Change Background:
Loading
The Ultimate Destination for Soul Music
Home Classic Soul Archives Artist A-Z Features SoulMusic Records Voice Your Choice Soul Talkin' Reviews Hall of Fame The Soul Store
2016 2015 2014 2012 2013 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999

BRIAN MCKNIGHT 2011 SOULMUSIC.COM INTERVIEW
JUST BRIAN
“I’m walking back to my hotel now,” Brian McKnight said as he was about to begin this phone interview. Once settled in his room, there was a lot to talk about: his songwriting, his tour, his twenty-plus years in the business and his new double CD, JUST ME. Brian also had opinions about the state of today’s music, the music business itself and which genre of music he thinks will soon die, as he revealed to Darnell Meyers-Johnson…


Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m speaking with a man who has provided the soundtrack to our lives since 1992. He is a multi-talented singer, songwriter and a musician who plays just about every instrument you could name. He’s sold over twenty million albums that have included hits like “Anytime”, “Back At One” and “One Last Cry”. He is about to release his fourteenth album, entitled JUST ME. Right now I am about to speak with Mr. Brian McKnight. How are you, sir?

Brian McKnight: I’m doing great, how are you?

DMJ: I’m good, I’m good. I just want to say thanks for taking the time out to speak with us today; we do appreciate it.

BM: Thank you.

DMJ: Your new album is called JUST ME so let me just ask you, who is Brian McKnight?

BM: Wow, that’s kind of a broad question. I’m just a regular guy—I’m a regular guy who has been really blessed to have been able to make a living doing the thing he loves to do the most. And I think, in general terms, that’s who I am. I’m far more complex than that, but I’m being very general.

DMJ: Right. Well, that’s exactly what I was about to say because I think to the fans now we understand you’re a little bit more complex than what we get from just the love songs, and things like that that we get from you. We realized there’s a lot more going on underneath that we don’t see, in terms of your image and that sort of thing.

BM: Right. Yeah, it’s more than that, but obviously we’d need a whole programme to talk about that and I’d need to be laying on somebody’s couch while they’re asking those questions [laughs].

DMJ: Right, and I’m not trained to have that sort of interview with you. We’re on the eve of your fourteenth album. What are your feelings and your thoughts right now as you look back on your career and all that you’ve done thus far?

BM: I don’t really think about it that much, to be perfectly honest with you. I tend to live in the moment. Got this new record coming, it’ll come out on Tuesday; I’ve been on tour—I’ve actually been all over the world already this year and I probably have another fifty shows to go before the end of the year. So I’m out there seeing the people, pressing the flesh and having a great time. I think I’m probably having the best time of my entire life and still loving what I do, so I don’t really think of it in terms of “Oh, I’ve had this career that’s blah-blah-blah…” They’ll talk about that after I’m dead, maybe. We’ll see. But right now, I’m loving the moment.

DMJ: And you’re saying this is one of the best times for yourself career-wise. Is there any particular reason why you think that is? I know you don’t really think a lot about the past, but why is this the best time of your life?

BM: I think it’s because of the show I’m doing right now. It’s really acoustic; it’s really getting back to my roots. I’m not doing much with the full band and production right now, and I’ve gotten to relearn and re-love the songs the way I wrote them. I don’t write in the studio—I write songs first, then I go to the studio, so the genesis of what I do was always sitting at the piano and playing the guitar. So to do this show very unplugged has made me fall in love with this music all over again.

DMJ: Well, since we’re kind of on the subject, let’s just jump into the new record. I was going to wait a few questions later, but part of the new record is a live set, right? A live acoustic set of you performing some of the old tunes. Am I correct?

BM: There’s actually thirty of them: thirty of those songs and then ten new songs. So yeah, I wasn’t sure. I knew people liked what I did; I didn’t know if they remembered back to the beginning to know how and why I do it. And I’ve kept some of the talking in-between the songs so people can get an idea of where these songs come from, so you get to hear all of that. And then later on this year you can get the actual DVD as well.

DMJ: Now is there a reason why you’ve done this as a double-CD thing, as opposed to just doing a straight studio album or straight live album?

BM: Well, I wasn’t sure if people had seen a record like this in a long time where you have a studio record right alongside of a live record, all at the same price at the same time. I wanted to do something different, and I think that because of that there’s more anticipation that I can feel for this CD than probably my previous two or three.

DMJ: You’ve been honoured throughout the years with many accolades and awards, but I read something—I wasn’t sure if I was reading the right information—but is it true that you haven’t won a Grammy Award yet?

BM: No, I haven’t won one, but I don’t do what I do for awards. Maybe that may sound like the company line because I don’t have one of those, but the general public doesn’t give you Grammy Awards. The awards that I have received have come from either what I’ve actually done on the charts, how many records I’ve sold, or what the general public, who I owe my career to, have given me. So it’s great to have Grammys, it’s great to be nominated, and all that’s wonderful, but I love the other awards I’ve gotten probably more because people can pick and choose whatever they want and if they have chosen me at some point, that says a lot to me as opposed to just the industry. Because you know how the industry can be where that’s concerned: if the industry is giving you an award it could be just because your label has more votes that year. Who knows why?

DMJ: I found it surprising, nonetheless, because of all the success you’ve had and, as you said, the millions of albums sold and your connection to your fanbase.

BM: Grammys don’t necessarily equal success. Sometimes they go hand in hand, but success has to mean something for the individual. It’s different than playing pro football and being the number-one passer in history but not having the Super Bowl. I think that may be a little different. Even though Dan Marino would tell you different, I think that Dan Marino would give up some of his yards to have a couple of championships, I would imagine.

DMJ: What is success for you as an artist?

BM: It’s like tonight: I have two sold-out shows tonight after being in this business for over twenty years. That people want to come and see me; even in a recession they’re spending their money to come and see me. To me, that’s the ultimate success.

DMJ: And when it comes to being live onstage and recording, is there one that you prefer more over the other?

BM: Not really, because you can’t have one without the other. If I don’t create something, I have nothing to perform. Because I’ve created it, being the writer and the producer, doing it live onstage is the fruition that maybe what I did was actually good.

DMJ: I guess I was asking that because some performers will get, let’s say, two or three hits and they’re kind of happy with that, and they’ll go ahead and tour for the next twenty years with those three hits and they seem satisfied: they’re making a living, they’re making money and they don’t seem to have a great desire to go back in the studio and create three more hits. So I wasn’t sure if you were one of those people who preferred being onstage and could do without the studio part, or vice versa.

BM: Well, you have different types of artists and different types of entertainers. I am a songwriter first, and because of that I’ll always create. I think that going live is just something that allows you to go out and see the people who are allowing you to have the life that you have. As long as people continue to want to see me, I’ll go and see them. If that ever stops then I’ll figure out something else to do. I can work at The Gap, if that’s the case, but right now it’s still happening. I started as a live performer; I’ve been singing in front of people from the time I was six years old. That’s inside of me, I do love that, and I love how I become somebody else—I’m not the real me then. Or, I’ve come to realize that maybe the real me is the guy onstage and I’m somebody else. That’s a weird paradox, but that’s a whole other discussion. But I’m just me, man. I don’t know what anybody else does. Who knows?

DMJ: Walk me through your songwriting process, because as you’ve said a few times already, that’s primarily how you see yourself—as a songwriter. Do you have to be in a certain mood to create? A certain location? I know it’s always different, but generally speaking what works best for you?

BM: I think that for me, I never set boundaries like that for myself. Some people have to be in their special room with their special candles and their favourite.… I have melodies going through my head all day long, and I don’t write anything down. It’s all inside my head. So I am forced to keep at least four or five things as works in progress going at the same time, so eventually when I go to record, it comes out. I set no boundaries—it comes when it comes. You’d be very surprised at some of the places where the spirit has hit me.

DMJ: That’s amazing. And you’re also saying you don’t need to be in a certain emotional space, like some people are more creative when they’re happy or more creative when they’re going through some difficult situation?

BM: Very rarely does something happen to me that I immediately write a song. It usually just gets filed away and eventually it comes out—I don’t force it. If it’s not here today, it’ll come. You can’t rush it—you can’t rush it. It’s coming at some point, and when it does, it’s usually something that’s pretty amazing.

DMJ: Speaking of success in terms of charts and sales and that sort of thing, you’ve had incredible success with your previous labels, Mercury and Motown, but now you’re going the more independent route. Can you tell me why you decided to make that switch?

BM: Well, it’s the freedom to do what I want to do, the way I want to do it. And really, that’s more important to me than selling a million records—and these days, nobody sells that much anyway. Nobody’s meddling in my studio. I deliver a record; they figure out how to sell it, and the rest of it I take care of. It’s just easier. I can’t imagine having to be at a major label and being dictated to by people who have no idea what music is.

DMJ: We hear this with a lot of artists of your caliber where we think, “Oh, he’s been creating these great songs, he must have a certain amount of freedom to go ahead and do what he does.” And then we find out that really behind the scenes are these executives or whoever saying, “No, I want you to do this kind of song or that kind of song, or this is the trend right now.” When you were in your other label environments, were you getting a lot of that kind of feedback, like “This is the latest sound right now, we want you to go for this?”

BM: No, I never really had to deal with that. But there are other things at a major label that you do have to deal with that I never really wanted to have to deal with. The last record I made was on Warner Bros., and once you saw the musical people leave the business and you’re just dealing with businesspeople, they had no idea—they had no clue what to do with you. It just made more sense for me to be in a place where I could make my records, do it my way, and call it a day.

DMJ: Now one of the things you did say in a recent interview was that at the major labels, there’s this desire to have an artist stay in their lane. I think I understand what you mean by that, but just in case no one else understands, explain what you meant by that and whether for you that was a good or a bad thing.

BM: Well, for whatever reason there are people in this business who don’t want to see you be anything but what they perceive you to be. So if I’m labeled a ballad singer, it doesn’t matter how good a fast song is that I do, they’ll never play it. They’ll never acknowledge it as being anything but fluff or whatever on the record—they’ll just naturally go to get that ballad. Now the problem with that is when you do that, then they’ll say “That’s just what he always does.” There’s always this double standard when it comes to people like me. Look at my first single: you put Auto Tune on a song and have it be a little different than what you normally do and they tell you, “We want him to be what he is.” Well, how can I be what I am if I’m not allowed to try anything different? If I’m not allowed to express myself in some way that you’re not used to? It’s unfortunate that especially radio dictates to you what they will play: they’ll say to you, “We’ll play it if you do this.” Well, that’s just going against all your artistry, isn’t it? That’s some of the steps you have to deal with as an artist. Unfortunately, records don’t get to the public by osmosis—there’s many hands it has to go through before anybody hears it. What you want is for people to listen without prejudice: can you hear that this is a good song or are you more concerned about an effect that someone’s using on their voice? That just shows you how inept the whole system is. Then they wonder why nobody sells any records. Idiots.

DMJ: I was also wondering where the fans come in there, and I think you may have already answered this in terms of the ladder between the record company itself and the radio people and then having that song get out to the fans. Because I think a lot of the fans probably still today look at you as that person that they prefer to hear on a ballad. Do you get that feeling in your shows?

BM: An actual fan loves you for whatever you do. What you’re talking about is people who think they’re music critics who aren’t your fans, see what I mean? You have those people who hate just because that’s what they do: they could never create anything themselves, so what they do is they hate on everybody else that does.

DMJ: When you started your new record, JUST ME, according to interviews you did earlier in the year it started out as a return to old-school R&B. I had a chance to listen to the final product and it seems to be a little more than just that. How would you describe it?

BM: I can’t—I cannot describe it. When I listen to this album there are so many different things going on. I think this is my artist record, almost like the second record that I made where I really didn’t think too much about what the boundaries were. There’s rock on this album, there’s straight-ahead R&B, there’s old-school R&B; there’s electronica… there’s just about everything—there’s even jazz. I’m showing that I’m so much more than even I have presented. If you look at my first album, it was kind of all over the place. Then I had some success, so I did a whole record full of those kinds of songs, and that didn’t work. Then I kind of figured out who I was on the third one and fourth one. Then I’ve been trying to figure out what to do next in these five through ten; and now I’m just like, fuck it—I don’t care. I’m just going to do whatever I want.

DMJ: You did mention jazz, and what I noticed is that you did another version of the George Michael “Careless Whisper” song—it’s a much jazzier version than the one that you did with Kenny G. Do you think at any point in your career you’ll do a straightaway jazz album?

BM: No, because ten years from now there won’t be any more jazz. Jazz is like Fifties rock’n’roll: we’ll never hear it again in about ten years.

DMJ: The song “Temptation” is definitely inspired by Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You”. You’ve been a Motown artist yourself at one point, as I mentioned. Were you always inspired by that back-in-the-day, quote-unquote “Motown Sound”?

BM: Not really. Not ‘til probably the last ten years have I really dug into Marvin and really digested what he did and really got into it. I was really a huge jazz-head up until the early Nineties—I didn’t listen to anything else, so I didn’t really stumble across his music until much later in life. I’m glad I did; it’s opened up so many more possibilities for me. In actuality, that track is my son’s. I happened to come in and finish it for him.

DMJ: And speaking of your sons, they’re making their way into the business wanting to do their own thing. What advice would you give any young person right now who has that desire to go ahead and start a recording career for themselves?

BM: There are so many artists out there, and there are so many artists that are all the same. You listen to radio now and you’re like, “Who’s that? That sounds just like the guy on the other song. You’re telling me that’s not the same guy?” In order to differentiate yourself you’re going to have to be an individual, in order to have a career. Now if you want to have a hit and a video, you can have that right now on YouTube with a million hits: a career is going to take a little more planning, a little more “How can I be the first someone instead of the next someone?” That would be the advice I would give.

DMJ: Generally speaking—and you’ve touched on it a little bit already, but what are your opinions of today’s music? I don’t want to necessarily name-drop specific artists, but what is your opinion of today’s R&B music in particular?

BM: I don’t think there is R&B music of today.

DMJ: No?

BM: There are black singers, but I wouldn’t necessarily call that R&B. They have to come up with another name: it’s hip-hop/soul, maybe? Or something.

DMJ: Rhythm and pop, maybe you could call it?

BM: I think it’s more hip-hop-influenced than it is R&B-influenced: the beats, the melodies—everything. It’s like a loop singing a loop. And that’s fine—music has to evolve—but in some ways I think it’s devolving.

DMJ: Now is there anybody out there that you hear and you’re like, “Okay, I know this is the trend of what everybody else is doing, but this one particular artist gets it and this person’s doing real music”?

BM: I think that on the black side Ne-Yo would be the closest thing, because he’s still writing melodies and he’s still coming up with a way to be popular without selling out and doing what I call the sex-rap R&B of today. He’s still writing about the stuff that makes sense; that makes you think. I think he’d probably be the closest thing to that. But that’s just one guy—everybody else is…

DMJ: A lot of people are doing what I call throwback concept albums—and that, again, is what I thought JUST ME was going to be, because in the beginning that’s how it seemed. Eric Benét did a decent record of that kind; R. Kelly did one.

BM: I think once R. Kelly came out with his it was kind of like, “Well, that’s been done.” So it started that way and then I was like, “Let’s just see what happens, let’s see what I come up with,” as opposed to trying to do something conceptually.

DMJ: I want to shift gears for just a second and ask you about something that I think all male R&B singers in particular have to deal with: everybody from Marvin, as we mentioned, up to today—Chris Brown, Usher—it just seems like this thing with male R&B artists in particular, they have to deal with the idea of probing questions about their personal lives—who they’re seeing, who they’re divorcing, what they’re doing in their sex lives. How do you handle it when your name is attached to questions like that?

BM: My name isn’t attached to questions like that. I’m really not that popular. When you’re talking about guys of that stature, they’re the artists of today, so they’re going to have to deal with it. I don’t think anybody cares what I do, to be really honest with you.

DMJ: I wasn’t meaning to compare you necessarily to today’s people, because I think this has always been throughout generations with different artists, even back in the days of Al Green and Sam Cooke and people talking about what was going on in their personal lives. Any time I have the chance to speak to a male artist in particular I just want to ask that question, like how do you handle it when your name is attached to things like that?

BM: Number one, I don’t really do anything—which is good and bad because if I did, they’d probably talk about me more; which these days, good press, bad press—it doesn’t matter as long as it’s press. To me it’s always been about the music, so I don’t hang out and I don’t get drunk, and I don’t do all those things in public, because I think that would take away from the fact that I’ve always thought that I made art. When they talk about Michelangelo or Da Vinci, I don’t think they usually talk about his personal life.

DMJ: Right. Well, we’re in the culture of celebrity and fame and things like that now, and some people would say once you’ve reached a certain amount of fame, that kind of idea of people at least wanting to peek into your personal life comes with the territory. Would you agree with that, or no?

BM: Believe me, people try to peek. But I keep my circle very small, and even when something happens to come up, we squash it quickly. Even this year I tried to do things to try to make it get out there, and it still got squashed. So what are you gonna do?

DMJ: At various times you’ve hosted your own radio and TV shows, so will we be seeing you doing any of that in the near future again?

BM: Maybe. That takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. I’m so glad to get back to just doing this and having a life—I haven’t had a life for three years. I was working doing so many different jobs, and it was fun and it was cool, but now I go out on the weekends and I perform; I play golf the rest of the week. Life is good right about now.

DMJ: So what’s in the immediate future for you in terms of the album and everything? You mentioned touring. Tell me a little about that, and places you’re going to be hitting.

BM: I just got back last week from Australia and New Zealand and Korea, and I’ve been on this U.S. tour now for two months before that. I’ll be going strong till September, then I might take a month off and I’ll figure out what to do for the rest of the year when I go back to Asia and Europe. So it’s a pretty busy year—we’re talking over a hundred and thirty shows for the year. So that’s about it.

DMJ: And you mentioned as part of the JUST ME release that there’s also going to be a DVD. When is the DVD going to come out?

BM: I’m making it as soon as I come off the road. Once people have had three months to digest the album itself, then I’ll come out with a DVD.

DMJ: You’ve been in this business for twenty years. In terms of your recording, is there anything that you haven’t done that you would still like to do?

BM: I’ve pretty much done it all, unless there’s something that I don’t know about that could be on the horizon that would come up. I’m happy with what I’ve done; I’m happy doing the things that I do. I’m perfectly fine in my own skin at this point. Everything’s kind of on cruise control.

DMJ: You mentioned that you thought that jazz itself would die out in ten years and that there isn’t really much to speak of today in terms of R&B. When you look ahead from your own personal perspective, what do you see as being the next music phase?

BM: What I hope is that they stop signing all these acts and start finding people that have talent to build a musical empire with. If the music business gets back in the hands of the singers and songwriters, it’ll come back. Unfortunately that takes time, and in the corporatized music world they have to meet their quotas every quarter. So I think we’re going to continue to see what we’ve seen, unfortunately.

DMJ: Have you ever considered getting into artist management yourself? You’re basically doing it with your sons, I understand that, but in a general way?

BM: No way, José. I want no part of it.

DMJ: Why not?

BM: Because what I’ve seen of these artists these days, they’re already superstars: nobody wants to listen, nobody wants to take advice. They want it right now and unfortunately, you can have it right now. But the problem is, how long is that actually going to last?

DMJ: Right. Let me know how the fans can stay updated with you online. Are you on Facebook? I know you’re on Twitter; I can’t remember what your Twitter is, though.

BM: On Facebook it’s backslash Brian McKnight; Twitter is @itsbmcknight.

DMJ: I know it’s been a long day so I’m not going to keep you much longer. Is there anything more you would like to say that we haven’t mentioned?

BM: No, I’m good.

DMJ: All right, we’ll end it there. I do appreciate you for your time and good luck with the record and everything going forward. I look forward to the DVD. And people can hit you up on Facebook and Twitter for tour information to see when you’re going to be in their area.

BM: Go on my website, bmcknight.com, and there’s all links to everything else.

DMJ: Okay, awesome. Thank you so much.

About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.
  
Sound Track
 
Sound Track
 
Video
 
Links
 

US

Members Comments

More BRIAN McKNIGHT
Brian McKnight & Eric Benét : Indigo 02, London - January 29, 2014
 
Read More ...
Brian McKnight, Live At The Jazz Cafe, London, January 20, 2013
 
Read More ...
Soul Talkin' With Brian McKnight
 
Read More ...