Photograph: Steve Schofield for the Guardian. Grooming: Melissa Pursel at the Wall Group. Styling: Matthew Henson, assisted by Breaunna Trask
A degree of mystery attends the buildup to my meeting with Abel Tesfaye, the 26-year-old Ethiopian-Canadian who for some time now – ever since his stealth emergence as a recording artist in Toronto in 2010 – has been making varied, often exceptional, ever more popular music under the assumed name of the Weeknd. It is early November. He has a new album that’s nearly finished, a follow-up to last year’s 3.6m-selling Beauty Behind The Madness, and at breathtakingly short notice I have been summoned to Rotterdam, where Tesfaye is due to sing a track from the new record at the MTV European Music awards, for a rare interview.
I was told, flying in, to expect some sort of audience around midnight. Later, if Tesfaye went out partying after the gig. But orders change and I arrive at a hotel in Rotterdam in the early evening, a few hours before he’s due on the MTV stage. From the lobby, Tesfaye’s bodyguard, “Big Rob” Feggans, whose nickname holds up, escorts me into a lift. Up a few levels, Feggans leads the way along a corridor and at the end of it knocks on a door, summoning out another member of the Weeknd’s entourage. This man emerges to take two brisk strides across the hallway and knock on another door. There’s a plate of done-with chicken on the floor outside Tesfaye’s room. We wait beside it.
With Prince at the American Music awards 2015. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
It’s an appropriately enigmatic way to be taken to meet a composer of genre-smushing R&B, whose output – especially in 2011, when the then 21-year-old made a trilogy of precociously brilliant mixtapes – has always assumed extra heft from his personal mystique. For a time, at the start of his career, nobody knew what he looked like. His interview shyness created a sense of Prince-like obscurity. When I first saw Tesfaye perform live, at a taping of Later… With Jools Holland in 2012, he showed up trenchcoated and dreadlocked, and mesmerised the studio with a performance of Wicked Games, a madly profane song about love, or rather, about “motherfucking love”.
As a lyricist, Tesfaye makes arguably the best use of that m-word since Snoop Dogg. He’s also been about as prolific a writer (and as expert at mining his life for material) as Taylor Swift, blessed with a Springsteen-like ability to establish concrete worlds inside songs, expressing along the way a sexual confidence (at least in his narrative persona) that might render Rihanna or R Kelly wallflowers by comparison. But unlike most artists who make it in the mainstream – all at once last summer, the Weeknd had three huge hits, Can’t Feel My Face, The Hills and Earned It, from the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack – a cloying misanthropy hangs over this music.
In the stories the Weeknd tells, falling in love is “shit” or “pointless”: women are seduced “often/Often/Girl I do this often”. A troubling murmur of misogyny in the lyrics sometimes gets very audible indeed (“House full of pros that specialise in the ho-ing”), though a counterargument could be made that Tesfaye seems to think men are no great shakes, either. As a narrator, he is frequently the Other Guy (“He’s what you want/I’m what you need”), a brilliant charmer who might nonetheless try to persuade girls out of their clothes by queasier means (“Take a glass… You wanna be high for this”). He writes a lot about drug use. If love or affection is admitted to, it will generally be a love felt under the influence, as in the recent single Starboy, a collaboration with Daft Punk that broke global streaming records on its release in September.
His lyrics paint a vivid picture of a man, and not an especially easy one, and outside his hotel room in Rotterdam, I start to imagine the worst for our interview. Tesfaye sat behind a screen, perhaps, or in a turned-away chair. Conversation in riddles, or in monosyllables.
You’re not quite what I was expecting, I tell Tesfaye, who with a, “Come, come” has brought me inside his room and directed me to sit on the bed. We’ve shaken hands a few more times than custom dictates, and now he is fussing at the minibar, fetching water and apologising for changing the hour of the interview. “I wanted us to have space for a proper conversation,” he says. While he tries out perches around the room – other side of the bed, windowsill, wheely chair, armchair – I get a good look at him. He is stocky, 5ft 7in, his arms buried almost to the elbow in the pockets of a hoodie, with a youthful, big-cheeked, bearded face under a dark baseball cap. Tesfaye lifts it off to show his newly shorn hair. The dreadlocks came off a few weeks ago, he explains in a soft voice, on the set of the video for Starboy. Sleeping was getting difficult, and in a more general way he missed being able to wear anonymising hats. Able to hide under a cap for the first time in years that day, he says, “I think I felt a single tear come down my cheek.” He laughs, and again when making reference to his height (“Thinking about putting lifts in my sneakers”). In apparent reference to his on-off girlfriend, the model Bella Hadid, who is 6ft in heels, he adds, “Guess I’ve been hanging out with too many supermodels.”
I explain that, although I’ve been listening to his music on and off for years, I know very little about him, other than what seems to be confessed to in the songs. Why don’t I put forward a few things that, from the lyrics, I think I know to be true, and you tell me if I’m right?
One. You’re supremely self-confident.
He thinks. “Uhhh… in the music, yes.”
And in life?
“I mean, we’re all insecure, aren’t we? I’m not walking around like I’m macho man or anything.” Writing lyrics, Tesfaye says, “is like an escape sometimes. You see what’s going on in the real world. And sometimes, you go into your own world, where you create what’s going on.”
Two. You bloody love your drugs.
Tesfaye pops his eyebrows, nods half a dozen times and says eventually that he “dibbles and dabbles and whatnot”. Everything in moderation, he insists. “When I had nothing to do but make music, it was very heavy. Drugs were a crutch for me. There were songs on my first record that were seven minutes long, rambling – whatever thoughts I was having when I was under the influence at the time. I can’t see myself doing that now.”
Three. How to put this: you have a complicated relationship with women.
“Yeah.” The nodding again. “Uh. Yeah. I mean… in life… what relationship is easy?”
At the O2 Arena in November 2013. Photograph: Gus Stewart/Redferns
This seems a cop-out. Does he ever listen back to a lyric of his, for instance, and find it callous? “Oh, for sure.” But Tesfaye says the things that might make him wince tend to have been written when he was younger, greener. “The mind of a 19-year-old is very different from the mind of a 26-year-old. You grow. You get into better relationships. You experience more, meet more people, better people. But when you’re in a dark hole, at an earlier point in your life – you write about the mindset you’re in at that moment.”
But say you’re out somewhere, with your girlfriend, or a female friend, or a favourite aunt, and one of those tracks comes on the speakers. Would you want to apologise? “I don’t think I’d ever apologise for music I make, no,” Tesfaye says. “But there are regrets in my life, of course. And you write about it.” Was there ever a squeamishness in having your mother hear some of these lyrics? “For sure. Definitely. But at the same time I think she was just happy I wasn’t dead, wasn’t in jail.”
There was a chance of that? “Dead or in jail?” He puffs out a breath, meaning yes.
He grew up in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, the only child of Ethiopian immigrants who separated shortly after he was born, in 1990. Tesfaye was close to his mother. “A great mom, very protective, very cultured.” His maternal grandmother was around, but otherwise Tesfaye’s mother “was by herself. She was working three, four jobs. Single-mother jobs. The way you see in the movies.”
He has a habit of reaching for film references to illustrate his points. (He once likened his youth to the film “Kids without the Aids”, and tells me his writing method is a Usual Suspects-like borrowing and repurposing of detail.) He says there’s a simple reason for this: he was raised in front of a screen. “I had to learn everything from TV.” He remembers extreme loneliness. “I didn’t have a father figure in the house. No boys around. Just me and my mom.” He longed for a sibling. “But I didn’t want a sister, I wanted a brother. And then…” Tesfaye snorts. “You realise you can’t have that.”
His best friend at school was another Scarborough kid called La Mar Taylor. They smoked weed and discussed films and music. In 2007, at 17, they talked each other into leaving school. “What movie am I thinking of,” he asks, “where he just quits?”
American Beauty? “Yes. Where he just” – Tesfaye clicks his fingers – “drops everything. Some people can’t do it, whatever it is, whether it’s leaving home, quitting a job, dropping out of school. And they’ll never know. But for me it was one of those things. I didn’t think about it. I did it.” They decided to leave home, too. Tesfaye remembers the day he dragged his mattress out of his room and with Taylor’s help threw it in the back of a van. He once described his mother watching this moment with “the worst look anyone could ever have. She looked at me like she had failed.’’
The life plan the two boys had constructed was vague. They went on benefits and rented a one-bedroom apartment in Parkdale, a suburb slightly nearer Toronto. They spent what they had on drink and drugs (ketamine, cocaine, MDMA, mushrooms, cough syrup), and otherwise kept themselves going on food lifted from supermarkets. They threw parties and pursued women and, if Tesfaye’s lyrics are to be taken as read, sustained this sometimes by robbing strangers of their shoes.
When he discusses this period now, Tesfaye makes it sound bleak, a terrible risk. “I could have ruined my whole life by dropping out of school. The consequences might have been horrible.” But he keeps saying he was in a “dark” place at the time, in a “dark hole”. Only on drugs, he thought, could he feel like himself. (From The Hills: “When I’m fucked up/That’s the real me.”) When I ask if he ever sought treatment or therapy, he twitches and looks at me as if I’m making a joke in bad taste. “No. Definitely not. I think that’s more when you’re privileged, you know? Going to a therapist is not something you do when you’re growing up as a street kid in Toronto.” He wriggles in his seat. “Sorry, bro.”
When he was 18, there was some sort of near-miss with the law. He won’t go into details, but admits to spending nights in jail. As a glimpse of where life might be heading, it was “bad enough for me to smarten up, to focus”. He expands: “A lot of people don’t get that second chance. But around that age, you usually get one second chance after a slap on the wrist. And you either take the experience and think, ‘This is it, final straw’, or you don’t. And the next move after that? It’s your entire life. You become who you become because of the next move you make.”
He moved out of the Parkdale apartment and bounced around from girlfriend’s place to girlfriend’s place. He got a job folding clothes at an American Apparel store. And he started writing music, initially with the thought that existing pop stars would buy his material. “I was very insecure about my voice,” he says. But with encouragement from Taylor and others, he started using his vocal on tracks. Drugs were no longer a tool only to party, but to keep him awake for five nights in a row while getting a song just right.
With Ed Sheeran at the Grammy awards in February. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage
He chose a stage name, slicing an “e” out of “the Weekend” to avoid a clash with an established Canadian band, and in October 2010, while working in the stockroom, three of his tunes went on YouTube. By December, they’d become popular enough locally to be played for the enjoyment of customers on the shop floor. “I was working my whole life on those songs. That’s how I phrase it to myself. Even if I wasn’t working on them, I was working on them.”
If you offered even established musicians the Weeknd’s story of steady progression, over the next few years, I expect they’d take it: three neat acts in which the shirt-folder and street kid ascends with minimal faff and compromise from hero of the Toronto underground, to Republic Records signee and darling of the critics, then mainstream star. There were bumps, Tesfaye says. He talks about a gig at Coachella in 2012, which was meant to be a grand, here-I-come statement to the industry – a gig he botched, he says, because he was hammered. “Plastered,” he says, explaining: “Hennessy.”
The studio album that followed in 2013, Kiss Land, was not quite the seller it was expected to be, and this probably accounted for Tesfaye’s drift towards a more accessible, chartier sound in the album that did sell, 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness, which went triple platinum and featured collaborations with acts including Lana Del Rey and Ed Sheeran. He also duetted with Ariana Grande, and if team-ups such as these felt distant from those tortured, drug-smudged tunes that first defined the Weeknd’s sound, the results were still kind of great. (I for one would not have wanted to miss Framlingham’s Sheeran sing gravely about street life in their duet Dark Times.)
With a hit record to his name (“Got that out of the way,” he jokes), Tesfaye now runs a small record label, XO, and has a deal to be the post-David Beckham face of H&M, and a bodyguard in “Big Rob” whom he inherited from Britney Spears. He is rich and influential; in acknowledgment of his status here in Holland, someone at MTV or at his label has laid out for hotel suites in Rotterdam as well as in Amsterdam, in case whim lures the entourage back there tonight. A private jet idles on airport tarmac, waiting to fly him back home to Los Angeles. During the summer, he was in a position to donate $250,000 to the Black Lives Matter movement (though he expressly does not want to talk about this). Back in Canada, his mother, once hurt so badly, has a new place and a new car.
Do you think that, having wounded your mother as deeply as you did, a form of motivation emerged from it? That you’d better make something come from it? “A hundred per cent,” Tesfaye says, seeming distracted. He gets out of his chair and moves to the windowsill. Downtown Rotterdam is lit up brightly behind him. He bows his head so I can’t see his eyes under the peak of his cap.
At Radio 1’s Big Weekend in May. Photograph: Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns
“How about this,” he says, after a while. “I couldn’t ever go back home without being something. I probably would never have gone back home if… That was definitely a big motivation. To get back home, and not empty-handed.”
Earlier in the afternoon, I’d watched as he performed at a rehearsal for the MTV awards. It was an odd experience, all the performers and extras for the night’s show mixed up together on the arena floor, so that Green Day’s road crew mingled with a chamber orchestra and a Trump lookalike, and Kings Of Leon strolled among 30 backing dancers wearing red dresses and blindfolds. The Weeknd’s bit had him appear out of what looked like half a giant golf ball, and from this position he sang a version of Starboy that, at MTV’s request, omitted the swearing.
In his hotel room, I ask: how much would I have to pay you – Tesfaye interrupts: “To play you some new music?” He looks off to the side – the former hustler calculating, perhaps, how much the Guardian will be squeezed for. I was going to ask how much would I have to pay him to sing the filthy version of his song at the awards tonight.
Tesfaye cackles. For a few seconds, I can see he’s tempted. Then he sighs and says no. “It’s someone else’s house, you know?” We do listen to some new music, though. At no charge, he plays me a few tracks, including a second collaboration with Daft Punk, I Felt It Coming. He says he’s trying to decide whether to position this song as the album’s big closer. Sweetly, the guy with 4.25m Twitter followers and an industry at his feet asks what I’d advise.
Though swearing has been nipped from tonight’s version of Starboy, the song’s glaring reference to cocaine use will remain in place. Last summer, Tesfaye managed an even cheekier act of hiding his drugs in plain sight when he released Can’t Feel My Face. (The face in that song was numb for a reason.) Even as his old misanthropy has been husked from his music, drugs have remained elemental to the work, both as subject matter and, as Tesfaye eventually acknowledges, as fuel.
At the Juno Awards in April. Photograph: George Pimentel/Getty Images
Having earlier dismissed his use as moderate dibbling and dabbling, he tells me: “I’ll be completely honest with you. The past couple of albums, I do get back to that.” He means drugs as a crutch. “Even on this new album. You have writer’s block. And sometimes you’re like, I can’t do this sober.” He recalls how, back in February, he decided to call off a summer tour in Europe to write the new record. “I cancelled it and something happened to my inspiration. I guess it was the weight on my shoulders. I’d cancelled a tour – a lot of money. I had these ideas, but I couldn’t put them on wax. If you were a psychologist, you’d probably tell me there was stress in my life, taking away from my work.”
So what happened? “I had to get that little jump.” In the studio, out came the weed, the Hennessy, probably a few more things. “And the ball started rolling. And then I didn’t need it any more.”
I ask if there’s a dark version of all of this, a version where at some point he’s not able not to turn to drugs. “Right now, I feel in control,” Tesfaye answers, frankly. “Where it takes me after, I don’t know.”
We’ve been chatting and listening to music for a while – “vibing out” as Tesfaye calls it. But it’s getting late and I’m aware that he’s due on the MTV stage at 10pm. It’s gone eight, and when I point out the time, he says, “Shit!” But he doesn’t make any obvious effort to move, either. He seems to have enjoyed himself, opening up in a manner, he says, that he hasn’t before. “I look at the room,” he says. “And I think: this is a story. This is a song.”
So what now, I ask – does he make a note of it? Work it up later? “Just keep it in my head.” You hear a melody develop, too? “Yeah, of course. And the next morning, if the idea’s good enough, I’ll remember it. If it doesn’t stay in the mental archive, it wasn’t meant to be.”
Even though tonight you might go out and get plastered? “Yeah.”
You’ll have lost so much music this way.
“I’ve lost so much music,” he says, sheepishly. All those potential extra hits and Grammys, “gone!” he says.
Starboy is out now on XO/Island Records.