Producer and co-writer Malay Ho takes EW behind the scenes of the former boy-bander's solo adventure

Mind of Mine

Exactly one year after his much-publicized exit from One Direction, Zayn Malik has released Mind of Mine, an expression of the R&B-leaning individuality he claims he was not allowed to assert in the band that launched him and his bandmates into stratospheric success.

Though he had been tooling around in the studio with U.K. producer Naughty Boy even prior to his departure from the band, the pair had a public falling-out in July following a leaked demo that featured Malik and rapper Mic Righteous covering Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type.” Malik called Naughty Boy (born Shahid Khan) a “fat joke,” adding, “stop pretending we’re friends no one knows you.” It was an auspicious beginning to his solo career.

Not long after, however, Malay Ho entered the picture. The Grammy-winning producer, born James Ryan Ho, is best known for his work with John Legend and Alicia Keys, and his extensive contributions to Frank Ocean’s 2012 record channel ORANGE. “Initially his management had reached out to me because he was a fan of the stuff I’d done with other artists,” Ho tells EW. Of course, the producer had heard of One Direction before — “the band was so massive it was pretty unavoidable” — but he wasn’t personally familiar with any of the band’s members, including Malik. But knowing that he was about to meet with a former boy-bander didn’t color Ho’s perceptions: “I’m a pretty laid back guy. I try not to be super non-judgmental, and nothing like that ever crossed my mind. I was more thinking, like, ‘Why would he want to meet with me?'”

“Pillowtalk” and “Fool for You” were two of the first songs that Ho heard before signing on to produce, and they left their mark. “Walking into a situation where I didn’t really know what Zayn’s vocal sounded like, those two songs — and ‘Pillowtalk’ in particular — I was like, ‘Man, his voice sounds incredible.’ That was my impression, and it shows in the final product.”

What started as a meeting followed by a few days in the studio led to an instant partnership: “We just kinda clicked.” Here’s how the album came together, according to Ho.

How they recorded

The pair recorded in the Studio Suite at the Palms Casino resort, inside Malik’s Beverly Hills Hotel room, and in the middle of the woods. Ho describes a “super creative, super free” atmosphere between the two of them. “In my mind, it was probably the opposite of what had occurred to him before, [in One Direction], where they’d walk into the studio and the songs were already ready for the group to sing,” he explains. “They weren’t really giving him any freedom to even do any kind of ad-libbing — it was just like, ‘Can you sing this exactly like the demo?’ That type of vibe. We were literally the complete opposite, to the point of being out in the woods with a mobile studio and a generator. Just me and him.”

Adds Ho, “I think it felt liberating for him to be able to really portray his voice the way that felt natural for him.”

The making of “Befour”

Though not an official radio single, Malik dropped a music video for “Befour” on Friday, along with the release of Mind of Mine. It’s an album highlight, a certified bop, and, yes, it is about One Direction. Sort of.

The song was conceived back in August, when Malik, Ho, and a group of friends were partying at Drai’s, a club overlooking the Las Vegas strip. As Big Sean performed, “We were sitting backstage in a VIP area and [Malik] was just telling me, ‘It’s crazy being here in Vegas. I’ve literally been all over the world with One Direction. I’ve done this before, but not like this. Not by myself, not this way, not here with the intention of working on my own music,'” Ho recalls. It’s a story the producer knows sounds too good to be true — “it sounds like I’m making it up,” he jokes — but Ho encouraged Malik to continue the thought. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute — “I’ve done this before, but not like this” — that’s a song, man.'” So we went into the studio that night and started creating the track. He was in the booth singing melodies and we just stuck with those lyrics, and that was the foundation. We took it back to L.A. and did some more writing and working on it but the song was literally almost done when we left Vegas that night.”

Behind the scenes of “Flower”

“Intermission: Flower” is another highlight, brief though it is. Sung entirely in Urdu, Malik’s father’s native language, the track was written “basically live, in one take” as Ho played around with melodies on a new guitar during a writing session. The song was “inspired by his father’s culture,” says Ho, and the lyrics came from an “old saying” one of Malik’s family members had once told him. “It was just pure him — on the spot.” (More on the track here.)

Finding Zayn’s voice

Malik was heavily involved in every aspect of recording, and Ho believes Mind of Mine to be a true representation of the former One Direction member not just as an artist, but as a person. “Even if there were co-writers involved, all the direction for the songs and all the lyrics and everything pretty much came from him, 100 percent.

“… Fans these days, they can really get a feel for who’s being real and who’s being not real. A pop singer might sing somebody else’s song, but the way the brand is built and the way they deliver the song, you can buy into it and you can believe it because it’s real,” Ho explains, citing Rihanna as an example. “I’d put Zayn right there, where you listen to an album and you can really get a feel for who he is. Who he actually is.”

What’s next?

And while the album’s release date is certainly no coincidence — what better time for an artist’s rebirth than the one-year anniversary of his so-called “liberation”? — Ho insists the record was not rushed in any way. “Some of the projects I’ve worked on, we’ll complete it even quicker. It just depends on label politics and the artist’s situation, and it might get held back for a while. So the actual work involved in creating the album can be quick for most artists. But Zayn had the platform and the team around him that was really ready to launch it quickly, so that’s why it seemed like it rolled out so fast.”

And Malik isn’t slowing down anytime soon. In a recent Periscope session, Malik said that he’s already writing for the second album. Given the success of their partnership so far, would Ho consider working with him once more? “Oh yeah, absolutely,” says Ho. “I think that’s all part of the plan.”

Mind of Mine
2016 album by Zayn
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