US R&B sensation Khalid has taken fourth place in BBC Music’s Sound of 2018 list, which tips acts for success in the next 12 months.
The 19-year-old is already a star in the US where his debut album, American Teen, has sold over a million copies.
Written while he was at high school, the record’s themes of belonging, love and loneliness have spoken directly to a generation.
“The success was very rapid,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
Born Khalid Amhearst Robinson in Georgia, the singer was raised in a military family and lived in Germany and upstate New York before settling in Texas.
He didn’t complete his first song until 2015, and more than a year after he tweeted “I want to go to the Grammys one day”.
His lyrics talk about teenagers who still live at home, with no money or cars, and who want to experience love without the trappings of commitment (“I’m not one for relationships / It’s over-rated,” he sings on Therapy).
Fulfilling his Twitter prophecy, the record has earned him three Grammy nominations – with a further two nods for the suicide prevention song 1-800-273-8255, which he recorded with Logic and Alessia Cara.
“I can’t wait to go and bring my mom and have a good time,” he laughs.
What was life like as a military kid? Did you move around a lot?
Definitely – but moving around shaped the individual that I became. I feel like, mentally, I wouldn’t be as strong as I am right now. It definitely toughened my skin.
Your mum was a singer, too, is that right?
Yes – she actually sang in the army. She’s retired now, but she still sings. To be honest, she sings way better than I do!
Have you ever thought of getting her on backing vocals?
I think about it all the time – but I also think about the fact that I don’t want to get embarrassed by my mom on a record.
And some of the things you sing about aren’t suitable for parents…
Exactly! I don’t know how the song would go – but I just know my mom has an amazing and beautiful voice.
When you were younger you thought you’d sing opera or Broadway. What drew you to that music?
The form of expression. Just how a three-minute song can make you feel so many different things. I remember the first time I was ever part of a musical [Khalid played Cornelius in a school production of Hello Dolly] seeing the reactions from the crowd, and seeing how sad they got, but then how happy they got – that’s something I wanted to be a part of. But I was a little bit too nervous to write music myself.
What was holding you back?
I feel like the amount of vulnerability that I had to put myself through when I wrote my first song. I wasn’t ready to be so emotional out loud, because I felt like nobody cared, or nobody wanted to listen. But at the end of the day, I took a step back and I’m like, “OK, well how much do I care about myself and my own mental health?” and that’s when I wrote my first song.
That’s interesting – because you’ve been called a spokesperson for your generation, but I get the impression you write the songs for yourself, first and foremost.
Oh, definitely. It was for myself first. What I didn’t realise at the time, is there are so many teenagers going through the same type of situations as I was going through. We’re all finding out so much about ourselves, we’re growing up.
For people who haven’t heard you yet, how would you describe the sound?
Mellow. Chill. Not too much, not too little. Kind of soulful, very moody. Emotional but still kind of gets you up off of your feet!
Is there one lyric people quote back to you more often than any other?
Ooooh…. One lyric? Honestly, if I could summarise my teenage life, I couldn’t put it in one lyric but I could put it on a song – Young Dumb & Broke.
That song has done so much for you. Did you know this time last year it was going to become so big?
I had faith – because, after I recorded that song, I got back to my apartment and I danced in the mirror for 10 minutes. Non-stop.
You sing a lot about wanting love, but not commitment. How common is that attitude in the people around you?
I feel like I’m just so young. Way too young to be committed to anything. My personality is like, I’m so spontaneous. I’m that friend who will call you last minute and be like, ‘Hey, let’s drive to Disneyland right now!’ And they’ll be like, ‘Disneyland is two hours away’ and I’m like, ‘I know! Let’s just do it!’
What’s your favourite ride at Disneyland?
Honestly, I just went to Universal Studios in LA and my favourite ride had to be the Harry Potter ride. But the thing is, it got stuck mid-way through! We were just hanging in mid-air for, like, eight minutes.
Is this because you’re secretly a Slytherin?
Right! There must be some mojo involving me that made that ride stop!
It could have been worse. Some people get stuck upside down for hours.
That could never be me. I would cry.
Your biggest single in the UK so far is Silence. What’s the story behind that song?
When I teamed up with [dance producer] Marshmello, I knew I wanted to be vulnerable – and so, when I wrote this song, it was very personal and it was very deep and I was very upset. But the moment the song came out, I went to Australia and I saw fans screaming every single word, every night. To have that in a whole different continent? It was awesome.
One of my favourites is Saved – That lyric about keeping an ex’s number in case they call and say they made a mistake. Have you ever done that?
I keep all of my exes’ numbers saved, just in case they feel like they need to talk to me, or I need to talk to them – because they all started as friends first. Even if we’re not as close as we were after the end of the relationship, I have so much love for all of them.
At the same time, you must have had old acquiantances crawling out of the woodwork since you’ve become famous.
All the time. All the time. And I’m a person who stands my ground. I let them know.
I had a lot of great friends and then I had a lot of friends who couldn’t deal with the things I was going through. They didn’t want to deal through all that, but then they wanted to celebrate me when I became successful, and I don’t feel like that’s fair.
Your goal was to get to the Grammys. Does it seem real that you’re not only going but you’re nominated five times?
It’s insane. I just can’t believe it. It happened way faster than I thought it would. I remember talking to people and I’d be like, “maybe I’ll get nominated for something in 2019” but it was way faster! It was something I couldn’t have prepared for but I’m just so blessed.
Which of those awards do you want to win the most?
Best new artist. Hands down.
You’ve got some tough competition there – SZA, Julia Michaels, Lil Uzi Vert, Alessia Cara.
It’s amazing competition because they are extraordinary artists, every one. It’s crazy because a lot of them inspired me – so to be up against my inspirations is slightly overwhelming, but it’s definitely exciting.
The interesting thing about that category is none of the nominees are white men. What does that say about music in 2018?
Music is in such an interesting place right now. You can look like anything. You can be anybody and you can still be super-successful because the listeners are looking for relationships. They’re looking for people they can look up to. The fact that I am nominated, I’m 19 years old, I’m this boy from El Paso Texas, and so many people across the world sing my songs? It’s crazy on its own.
And what about the Sound of 2018? Were you aware of the list or that it’s such a big thing in the UK?
Oh yeah! One of my good friends Billie Eilish is on the longlist as well. I love her so much. Her star is going to shine so bright.
I love the cover you did of her song idontwannabeyouanymore
Oh, that’s my favourite song.
What’s your plan for 2018? I hear you’re heading into the studio straight after this interview… Is there new music on the way?
Ooh, yes. I’ve been in the studio a lot and there are a lot of collaborations to look forward to. I mean, I’m excited to work on my own but the collabs… I’ve been listening to them on repeat. They’re awesome.
What’s your advice to anyone else who wants to get into music?
Persistence is key. Don’t listen to negativity. There’s so much hate in the world because people are envious, so focus on yourself. Don’t give up. And always be you.
That’s my advice. Peace out.