In the early 2010s, electronic dance music, after a years-long hiatus from the American mainstream, had officially made a comeback. Superstar producers and DJs like Avicii and David Guetta were headlining major music festivals and topping charts with collaborations featuring artists like Aloe Blacc and Kelly Rowland. Hardwell was voted DJ Mag’s number one DJ. And Swedish House Mafia — who arguably helped bring electronic dance music back into the mainstream — were performing their farewell “One Last Tour.”
It was within this space that Kygo (real name Kyrre Gørvell-Dahll) launched his music career by pioneering a new genre of electronic music that some have dubbed tropical house — characterized by the sounds of steel drums, pan flutes and the marimba, among other tropical instruments. Kygo described his music to ABC News as “happy,” “melodic” and “chill.”
One weekend, two countries, three shows. "Nightline" presents "48 Hours with Kygo," streaming on Hulu Friday, Oct. 4.
Today, Kygo holds the record as the fastest artist to reach one billion streams on Spotify — achieving it in only 12 months — and he has worked with major artists including Rita Ora, Selena Gomez, Miguel, John Legend and, posthumously, Whitney Houston.
Since signing onto Sony Music in 2014, Kygo released numerous singles that eventually became a part of his first studio album “Cloud Nine,” which was released in May 2016. Most recently, he worked on Whitney Houston’s cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.”
“She was signed to the same label as I am,” Kygo said. “They had this song laying around...that she actually covered in 1990 or something, and they never...officially released it. I got sent the track and I was just like, ‘Wow this is...crazy.’”
“The chorus; it’s just so powerful,” he added. “Whitney Houston is, like, one of the most legendary artists of all time. So, to me, it was just kind of unreal to get the opportunity.”
ABC News tagged along with Kygo for a weekend in early August during which he performed three shows in two countries. After the weekend ended, he spoke to ABC News about his musical roots, his breakthrough into the music industry and his plans for the future.
Kygo’s introduction to music
Kygo, who is from Bergen, Norway, had been surrounded by music from an early age. His father was a pianist and he, too, learned how to play piano at 6 years old after his mom encouraged him to take lessons. The more he learned, the more his passion for music grew, he said, until eventually, he was playing piano for hours every day after school.
Although he says he grew up listening to a range of music, he credits the late Avicii — born Tim Bergling, who died in 2018 — with inspiring him to learn how to produce music. “When I heard his songs...I just connected with them in, like, a different way,” Kygo said.
With a MIDI keyboard that his mom bought him for Christmas one year and the production software Logic Studio, he began teaching himself to produce, experimenting as much as possible and learning new techniques through YouTube tutorials. All those hours spent practicing piano were replaced with hours learning production.
Kygo began uploading his remixes to SoundCloud, a hub for many aspiring producers to post their music. His early remixes included “Limit to Your Love” by James Blake and “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, and as he posted more of them, he said his fanbase slowly began to grow.
“Every time I posted a remix, it got a little bit more plays than the previous mix,” Kygo said.
For many Kygo fans, however, it was probably the 2013 remix of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” that put him on their radar.
“I was actually a student at the time, but I was basically just making music every day. I wasn’t really focusing on school at all,” Kygo said. “[‘Sexual Healing’] was, like, such a...classic. But at the time, I got a lot of messages on SoundCloud. A lot of people asked me, ‘Oh, you gotta remix ‘Sexual Healing.’ And then one day I [was] just like, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot and see if it works out.”
Kygo said he initially felt nervous about posting the remix on SoundCloud, but then the positive reactions began to roll in.
“Everybody seemed to be very happy about it. I posted basically a remix every month, and then [‘Sexual Healing’] just got more and more plays and I got more and more followers,” Kygo said. “I made a Facebook page and that one got a thousand likes and then suddenly 10,000 likes, and it was just...going upward.”
Kygo builds a music career
Kygo met his manager, Myles Shear, through Facebook. Shear said he was looking for new music online when he discovered Kygo. He sent a message to Kygo praising his music and suggested they work together, he said, and Kygo accepted the offer.
“We’re definitely opposites when it comes to personality,” Kygo said. “We have our strengths and our weaknesses. I make the music, and then he promotes it… In the beginning, I posted stuff on SoundCloud and I was just hoping someone would listen to it. When [Shear] came in and helped me, he was...sending it to every music blog out there, and...that got the plays up so much.”
The two met officially, in person, for Kygo’s first-ever show in a Paris club, Shear said. The room was completely empty before Kygo went on, he said, but it filled up as Kygo played.
“We could just tell by the energy in the way people were reacting and the way they were singing the songs that we had something,” Shear said. “We both looked at each other in the eyes, and we go, ‘We’re going to do this forever.’”
The crowd’s response to Kygo’s music surprised him as well. He said people were crowd surfing and overall “having the best time in the club.”
“I didn’t really know how people were going to react to my tracks because [they] were so much slower than every other DJ out there,” Kygo said. “But after that show, I just knew that this is actually [going to] amount to something.”
Kygo said “everything just went fast” from that first show. In a matter of months, he was selling out shows solely based off of the SoundCloud remixes. As he carved out a space for himself within the electronic music scene, record labels began bidding against each other to sign him.
“To me, it was very important when I signed a deal to have, like, the musical...freedom to do whatever I wanted,” Kygo said. “I signed a deal with Sony and then I released…‘Firestone.’”
Shear admitted that they were young and naive when they signed that deal, but he also said they were excited. “When he signed that deal, I just felt like it was game time,” Shear said.
Since then, Kygo and Shear partnered with Sony to create the record label Palm Tree Records. Shear said his and Kygo’s overall goal is to “continue being creative.” He said they want to leave “something bigger than just Kygo behind. We want to build an empire together.”
“I mean both of us, we’re just such music lovers and I feel like we’re both trying to find our way to do what we love, you know, and I think we made this perfect combination where it was like the ultimate dream team...and we’re doing what we love and that has formed into what we’ve become,” Shear said.
48 hours, 3 shows, 2 countries
On that early August weekend, Kygo performed two shows in Las Vegas with another headlining performance at the Veld Music Festival in Toronto sandwiched between. It’s a grueling schedule that Kygo and Shear have become familiar with. Just last year, Kygo went on a global tour during which he was traveling from January to November, he said.
Shear acknowledged how fast they move from one show to the next. Immediately after the first Las Vegas performance, they rushed to the airport to fly out to Toronto. Shear said they made the effort because “we’re doing it for a bigger cause. We’re doing it to make our fans happy and we’re doing it to continue growing the brand.”
He also noted that when Kygo is performing in a show, he’s already thinking about the next one. He said a good manager “is constantly thinking, like, what can be done better — what’s happening next — and putting in that effort and time to make sure that everything’s going to be great.”
Shear said Kygo’s Veld performance was “exciting” because it was their first time back at the festival since 2016. For his part, Kygo said he was a little more nervous than he usually is with his Las Vegas performances.
In his trailer, Kygo sat quietly to “concentrate” and “get into the zone,” he said. Shear said Kygo likes it “nice and quiet” when he’s preparing to go on.
“He shows energy [in a] different way than I do. … He’s a little more, like, quiet but I know that he’s excited,” Shear said. “I know that he’s grateful of the situation we’re in.”
When Kygo made it onto the stage, he brought up special guest vocalists and played the piano as approximately 40,000 fans cheered and fireworks blasted off. Then, once he was done, with just over six hours to spare before their next show, his team packed up and headed back to Vegas.