Up until recently, Abel Tesfaye — the mercurial mastermind better known as the Weeknd — preferred to let his music do the talking.
Since rising to fame in 2011 with his trio of self-released albums
(and subsequently signing a deal with the Universal Music Group), Tesfaye has maintained a purposefully low profile, refusing interview requests and seemingly existing in a murky world of his own creation. But, with the release of his major-label debut, Kiss Land, he’s softened that stance slightly … earlier this summer, he gave his first-ever interview.
That’s not to suggest his outlook on life is any sunnier these days … quite the opposite in fact. Musically, Kiss Land is even more monochromatic than his previous works, and lyrically, he’s still trapped in the same cycle of druggy nights, desperate flings and depressed dawns, all of which are expressed with an honesty that’s downright eye opening. If he’s willing to talk about any of these things, it’s more likely out of necessity. Such is the price that comes with leaving his hometown of Toronto for the big time.
But if he must speak, he’s going to do it on his own terms: Recently, his team sent MTV a series of produced pieces that tell the story behind Kiss Land’s creation … one that begins the moment he left home for the first time in 2011, and continues to this day.
“Trilogy was more of a claustrophobic body of work, before it was released I hadn’t left my city for 21 years, and I had never been on a plane, not once,” he said. “I spent my entire life on one setting, that’s probably why pieces of the album feel like one long track, because that’s what my life felt like. It felt like one long song.
“Kiss Land is the story after Trilogy; it’s pretty much the second chapter of my life,” he continued. “The narrative takes place after my first flight; it’s very foreign, very Asian-inspired. When people ask me ‘Why Japan?’ I simply tell them it’s the furthest I’ve ever been from home. It really is a different planet.”
And as such, the majority of his new album finds Tesfaye feeling like an alien, alone on a planet far from home. It’s how he came to operate while writing and recording Kiss Land, creating in studios around the world, writing on airplanes and tour busses, and finding inspiration in all the moments in-between.
“When you’re traveling constantly, every day you become inspired, and it shows in my work, sonically, lyrically, visually,” he said. “Conversations with women with different accents and stories told in those accents, I like to create characters based on different people I’ve met, and relationships. I like to tell stories loosely based on real-life events.
“I can’t recall the last time I stayed in my hometown for more than two weeks. I’ve grown accustomed to hotels and drastic climate change,” he added. “Every day you see new faces and you can’t help but forget how much time goes by, especially when you’re working on new music.”
Still, despite his fame, and two years of near constant exposure, Tesfaye maintains that it’s his music that helps keep him sane. And though Kiss Land is dark and depraved, it’s also the work of his life … a life that seemingly will only get more hectic from here on out.
“The album is about what young men think but will never say out loud. I’ve learned to pretty much not give a sh–, and it kind of morphed this sound and it works,” he said. “There’s nothing else I’d rather do than this.”