10 years have passed since Zedd kicked off his DJing career with his debut album “Clarity.” Though the Grammy-winning artist admits he’s experimented in the decade since, the one thing that has remained constant is his appreciation for his roots — specifically for “Clarity,” which Zedd says is a major source of inspiration for his next project.
“Musically speaking, I listen back to this album and I am re-inspired by it,” Zedd told Variety in an interview, the day of “Clarity’s” 10-year anniversary. “It’s been so long since I’ve listened to my own album — and I think to have my own album, in a strange way, be an inspiration for my next album is a cool thing that I never thought I would ever say or feel.”
Zedd continued, “When you release your first album, that’s kind of where an artist is really born, and you get, by default, put into a box. The box that I was put in was beyond the DJ box or the producer box — it was just a general artist box — and that’s all thanks to the album.”
Zedd answered questions over the phone from an airport, en route to San Francisco as part of a weekend-long series of performances with set lists dedicated to his debut album. The brief window was one of the 33-year-old’s few moments of free time amid a rigorous concert schedule, culminating with an Oct. 9 performance at the L.A. Dolby Theatre alongside a 50-piece orchestra — the latest attempt from the artist to distinguish himself as a multi-talented writer, producer and performer.
“I guess I got a little over-excited about the anniversary; I planned too many things and have too little time, but here we are,” Zedd joked.
But the stress of several back-to-back performances was a lot to bear, as Zedd revealed he had barely been eating or sleeping for the week leading up to the anniversary shows. His Oct. 9 show, in particular, was a source of major anxiety for multiple reasons — the main one being that he would not actually be doing any DJing.
Instead, Zedd played piano for the entire concert, backed by an orchestra with expansive instrumentation, such as a harpist and a contra bassoonist. The seasoned entertainer grew up playing classical music on the piano, so his confidence on the keys shined through in orchestral arrangements of songs like “Lost at Sea,” where vocals originally take precedent over the piano melody. He compared his nerves before the performance to the adrenaline he felt as a kid at classical piano recitals.
“Honestly, I was about to piss my pants because I was insanely nervous… White pants — not ideal,” he told the packed audience of the Dolby Theatre mid-concert, gesturing at his all-white suit. The crowd erupted into laughter. The fashion choice matched the stage background, which featured a colossal, hanging display of white flowers arranged into Zedd’s signature “Z” logo.
Adding to the nerves, he told Variety the experience was his first-time following a conductor on-stage — let alone playing alongside more than five other musicians. In order to prepare for the event, he trained with an orchestra at the University of Southern California, who volunteered to help him test out the newly-written orchestral charts. But Zedd’s preparation was severely limited by the fact he would be unable to rehearse the arrangements with the musicians who would be performing until soundcheck, he said.
“What keeps me up at night is that I’ve never played with the orchestra that’s going to be playing with me,” he said prior to the performance. “I guess that’s just a normal thing in this space, but it’s so new to me and I couldn’t believe it when I heard that that’s how that works.”
Whereas the ensemble musicians were essentially sight-reading, Zedd learned the entire concert by ear and played from memory on the day of the performance. Sheet music was absent from the piano when he sat down at the keys and his eyes were glued to conductor Maxim Eshkenazy’s baton with laser focus.
Songs like “Clarity,” “Spectrum,” “Stay the Night” and “Lost at Sea” were all initially written on the piano, Zedd said, so adapting them into classical-sounding pieces was far easier than songs he began producing on the computer. He had to get creative with how to signify bass drops to the audience, which he achieved through tactics like a crescendo of woodwind trills, a snare drum roll or a surprise attack of sound from the lower brass.
Zedd and the ensemble played through orchestral arrangements of every song on the album “Clarity,” starting with “Hourglass” and going in chronological order. The audience immediately raised for a standing ovation as Zedd’s diminuendo at the end of “Epos” signified the album’s conclusion; but to their surprise, they were treated to an encore — three, in fact.
The first encore piece was “Stay the Night,” which prompted the still-standing crowd to sing along. After faking out the audience by leaving the stage once more, Zedd returned with the conductor for another orchestral arrangement of one of his later works, the “Alive” remix. The final encore was a reprisal of the song “Clarity.”
Shortly prior to the anniversary festivus, Zedd played for a similarly daunting, celeb-packed audience with his performance as house DJ at the 2022 Emmy Awards, which was a first-time experience for the artist that he would happily repeat.
“It was really really fun, and in the commercial breaks I really got to play anything I wanted,” Zedd said. “That’s kind of a cool feeling, [having] all of these unbelievably talented human beings in one room and I get to decide what they’re going to hear and they have nothing that they can do about it.”
Moving forward, Zedd revealed that fans can be on the lookout for his upcoming album, which he said will be far moodier in tone than some of his bubblier pop-leaning songs, like his latest single “Make You Say.” Adjectives like “dark” and “mystical” were used by Zedd in describing the vocals. The album is also heavily influenced by musicians Zedd listened to growing up — living and deceased — some of whom are undisclosed collaborators on the future release.
The artist is now resuming his regular tour dates, though he said he might be inspired to add some songs from “Clarity” back into the set lists for future performances, even after the conclusion of his anniversary shows.
“Before I released ‘Clarity,’ in all my interviews I would say, ‘My goal is to be able to look back at this album and be just as proud and feel like it stands up to the test of time,’” he said. “And looking back at it now, it’s honestly done so much better than I was hoping for.”
Video of Zedd’s Oct. 9 performance at the Dolby Theatre is available for purchase here.