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The Weeknd:’ Drugs were a crutch for me’

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Abel Tesfayes tortured, genre-bending R& amp; B has brought him millions of fans, a triple platinum album and partnerships with Daft Punk and Beyonc. Will mainstream success construct him happy?

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 constructing varied, often exceptional, ever more popular music for the purposes of the assumed name of the Weeknd. It is early November. He has a new album thats nearly finished, a follow-up to last years 3.6 m-selling Beauty Behind The Madness, and at breathtakingly short notification I have been summoned to Rotterdam, where Tesfaye is due to sing a way 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. Afterward, if Tesfaye used to go partying after the gig. But orders change and I arrive at a hotel in Rotterdam in the early evening, a few hours before hes due on the MTV stage. From the vestibule, Tesfayes bodyguard, Big Rob Feggans, whose moniker holds up, bodyguards me into a lift. Up a few levels, Feggans results the style along a hallway and at the end of it knocks on a door, summoning out another member of the Weeknds entourage. This man emerges to take two brisk steps across the hallway and knock on another doorway. Theres a plate of done-with chicken on the floor outside Tesfayes room. We wait beside it.

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With Prince at the American Music awards 2015. Photograph: Kevin Winter/ Getty Images

Its an appropriately enigmatic way to be taken to meet a composer of genre-smushing R& B, whose output particularly 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 generated a sense of Prince-like oblivion. When I first saw Tesfaye perform live, at a taping of Later With Jools Holland in 2012, he indicated 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. Hes 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 cement worlds inside anthems, conveying 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 summertime, the Weeknd had three huge reaches, Cant 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: girls 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( Hes what you want/ Im what you need ), a brilliant charmer who might nonetheless try to persuade daughters out of their clothes by queasier means( Take a glass You wanna be high for this ). He writes a great deal 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 partnerships with Daft Punk that broke global streaming records on its release in September.

His lyrics paint a vivid picture of a human, 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. Dialogue in riddles, or in monosyllables.

Youre 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. Weve shaken hands a few more periods 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 tells. 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 interred 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 cases weeks ago, he explains in a soft voice, on the define of the video for Starboy. Sleeping was getting difficult, and in a more general style he missed being able to wear anonymising hats. Able to hide under a cap for the first time in years that day, he tells, I guess I felt a single tear come down my cheek. He laughs, and again when attaining reference to his height( Supposing about putting lifts in my sneakers ). In apparent including references to his on-off girlfriend, the model Bella Hadid, who is 6ft in heels, he adds, Guess Ive been hanging out with too many supermodels.

I explain that, although Ive 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 anthems. Why dont I put forward a few things that, from the lyrics, I believe I know to be true, and you tell me if Im right?

Sure.

One. Youre supremely self-confident.

He supposes. Uhhh in the music, yes.

And in life?

I mean, were all insecure, arent we? Im not walking around like Im macho man or anything. Writing lyrics, Tesfaye tells, is like an escape sometimes. You see whats going on in the real world. And sometimes, you go into your own world, where you make whats going on.

Two. You bloody love your drugs.

Tesfaye pops his eyebrows , nods half a dozen days and tells eventually that he dibbles and dabbles and whatnot. Everything in moderation, he insists. When I had nothing to do but construction music, it was very heavy. Medications were a crutch for me. There were songs on my first record that were seven minutes long, rambling whatever guess I was having when I was under the influence at the time. I cant find myself doing that now.

Three. How to set this: you have a complicated relationship with women.

Yeah. The nodding again. Uh. Yeah. I entail in life what relationship is easy?

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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 example, and find it callous? Oh, for sure. But Tesfaye says the things that might build 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, fulfill more people, better people. But when youre in a dark pit, at an earlier phase in their own lives you write about the mindset youre in at that moment.

But say youre out somewhere, with your girlfriend, or a female friend, or a favourite aunt, and one of those ways comes on the speakers. Would you want to apologise? I dont suppose Id ever apologise for music I build , no, Tesfaye says. But there are sadness 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 guess she was just happy I wasnt dead, wasnt 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 mommy, very protective, very cultured. His maternal grandmother was around, but otherwise Tesfayes mother was by herself. She was working three, four chores. Single-mother jobs. The way you see in the movies.

He has a habit of reaching for movie references to exemplify 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 theres a simple reason for this: he was raised in front of a screen. I had to learn everything from Tv. He recollects extreme loneliness. I didnt have a father figure in the house. No boy around. Just me and my mom. He longed for a sibling. But I didnt want a sister, I wanted a brother . And then Tesfaye snorts. You realise you cant have that.

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With on-off girlfriend model Bella Hadid. Photo: Mike Coppola/ Getty Images

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 discontinue?

American Beauty? Yes. Where he merely Tesfaye clicks his thumbs fell everything. Some people cant do it, whatever it is, whether its leaving home, ceasing a undertaking, falling out of school. And theyll never know. But for me “its one” of those things. I didnt think about it. I did it. They decided to leave home, too. Tesfaye recollects the day he dragged his mattress out of his room and with Taylors help hurl it in the back of a van. He once described his mother watching this moment with the worst seem anyone could ever have. She looked at me like she had failed.

The life plan the two sons had constructed was vague. They went on benefits and rented a one-bedroom apartment in Parkdale, a suburbium slightly nearer Toronto. They expended what they had on drinking and drugs( ketamine, cocaine, MDMA, mushrooms, cough syrup ), and otherwise maintained themselves going on food lifted from supermarkets. They hurled parties and pursued women and, if Tesfayes lyrics are to be taken as read, sustained this sometimes by robbing strangers of their shoes.

When he discusses this period now, Tesfaye induces it sound bleak, a terrible danger. I could have ruined my whole life by dropping out of school. The outcomes might have been horrible. But he maintains saying he was in a dark place at the time, in a dark pit. Merely on medications, he thought, could he feel like himself.( From The Hills: When Im fucked up/ Thats the real me .) When I ask if he ever sought treatment or therapy, he twitches and looks at me as if Im making a joke in bad taste. No. Definitely not. I think thats more when youre privileged, you know? Running to a therapist is not something you do when youre growing up as a street child in Toronto. He wriggles in his seat. Sorry, bro.

When he was 18, there was some sort of near-miss with the law. He wont go into details, but acknowledges to spending nights in jail. As a glimpse of where life might be heading, it was bad enough in order to be allowed to smarten up, to focus. He expands: A plenty of people dont get that second opportunity. 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 dont. And the next move after that? Its your entire life . You become who you become because of the next move you make.

He moved out of the Parkdale apartment and ricochetted around from girlfriends place to girlfriends place. He got a job folding clothes at an American Apparel store. And he started writing music, initially with the thought that existing pop starrings 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 merely to party, but to maintain him awake for five nights in a row while get a sung just right.

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With Ed Sheeran at the Grammy awardings 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, theyd become popular enough locally to be played for the pleasure of customers on the shop floor. I was working my whole life on those songs. Thats how I phrase it to myself. Even if I wasnt working on them, I was working on them.

If you offered even established musicians the Weeknds story of steady progression, over the next few years, I expect theyd take it: three neat acts in which the shirt-folder and street children ascends with minimal faff and compromise from hero of the Toronto underground, to Republic Records signee and darling of the critics, then mainstream superstar. There were bumps, Tesfaye tells. 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 tells, because he was hammered. Plastered, he tells, 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 Tesfayes drift towards a more accessible, chartier voice in the album that did sell, 2015 s Beauty Behind The Madness, which went triple platinum and featured partnerships 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 Weeknds sound, the results were still kind of great.( I for one would not have wanted to miss Framlinghams Sheeran sing gravely about street life in their duet Dark Times .)

With a reach record to his name( Got that out of the way, he jokes ), Tesfaye now runs a small record label, XO, and has a bargain 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, person at MTV or at his label has laid out for hotel suites in Rotterdam as well as in Amsterdam, in case caprice lures the entourage back there tonight. A private plane 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 deep as you did, a kind of motivation emerged from it? That youd better build 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 cant watch his eyes under the peak of his cap.

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At Radio 1s Big Weekend in May. Photograph: Mike Lewis Photography/ Redferns

How about this, he tells, after a while. I couldnt ever should be going without being something. I likely 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, Id watched as he performed at a rehearsal for the MTV awards. It was an odd experience, all the musicians and extras for the nights prove mixed up together on the arena floor, so that Green Days road crew mingled with a chamber orchestra and a Trump lookalike, and Kings Of Leon strolled among 30 backing dancers wearing red dress and blindfolds. The Weeknds bit had him seem out of what looked like half a giant golf ball, and from this position he sang a version of Starboy that, at MTVs 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 estimate, 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 hes seduced. Then he sighs and tells no. Its someone elses 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 hes trying to decide whether to posture this song as the albums big closer. Sweetly, the guy with 4. 25 m Twitter adherents and an industry at his feet asks what Id advise.

Though swearing has been nipped from tonights version of Starboy, the songs glaring including references to cocaine use will remain in place. Last summer, Tesfaye managed an even cheekier act of concealing his medications in plain sight when he released Cant Feel My Face.( The face in that sung was numb for a reason .) Even as his old misanthropy has been husked from his music, narcotics have remained elemental to the run, both as subject matter and, as Tesfaye eventually recognise, as fuel.

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At the Juno Awards in April. Photo: George Pimentel/ Getty Images

Having earlier rejected his use as moderate dibbling and dabble, he tells me: Ill be completely honest with you. The past couple of albums, I do get back to that. He entails medications as a crutch. Even on this new album. You have writers block. And sometimes youre like, I cant do this sober. He remembers how, back in February, he decided to call off a summertime 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. Id cancelled a tour a lot of money. I had these notions, but I couldnt put them on wax. If you were a psychologist, youd likely tell me there was stress in my life, taking away from my work.

So what happened? I had to get that little jumping. In the studio, out came the weed, the Hennessy, likely a few more things. And the ball started rolling. And then I didnt need it any more.

I ask if theres a dark version of all of this, a version where at some point hes no longer able not to turn to drugs. Right now, I feel in control, Tesfaye answers, candidly. Where it takes me after, I dont know.

Weve been chatting and listening to music for a while vibing out as Tesfaye calls it. But its getting late and Im recognizing also that hes due on the MTV stage at 10 pm. Its gone eight, and when I point out the time, he tells, Shit! But he doesnt make any obvious effort to move, either. He seems to have enjoyed himself, opening up in accordance with the arrangements, he says, that he hasnt before. I look at the room, he tells. And I believe: this is a story. This is a song.

So what now, I ask does he make a note of it? Run it up subsequently? Just keep it in my head. You hear a tune develop, too? Yeah, of course. And the next morning, if the ideas good enough, Ill remember it. If it doesnt stay in the mental archive, it wasnt meant to be.

Even though tonight you might used to go and get plastered? Yeah.

Youll have lost so much music this way.

Ive lost so much music, he says, sheepishly. All those potential extra makes and Grammys, run! he says.

Starboy is out now on XO/ Island Records.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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