In L.A, Zayn first worked with two British brothers, Michael and Anthony Hannides, but things only really clicked when he met Malay. He has a long list of credits for the likes of 50 Cent and John Legend, but is best known for executive producing Frank Ocean’s debut album, Channel Orange. (He’s also working on that album’s follow-up.) It’s Ocean’s sort of confessional, artisanal R&B that Zayn seems to want for himself, offering a return to his roots and the chance to be heralded as a true creative, rather than as an actor playing the part of one. Malay, who prides himself on facilitating an artist’s vision rather than injecting any signature sound, appears to be an ideal collaborator.
Fittingly, his recording sessions with Malay have been private and low-key, happening far from what Zayn calls “the circus of Los Angeles studios.” Malay likes to use a mobile recording rig, and though it was unfortunately held up at customs for this trip, they’ve made good use of it in The Beverly Hills Hotel, in Zayn’s house in Bel-Air, and even out camping. That’s where Zayn got into archery, shooting at trees in the downtime while their generator regained electricity, and it’s where they laid down some of their favorite vocal tracks, backed by the soft hum of the woods.
These recording sessions will all go to Zayn’s forthcoming solo debut, planned for release in early 2016. Of the roughly 20 percent of the album that Malay estimates they recorded in a proper studio, even those parts were unconventional, like the time they rented a studio in The Palms Casino in Las Vegas after a night on the town. That’s how Zayn, who is doing all of the album’s writing himself, got the idea for a song. “We were sitting in the club,” Malay remembers, “and he was just like, ‘This situation, me in Vegas, I’ve done this before a million times, like all over the world, but not like this.’ It was a super simple concept, but that perspective comes from what he experienced at such a young age.”
The next song they play is an upbeat jam tentatively called “I Got Mine,” with freshly recorded trumpets and a beat that’s almost U.K. garage. The lyrics were inspired by a Guitar Center employee who struck up a conversation with Zayn about his Prince T-shirt, then revealed that he’d loaned his MIDI keyboard to Madonna’s touring band. “There’s so many people in L.A. that have a story to tell, but they never got to tell the story,” Zayn remembers thinking. “Every line in the pre [-chorus] of that song is a different person’s perspective. So, it’s like, Talk is cheap but we still talk it/ Road is far but we still walk it/ Writing chalks or change the story. At that point, that could be like a teacher writing on the chalkboard, writing a story, but they can change it. Keep it moving when it’s boring. The dustbin man, putting the garbage out, whatever. Thoughts come out just like they’re pouring. An alcoholic guy who’s, like, a super creative dude. It was all different perspectives.” He says that other songs on the album follow a similar approach—Zayn using his position to give voice to others—including one called “My Ways” that’s sung from his father’s perspective.
Though actually writing and recording his own songs is new for Zayn, he’s feeling very comfortable. “It’s not hard,” he says. “To me, it’s like I stood in front of a canvas for about five years, and someone said like, ‘You’re not allowed to paint on this canvas.’ I’ve got the paint, I’ve got the fucking brushes, and I can’t get it on there. Now someone removed the plastic and was like, ‘Alright, you can now paint.’