It’s been a year of personal bests for the Russian-German producer and DJ known as Zedd (born Anton Zaslavski). After earning his mainstream U.S. breakthrough in 2014 when the title track from his “Clarity” album, featuring British songstress Foxes, netted him his first ever Grammy Award for Best Dance Recording, the 28-year-old has taken a seat at the table in the upper echelon of the pop world.
After finishing up the promotion cycle for his star-studded sophomore effort “True Colors,” he took a brief hiatus from music at the tail end of 2016, returning earlier this year with monster hit “Stay,” featuring rising star and three-time 2018 Grammy nominee Alessia Cara. The song secured the pop titan his second Grammy nomination — this time for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance — and also served as his first No. 1 at Top 40 radio in the U.S., which held the top spot for six consecutive weeks.
The collaboration came about by way of his genuine fandom and a dash of fate. “I was thinking of who could be a good fit for a vocal, and I was in the car and I heard an Alessia Cara song on the radio,” he recalls. “I thought her voice was really close in terms of vocal color and expression to the demo vocal.” A day later, the duo was asked out of the blue to perform at the 2016 Halo Awards together. “Thirty minutes into meeting her I asked if she wanted to be on the track,” he says. “I didn’t know her, so it was the perfect moment to be like hey… (laughs) I have this song I want you to sing.”
Fortunately, Alessia was an instant fan of the track. “We’re the same type of person. There’s obviously people in the industry who change and who aren’t as pleasant to be around, and she’s just the perfect example of a good human being who works hard and is genuine,” he gushes. “Even after ‘Stay’ the next song I was producing was a female vocalist as well, and my first thought was man it was so nice to work with Alessia, why can’t I just make another song with her?”
After recording her vocal during one of her press weeks in Los Angeles, Zedd tinkered with the mix until sharing a semi-final version with her, citing the now-hit’s signature vocal-only hook. “She was like, ‘Are you not planning on putting anything in the chorus?’” he recalls with a laugh, opting to go for the shock factor. “I was hoping that everybody would feel the same way, that it was bold.” He says the early demo even gave him goosebumps while listening back (at an uncharacteristically high volume) solo in the studio. “I was trying to get the bounce right for the verse, which has a lot of reverb and delay, when it goes into the chorus which is just the vocal, everything goes pretty dry just to be shocking,” he adds. “That is a real-life example where I turned it up, went back on the sofa where there’s a lot of bass, and I just said this is perfect, this is exactly how I want it to feel.”
“Stay” also showcased the young producer’s expert instincts, as he opted to pair back the intricacies of the production to refine it to its bare bone essentials. “Usually when I finish a song, it usually takes me five-to-seven days to comp a vocal, and then after that’s done I mix the song, and I usually take a day to do extras, little fills, ghost notes, tiny details that nobody hears but me,” he shares. “This time I did the opposite, where I took the last day to remove everything that wasn’t important for the song. I kind of went backwards.”
The risk paid off, a perk that Zedd — who calls the shots in all creative matters of his business and this year raked in a whopping $19 million, according to Forbes — has earned. “My management and label don’t ever really jump in and tell me when a song will be a single or not, because I think we have a pretty clear understanding that I make the decision,” he says assuredly. “My label may say, ‘Hey, I think this may be a better thing’ or ‘Maybe you shouldn’t do this,’ but they will never be able to tell me no, because they respect me as an artist, which is amazing.”
The track served as a bridge between the dance-centric Zedd and his pop star iteration. His second-ever Grammy nod further affirmed his organic sonic evolution, even though the genre switch was a head-scratcher at first. “I was like, ‘Wait, why am I not nominated in dance?’” he jokes. “But whatever genre is becoming popular is pop, so it was kind of a really nice validation that I was nominated in that category because it shows that I’ve progressed as an artist, and that I didn’t stick with what I was doing the entire time.”
Looking ahead, Zedd says he thinks 2018 will be “one of the most exciting” for him citing a new album with several first single contenders “very much in the ‘Stay’ lane” currently in the works. He’s also working on a different, more experimental album of moody, cinematic electronic cuts “for fun.” “They’re these long chord progressions that I’ve been writing that I don’t even know how to put into electronic music yet,” he muses. “Maybe I’m just going to go the opposite route and write a score — or make it orchestral, and use them for something else or somebody else.”
Not that he intends to stay away from the dancefloor forever. “I’m sure at some point, I’ll go back,” he says. “The most important part as an artist is to always follow exactly what you want to do, and never follow what people want you to do.”