Imagine Dragons’s Dan Reynolds Opens Up About Using Parenthood as a Platform to Teach Acceptance
With one arm wrapped around his 7-year-old daughter, Arrow, and the other pulling a wagon that carries his 2-year-old twins, Gia and Coco, Dan Reynolds is the picture of suburban fatherhood. He’s also the magnetic lead vocalist of Imagine Dragons, a band with a Grammy to its name and multiple top ten singles, including the 2012 anthem “Radioactive” and 2017’s pump-up jam “Thunder” and paean to pain “Believer.” But at home, in Las Vegas, with his children and his wife, singer-songwriter Aja Volkman, the 32-year-old crooner is calm and contemplative. He has big hopes and dreams not just for his career and his family but for humanity.
Reynolds grew up in Nevada as a Mormon but began to struggle with his religion after he returned from his mission. While he’s still a member of the church, he now questions some of its doctrine and has fought to change it. In 2017, he invited other musicians to perform in a fund-raising concert that he dubbed LoveLoud. The event, now in its third year, aims to help the Mormon community love, support, understand, accept, and celebrate LGBTQ+ friends and family.
Weeks before the October 1 birth of their son, Valentine, I sat down with Dan and Aja for a deeply personal conversation about their relationship, their work, parenthood, and their quest to spread love, kindness, and healing.
Parents: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you meet?
Dan: Nearly ten years ago, Imagine Dragons opened for her band, Nico Vega.
Aja: This blond ray of sunshine bounced up to me, and one of the first questions out of his mouth was, “What do you think happens after this life?”
Dan: She was like, “Let’s sit down and talk.”
Aja: I think we were the only two sober people in the club. He’s Mormon, and I was burned out on party life.
Dan: I wasn’t trying to impress her, but her lyrics were very existential. We stayed up all night talking.
Parents: Instant connection.
Aja: Except there was a lot more to it. He’s from an extremely religious family. I had a really strong LGBTQ friend base. To my best friends, Dan represented everything that, at the time, kept them from getting married themselves.
Dan: On paper, we could not be together. But music helped Aja and me stick it out. I’d create half a song and email it to her, and she’d write her response. The songs were about how we could not be together but couldn’t be apart either.
Parents: This is so romantic.
Dan: My mom was like, “You can’t marry someone who’s not Mormon.”
Aja: But they liked me. I felt comfortable with his family—they’re angelic. I converted. We got married in a chapel and, a year later, married in the temple. I was not this transparent Mormon girl, but I am spiritual. My parents raised me to forge my own belief structure.
Dan: That was a foreign concept to me. I tend to be all in or out. So when I met Aja, it was good for me to learn that I could respect my culture but have my own version.
Aja: That’s called agency, and though it’s what most people preach, not all practice it. Also, I should add that Dan has an incredible moral compass. He knows what’s right and wrong.
Parents: You understand each other.
Dan: And that naturally turned into our philanthropy. We hold LoveLoud in Utah, in a very Mormon community, to open hearts to LGBTQ youth.
Aja: People come up to us and say, “This has meant the world to me.”
Dan: We meet parents who say, “My child came out to me because of LoveLoud, and now our family is stronger.” That feels incredible.
Parents: How does this all play out in raising your kids?
Aja: We want them to understand that everybody believes something different. But we’re the same inside. That’s our common thread.
Dan: Our concern is that they’re good people who are mentally and physically healthy.
Aja: And we think a lot about how to give back what we have.
Parents: You started your family right away.
Aja: Arrow was born a little over a year after we were married, when Imagine Dragons got big seven years ago.
Dan: I was dealing with serious depression. My therapist asked, “Has anything changed?” I was like, “I just got married. Just had a baby. I’ve been going through an existential crisis. My band just blew up and we’re on tour. I’m supposed to be gone for the next year.”
Aja: I started making less music and grappling with who I am and who I used to be. That’s the beauty and the hard part of parenting. How do you harmoniously raise children and be a creative artist?
Parents: The working-parent dilemma.
Aja: I sacrificed so many things, he was away, and we both had an identity crisis. Neither of us could feel fully committed to playing music or being a parent.
Dan: I was thinking, “What am I living for? What am I grounded to?” I had been leaning on family, so when I was without them because I was on the road, everything fell apart. The depression was debilitating. Then our marriage fell apart, and we separated.
Parents: You separated after the twins were born, right?
Aja: I released a solo record before Gia and Coco were born, then I was home with all three girls. Meanwhile, Dan was struggling and I wanted to fix him. But we didn’t know what to fix.
Dan: I felt like I was floating, with no foundation.
Aja: He was questioning everything and back to feeling that if one thing is not true, then nothing is true.
Dan: It was all crumbling in on me. I didn’t know about this marriage. I didn’t know about this band. I didn’t know about Mormonism. I didn’t know about anything. I just had to destroy it all.
Parents: Dan, you were also in severe physical pain all that time.
Aja: We always underplay that, but it was one of the hardest parts.
Dan: In all the craziness, I was diagnosed with AS [ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic inflammatory disease that causes severe lower-back pain].
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Aja: It was so scary. Do you remember when I bought you a cane? We were going to go to the movies, and it took us 45 minutes to get from the car to the door. Then we turned around because he wasn’t able to sit in a theater chair.
Dan: I went to doctor after doctor. Misdiagnosis is typical with AS. And at that time we didn’t have health insurance; we were broke musicians. I finally found a rheumatologist who zeroed in just by asking questions, like “Does the pain get worse at night? Do regular painkillers help?” Now I partner with the Monster Pain in the AS campaign, which has a three-minute quiz [at monsterpainintheas.tumblr.com] to help identify symptoms. Hopefully, others can skip what I went through.
Parents: Meanwhile, the world was rooting for you guys.
Aja: From the minute he was gone, my soul had a hole in it. People said, “You’re going to remember this as one of the best things that ever happened to you.” And I’d say, “You’re insane, this is way too hard.” It was my apocalypse. But sure enough, I have so much gratitude now because I learned to be fearless and to not compromise. Also, the one thing that never faltered is how much we love our children. We didn’t speak much to each other for seven months. Then we started dating again. We got a second chance at our marriage.
Dan: Now we have a fourth kid. To me, that’s plenty good. I don’t need nine kids. I remember our first week with our first baby, Arrow, just crying together.
Aja: Any parent I see, I immediately respect on a deep level for being in the trenches. Parenting has been the most thrilling, fulfilling part of our relationship and our life. Marriage is work. Keeping a family together is a lot of work.
Parents: Yet, through all of this, you’ve been doing so many other things.
Dan: When the band began, we had a young fan going through chemo, and our song “It’s Time” was his cancer song. We became close, and when he passed, the band started the Tyler Robinson Foundation in his name.
Aja: It helps families with unforeseen costs that surround cancer.
Dan: Our road has led us to things that we’re passionate about. LoveLoud has raised millions of dollars for LGBTQ charities, such as The Trevor Project crisis hotline [866-488-7386] for young people to call when they feel like they don’t have support at home, and the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which raises awareness and funds for LGBTQ issues and sends kids to camps where they can find refuge while they’re figuring out their sexual identity.
Parents: You’ve engaged your audience in such a bipartisan way.
Aja: We find that middle line where things don’t have to be polarizing. We’re talking about love, not about what you think is right. Love is universal.
Dan: You’ll never change someone’s mind by screaming at them, and you’ll never make change if it’s only about you.
Parents: And now here’s Arrow, home from school.
Aja: Why do you have a blue mouth?
Arrow: I got a Slurpee because I got caught being kind at school.
Dan: Well, that’s fitting.
Parents: I’m interviewing your parents about kindness!
Arrow: There was a little kid who grabbed my hand. He wanted to play tag with only me chasing him. So I played it his way, and I didn’t know there was a teacher watching, and she told the principal, and the principal announced it.
Aja: Good job!
Arrow: And then I got my Caught Being Kind Bracelet from my teacher.
Dan: That’s cool.
Parents: Dan, you’ve said that if Mormon leaders won’t change the doctrine, you’ll fight to change the culture.
Dan: When there’s a point of critical mass with millions agreeing that something needs to change but a few powerful figures aren’t making that change, what do you do?
Aja: You educate people and get them involved. There are other issues we’re ready to jump on right now, such as gun violence.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2019 issue as "Imagine Kindness"