolve and realise your potential. And then it’s like, ‘Fuck yeah. Let’s go.'”
Tesfaye with his girlfriend, model Bella Hadid (left), with early supporter Drake, who featured The Weeknd on his double-platinum 2011 album, Take Care (middle) and with Bulleez N Nerdz partner Jesse Ray in Toronto, 2009 (right).
And now, a few words about the hair:
The Weeknd’s hair is by far his most recognisable trait. There are Tumblrs and website listicles devoted to it; when I told the immigration agent at Heathrow what I was doing in the U.K., he said, “That’s the geezer with all the hair, innit?”
Tesfaye’s hair can be divided into roughly four sectors, each with its own distinct personality (front left: flopped-over moose antler; back left: tiny octopus). The overall effect is that of a rare double mullet: party in the front, party in the back. There’s not much to maintaining it, he says – just a hard shampoo every once in a while. But there are other annoying parts. “Sleeping. I wake up with neck pains sometimes. And not being able to hide myself.”
Tesfaye says the hair was partly inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat. He began growing it out four years ago: “I want to be remembered as iconic and different,” he says. “So I was like, ‘Fuck it – I’m gonna let my hair just be what it wants.’ I’ll probably cut it if it starts interfering with my sight. I can kind of see it right now. But if I cut it, I’d look like everyone else. And that’s just so boring to me.”
Tesfaye’s hair also prompted one of his most WTF celebrity encounters. He was at a party for Sam Smith after this year’s Grammys, at an $80 million mansion in Bel-Air. Katy Perry and Ed Sheeran were there; Disclosure were DJ’ing. “Everyone was hammered,” Tesfaye says. “Sam had just won, like, every Grammy, so he was having the time of his life. Max Martin actually left because everyone was so drunk. Unfortunately, that was the one month I decided to stop drinking. Everybody was having a great time, all these cool things were happening, and I was shaking, like – ‘Fuck, I really want a drink.'”
That’s when he met Taylor Swift. “She actually schooled me on my own shit,” Tesfaye says. “She was like, ‘I’ve been listening to ‘The Morning’ [from House of Balloons] for years – it’s one of my favourite songs ever!’ I mean, she might have just Googled it. But she seemed genuine.”
Tesfaye says Swift went on for about 15 minutes. “But the whole time she was talking,” he says, “she was kind of, like, petting my hair? I think she was just drawn to it – she must have been a little gone off a few drinks. And of course I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey, can you stop?’ I mean, it felt good! But when she started petting my hair, that’s when I was like, ‘I definitely need a drink.'”
Anyone who’s heard the Weeknd sing or seen his stage moves knows the debt he owes to Michael Jackson. He often says it was Jackson’s music that made him want to be a singer, and the lyrics to “Dirty Diana” that made him want to write songs. But Jackson was even more important to his family than to most, because of their East African roots. “People forget – ‘We Are the World’ is for Ethiopia,” he says. “At home, if it wasn’t Ethiopian music, it was Michael. He was our icon.”
Tesfaye’s mother, Samra, emigrated from Ethiopia in the 1980s and settled with her mother in Scarborough, a drab neighbourhood on the east side of Toronto. She juggled several jobs – nurse, catering, plus night school – and when she was home, she’d baby her only child. “I’m a mama’s boy,” Tesfaye admits. “Everything good, I get from my mother.” He was a quiet kid, and a little lonely sometimes. “I always wanted a brother so I’d have somebody to play with,” he says. “I remember lying to people that I had brothers – that’s how much I wanted one.”
Tesfaye’s mother and grandmother lived through Ethiopia’s so-called Red Terror, after Emperor Haile Selassie’s death, during which tens of thousands of civilians were killed by a military junta. But they never talked about it, and Tesfaye doesn’t know much of the history. “I actually wish Bono was here to school us both on it,” he jokes. “He knows more about Africa than any African I’ve ever met. I remember hearing some stories from my uncles – they would chew chat and talk. But I don’t think my mum wanted to tell those stories. I don’t think Ethiopians want their kids to feel like Ethiopia is a bad place.”
Because his mother worked so much, his grandmother took care of him a lot, taking him to services at their Ethiopian Orthodox church. (“It’s almost Islamic. There’s a lot of bowing.”) His first language was Amharic, not English, and he says his high-flying vocal style was influenced by habesha singers like Aster Aweke. He still loves Ethiopian food: “It’s the best, man. But it’s very fattening. I think I’m still burning off that fat, to be honest. For an Ethiopian mother, if you have a chubby kid, it means you’re doing something good.” Tesfaye recently bought his mother a “huge house” in Toronto. “I think me getting my diploma would make her much happier, though.”
Tesfaye doesn’t know much about his father beyond his name: Makkonen, also Tesfaye’s middle name. The elder Tesfaye took off when Abel was one or two: “I saw him vaguely when I was six, and then again when I was 11 or 12, and he had a new family and kids. I don’t even know where he lived – I’d see him for, like, a night. I’m sure he’s a great guy. I never judged him. He wasn’t abusive, he wasn’t an alcoholic, he wasn’t an asshole. He just wasn’t there.”
“People forget – ‘We Are the World’ is for Ethiopia,” says Tesfaye about his Michael Jackson obsession. “He was our icon.”
Tesfaye was an up-and-down student. Until eighth grade, he was in French-immersion class, which meant he had to speak French all day. (“It sucked. At recess, all the regular kids made fun of us – they called us ‘Frenchies’.”) His mother sent him to piano lessons for a while, but he preferred pop music. He grew up in a golden age of R&B when Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, Timbaland and the Neptunes were all over BET. “The late Nineties really formed my style – that sexy downtempo vibe,” he says. Later he got into rap – especially 50 Cent, whose debut came out when Tesfaye was 11 – and in middle school, he started smoking weed, so soon Hendrix and Led Zeppelin were in the mix. “I was the kid wearing the Pink Floyd shirt and listening to Ginuwine in my ear,” he says.
When he was 17, Tesfaye says, he got kicked out of his school for “some incident” that he can’t remember. He had to transfer to a rougher school across town, away from all his friends. “Imagine starting all over at Grade 11? Fuck that – peace.” He lasted six months before dropping out and leaving home, and he and two friends moved into a one-bedroom house at 65 Spencer Avenue, in an up-and-coming Toronto neighbourhood called Parkdale. “It was amazing,” Tesfaye says. “No parents, we can do what we want, stay up as late as we want – like, literally for days.” Two blocks away was a strip of hip bars and clubs. “We kind of put that part of the city on,” Tesfaye says. “We were legends on that street. If you go there now, it’s all these little 18-year-old kids that look like me.”
(Tesfaye says 65 Spencer inspired the title House of Balloons. “We’d throw these shitty parties and have girls over, and we’d try to make it celebratory, so we’d have balloons,” he says. Another possible explanation: The Victorian house, with its white columns and gabled roof, looks a lot like the house of balloons from Pixar’s Up, which came out around that time.)
Tesfaye had long wanted to be a musician, and he started pursuing it in earnest. He formed a hip-hop duo called Bulleez N Nerdz, rapping under the name Kin Kane. (Abel = kin to Cain.) Later, he joined a local production team called the Noise and wrote songs he imagined being performed by Justin Timberlake, Drake and Chris Brown. He also started partying a lot. “I never needed detox or anything,” he says. “But I was addicted in the sense of ‘Fuck, I don’t want to spend this day without getting high.'” For a while he was homeless and couch-surfing; he didn’t talk to his mum for a year. “Like, ’08 to 2010 – those are my hazy years,” Tesfaye says. “I have this lyric that goes, ‘I’m not scared of the fall/I’ve felt the ground before.’ And in this industry, I’m not really scared of failing, because I already know what it means to be on the ground.”
One night, Tesfaye is joined in London by his girlfriend, Bella Hadid, the 18-year-old runway model and Real Housewives daughter. (She’s also an Olympic hopeful who is training to qualify for the 2016 Games in three equestrian events, which is apparently news to Tesfaye. “I read that!” he says. “I hope she does. I’ve never seen her do it, but word on the street is she’s bangin’ at it.”)
Hadid (whose older sister is budding supermodel Gigi) just arrived from Milan Fashion Week, where she walked in four shows. Now she’s hanging backstage with the crew, waiting for Tesfaye to get back, smoking cigarettes and eating chicken wings in a tight red dress. One of the guys asks what she’s up to. “I go to Paris tomorrow,” she says. “I can’t wait.” Tesfaye just bought her a puppy for her upcoming 19th birthday – a little black Yorkie named Hendrix. “But I’m probably going to end up taking care of it,” he says.
Tesfaye and Hadid have been dating since last April. “I actually asked her to be on the artwork for Beauty Behind the Madness,” Tesfaye says. “My motive was literally to work with her.” But when she declined, “I was like, ‘All right, cool – we can meet up face-to-face.'” Tesfaye says he loves how hardworking she is, and how close she is with her family. “It just kind of fell into my lap,” he says. “If this had happened two years ago – well,” he catches himself, “she couldn’t.” (Two years ago, Hadid would have been 16.) “But if I’d met someone two years ago, I probably would’ve fucked it up. But I’m more – how do I say it? – clear-thinking now.”
In his music, Tesfaye has presented a conflicted, frequently cold view of women and relationships. On Drake’s “Crew Love”, he brushes off a girl who dares to distract him from his art (“Take your nose off my keyboard/What you bothering me for?”). On “Often”, he brags about turning a woman’s erogenous zone into a meteorological phenomenon.
At Coachhella, in Indio, Carlifornia, earlier this year.
Tesfaye says the sex in his music is mostly autobiographical. “I mean, no girl has ever actually rained,” he says. “But if that’s not what you mean, then yeah. I don’t want to sound like that guy where sex is not an obstacle. But I’ve had a lot of sex.”
Tesfaye lost his virginity when he was 16. A friend in college took him to a toga party, and he told a girl he was a student at nearby York University. “I could have been a student at fuckin’ McDonald’s, she was so drunk,” he says. “I was drunk too. It was the worst experience of my life. Losing your virginity to an older woman sounds good, but it was kinda like, ‘Oh shit, it’s done?'” In general, he says, he “wasn’t a ladies’ man – it was nothing like it is now”. He quotes the rapper Mike Jones: “The line ‘Back then, ho’s didn’t want me/Now I’m hot, ho’s all on me’ is definitely relevant.”
Part of the allure of the Weeknd’s music is its emotional chilliness – the way he creates a world that sounds both sexy and numbed-out. Next to his darkest songs, an R. Kelly track can seem almost wistfully romantic. The debauchery can have a creepy undercurrent: Tesfaye’s songs, especially the early ones, occasionally depict troubling situations, like on 2011’s “High for This”, where he sings about getting a girl wasted before having sex with her. “Everything is consent,” Tesfaye insists. “The tone is dark, the environment is the dark. But there’s not force in it. They want to have a good time. Everybody wants to be there. Whether they regret their choices after is whatever. But everybody is in consent.”
There’s a more disturbing dynamic at work on 2011’s “Initiation”, where Tesfaye’s narrator implies that before a girl can be with him, she has to sleep with the rest of his crew.
“Back then, it was like, ‘Hey, you want to fucking hang out? Here’s my boys’,” he says. “It’s just me documenting what’s around me. Whether it is something that happened to me or something I see. Nobody’s forcing anybody to do anything. I really do believe a woman does whatever she wants to do.”
Tesfaye doesn’t seem to have spent much time thinking about the implications of these lyrics since he wrote them, and seems taken aback by the suggestion of anything predatory: “I definitely should’ve seen this coming,” he says. “At some point, I’ll probably have to answer for this. But it’s consent, all of it.”
In 2013, Tesfaye released Kiss Land, the much-anticipated follow-up to his mixtape trilogy. He was hoping it would launch him to the next level, but it didn’t take off. “It humbled me a bit,” he says. “I can be honest about it. Nobody wants to put out music where the reception’s not great.” Tesfaye considered moving to Seattle, where the depressing vibes might inspire something interesting. But he wound up in L.A. instead. “No matter how dark my experiences were during Trilogy, it’s nothing like L.A.,” he says. “L.A. is dark.”
Tesfaye is back in Los Angeles tonight, having landed early this morning. He’s still jet-lagged, sipping an Old Fashioned at a steakhouse downstairs from his hotel. He actually rents a house in town, in the Hollywood Hills, but he doesn’t like staying there. “I think it’s haunted, to be honest with you,” he says. “I’ve had sleep paralysis. I hear voices sometimes. I heard the Hills are over Indian burial ground. But maybe it’s just the wind.”
Tesfaye is glad he ended up in L.A. “The relationships I made here have helped me so much.” He says he signed with his label, Republic Records, specifically because of its success in pop radio. “I could have gone with another label that was really good at branding, but I’d already built a strong brand myself,” he says. “I wanted someone who could do what I couldn’t.”
“One thing about Abel that people don’t realise is, he’s incredibly ambitious,” says Republic label head Monte Lipman. Tesfaye asked the record company to help assemble some hits. In the summer of 2014, Republic sent him a half-finished song by labelmate Ariana Grande, “Love Me Harder”, produced by the Swedish pop wizard Max Martin.
“It was a great song,” Tesfaye says, “but it was a little generic. I couldn’t hear myself on it. So I changed it and made it dark.” He rewrote the lyrics and sent them back, and Martin liked what he heard. “It was kind of like the label giving me an alley-oop,” Tesfaye says. “I think that’s where the stars aligned for me. When I see an opening” – he punches his fist in his palm – “I penetrate it.”
The song was released that September. “If people didn’t like it, I would’ve been like, ‘Let’s sweep it under the rug.’ But people were fucking with it.” The song went to Number Seven in the U.S. and marked a turning point for Tesfaye – the beginning of his mainstream conquest. He followed that with “Earned It”, from the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, a slinky BDSM slow-jam that sounded like nothing else on pop radio and rode to Number Three on the U.S. charts. Then he went into the studio with Martin to craft some hits of his own.
“His whole operation is just genius,” Tesfaye says of the producer. “I was told he doesn’t do this very much, but he would actually sit on the floor with us and come up with ideas. I feel like usually he’ll collaborate, but he’s not as passionate or as hands-on. I felt superhonoured, you know? It was some real Michael-and-Quincy, John Lennon-and-Paul McCartney stuff.” Martin ended up co-producing three songs on the album: “Can’t Feel My Face”, “Shameless” and the forthcoming single “In the Night”, another Jackson homage that could become the Weeknd’s biggest hit yet. “If it works, it’s going to be huge,” Tesfaye says. “It’s like that load that you’re trying to hold in – I’m just waiting for the money shot.”
The Weeknd’s mixtapes, and even Kiss Land to an extent, relied a lot on atmosphere and mood, their hooks cloaked in a woozy codeine haze. Beauty Behind the Madness is more like a cocaine bump: shorter, tighter, more energetic. “It’s all about songs for me right now,” he says. “The production can be cool and crazy-sounding, but that’s just special effects. If you can’t strip it down and play it on piano, it’s not a good song.” He cites Radiohead as an example: “I love Radiohead, they’re one of the greatest of all time. But can you break down their songs and play them on piano? Maybe not.”
To Tesfaye, writing pop songs is a whole lot harder than writing cool songs. “Some people are like, ‘Oh, yeah, just sell out and do pop music.’ So you fucking do it, then! It’s not easy. Can I be honest with you? What all these kids are doing right now? I could do that in my sleep. I listen to it, and it doesn’t test me at all. I could make a girl go like this” – he does a little shimmy-dance – “with a beat. It’s very easy. I did it so much I can’t do it anymore. But pop music? That shit’s hard, dude.”
Three days later, Tesfaye is across the country at Studio 8H in NBC’s Rockefeller Center, at a rehearsal for Saturday Night Live. Across the room, host Amy Schumer is posing on a chaise lounge in a black-lace Eighties Madonna dress. Tesfaye is soundchecking the same two songs he always does: “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills”. SNL wanted him to do “In the Night” instead, but it’s a tough song to sing live, and he didn’t feel ready. Even he can recognise his limitations: “I’m not known as the greatest singer right now,” Tesfaye says, “but I’m also not known as the guy who fucking sucks, you know?”
After the camera-blocking, a producer comes over to ask Tesfaye’s team if he’ll shoot a couple of promos with Schumer and cast member Kate McKinnon. At first they decline, but Tesfaye knows what a big deal SNL is, so he agrees. He looks nervous as he takes his mark and stares at the cue cards. “Are you ready?” Schumer teases. “It’s not easy…”
They do a few takes, Tesfaye playing the straight man while Schumer and McKinnon improvise wackily. He’s funny – just the right amount of deadpan. When he asks about a typo on one of the cue cards, Schumer playfully smacks his shoulder: “Well, look who can read!” The director says they have it, and Schumer turns and gives Tesfaye a hug: “You were so good!” An embarrassed Tesfaye smiles, makes two finger-guns and blows his brains out.
“The worst thing anyone can say about an artist is, ‘He could have been great.’ I was always scared of being that guy where it’s like, ‘He could have been big.'”
At the broadcast Saturday night, Tesfaye is joined by surprise guest Nicki Minaj, who raps on a brand-new remix of “The Hills”. But the highlight for him was meeting Louis C.K., who was “just chilling backstage”. “He was in the middle of a conversation,” Tesfaye says, “and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever gonna see you again, so in case I don’t, I just want to tell you how much I admire your work.’ I don’t think he recognised who I was, but he was supersweet.”
Tesfaye has had lots of these idol encounters lately. There was the time he met Leonardo DiCaprio at an L.A. club. “I don’t get star-struck, but I get star-struck when I see someone like that. Our tables were beside each other, and the owner of the club knew how important he was to me, so he introduced me.”
Or the time he met the Band’s Robbie Robertson at Canada’s Walk of Fame. “Robbie’s from Scarborough too, actually. I met him and Peter Fonda together – those guys know how to party. I’m an avid film-watcher. Growing up, I loved anything Scorsese and De Niro, and Robbie’s been Scorsese’s friend for years, and consulted on Scorsese’s music. So he’d tell me stories about them. I live for these moments.” And then, most charmingly, there’s the time he simply overheard a conversation between LL Cool J and Denzel Washington at an Oscar party. “That’s when I was like, ‘You know what? I think I fuckin’ made it, dude.'”
At 3 a.m., after the SNL afterparty, Tesfaye will board a private jet that will take him to Austin for his headlining slot at ACL fest – his last festival of the year before he shuts down to prep for his own tour. There will be fireworks and a pyro display during “The Hills”, and 30,000 people singing along to “Can’t Feel My Face”. During “Often”, he’ll change the hook to say, “Ask how many times I come to Texas/I say Austin!” and then afterward, he’ll run offstage into a waiting SUV and enjoy a police-motorcycle escort on the way back to his hotel.
It’s a long way from his first big festival gig, in 2012 at Coachella. “Coachella was the first show I did in the States, and I hated my performance,” he says. “I was scared shitless. I got offstage and thought I did pretty good, then I watched the tape, and it was a nightmare. I saw all the comments, and I wanted to kill myself. I remember telling my agent, ‘You need to book me as many shows as possible. That guy onstage is not a star. That’s not a legend.'”
So Tesfaye got to work. He took some dance lessons, trying to build confidence and learn how to perform. And he played lots of shows. “I was performing my ass off,” he says. “My touring was booming. Everybody was confused – I don’t have a hit song, and I’m doing two nights at Radio City? I’m not saying I’m Beyoncé, but I feel like I went after it and nailed it.”
When it came down to it, Tesfaye was driven by fear. “I think the worst thing anyone can say about an artist is, ‘He could have been great’,” he says. “I was always scared of being that guy where it’s like, ‘He could have been big. He could have been a star.’ I was afraid I’d see somebody else up there and be like, ‘You’re trying to tell me they’re better than me? Why? Because they’ve got a couple of smash records? I can do smashes. I could figure it out.’
“And to be honest with you, it’s been, what, a couple of years now? And it feels great. I feel great.”
From issue #770 (January, 2016), available now. Top photo: Mark Seliger.