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Q&A: Zedd Adjusts to the Limelight and Gets Back to His Roots on ‘True Colors’

Nearly three years after the release of his debut album Clarity — and a bunch of high-profile collaborations with Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Paramore’s Hayley Williams, and more — electronic producer Zedd is back with True Colors, a much more musically coherent, at times orchestral effort. Out May 18, it’s a focused LP, one with self-contained songs that each are meant to represent a different facet of the German 25-year-old’s life and career; earlier this week, he sat down with SPIN at Interscope’s midtown offices to explain why the Clarity follow-up took so long, living life in the public eye, and his upcoming arena tour.

You just announced that you’re playing Madison Square Garden in the fall. Does that make you nervous?
I’ve played a lot of big festivals, but the biggest I’ve done was Pier 94. That’s, like, 8,000 people, so this is twice the size. It’s been a dream. I think for every artist, there are dreams like maybe one day winning a Grammy. Being able to play Madison Square Garden is obviously on that list.

You’ve got this uncanny ability to weave together major and minor chords in a way that many electronic producers can’t manage. Is that something that comes naturally to you?
I think there’s actually one reasonable explanation, which is that I write most of my music on a piano. When you play the piano, you have ten fingers, so just call two of them being the bass. That way, you still have five left for a chord. You start with a chord, and when you do that on a computer, you’ll think, “Which note goes up or down?” It might sound weird, so you’ll skip it and go to the next one until it does sound good. Everybody does that, so everyone will be like, “No, no, yes, no, no, yes.” You end up having the same four chords everywhere.

If you play the note with a finger [on a piano] and you realize it sounds bad, you’ll move to the next finger, and the next finger, then you figure something out that sounds good. Where you would have usually skipped on a computer, you’ll actually not skip because you can change three or four things at a time, so I think there’s a natural reason that music that is made on instruments sounds different. You can play me music and I can almost always say, “This is made by someone that plays instruments,” or “This is great-sounding electronic music but it’s not made by someone who knows instruments.” There is a little bit of difference there.

I also grew up listening to more complex music. A huge influence is Silverchair: That’s not the most complex band in the world, but they always have the best major/minor changes. Stuff like Genesis and King Crimson, they always experiment with the most amazing chord progressions, and Queen as well. I think a mix of being influenced by that, wanting to do something challenging, and obviously writing on an instrument both help a lot.

You also strip several songs back to their elements — pianos or strings or vocals — which is a pretty rare move for the genre you operate in.
It’s not like I wanted to prove something by doing that, but when you start a song on the piano, sometimes you get used to it. On “Addicted to Memory,” the whole beginning was a piano at first, and then I realized, “Okay, I’ve done this on one song and another has similar stuff, I can’t do this again,” so I scrapped it and worked with guitars. It gives you a different feel, but sometimes it just made sense. “Papercut” starts with just a piano. We listened to that with fans yesterday inside of a castle, and it was so magical being in this castle with all these folks listening to that piano. I thought it was really magical and whenever I feel like, “Oh, this is great,” I tend not to change it because I think other people might really enjoy this moment too.

I love “Papercut.” Troye Sivan’s vocals on it are pretty impeccable.
A lot of people don’t actually know him. He’s awesome. I just did a promo tour in Europe, and the only featured guest people knew was Echosmith. I thought “Papercut” would probably be my least favorite song, actually, because it’s so long and it’s not very catchy. It’s unconventional and has this long dip in the middle, which to me is like the movie moment where you close your eyes and see Inception or Interstellar. I love that kind of stuff but I thought people wouldn’t.

Did you know that on Wikipedia it says that Kesha is a guest on the album?
That’s not true! It is, in fact, not her. [Laughs.] I think Psy was another feature that was rumored. People were like, “So you have a song with Psy?” And I’m like, “No… I don’t think so.” I’ve never heard of a song with Psy.

One of the things you’re especially good at is bringing smaller artists and vocalists to people’s attentions. Are you a personal fan of all these guests, or do they approach you, wanting to work with you?
It’s a mixture of both. Whenever I stumble upon a really great voice, I make a long list, so by the time I finish the songs that can take years, I don’t forget about those talents. Then I look at all of the songs and realize, “Okay, these two might fit this song, and he might fit this song.” I want them all to sound different, so it’s kind of like a puzzle. Like, Selena [Gonzalez], for example, was not on my map at all before I met her. Then I was like, “Why don’t we try and make some music together and see if it fits?” And then “I Want You to Know” was the best fit and I liked it and I didn’t want to have anyone else try it.

There were songs on this album where we recorded five different singers and I told everybody that I wanted to be open. “I want to have all my options, and this album is about finding the perfect puzzle pieces together, so please don’t be mad if your voice doesn’t end up on it.” I had big names — huge names — record those songs and they just didn’t fit and I went with singers that people didn’t know because I just liked them better.

Have you noticed any changes in the EDM community over the past five years? As an outsider, it feels like a much more welcoming community than most other genres.
The only thing I can compare it to is the rock world, because I was in a rock band for eight years and I never saw that community… maybe it had something to do with my band, I don’t know, but I have never really seen people support each other that much.

I remember my beginning in this scene was with Skrillex, Porter, Madeon, us trying to push music in this small genre that nobody really knew or had on their map and it was not on the radio. For sure, Selena Gomez would not have collaborated with anyone, or Lady Gaga, or anyone. It was like, “Let’s remix each other’s songs, let’s go on tour together, let’s write each other’s music, let’s play each other’s music.” Then suddenly you see everyone saying, “That’s dope, that’s fun.” It’s so much more fun to be in a business where it’s not about competing with each other all the time. It’s almost like balancing each other out. You are so much more open as an artist by doing that and I don’t know if other genres have that, to be honest with you. I think that whole culture of remixing each other, making edits of each other, playing each other’s music is already built on support. Part of the reason why EDM became so big is because it’s built on support. 

I’m your age, and obviously we grew up with instant music at our disposal. For the True Colors promotional cycle, though, you’ve been making your fans work for the music, doing scavenger hunts to hear new tracks. Was that to prove the point that the real fans are still willing to “pay” in some way for the music they love?
Great question. The important thing is, I didn’t want my fans to work for it necessarily but I did want to find out who the die-hards are. How do you find out who your biggest fans are? Some of them I know from Twitter because they post every minute of their life and they stay up until 4 a.m. because they are in Asia or whatever, but how do I find the 50 die-hard fans in each city? And we thought something like a scavenger hunt would work. I don’t know if you know this guy Marcel, who is one of the guys who came to the events: He bought plane tickets to every single city — two plane tickets in case he missed a flight — and he made it to six out of seven events.

You’re digging a little deeper, lyrically, on this record — specifically with “Done With Love.”
Well, “Done With Love” I wrote with Jacob [Luttrell], who is a super-talented musician and friend of mine. He actually broke up with his girlfriend right when we started writing the song. I feel like it sounds a little mean when I say this, but that’s the best time to write a song. It’s so real, and you can tell it’s real. He sang it too, so you can feel like — and I sound like a mean businessman when I say that — but I’m going for those emotions because I feel like people either believe it or they don’t.

I made “Clarity” a long time before it actually came out, and my English was not nearly as good as it is today, so I had a really hard time understanding a lot of lyrics. This time, my English was good enough to the point where I hear a lyric and it immediately pops out as: “I can’t say that, that’s just weird.” Sometimes I would want to say something even if it’s weird. I’ve done a couple with Max Martin where they didn’t really make sense grammatically, but they sounded so good and I wanted to say it. I just didn’t have that sensibility a couple of years ago because I was just starting to speak English fluently, because I came to America right when I started making the album.

You’ve obviously been in the spotlight a ton in the past six months because of a pretty highly publicized relationship [with Selena Gomez], but you seem like the type of musician who prefers to avoid the limelight. How’s adjusting to that world been for you?
It’s something I’ve really had to learn in the last year because it was never a big deal and then suddenly I was in the press. There was a lot of other press about us that I would get to know from my dad. He’s just like, “I just read this, Anton,” and you’re like… what? And it’s word-of-mouth, so if they say something, it gets picked up somewhere else and then suddenly you stand there and say, “Okay, either I’m going to say something about it or I live with and I just tell people I’m not going to talk about my personal life.”

I feel like when I made the decision to just never talk about it, a lot more people understood and a lot fewer people were interested in asking. I think every person wants that peace for themselves. The most important thing is that I spend so much time making the music that I feel bad if people talk about anything but the music. There is so much to talk about that I don’t want to be the type of artist who is famous for something but the music. I never wanted to be famous. It’s all about the songs, but if I get famous, I want people to know me for the music and not for press that I can’t control. I would rather be less famous but have everyone who knows me know me for the right reason.

If you hadn’t made that decision, the last year would’ve been kind of crazy for you.
Oh my god, I know. It was already crazy enough. I wasn’t used to that. I’ve never had that. When I went out with Jared Leto, I didn’t know that it would be the top of the press. That’s weird! We just went to get tacos, that is not a big deal! I think as an artist you have to make a decision whether you live in the pop-culture world where every step you take and every haircut you get is going to be documented, or you decide to be a little less in the press and focus on the music, and then I think your fans are much more dedicated.

Is there one song in particular from this album that’s burning a hole in your pocket, a track you can’t wait for fans to finally hear?
There are so many of them. I think that “Illusion” is a song that I personally just really love. I’ve listened to the song so many times, producing it, but also afterwards. I get goosebumps every time. The song I’m probably most proud of is “True Colors.” People haven’t heard it because it was really important for me to make a statement with that song for people that don’t know about my past in classical music and rock music and acoustic instrumentation. I was afraid of putting a song like this on my album before. So I did Letterman and Kimmel and Fallon and showed people like, “Hey guys, I actually just like to make music, I hope you guys don’t put me in a box.” But it doesn’t really work like that, so this time I was like, “Okay, I’m making an album.”