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Avicii: Redrawing the borders of dance music

The Swedish DJ spans bluegrass, rock and soul on a far-reaching solo debut

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

Avicii, aka Tim Bergling, may be best known as a top producer/DJ following such hits as "Levels," "Silhouettes" and his remix of Madonna's "Girl Gone Wild," but when it came time for the 24-year-old Swede to make his full-length album debut, he was eager to show that his musical reach extended far beyond EDM's parameters.

"True," out Sept. 17, embraces a wide range of styles from bluegrass on "Hey Brother" to Americana on his first single and worldwide hit, "Wake Me Up." All the songs have a dance bed, but for Bergling, the mission was to blend seemingly disparate genres.

"From the beginning, my goal was to do something that no one else was doing," he says. "I guess, unintentionally, that was a way for me to demonstrate that there are no boundaries."

That also meant bringing in a similarly diverse cast of collaborators, including Chic's Nile Rodgers ("Every minute we spent together was an incredible learning experience for me," Bergling says), Adam Lambert from "American Idol," Alison Krauss and Union Station's Dan Tyminski, alternative rockers Imagine Dragons, Incubus' Mike Einziger and soul singer Aloe Blacc. Bergling admits the wide net further stresses his point about no barriers, but ultimately, he picked the collaborators "because they are immensely talented individuals."

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In perhaps the album's most unlikely pairing, Bergling wrote "Addicted To You," featuring Einziger and Audra Mae, with Mac Davis of "Baby Don't Get Hooked On Me" fame. Davis, who was so popular in the '70s he had his own variety show, also wrote hits for a number of other artists, including Elvis Presley. A music executive who golfs with Davis introduced the two. "I knew that he was a legend and he'd written songs for Elvis, so he had that going for him," Bergling says. "I would be honored to work with him again."

In less than five years, Bergling has ascended to the highest rung of heavyweight DJs, rising rapidly from the boy who began making music on his laptop in his Stockholm bedroom. His older siblings introduced him to a wide range of rock music, while his father exposed him to the music of Ray Charles and other R&B greats. Only three years after winning British DJ/BBC Radio 1 host Pete Tong's Fast Trax competition, Bergling scored his first Grammy nomination for his collaboration with superstar DJ David Guetta on "Sunshine," from Guetta's 2011 album, "Nothing but the Beat."

But nothing catapulted Bergling into pop music's stratosphere like "Wake Me Up," which has soared to the top of the charts in 22 countries and reached the top 10 in the U.S. With its acoustic guitar intro, foot-stomping melody, Blacc's soulful, dusky vocals and Bergling's beats, it sounds unlike anything else on the radio.

Bergling and Einziger wrote the track and then called in Blacc, with whom Bergling had a separate writing session scheduled, to see if he had any words to add. "He'd written these lyrics that were simple and profound," Einziger says. "He used our ideas as a guideline and just did his thing." From start to finish, the song took four hours to create.

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Bergling never considered that the different elements may be too much of a stretch for listeners. "When making the album and messing around with different melodies, I just fell in love with the sound of the acoustic instruments and the bluegrass elements that the song, and the album, were developing," he says. "The sound was so organic and with the incredible texture of Aloe's vocals -- kind of an old-school Motown sound -- it all meshed so well."

When Bergling first introduced "Wake Me Up," along with several other numbers from "True," at Miami's Ultra Music Festival in March, he found not everyone was as open-minded as he was and he encountered some initial resistance to his genre bending. A few days later, he took to Twitter to address the concert controversy. "I really wanted to switch things up and do something fun and different, as I always strive for, and this album is about experimentation and about showing the endless possibilities of house and electronic music," he wrote. He added, "My music is open to anyone who wants to listen to it and I will always stay true to my sound. Love you all who listen with open hearts and open minds."

Einziger, who performed with Bergling at Ultra, recalls the audience's reaction to the set as "very odd. The hour before we were on, there were strippers and G-strings. No disrespect to anyone who performed before it, it was just a different vibe. When we got on, there's banjo, there's fiddle, there's Dan Tyminski, there's Mac Davis."

The mixed reaction only fueled Bergling's passion, Einziger says. "Tim has worked really hard for his successes, but he's received a lot of praise early on. I don't think he'd really faced that opposition. I don't think he was prepared for what a backlash looks like," he says. After they came off stage, Einziger gave Bergling a little pep talk and said, "'You have to have confidence in your vision.' He knew it."

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Of course, having the song become such a worldwide smash confirmed that Bergling was on to something, and six months after the Ultra gig, he says, "Criticism is inevitable. Some can be constructive and beneficial, to see what people have to say, but in general, I just do my thing without listening too much to the hate."

Plus, he stresses he has no intention of abandoning dance music. On "True," he wants others to join him in his exploration, "because the possibilities of dance music are endless," he says.

When he speaks about "True," Bergling stresses that part of its title comes from the fact that he stayed authentic to who he is and to "the Avicii brand" in making the album. While the notion of branding may strike anyone older than 35 as merely a marketing ploy that's incongruent with such an ideal, for Bergling, it is more a matter of his name representing a certain standard of quality. "The Avicii brand is truly believing in yourself, taking a chance and doing something fun and different," he says. "For this album, I produced music that I really loved and I went with my gut on every element. Staying true to you is the Avicii brand."

Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.

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