One of the most defining moments of Avicii’s too-brief career came at the 2012 Ultra Music Festival, when Madonna appeared on stage to introduce him and their first collaboration, “Girl Gone Wild.” That the queen of pop acknowledged the then-22-year-old Tim Bergling — who died Friday at the age of 28 of undisclosed causes — as a peer and a collaborator wasn’t just a watershed moment for him, it was one for dance music as well.
But actually, a more telling moment in the Swedish superstar’s career came a year later, at Ultra in 2013, when he unveiled his new bluegrass-meets-electronic sound for the first time. Avicii opened his set with his signature hit, “Levels,” a blockbuster track that altered the face of EDM when it was first played at Ultra in 2011. But immediately afterward, Aloe Blacc took the stage to perform “Wake Me Up,” released just days earlier, live for the first time. When Blacc appeared, the crowd didn’t know what to think of fiddles and banjos onstage at an electronic music festival. He then went on to preview all of the songs that would make up his debut album, “True,” spotlighting folk singers Audra Mae and Dan Tyminski.
Avicii worked with a wide array of artists on “True,” and the concept of “folktronica” was completely new — a blending of genres that the superstar DJ, who could have continued to make millions playing the dance music for which he was known, introduced to the mainstream. He grew up listening to music ranging from ’60s soul to ’80s glam rock and incorporated all of it (and more) into his own music. In addition to the aforementioned artists, Mike Einziger of Incubus, Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers, Adam Lambert, Lee Ann Womack, Salem Al Fakir, and Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons all contributed to “True.”
The album’s impact played out over the following months. “True” didn’t come out until September 2013, but “Wake Me Up” dominated the charts all across the world that summer and would go on to become the first track to hit 200 million streams on Spotify; it even reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Multiple endorsement deals followed and Avicii’s music became the soundtrack to car and soft-drink ads around the world. And it wasn’t just played in festivals and nightclubs: His songs were heard everywhere from Top 40 radio to mom’s suburban spin classes.
Yet despite his skill as a DJ, Avicii’s studio work is what differentiated him from other electronic acts. He will be remembered for his distinct sound, full of soaring synths and keening melodies. His choice of collaborators was always as diverse as his music tastes: While peers like David Guetta and Calvin Harris were making music with international pop stars like the Black Eyed Peas or Rihanna, Avicii chose to work with a vocalist like Audra Mae, a relatively obscure great grand-niece of Judy Garland’s from Oklahoma City.
Which isn’t to say he didn’t work with many of the biggest acts in the world. Madonna and Avicii would go on to collaborate on several more tracks together, including “Addicted,” “Borrowed Time,” “HeartBreak City,” “Wash All Over Me,” “Devil Pray,” and the title track of her 2015 “Rebel Heart” album; he worked with Lenny Kravitz and even Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong as well.
I interviewed Avicii when “True” was finally released and asked him about his performance at Ultra earlier that year. “Although it was a little disappointing to see the negative feedback, I didn’t let it get to me,” he said. “I knew I was taking a chance by bringing out live musicians. It was something completely different from what the audience was expecting, especially at Ultra. I really appreciate my fans who stuck by me and listened with open hearts and minds. It’s been really rewarding to see the success of ‘Wake Me Up,’ I can’t believe how well it’s done.”
But Tim Bergling, the person, never quite felt able to keep up with the demands of being Avicii, the superstar. He struggled with alcohol and had serious health problems, including acute pancreatitis. He even had his gallbladder and appendix removed in 2014. In a notorious interview with GQ in 2013 (an interview he was none too happy with, for its emphasis on the EDM scene over his music), he told a reporter, “You are traveling around, you live in a suitcase, you get to this place, there’s free alcohol everywhere — it’s sort of weird if you don’t drink. I just got into a habit, because you rely on that encouragement and self-confidence you get from alcohol, and then you get dependent on it.”
In a 2012 interview, his longtime manager, Ash Pournouri, discussed how he first discovered Avicii’s music online and eventually invited him to meet for coffee. “When you launch an artist that is young and kind of inexperienced, it’s hard for them to know their limits,” Pournouri said. “Especially as young as Tim was — he came straight out of school; doing the music stuff almost full time. For him, he didn’t really know his limits, so I was more concerned about his health than he was himself. I was always on him about, ‘Do you really want this tough schedule, I thought of giving you this free period around here?’ And he was like, ‘No, I can handle it. Let’s just go slow.’ So I think that’s an important part of a manager’s job. It’s hard for an artist when they’re young to know their limits … when to stop partying or when to take a break.”
Although he retired from touring in 2016 for health reasons, Avicii never stopped making music. His second full-length studio album, “Stories,” came out in the fall of 2015 and featured hits “Broken Arrows” (a return to his bluegrass sound, featuring Zac Brown) and “Waiting for Love.” In 2017, he released a new 6-track EP, “Avīci,” featuring collaborations with AlunaGeorge, Rita Ora, and Sandro Cavazza. “Last year I quit performing live, and many of you thought that was it,” he wrote on his website. “But the end of live never meant the end of Avicii or my music. Instead, I went back to the place where it all made sense – the studio. The next stage will be all about my love of making music to you guys. It is the beginning of something new.”
Just this week, he was nominated for a Billboard Music Award for top dance/electronic album.
At the end of my interview with Avicii, I asked him who else he’d like to work with in the future. He noted that making music with Nile Rodgers had always been a dream, but that “[Coldplay’s] Chris Martin is one [that I’d like to work with]. Stevie Wonder, Adele, and more…” While Avicii had the chance to realize many of his dreams — he did eventually collaborate with Martin on the Coldplay hit “Sky Full of Stars” as well as the track “True Believer” on “Stories” — we’ll sadly now never know what other ambitious collaborations he might have undertaken, or how much farther he might have taken his music.
Jeremy Blacklow is a DJ/producer and entertainment journalist. He also serves as GLAAD’s Director of Entertainment Media.