Interview by Billie Eilish
Photography by Danielle Levitt
Styling by Julian Antetomaso
For somebody who's turning 21 this month, singer and songwriter Khalid has much to be happy about. His 2017 debut album, American Teen, received multiple Grammy nominations, including one for the album’s lead single, “Location.” In short time, tracks from the album were ubiquitous summer hits and Khalid’s American Teen looked to be the American Dream.
But, as the artist himself admits, life isn’t always a dream. Emotionally honest and unexpectedly forthright in an industry known for being guarded, Khalid proudly owns the sad, wistful longing qualities that which give his work hints of melodic melancholy. For an artist who can be noticeably shy, it's the paradox of success: for an artist who can be noticeably shy—making His work is both deeply personal and that is shared with the public.
Now, as he approaches the release of his sophomore album, Khalid prepares for his second act, ready to show the world that he's growing up.
BILLIE EILISH: Let’s talk about “Lovely.”
KHALID: Lovely—, too lovely, too lovely.
BE: Love-ly! I mean, if we just want to start off with that title, we could. Because little baby Khalid, we had been just kind circulating random ideas and shit, and played some shit on the piano. We just kind of wrote a song. I had this certain melody that was like, [sings] “na-na, na na-na, na.” And we just kept repeating that. You remember that?, I was in a really bad mood right then, and I was like, “‘Oh, I got an idea.”’
K: Thinking about “Lovely”, and all of us coming together, it was everything that we planned, what we dreamt of. We were like, “‘We have to do this, we have to do this, we have to do this.”’
The song is about so many different things and it’s so dark, and I feel like that resonates a lot throughout when people listen to it. It’s a song that’s describing this one person that’s just locked in a dark space, and they’re pushing so hard against the gates—so hard and so heavy—but any time they push the gate, it ends up 10 miles away. And then they have to run all the way back to the gate. It’s something that they can’t break through, and it’s something that we all go through, especially being young.
Being young and growing up, our lives change, our personality changes, even our friends change around us. And people just expect us, especially as artists, to be happy 100 percent% of the time. But how could you expect someone who’s making the saddest music in the fucking world to have a smile on their face every single time that they’re in the studio? Every time they’re hanging out in public? So, I think there’s this sense of loneliness in “Lovely.” I mean, just as a star’s brightness is measured by how close you are to it, I feel like as our stars shine brighter and brighter and brighter, we’re also getting further and further away from something else. I’m not happy every day, I’m not sad every day, but I’m a human. But I embrace my human characteristics and qualities.
BE: I’ve always been the type of person that needs to be around my friends if I’m away from them for a certain amount of time. It makes me really fucking depressed on tour especially. Since I’ve met you, I see that you bring two people or three people on tour with you, and I look up to that.
K: On my first tour I realized that I wasn’t going to have a lot of my friends who would be able to come with me, just because of the size of our bus. And when you’re in your room and you’re staring at those white walls, you have so much time to reflect on everything—I feel like there was just a darkness before I closed my eyes and fell asleep. So, I made a resolution for myself and said, “‘You know what, this is your motivation: I’m gonna work hard so that I can bring five friends on tour, so. that I can bring 10 friends on tour.”’ And I worked my ass off and brought more friends.
BE: Do you remember what it was like when we first met, how young we were, what our dreams were?
K: When I first met you, I knew you weren’t a typical teenager. That’s what I loved the most about you: how carefree you were and how you spoke what was on your mind. And I think it must have been so much harder for you to speak your mind because you had so many people watching you, like under a fucking microscope, waiting to analyze anything that you said. But you still did it—and you still say whatever you want to say, wear whatever you want to wear.
Those are things I admire, because sometimes I feel like I need to have to have this guard up: where I can’t just put on whatever, can’t just say whatever, or do whatever. And with American Teen, it was interesting because, even though there was no box I was trying to tick off, I still felt boxed in. I mean, I am, the American teen. I am not only a representation of myself, but I have fans who look up to me who are also teenagers. But underneath that experience, I was also asking myself, ‘What if I’m not who they want me to be?’ It was so hard to fight that teenage image of me, although I am a teen, of me being. Back then I was like, ‘I’m way more than that.' I feel like we need to change the whole idea of what people perceive teenagers to be.
BE: Exactly. When someone hears that you’re a teen, they don’t think of you as anything else. They think of you as a kid. I was actually talking to my dad, and he was talking about age and how weird it is, and he said something to the effect of, “Back then, I was much older than I am now.” That just really got me thinking. When I met you, I had just turned 13. I didn’t care, I didn’t think, I didn’t know. I would say anything. I think that’s why a lot of people connected with me.
K: To branch off from what you’re saying, for me that awareness of what others were going to say, got to the point where I didn’t even want to speak on social media because I thought, ‘Someone is always going to have an opinion.’ I felt like I was hiding myself because I was closing myself off.
What I’m working on right now is speaking more on social media, is making Instagram videos. I went to go see Ralph Breaks the Internet, and I spoke about it on my Instagram. I would never have done that before, but it was really time for me to reclaim my own image. You know, there could be a million comments saying, “‘This is extremely obnoxious.”’ Well, maybe I’m extremely obnoxious then. I’m going to try to be the me that I want to be, because it should be about whatever makes me happy.
BE: What can you tell me about your new album? Do you feel the pressures of making the second album?
K: I wish I could go back to dropping my first album. I really do. Because this is something that I’ve been told and I’ve been taught as well—you have your whole life to write your first album. You don’t have your whole life to write your second album. And, with your second album, you have to write more of what people want.
In the case of American Teen, that was my first time releasing a body of work to the world, and I didn’t know what I wanted the world to know about me. I released the album with all these shout-out songs to all these sad- ass kids. And then, going on tour, doing all these shows, I realized what songs my fans loved the most and the pressure in making the second album is to keep doing exactly what you were doing in the first.
At one point, I kept thinking about my mind against everybody else’s opinion on how their second was, or how they treated their second. I got so wrapped up in this sophomore slump idea that I didn’t even wanna write a song when I started my second project, because I was like, ‘Damn, if people are thinking that the second one isn’t as good as the first one, what’s the point of even making this one anymore?’
But, I said to myself, ‘Yes, I can make a thousand great songs. And I will.’ And so, I’ve been working for the past year and a half. I’m telling a story that I’ve never told before. I’m telling a story that I’ve never talked about. I’m admitting a lot of things, like, of course, I smoke weed. You know what I mean? That’s taken a lot for me to admit to the world. But I realized that I’m free to be me and to make my own mistakes and to grow from my own mistakes and to be human through all things. I have learned to love my individuality, and I love that I’m that way all the time. I love that I watch Bob’s Burgers before I go to sleep. I love chilling with my friends. I love being a regular human being, and that’s the only thing that I want to be throughout this project. And, I commend you for being who you are: So many people look up to you because you are yourself. So, don’t ever stop being yourself.
Hair: Daronn Carr
Grooming: Brandy Allen
Production: Stephanie Porto (Danielle Levitt Studio)
Digital Technician: Daniel Kim
Lighting: Wilder Marroquin and Antonio Rodriguez
Assistant Stylist: Victoria Jackson
Set Designer: Daniel Horowitz
Catering: Kitchen Mouse