Everyone is listening to Zayn Malik
April 1, 2021
Zayn Malik has gone against the grain to chart his own unique path: Global music icon, independent songwriter and devoted dad. For his first GQ India cover, he discusses his poignant new album Nobody Is Listening, classic Bollywood movies and sampling Mohammed Rafi
For Zayn Malik, time isn’t dictated by a clock. He is a free being, a sensitive soul – maybe too sensitive – a little like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. His soul still bears the scars that show he was there, but has come back. His art can’t be reduced to a handful of scheduled commitments and promotions. He doesn’t give many interviews, doesn’t appear much in the media, never talks about the life behind the life we see. Which is to say that Zayn Malik agreed to this GQ interview because he wanted to do it. Behind these pages, there were months of dialogues, proposals and options.
He breezes in to our interview in a Brooklyn studio-gym with his enthusiasm intact, his hair between blue and green and an open heart. There are no strange requests, no awkward moments. Yes, Zayn won’t talk about his partner – supermodel Gigi Hadid, who recently starred on the cover of American Vogue – or his daughter Khai, born just a few months ago. He doesn’t, simply because he doesn’t have to. And that’s okay. He declines the questions with a smile, and continues. We really know very little about Zayn, and that’s fine too. Not just because it creates an aura of mystery around him, useful for any artist, but because his attitude reminds us that life is so much more than just photo flashes, hits and statements to the media.
Zayn, born to a Pakistani father and a British mother, rose to fame at 17, when he participated in The X Factor. He became a member of One Direction – along with Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Niall Horan and Harry Styles – the most famous boy band in recent times. After several albums, tours and big hits, Zayn began his solo career – something he wanted from the beginning. His incredible voice and multiple musical influences accompanied him on this new path. There was an artistic need, of course, but also another, equally vital one: He needed the calm that he was sorely missing. He went from media overexposure to doing things his way – openly acknowledging the anxiety he went through, and doing everything possible to remain almost invisible.
You can always let your shadows guide you, and do the things you don’t want to, because you think that’s what the rest of the world expects of you… Or you can choose to let your light guide you. It’s difficult to rid oneself of the things one doesn’t want, but Zayn has succeeded.
What has your experience of life in quarantine been? Some people have adapted better than others. Are you one of them?
I think the quarantine has affected me in the same way as everyone else. I’m not someone who spends too much time outside the house or outdoors, and I like to have my own space, so that’s the only advantage. Other than that, it’s also driving me crazy.
I was asking because there are so many poetic references to nature in “River Road”. Do you prefer life in the country or the big city?
I live well away from the city, so I think that makes it clear…
You mentioned on one of your Insta Lives you’ve been recording original music. Can we expect a new album soon?
That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to put out a new album anytime soon. But the reality is I’m always working on new music.
Have you thought about acting during this time? Many of your videos are like short films…
I’ve always loved acting, so maybe yes, if the role is right.
You’ve often commented that your music is influenced by R&B, rap, reggae and soul. What bands or artists have influenced you the most?
I don’t like to single out any individual artist or genre. I listen to all kinds of music, all artists, all genres. They all influence me.
You’ve collaborated with several artists in the past. Who else would you like to work with who you haven’t been able to yet?
If I haven’t worked with them, it’s because I haven’t wanted to work with them yet.
It’s surprising to see all the creative ways you’ve found to promote your new album, things we’ve never seen before and that come directly from you. Has having so much creative control made you feel more accomplished as an artist?
It’s not necessarily about gaining creative control to feel more fulfilled – it’s just something I do as an artist because it’s my true purpose. So I have to do it.
We’re curious to know more about the Harry Potter video game project…
They asked me if I liked Harry Potter, and if I wanted to participate in the game. I’ve always been a fan, so I said yes and we went from there.
The recent project that Zayn’s been most involved with has been the release of his latest album, Nobody Is Listening, an R&B work that incorporates the sounds of the 1980s as well as jazz noir. In it, he speaks candidly about important topics such as anxiety, fake friendships, his hobbies, and even his vices. There has been almost no promotion of the album, unlike the previous one, so it’s really the music that speaks for itself. Despite this, his song “Better” has already been streamed almost 75 million times on Spotify, and “Vibez”, more than 40 million. His song “Pillowtalk” (Mind Of Mine, 2016) has surpassed 900 million streams.
Why did you title your album Nobody Is Listening? Is it a personal reference, or a reference to people in general?
I feel, in general, no one is listening at the moment. With everything going on, and in a world of unnecessarily overexposed opinions, with people yelling at each other to see who makes the most noise, I feel like no one is being heard. People love to talk, but nobody likes to listen.
You’ve said that “Connexion” is one of your favourite songs from the new album. What makes it special?
I really enjoyed singing it – vocally, melodically. It was a fun song.
Do you watch a lot of Bollywood movies? We’ve read you enjoy them.
I do – and I have many favourites. I love all the classics. I started showing them to my girl now, and she watches them with me.
What’s your favourite South Asian food? We loved hearing on your IG Live that your mother makes you samosas.
I like all home-cooked food by my mom, curries, chapatis, kebabs, samosas – give it all to me.
You added an Urdu verse from Mohammed Rafi’s song “Chaudhvin Ka Chand” in your song “Tightrope”. How did this come about? Did you have the idea from the beginning, or did it occur to you during the process of making the song?
I’d already recorded “Chaudhvin Ka Chand” as a cover. When I recorded “Tightrope”, I was on the bridge of the song and I kept hearing it there, so I initially took the sample from my cover, but ended up recutting it to fit properly.
Many of the songs on Nobody Is Listening (“Calamity”, “Connexion”, “Tightrope” and “River Road”) focus on taking a step into the unknown. Is this a reflection of your own journey?
It reflects life in general, not just my own. We never know what will come next.
You’re an example of someone who’s managed to do things his way, no mean feat in the music business…
You’ve answered your own question. It’s really not easy to have some form of creative freedom or control. I’ve had to continually go against the grain when people tell me to do things a certain way. But my stubbornness, and my desire to do things differently, help me get through it.
You have 40 million followers on Instagram, and it seems that you prefer to connect directly with your fans, without any intermediaries. What is your relationship like with them?
The key is to not generalise, don’t say “this person is a fan” or “this person is this or that”. You just talk to them like everyone else. My relationship with people is good, I like to talk to everyone equally, I don’t want to reduce anyone to just one thing.
Today, we no longer have “urban tribes” and people freely mix styles… Do you think fashion will continue to be a vehicle of self-expression?
Fashion is always going to be used as a form of expression. Fashion is part of how I express myself, but it’s not only the only way I express myself. Everything is related, though.
All your tattoos have a meaning behind them. But, aesthetically, what attracts you to the idea of tattooing yourself?
I like tattoos, that’s all. When I was a kid, tattoos were rare: People I looked up to, and thought were cool, had tattoos. I did them because I wanted to be different. But now, everyone has them, so that’s no longer the case.
Apart from music, how do you express yourself creatively?
I do all kinds of things: painting, drawing, building figures… I recently started carving wood, something I really enjoy.
Are comics and animation a source of inspiration for you?
Yes, they are. I love comics, I love cartoons.
You’re considered one of the most stylish men in the world. Do you have any favourite designers? We’ve seen you wearing several pieces by Bode…
I’m not too concerned with names – if I like the clothes, I wear them. But yes, I like Bode because the clothes are handmade, and they’re unique and unusual pieces.