Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” first arrived in June, but it’s still sitting pretty near the top of Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart (clocking in at Number 11 last week). Rolling Stone recently checked in with the Swedish DJ-producer, and we also we rang up Aloe Blacc, the 34-year-old singer who provides the track’s memorable, inspirational vocals, to find out how the song came together, and how it’s changed his life. Blacc, who has two solo albums under his belt (2006’s Shine Through and 2010’s Good Things), says it’s been gratifying being found via the hit: “It’s fun to get messages from people who finally discover that I am singing the song.”
What has the huge success of “Wake Me Up” been like for you?
As a songwriter, it is wonderful for the world to appreciate the lyrics you write. As a singer, it is even better for people to become a fan of your voice. I’m very happy that I have the chance to earn the respect of new fans with both my lyrics and my voice. A friend of mine told me he had to educate his coworker whom he overheard complementing Avicii’s voice. He leaned over and said, “That’s not actually Avicii singing, that’s Aloe Blacc.”
Were you surprised when you were called in to work on Avicii’s new record? How did it happen?
The call from Avicii did come as a surprise but I am up for experimenting. Mike Shinoda, who knows of me through a mutual friend from my hip-hop days, suggested to Avicii that I sing on his album. We initially met at Westlake Studios in L.A. where Michael Jackson recorded the Off the Wall and Thriller albums. It was there that I recorded the vocals to “Black & Blue” written by Mac Davis and also wrote a fresh idea with Avicii. Not too long after, he invited me to Mike Einziger’s home studio for a session to write what would become “Wake Me Up.”
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How long did the writing process of the song take? What was going through your head when you wrote the lyrics?
The lyrics started on the plane trip home after IWC’s annual Gala event in Geneva. When I wrote the lyrics I felt like I was making a strong statement but I never imagined that they would touch so many people. In the studio, Mike sat next to me with his guitar and started strumming chords. I sang to him the chorus that I thought would work but was not sure about the second half: “All this time I was finding myself and I didn’t know I was lost.” Mike thought it was perfect. With that, I started to get the sense that we had something big on our hands.
Avicii is experimenting with a lot of sounds on this album – bluegrass, Elvis-style rock & roll. Were you surprised when you heard the sounds he was going for?
The sounds on his album make perfect sense to me. I enjoy mixing up all different styles of music, as I did on my album Shine Through where I go from folk and salsa to dancehall and hip-hop. I like that he would take such a dramatic departure from what people expect and work with musicians and songwriters to create music that he could later remix for the dance music audience. It’s actually what I expected from him after seeing the success of his use of Etta James’ soul vocal on “Levels.” I can’t imagine that the song would have been as popular without her voice or lyric and this experience likely influenced his direction for this album.
What was it like to play it at Ultra?
Playing at Ultra was fun but a bit different from the big festivals that I am used to performing at. The energy was great and we definitely shocked people with something they have never seen at an EDM festival. Live instruments are pretty rare in dance music and much more rare onstage with the DJ. To have this onstage along with a series of vocalists presenting brand new music was a tremendous risk at the time but in hindsight perhaps an historic moment for the genre.