Have you ever had a text message that changed your life? Dan Reynolds has.
Three years ago, the Imagine Dragons frontman thought his marriage was over. He and his wife, Aja Volkman, hadn’t spoken for seven months. When their three children came to visit dad on tour, all communication happened through a third party.
In April 2018, Reynolds announced their split to fans on Twitter. Lawyers were called, divorce papers were drawn up.
Then, as he drove to sign the documents, his phone pinged. It was a message from Volkman.
“That was the first time she talked to me in seven months,” he says. “And the message said something like: ‘I love you. I don’t need to own you to love you. I can love you without expectations.’
“She vocalised it with such generosity, it made me rethink everything.”
When he got to the lawyers’ office, Reynolds sat down and asked his wife a question: “Why are we getting a divorce?”
“She just laughed,” he recalls, “and the lawyers were just like, ‘What are we dealing with here?'”
And so, instead of making their divorce official, the couple stood up and left.
“We went to lunch,” he laughs. “We treated it as a first date and fell in love, like all over.”
Before the year had ended, Reynolds had re-proposed. Now, the couple are fully back together, with a 16-month-old son, Valentine.
“It’s interesting that someone can alter your entire life in a sentence,” he says. “If she wouldn’t have said that we would have sat down and we would have signed those papers.”
As someone who’s always processed his feelings through music, Reynolds was bound to draw inspiration from the reunion. And sure enough, Imagine Dragons’ new single Follow You – their first new music since 2018 – is a testimony to his renewed commitment: “I’ll follow you way down where you may go/I’ll follow you way down to your deepest low.”
“I wanted to represent a love that is realistic,” he says. “Anybody who’s married and has kids knows that it’s hard. It takes work and it doesn’t always work out but fortunately for us, as of now, it’s fantastic.”
The song is one of two new songs that came out on Friday. The other, Cutthroat, is harder, darker, angrier. “Only one of us will make it out alive, and it’s not you,” screams Reynolds over a shuddering hip-hop beat.
Produced by the legendary Rick Rubin (Jay-Z, Run DMC, Johnny Cash) it’s aimed at the singer’s own insecurities – as he explained in a Zoom call from his home in Las Vegas.
Cutthroat is a really raw, angry song. What can you tell me about writing it?
It’s probably the most angry song I’ve ever written. The original demo was really manic and crazy – but Rick really made me dig into it. He said, “It’s like you went 75% there [but] it needs to go past 75%. It has to go to 100%.”
He really believed in pushing the anxiousness of the song to the brink.
What did you have to do, as a musician, to push it to the brink?
Quite a few things. I rewrote all the lyrics to the verses. One of the things Rick would often say to me is: “I understand what you’re trying to say but I don’t believe it.”
I didn’t understand what he was saying at first because, obviously, when I’m writing lyrics, I’m writing what I’m feeling or thinking. I’m never making up a story, you know? But then we had conversations about my favourite lyricists – and whether it’s Bob Dylan, or Cat Stevens or Tupac, they were very pointed, and direct in what they were saying.
So Rick really pushed me to be more direct – where in the past, I’ve been really metaphoric. Like, Radioactive is a song about depression, but to the listener, it sounds like it’s about a post-apocalyptic world.
So Cutthroat is a very honest song. It’s an exorcism of self pity.
It’s quite a throat-shredder. When you play it live, you’re going to need a soothing cup of tea afterwards.
You know, I had a vocal surgery the first year of this band. I went to South by Southwest [the Texas music festival], we played 15 shows in three days and it ruined my voice. I had to have surgery to remove a polyp and so after that, I had to see a vocal trainer and he taught me how to scream properly. So honestly it’s really not that hard for me.
What are your tips for a risk-free scream?
There’s a real method to it. When you’re screaming from your throat, your vocal cords are slapping against each other and that’s where the inflammation comes from. So I’m accessing my “head voice” and tightening my vocal cords so it takes very little air to make the noise. Then you strain your neck in a way that emits the scream without ruining your voice.
Follow You talks about rebuilding your relationship with Aja – which happened just before lockdown hit us all last year. How have the last 12 months been for you as a family?
We needed that time together. I’d spent 10 years on the road. Imagine Dragons was a large behemoth that put Aja in the shadows, and that just did not work for our relationship.
So these last three years of no touring and being together, all day, every day with our four children was exactly what we needed. It brought us closer than ever.
You’ve released two new songs… I presume there are another 10 or 11 to come?
The record is complete. I don’t know whether I’m supposed to say that, but I’m not going to lie to you! It’s all put together, we have the artwork, we have the name of the record – which I will not say because I think the band will kill me. And we did it all with Rick Rubin.
He has a reputation for making bands tear down songs to their bare essentials. Was that how he worked with you?
100%. I’m a pretty obsessive-compulsive writer. For instance, in the three years that we were off, I wrote 300-plus songs. And it really was not for any purpose because we were off indefinitely. But it’s the same thing I’ve done since I was 12 – it’s like my journal entry. Every day I spend a period of time sitting down and writing a song and recording.
When it came time to put the album together we thought, “Who would be our dream producer?” And we all said Rick. So we reached out and Rick said, “Send me some songs,” and so I sent him 100 songs! I think he was expecting me to send three! But he listened to all 100 and he sent me an email with notes on every song: “Hated it, liked it, didn’t like it.” Very, very honest.
And he did exactly what you just said, which is he made me sit down and play each one of those songs in the studio with just a guitar – so we heard the most basic, raw structure of the chords and the melody and the lyric. And you could see very quickly which songs worked. We’ve never done that before and that was the Rick Rubin magic.
Next year is the 10th anniversary of your debut album. What’s been the highlight for you?
If I were to be completely honest with you, it was such a tornado for me that it almost feels numbing to think on at all. Winning our first Grammy was a huge deal and performing with Kendrick Lamar [at the 2014 Grammys] was at a turning point for both of us.
Have you ever been starstruck by a guest who’s come to one of your shows?
There’s been a lot of people where you’re like, “Whoa, they’re at the show.” But for me, I really geeked out on a personal level when Rainn Wilson came to a show.
The guy who played Dwight Schrute in The Office?
Yeah, it’s like, “Dwight came to our show!” It was really hard to pay attention and sing when he was there, looking at us. And it was equally hard to take him seriously when I met him backstage. So we’ve had famous quarterbacks and even more famous actors come to see us but for me, the peak was actually Rainn Wilson. I think about it all the time and I just feel like, man, that was geek nirvana. I love The Office.
You’ve spoken in the past about losing fans because of your advocacy for LGBTQ rights. How has that affected you?
I’ve gotten countless emails throughout the years from very far right, conservative folk who have told me that I’m going to hell; told me that their family will no longer come to shows, things like that. But to be honest with you, it is meaningless to me. I’ve never once thought like, “Oh, that sucks, we lost a fan.”
For me it’s such a basic human right, not just to accept and love everyone – but to celebrate our LGBTQ youth. Even being raised in a Mormon home, my parents taught me love and acceptance. And I believe that when you are in a place of privilege if you’re not giving back, you are useless. You’re taking up space for someone who could be here doing something positive.
I had many friends growing up who are LGBTQ, and I have family members who are LGBTQ, and it takes very little effort for white privileged straight man to to speak up and say what is obvious – which is, of course, that our LGBTQ youth are equal and should be celebrated. Not just tolerated or accepted, but celebrated.