Zayn Malik Talks His New Album, Inspiration, and How He Keeps His Cool

Zayn Malik Talks His New Album, Inspiration, and How He Keeps His Cool

After the overwhelming success of his debut solo album, all eyes are on VMAN38 cover star Zayn Malik as he readies to release his follow-up. If you think the attention might have gotten to him, think again: music's most in-demand superstar may also be its most humble.

After the overwhelming success of his debut solo album, all eyes are on VMAN38 cover star Zayn Malik as he readies to release his follow-up. If you think the attention might have gotten to him, think again: music's most in-demand superstar may also be its most humble.

Photography: Inez & Vinoodh

Styling: Panos Yiapanis

Text: William Defebaugh

This story originally appeared in VMAN 38, on newsstands August 24. Pre-order your copy here.

Over the week leading up to my interview with the elusive Zayn Malik, much of my time is spent reading up on the endless list of articles that paint him as the bad boy who broke millions of teenage hearts after leaving One Direction. While it would be a much easier story to tell you that Zayn fulfilled every post-Destiny’s Child Beyoncé, rogue boy bander stereotype imaginable, that wouldn’t be honest. The truth is that Zayn Malik is not a "bad boy" at all. In fact, he might be the furthest thing from it.

When we connect, it hardly registers that the person I’m speaking with is a celebrity—let alone one that has accrued 23 million Instagram followers, over one billion streams on his critically acclaimed debut album, an estimated net worth of $45 million, and the world’s most in-demand supermodel as a girlfriend. (Not to mention that his name literally translates to “beautiful king.”) He speaks with ease, offering the types of down-to-earth insight that I would hardly expect from someone who has been known to cancel arena-size shows due to anxiety. When we converse, I begin to understand that this is because I’m not speaking to Zayn, the ultra-famous boy who left One Direction—a fictionalized character and narrative that’s as publically manufactured as the now-dismantled band itself—but rather Zayn, the artist and individual.

“I hope people get an insight to me as a person, because I’m not the most open book in terms of my personal life. I hope people get an understanding of where I’m coming from or what I’m thinking and what I’m going through, and feel closer to me through that,” he offers earnestly when I ask him what motivates his work. “I just want my music to speak for me, and if it does that successfully, then I’m happy with what I achieve.”

Zayn’s first solo album, Mind of Mine, was heralded as his musical declaration of independence, and that understanding colored the ways in which it was discussed. The album was a commercial success and positively received, but the overwhelming majority of what was written about him in that time period failed to focus on the album’s innovative sonic qualities—of which there were many, most notably the way it blended so many musical genres. Instead, many chose to endlessly dissect what it symbolized. One recurring narrative saw critics interpreting the record’s unabashed sexual overtones as a statement that Zayn was no longer a boy in the eyes of popular culture.

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“I don’t think it was necessarily that experience that made me a man,” he reflects. “I was becoming a man at that time anyway, and that experience was a validation of my decision-making at that time. Maybe I became a bit more in the driver’s seat—a bit more in control—and that was the first decision I made that reflected that in my life. I think it was a natural growth as a human being and as a person. I feel like I’m still growing every day, as everybody is. I don’t know everything and I’m willing to learn, so I believe everything is a natural progression.”

Zayn seems to acknowledge that Mind of Mine was a testing of the waters. When speaking about his forthcoming sophomore album, this becomes clear: “I feel like my songwriting definitely developed, just because I’ve been doing it so much. I feel like the songs are a bit more organized, where I felt like, before, that Mind of Mine was a brainstorm. That’s why I called it Mind of Mine, because it was ideas that I had that I put out. This one is more thought out. I had more time to process everything and go through it all. It’s an evolution.”

According to him, this evolution means building on the hybridized pop-R&B-soul sound he introduced on the first album, which he accomplished with the continued help of sonic wizard Malay (the same Grammy-winning producer responsible for large parts of Frank Ocean’s two albums). “There’s a couple of songs on the record that I’ve done with Malay that for me, personally, I’m really proud of,” Zayn says. “Just in the sense that I feel like they’re real songs. And I don’t mean to say that to discredit the songs that are out on the charts at the moment. I just feel like there’s something really classic about some of the music that we’ve done together, and for that reason, I’m really proud of some of the songs that are going to come out. I feel like it really shows me as a songwriter and a vocalist.”

He also hints that the new record will see him experimenting with hip hop, thanks to a few featured guest artists whom he’s wary to name so early on (the album isn’t due until later this year). A popular Internet theory is that Nicki Minaj will be one of them. Given his collaboration with Taylor Swift on the smash hit “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” at the beginning of this year, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he would bring in more heavy-hitters to assist.

This blending of musical genres will also see further homages paid to his ancestry. When speaking about “Intermission: Flower,” a beautiful track off Mind of Mine sung in Urdu—the language of Zayn’s Pakistani father—he says that he was touched by the overwhelmingly positive response to the song and that we can indeed expect to see more music drawing on his heritage: “I definitely focused on that for a couple of songs on this record that got this same underlying tone of India and the place that my grandparents originally came from. There’s definitely influences of that in there. Hopefully people like it this time around, as well.”

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In his creative process, Zayn doesn’t limit himself to any strict methodology: “I can hear something in the moment and then record on the mic. Sometimes, it might not be a lyric or it might be a sound. I’ll come back to it later,” he explains. “Or sometimes, I’ll have an entire song written on my phone and I won’t know what the melody is yet or how I’m going to sing it, but I know what I want to say.” He clarifies, “I go into the studio with that already written and I’ll try to fit lyrics into a melody. I do it both ways, depending on what I feel is good to do on that beat.”

If he’s feeling any pressure regarding his sophomore release, it doesn’t come through—nor does any desire to fulfill anyone’s expectations of him. When we begin to talk about the various narratives that have dogged him throughout his career—including “the mysterious one,” as he was dubbed in 1D—he shrugs it off: “For me, personally, I don’t ever try to dwell so deep on labels and boxes and places that people want to put you. I believe that we as individuals are in charge of the way people perceive us. There are negative and positive sides to every human on this planet. That’s the way it is. You just have to accept that. If I were to overthink that, it would affect me.”

One such label that Zayn must frequently deal with when it comes to the media is his status as the most widely known Muslim in the western world. But again, he tries to let this roll off of him, demonstrating a healthy boundary with the public. “My faith is between me and God, and whatever that God is, that’s between me and them,” he maintains. “That’s where I draw the line: the specifics. I am a spiritual person and I do believe that everything happens for a reason, so I do have faith in something. I just don’t wish to specify what that is. I don’t want anybody to feel like I’m trying to dictate or wave my opinion on anything. I’m just doing what I’m doing. My religion, or whatever that is, is between me and God, and that’s just how I want to keep it.”

This same struggle to embody certain prescribed ideals and ideologies is also what Zayn cites as the root of his anxiety, which is now largely behind him thanks to an enlightened, almost Zen disposition. “When people don’t always fit that grain, it’s very confusing for the public eye that’s watching because they don’t understand the full ins-and-outs of every emotion that that individual is going through,” he offers. “I think the anxiety comes from the frustration of not being able to explain that to people. Since I explained that I have anxiety, I’ve diminished it because I dealt with what was giving me anxiety: feeling the need to uphold all of these fucking pressures and these things that people want from you. Once you let that go, the anxiety diminishes. It doesn’t really exist anymore because you only care about what it is that you want to give to people. Whether they perceive that in the right or wrong way is ultimately not your choice. It’s out of your control. You can’t always control it, and you just accept that. With that goes the anxiety. Anxiety comes from not being able to control every aspect.”

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In a culture that still has a stigma surrounding issues relating to mental health, Zayn’s openness about his anxiety is a sign of bravery that shouldn’t be minimized or overlooked. It’s the hot-button issue for Generation Z, among whom anxiety and depression are on the rise according to recent studies and surveys conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One cultural mechanism Zayn cites as a contributing factor to his generation’s collective anxiety is social media: “It’s become ridiculous to me. Even angles of pictures can’t be taken a certain way because that’s not the cool way to take an angle of a picture. Everyone’s personal opinions and what they believe in, how can you amalgamate all of that into one thing and expect that not to create a problem for people’s minds? That’s my personal opinion, [that] it’s not really that developing for us as people. That for me is the main reason why I don’t believe in [social media]: because I believe it breeds sheep and not lions.” (Zayn himself largely reserves social media use for interacting with fans about his music.)

When you ask an artist what they would be doing if they weren’t creating music, you often get a passionate answer akin to “I was only ever going to do music,” but this is not the case with Zayn. After being presented with a question about what his life might have looked like had he not shown up for his fateful X Factor audition, he takes a moment to contemplate. “I think about that quite a lot. I think about alternative realities. I think I’d be at university and I would have done my English degree. I think I’d be looking for some employment to do with English lecturing or literature. I love poetry and writing—obviously, I’m a songwriter—so, it would’ve been something that would still give me the feeling of a creative outlet within my writing.” It’s an alternative that seems unimaginable to his audience of millions, but to Zayn, it’s entirely plausible.

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Of course, even in this reality, music isn’t Zayn’s only creative venture. In 2016, he published Zayn, a photographic autobiography of his life post-One Direction. If Mind of Mine is to be read as the musical insight into how his brain operates, Zayn is the visual companion. Earlier this summer, he dropped a highly anticipated capsule collection designed in collaboration with Donatella Versace for the brand’s Versus line. If you had told him that this was to be in his future a year earlier, though, he would have humbly insisted that you must be lying. “I had no idea that Donatella even knew I existed,” he gushes excitedly. “Then, she started to make a few outfits for me, and a few looks for performances and red carpets. I built a relationship there. She mentioned to me that she wanted me to be involved creatively and asked me to draw some ideas and we had a couple of meetings. I sent her some stuff and she liked it, and we went from there. It’s crazy. I’m honored to be involved, and it’s been a really fun experience.” The chance to collaborate with Donatella Versace is an experience that hardcore fashion devotees would dedicate their lives to having, a fact that is not lost on Zayn, who seems awed by being offered yet another creative outlet by a world that’s embraced him to such an unfathomable degree.

Zayn Malik does not come across as a celebrity because celebrity is, essentially, a distraction to making music. When I ask him if he has any personal philosophies that help him stay grounded, his response strikes a note that reveals him to be both the average 24-year-old and the wise-beyond-his-years artist I’ve come to know in our brief exchange: “Don’t take things too seriously and always try to have a laugh. I think that’s the main point in life. We have such limited time, and the main thing that we have to do is have as much fun as we can. That’s my main mantra that I try to live by.”

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Credits: PHOTOGRAPHED BY INEZ & VINOODH STYLED BY PANOS YIAPANIS GROOMING JOANNA SIMKIN (THE WALL GROUP) EXECUTIVE PRODUCER STEPHANIE BARGAS (VLM PRODUCTIONS) PRODUCTION COORDINATOR EVA HARTE (VLM PRODUCTIONS) LIGHTING DIRECTOR JODOKUS DRIESSEN (VLM STUDIO) DIGITAL TECHNICIAN BRIAN ANDERSON (VLM STUDIO) PHOTO ASSISTANT JOSEPH HUME STYLIST ASSISTANTS SUSAN WALSH AND GABE GUTIERREZ TAILOR GRIFFIN JARRETT PRODUCTION ASSISTANT ERIK HANSON (VLM PRODUCTIONS) STUDIO MANAGER MARC KROOP (VLM STUDIO) STUDIO PRODUCER TUCKER BIRBILIS (VLM PRODUCTIONS) LOCATION STUDIO 353

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