The Weeknd on Ariana Grande and the Art of Pop Music

By Amanda Wicks

After landing two back-to-back number one hits with “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills,” The Weeknd has achieved something only eleven other artists in history have, and that roster includes heavyweight talent like Elvis Presley and The Beatles.

It seems fair to say then that The Weeknd, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, knows how to write hits. But that wasn’t always the case. In Rolling Stone’s current cover story Tesfaye opened up in a candid interview about the road to his success.

When Tesfaye played his first major show as The Weeknd at Coachella in 2012, he got off stage, reviewed the tape and immediately knew he had some serious work ahead of him. “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.'”

Related: The Weeknd Goes Pop on ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ and It’s His Best Single Yet

Fear drove him forward. “I think the worst thing anyone can say about an artist is, ‘He could have been great,'” he shared. “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.'”

To that end Tesfaye approached his label Republic, who came back with Ariana Grande’s track “Love Me Harder,” a Max Martin-produced track. “It was a great song,” Tesfaye said, “but it was a little generic. I couldn’t hear myself on it. So I changed it and made it dark.” After rewriting the lyrics and receiving approval from Martin, Tesfaye knew he had major support behind him to really develop his own sound. “It was kind of like the label giving me an alley-oop,” he explained. “I think that’s where the stars aligned for me. When I see an opening I penetrate it.”

Even though he has earned serious cred with his two major hits at the moment, Tesfaye still gets intimidated when it comes to writing pop songs. “Some people are like, ‘Oh, yeah, just sell out and do pop music,'” he said, ” So you f—ing 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…It’s very easy. I did it so much I can’t do it anymore. But pop music? That s—‘s hard, dude.”

Even though his music is known for its production values that built into a emotionally numb mood, Tesfaye is more concerned with how it sounds without all the bells and whistles. “It’s all about songs for me right now. 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 said.

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