Zayn’s Country

Fatherhood and farm life helped the singer grow up — and make the most honest music of his career.

Zayn Malik looks, for a change, happy to be here. “Here” being the lofted dressing room of a photo studio, next to a table with a few empty immunity-shot bottles and a cheese plate, gamely participating in an interview before a shoot. There is not a jittery knee in sight, no half-mumbled thoughts to decode. He is chatty, speaking in full, booming paragraphs that are too loose to be rehearsed. He is open, freely bringing up One Direction and his exes by name. And it all comes out in his rich Yorkshire accent, which melts vowels down to their core and treats consonants as mere suggestions.

He is doing all the extroversive chores you have to do to get your new music — in this case, a new country-flavored album called Room Under the Stairs, out May 17 — heard by people. For some musicians, this is a low and unremarkable bar to clear. For Zayn, who was so tormented by the grind of pop stardom that he quit his boy band at the height of its power, refused most aspects of “promo,” never toured, barely performed live, and regularly ghosted journalists, it feels like a revelation. This new Zayn does not ghost me. He says goodbye with an endearingly clumsy hug. Then he comes up to me again later with his manager in tow because they realized the cheese plate was a little pungent, and, well, if I smelled anything? “It wasn’t me!” Zayn says with eye-popping exuberance. He is headed outside for a smoke break, so he has thrown on a leather jacket that he wears with the virtuosic ease only former teen idols possess. If you saw him, you simply would give up on ever trying to pull one off yourself.

Fatherhood — it changes people. Zayn was 27 when he became a dad to Khai, his daughter with ex-partner Gigi Hadid in September 2020. Even for those in the most enviable of tax brackets, parenthood and a pandemic have a way of rearranging your priorities. Being a tortured artist who only sticks his head out of his cave every few years starts to look different when somebody’s depending on you. (Private school is expensive, I joke. “Yeah, no, there’s a lifestyle to upkeep, definitely,” he answers, not joking.) It triggers a domino effect of responsibility. “I was very much this one-sided brain when it came to being an artist: ‘All I care about is the art!’” Zayn says. Not anymore. He goes on a small tangent about merch — isn’t it strange how it’s always the most basic stuff that does well? “There’s been so many times I would like to do things that are a little bit cooler, a bit more artistic,” he says. “The statistics don’t lie: If my face is on it, it sells way better.”

Yossi top, talent’s own earrings, Tiffany & Co. ring (ring finger), David Yurman ring (pinky finger), Cartier watch

Speaking of numbers: Zayn cares about them a little more than he thought. Since declaring his independence with his chart-topping 2016 single “Pillowtalk,” a power ballad about having sex so loud you piss off your neighbors, he has learned how fickle attention spans are in the streaming economy. His 2018 double album, Icarus Falls, had some hits, but it didn’t chart so well, and 2021’s leaner Nobody Is Listening mostly flew under the radar. “It didn’t get the attention it deserved,” he says. “I ironically called it Nobody Is Listening too! And nobody was!” he adds, laughing. “You can’t just put the work out and expect people to go find it. The way the world works now, everyone’s connected, and you need to be a part of it.” (He is not the only elusive artist coming to this conclusion: Even Beyoncé — Beyoncé! — is doing meet-and-greets and making influencer content.)

Once you hear Room Under the Stairs, you almost wonder why he wasn’t making this kind of music the whole time. Inspired by his love of artists like Chris Stapleton and his low-key life in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, it’s Zayn’s version of country: warm, spacey soundscapes that give Zayn room to ponder the big life questions you start asking after a few beers late at night. “People seemed to like the lyrics?” says Zayn, a small smirk forming. When he played the album for his parents, they told him it was the most they’ve ever enjoyed his music, and — despite neither of them ever playing country around the house — they also said it sounded the most like him.

“It’s a really beautiful thing to see an artist come to a point in their career where they’re like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to be me. I’m going to do everything I want to do,’” says co-producer Dave Cobb, the nine-time Grammy winner known for his work with Stapleton, Jason Isbell, and Brandi Carlile. When Zayn’s label sent Cobb some demos for consideration, “I was just blown away because he was forging his own path. There’s nothing copycat about it. There’s all kinds of influences, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where anything was coming from. I thought he was just making his own lane.”

Dries Van Noten clothing, talent’s own earrings, David Yurman ring, Gianvito Rossi shoes,
1 / 2
1 / 2

Until just a few years ago, Zayn’s career felt to him a little like a Plinko game. You drop the ball, hope for the best, and watch as it bounces down a path you have no control over. Zayn had barely discovered he could sing — like, really sing — by the time his mom practically dragged him to an X Factor audition at age 17. “It was the first audition I’d ever done, the first time I’d ever sung in front of anybody on the stage,” he says. And then, thanks to divine intervention — or at least X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger, who more or less rescued five lads from the discard pile and put them in a group — “I ended up in that band.”

That band. The next thing you know, half a decade has gone by: New album. Tour. New album. Tour. New album. Tour. New album. For boy bands and girl groups these days, an early exit is a question of when, not if — somebody had to walk away first. On Mind of Mine, his first solo record after his 2015 departure, Zayn found himself in the tricky spot of trying to define himself against 1D without alienating its fans. “We were in the transitional phase of, ‘I was in this band named One Direction, so I can’t push the boat out too far,’” he says.

“I haven’t been on stage for such a long time, I have a bit of a hunger for it.”

It worked out well enough — Mind of Mine debuted at No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic — so he went and made a second one, because that’s just what you do, and then his third, and then, hang on, did he really want to be doing this? While finishing up Nobody Is Listening, Zayn really wrestled with the question. “In order to understand who you are as a musician, you have to transition to that point where you accept this is going to be your profession, rather than something that happened by accident,” he says.

If he could hardly bring himself to do the promo Nobody Is Listening deserved, he wondered, “then why is anybody else going to give a sh*t?” He thought about slinking off behind the scenes and just writing music for other people, but if he’s going to put in all that work, why not claim the reward, too? “I’m not trying to chase fame, I’m trying to chase achievement,” he says. “At this point, I feel like I invested so much time into it, becoming a decent singer and everything. I’ve got to commit and show people that this is something I want to do and it’s something I’m about.”

For one of the first times in his life, it felt like he was actually, enthusiastically, saying yes to a life in music. And it just so happened that he had this other batch of songs lying around.

Yossi top, Moschino pants, talent’s own earrings, Tiffany & Co. ring (ring finger), David Yurman ring (pinky finger), The Society Archive shoes

Zayn is always working on music, even if he doesn’t plan on releasing it publicly. There’s stuff he makes for fun on GarageBand, mostly rap beats and instrumental music, built around little movie quotes or other samples. There’s the slick pop-R&B he is best known for and promises is still part of his brand. “I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m working on a lot of music, and I might even be releasing another record pretty soon,” he says. And then there are the songs that make up Room Under the Stairs, some of which date back five or six years. “I like to bounce from one thing to another,” he says. “It happens fast for me: I get a vibe, I’ll write a song in two or three hours, and I’ll have the whole thing cut that evening.”

Where did the country vibe come from? “I was pretty much on my farm having a glass of whiskey and listening to a bit of Stapleton by the fire with my dog, playing guitar,” he says. He is tickled to be part of a wave of pop acts — Bey, Lana, Post Malone — embracing the genre. “I’m proud of it. I think it shows a certain level of intellect, to be a bit ahead of the curve,” he says, though he still worries about being seen as a trend-chaser. He leans across the couch to speak toward my recorder: “People need to know I didn’t jump on the bandwagon.”

“Things live and die. And you’re very aware of that on the farm. You see death quite a lot. You also see a lot of life.”

What’s driving this wave? “People are in search of a little bit more depth from the lyrics. In the Top 40 charts, a lot of mainstream music feels a bit wishy-washy,” he says. “The songs are f*cking fire. You know what I mean? They’re catchy. They’re playing on the radio and they do their job, but people are looking for a little bit more.”

That’s what he got from the genre, anyway. In addition to Stapleton, Zayn also got into Willie Nelson and some other country greats, drawn in by their storytelling. “I could really hear their lyrics and their pain and their growth and the life lessons,” he says. “I didn’t feel like there was a Chris Stapleton song that comes on and he sounds like a f*ckboy, right? He doesn’t do it! He’s not out here saying, ‘Bitches in the club! We’re drinking Bacardi!’ Or whatever these young kids use now.” (There is no proof of maturity quite like being confused by young people’s music.) “He’s not like that. He’s got class, right? He’s telling you a real grown man’s story. And I respected the f*ck out of it. I was like, ‘This is cool. It’s something I can do.’”

Dior Men hoodie, David Yurman ring (index finger), VEERT ring (ring finger), Rolex watch

Zayn is the sole credited writer on 12 of the album’s 15 songs. He was adamant about writing the bulk of it, just to prove — to the world, and maybe himself — that he could. Zayn’s always co-written his solo material, and even contributed to a dozen One Direction songs back in the day. But hanging around professional hitmakers is not always a conducive environment for a young creative trying to find his voice. “There’s an old saying people use when they’re writing: ‘Dare to suck,’” Zayn says. “And it's hard to be that brave in front of a room full of people.” He was so committed to showing off what he could do alone that he wanted to release the original demos as-is. “My managers and my label at the time were like, ‘You can do that, but you can also work with Dave Cobb, who can make it sound ridiculous for you.’” (He still might put the demos out on a forthcoming deluxe edition.)

The album was largely created remotely: Zayn recorded his vocals himself, and Cobb and session musicians fleshed out the arrangements around those tracks. “He can be so honest, but it can be your story, too,” Cobb says of what drew him to Zayn’s songwriting. “He’s left the door open for people to imagine their own selves in every line he’d written on that record.” (Consider all the possible interpretations of “Shoot at Will”: “When I look at her, all I see you is you / When you look at her, do you see me too? ... I was in love with you / Though I didn’t show the proof.”) There’s a new, impressive texture in Zayn’s voice that Cobb attributes to the singer’s insular process. “There’s nobody looking at him and there’s nobody going, ‘Hey, why don’t you try this run here?’ or telling him he couldn’t do something,” he says. “He was just being himself. It’s completely raw.”

“I didn’t really take much time to get to know myself.”

I wondered if the sound of these new songs — much closer, in a way, to One Direction’s decade-hopping, guitar-driven pop-rock — gave Zayn new appreciation for the group’s catalog. A few weeks before we meet, he went on a livestream and told fans that he had come around to 1D’s music after previously disowning it. “It’s just time. I think I’m just growing up,” he says. “A lot of things that I look at in the past, I look at with different lenses in recent times. It feels just like a happier time in my mind now, when I think of One Direction and going through things in the band.”

He still cringes at his old stuff sometimes, even some of his early solo work. But he recognizes now that this feeling is a sign of his growth as an artist. “By the standard that you’re at now, the other stuff seems substandard, you know what I mean? It’s subtle things only you realize,” he says. “When I listen to old songs, there’s less presence for me as a human being with conviction behind the mic. And that’s why this record feels special to me. There’s a consistent level of conviction throughout, because every story came from me and means something to me. There’s this man standing there — not this boy who doesn’t quite know how to tell you something.”

Prada top, talent’s own earrings, Tiffany & Co. necklace and ring (left ring finger), David Yurman ring (left pinky finger), talent’s own ring (right index finger)
1 / 2
1 / 2

“I definitely stand out,” Zayn says of life in Bucks County. Pick a reason: He’s a heavily tattooed rock star with English and Pakistani roots in a largely white, rural community. But the ease with which he can move about the area reminds him of pre-One Direction life in Bradford in Northern England. The townspeople near his current compound are unmoved by his celebrity. “They wake up at 5, 6 in the morning, they’re on their farm, they're exhausted — if they see you in Giant [getting groceries], they don’t care about you,” he says. And on the rare occasion he makes an appearance at his local pub, he reports only friendly excitement. “People have said to me, ‘We drive past your house all the time, but we don’t want to ever disturb you.’” Bucks County is looking respectfully.

He did dabble in Tinder for a bit. “It’s not been too successful for me, I’ll be honest,” he says. “Everyone accused me of catfishing. They’re like, ‘What are you using Zayn Malik’s pictures for?’ I’ve been kicked off once or twice.” But he’s not trying to meet people on apps anymore. He’s not trying to meet anyone, period. “I’m really content and happy with being single for the first time in my life.”

It’s true that, since getting famous, he has barely been on his own. He started dating Little Mix’s Perrie Edwards early on in One Direction’s run. “From 17 to 21, I was in a relationship. I was engaged and [planned to get] married and I didn’t know anything about anything at that point,” he says. “I thought I did, because I was 21. I was legally allowed to do everything, but I didn’t know sh*t.” He and Edwards split in 2015; later that year, he started his on-and-off relationship with Hadid. “From 21 to 27, I was with Gi, and we had a kid, and I didn’t really take much time to get to know myself.” By the time they broke up for good in late 2021, Khai was a year old.

“It feels like a happier time in my mind now when I think of One Direction.”

Zayn looks back at his relationship history and thinks he was trying to recreate the normal young adulthood that fame kept him from. “I lived a very chill life in Bradford. I never really had a girlfriend. My parents were kind of old-school, so I never brought a girlfriend home or anything,” he says. “When I got the chance to do that, I jumped straight in, two feet first, and was like, ‘I'm going to have a girlfriend, and she’s going to live with me. This makes me a grown man.’”

He is less in a hurry now. “It’s probably wise to take your time before you fully invest in another human being as a lifelong partner,” he says. And if he yearns for normal-life stuff, parenthood, especially out of the watchful eyes of New York or Los Angeles, offers him plenty. “I only have my daughter 50% of the time. I would have her 90% if I could,” he says. “We go see Disney on Ice or we go see the Nickelodeon theme park. Or we go to the beach. That’s how I get out.”

The rest of the time, he’s at home. He paints a picture of farm life: acres of land to insulate himself, a big old house that terrifies his sisters when they visit because of its “Evil Dead vibes,” lots of animals. Nothing quite out of “Old MacDonald,” but he’s got chickens, dogs, cats, and turtles. He used to have four turtles, but now there are only two. “Which is sad, but that’s life,” Zayn says plainly. “Things live and die. And you’re very aware of that on the farm. You see death quite a lot. You also see a lot of life. You see a lot of things blossoming.”

It sounds a little lonely, but Zayn assures me that’s not the case. His best friends are two brothers who still live back in the U.K. They talk almost every day and play a lot of video games online together. (“I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but we play Helldivers constantly,” Zayn says.) This is just how he’s always been. “My mother said when I was young, I would like to sit in the corner and read by myself, play by myself,” he says. “I enjoy my own space. It’s not something that's abnormal to me.”

Yossi clothing, talent’s own earrings and ring (right index finger), Veert necklace and ring (left ring finger), David Yurman ring (left index finger), Giuseppe Zanotti shoes

There are other things Zayn is willing to leave the compound for. Like going on his first tour since his One Direction days, something that once seemed about as likely as an Oasis reunion. The crippling anxiety Zayn previously cited as a reason for avoiding the stage has gotten easier with time. “I’ve definitely learned to communicate my feelings in a way better manner. I can articulate myself in a way better sense than I could six, seven years ago,” he says. But it’s also what the new songs deserve. “This type of music that I’m making just feels like the type of music I would perform. It makes sense in my mind.”

With his other albums, a tour would have required too much of a production: splashy visuals, backup dancers. (If you’re going to perform a banger like “Like I Would,” somebody should be dancing, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Zayn.) He’s excited about the idea of reimagining some songs from other albums and bringing them into this new sound. “I haven’t been on stage for such a long time, I have a bit of a hunger for it. I feel like I have something to give again,” he says. “I just didn’t want to be there before. Who wants to come watch a person that doesn’t want to be stuck there?”

Zayn’s vision for his live show is a lot like the environment he made these songs in: a small band to back him up, a rug on the floor, a stool to sit on, maybe a guitar for himself, and a mic. “Not too many fancy tricks,” he says. When he closes his eyes to sing, it’ll almost feel like no one’s watching — and he will feel right at home.

Top Image Credits: Miu Miu jacket and pants, stylist’s own tank top, talent’s own earrings, Tiffany & Co. necklace and ring (right hand), David Yurman ring (left hand), Wales Bonner x Adidas sneakers

Photographs by AB+DM

Styling by Jason Rembert

Set Design by Montana Pugh for MHS Artists

Hair: Kenneth Cairns

Grooming: Lynda Esparza

Tailor: Sylvio Roubertto Kovacic

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Video: Grant Massaroni, Rebecca Halfon

Men’s Fashion Direction: EJ Briones

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Lauren McCarthy

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert