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Flashback interview: When Avicii found his 'True' calling

Swedish DJ-producer Avicii, shown here in New York in 2013, was found dead Friday in Muscat, Oman. He was 28. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Invision/AP, File)

In September 2013, Tim Bergling, better known as Swedish DJ Avicii, became EDM’s anti-hero as he followed an uncharted path on his first full-length album, True, featuring the massive crossover smash with Aloe Blacc, “Wake Me Up.” A little less than five years later, on Friday, April 20, he was found dead in Muscat, Oman, at the shockingly young age of 28. No cause of death has been revealed as of this writing, but Avicii had retired from touring in 2016 citing health reasons, including acute pancreatitis.

Avicii became an electronic music superstar in 2011, when his song “Levels,” featuring a familiar sample of an Etta James lyric, exploded and eventually garnered him his second Grammy nomination. “Levels” was followed by two other huge hits, 2012’s “Silhouettes” and 2013’s “I Could Be the One” (with Nicky Romero). A major commercial endorsement with Ralph Lauren followed.

But Avicii was not content to rest on his laurels. True sounded completely different from anything he’d done before — and anything else going on in EDM at the time. It drew on influences ranging from American bluegrass to house music, and many of its tracks almost sounded country, albeit with an R&B edge. It was impossible to pigeonhole True to any particular genre. Avicii zigged while every other DJ was zagging, and the album certainly threw many of his fans for a loop at first.

But soon, the music of True started showing up everywhere — not just in Vegas nightclubs and at beach parties, but also in television commercials and even in the introduction to lifestyle segments on the Today show. It became loved by both the hardest club ravers and their moms.

Back on the eve of the landmark album’s release, we caught up with Avicii to chat about his new music, his collaborators, and more. His answers demonstrated a profound musical maturity, which left us unsurprised by his continued march to the top of both the dance and pop charts the world over. Despite his retirement from touring, there was still so much more that Avicii could have accomplished musically.

Yahoo Entertainment:  “Wake Me Up” is certainly different-sounding than anything else out there right now. This album pushes the envelope by adding country and bluegrass elements to electronic music. How does this sound inspire a young man from Sweden? What drew you to it?

Avicii: I have always been open to listening to anything, and bluegrass in particular has always captured my attention when I’ve heard it. The sound of the acoustics is just so pure, especially the guitar. I think it added a great element to the song.

Obviously, the response at Ultra Music Festival in Miami back in March 2013 must’ve been disappointing [EDM fan message boards shared mixed reactions when Avicii debuted his new sound there for the first time], because people were probably expecting to just hear “Levels” over and over again. How did you feel when you got that reaction?

Although it was a little disappointing to see the negative feedback, I didn’t let it get to me. 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.

Do you have a personal favorite track right now on your new album? If so, which track is it?

I’d have to say “Hey Brother.” The bluegrass elements just have a really cool and alluring sound.

This album seems to be a “true” labor of love for you, as it’s your first proper full-length album. What went into the process of making it?

Yes, [it’s] definitely a labor of love! When making it, I didn’t set any boundaries. I wanted to explore what I could do personally, while making the most out of all the amazing people I was working with. I wasn’t necessarily making music that would only work during a set, this album was me trying to make music that was emotional, and had meaning. It was a very natural process.

I was blown away by the diversity of talent that you chose to work with on this album: Mike Einziger (of Incubus), Aloe Blacc, Blondfire, Mac Davis, Imagine Dragons, and so many others. How did you go about choosing the folks with whom you wanted to collaborate?

All of the collaborations on the album were through various connections that my manager, Ash [Pournouri], or I had … Neil Jacobson, who plays golf with Mac Davis, introduced me to Mac. So, when the opportunity presented itself to work with such incredible talent, I just had to do it. I knew they would be great contributions to the album.

What was the process like reaching out to each of them and explaining your vision? How did you connect with Nile Rodgers, and how did the Nile/Adam Lambert collaboration “Lay Me Down” come into the picture?

Once we worked out who I would work with, everything happened relatively fast — we sat down to discuss our ideas, and then laid it all down in the studio. I shared ideas about incorporating guitar with Mike Einziger [who performs and/or writes on three tracks on the album], and Nile brought Adam [Lambert] in, and his voice was perfect for the track. I listen to so many kinds of music, I brought my openness into the studio, and it seemed everyone had something that fit with my vision. I’d been talking to Nile for over a year, and we talked about working together. He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. I’m so lucky to have worked with him. And with Adam, I wasn’t even thinking that he was going to be on the track. … But his voice is incredible, and he captured something on the first take.

Have you been doing more with Adam lately, beyond the new track? There have been recent pics in the last couple weeks of the two of you in the studio. Are you working on Adam’s album?

I stopped by a big charity event [recently] that Nile put together, so Nile and I spent time in the studio again, and Adam came by also. I don’t know what will happen to what we did in the studio together that day, but it was really cool working with him again.

Which other artists are on your list as dream collaborators?

I have been lucky enough to work with some of the most creative, cool musicians and voices out there. At this point, I am open to collaborate with any artist that I really like, mainstream or not, regardless of the genre. Working with Nile was a dream of mine, but [Coldplay’s] Chris Martin is one [that I’d like to work with]. Stevie Wonder, Adele, and more…

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