BRIAN McKNIGHT: SONGS THAT LAST FOREVER
By Paul Freeman [June 2011 Interview]
Platinum-selling R&B artist Brian McKnight is about to break a new album, “Just Me.” Though he’s been writing and singing hits for close to 20 years, it’s a challenge to make the public aware of its impending arrival.
McKnight, who has sold 20 million albums, won Soul Train and Image awards and has racked up 16 Grammy nominations, told Pop Culture Classics, “People, when they’re home, doing the things they like to do, it’s so difficult to get them all in one place, to get them to understand that something’s coming and that they should want to get it. Radio has forsaken us,” he said laughing. “It’s tough. Nobody goes out to find anything anymore. It’s all Facebook. If by some stretch of imagination, if they follow you on Twitter, maybe they’ll know. Every single day, I’ll be on Twitter and somebody will say, ‘When’s there going to be a new record?’ There’s always going to be a breakdown in the line of communication, because they weren’t there the other time you mentioned it. It’s hard to connect the dots these days.
“It’s always exciting to write new songs and put out another record, but when you see what’s out there and where music is, it’s a difficult task. But I know my fans are excited that it’s coming out.”
Originally planned as a live release, “Just Me” is now a double CD. “The label I’m with, they talked to the retail chains - both of them that are still around - and people want more for what they’re paying for. So what you’re getting is about 10 live songs, acoustically, that I’ve been doing on this tour. And then you’re getting 11 new songs.”
The new songs take L.A.-based McKnight in new directions. “I was going to call it ‘My Rebellious CD.’ This is the first album where I have gone back and looked at songs that I had written years ago and redone them for now. And now that I’m producing with my boys, and they have a completely different musical perspective, it gives me a new lease on life, where music is concerned.
His sons Brian Jr. and Niko have their own band, BRKN RBTZ (pronounced “Broken Robots”) and are joining their father on the current tour.
“They have their own thing and it’s wonderful to see. They’re so independent. If they didn’t have it, I would have told them, ‘Hey man, you should probably go to college. You should probably try something else.’ But it’s so great to have a studio in the house and hear the things that they do without any supervision. All I want to do is give them the opportunity to live their dream.
“They listen to the things they listen to... and then they have me to listen to, as well. So they have the best of all worlds. They definitely have their ears to the ground with the music that’s being made today. But they can also go back and tell you about Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder and Donnie Hathaway and all the greats that have ever come before them.
“They’re doing it their way. They’re writing their own songs. They’re actually playing their own instruments, which is a novel idea these days. And they sing like I do. So it’s kind of a rock, pop, R&B, electronica hybrid that people have never heard before. I truly believe that, if they get the shot, it’s going to take hold and be huge.”
Also sharing the stage with McKnight on this tour is his brother Claude of Take 6 fame. “When you’re in college and you see your brother on the Grammys, you’re like, ‘Man, what am I doing? I need to get it together. If he can do it, I can do it, too.’ Sometimes you just have to see what’s possible before you can make up your mind about what your dream is going to be.”
During his childhood, McKnight performed with his family in the church. “When you have to get up and move people to change their lives, getting them to shake their booties or getting them to fall in love is simple, by comparison.
“Everybody on my mother’s side - aunts, uncles, cousins - sings and plays. My Dad’s side’s where the athletics comes from... and the genius brain,” McKnight chuckled.
As a youngster, he listened to his parent’s record collection, which included pop and soul, as well as gospel. “They had a huge collection with everything from Nat ‘King’ Cole to Marvin Gaye to Stevie. They didn’t curb our interests. Some of my cousins weren’t allowed to listen to anything but church music. But my parents allowed us to be a little more worldly and listen to lots of different types of music. Plus, my mother’s a classically trained pianist. Although she tried to teach me, I didn’t like her methods, so I taught myself,” he laughed again.
McKnight was writing instrumentals by age 13. “I started writing instrumentals when I was about 13 or 14. Then lyrics came around 16. I didn’t know how to write a song. It was trial and error. By the time I was 18 or 19 years old, my writing partner at that time taught me everything I know, Brandon Barnes. We were writing three songs a day and recording three songs a day. I don’t think we were thinking, ‘Oh, I’m writing about my life experiences.’ I didn’t have any yet. That didn’t come until, probably, ‘I Remember You’ and ‘Anytime’ in the mid-’90s, when I started actually writing the story of my life. And then every song since then.
“My first album was just structure. When people tell me that was their favorite album, I laugh, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just winging it. It wasn’t until ‘Anytime’ and ‘Back To One’ that I really figured out where I wanted to go musically.”
The versatile McKnight plays guitar, bass, drums, trombone, tuba, flugelhorn and trumpet, in addition to piano. “I’m not the kind of guy who can write charts. That’s why I play so many instruments. It’s easier to play it than to tell some guy the chord changes that I just played, because I have no idea what I just played.”
The Buffalo native had started college when he decided to pursue a music career. His parents were supportive. “They said, ‘You can try this music thing, if you want. If it doesn’t work by x-amount of time, then you need to figure something else out.’ And I was right at the end of that timeline when I got my first deal.”
As he embarked on a music career, some things McKnight could learn from his brother, some he had to learn from experience.
“I don’t think anybody who gets into this business knows what they’re doing at the very beginning. You kind of have to come out of that first deal with as much of your shirt on as possible. And hopefully, if you have success, you can start calling some of the shots. With anything, you have to go through your school of hard knocks. I think it takes 10 good years to become a success at anything, a real success. I’ve put in my time. I’ve paid my dues at this point.”
He was 19 when he signed his first deal. “Those my age grew up faster than kids now . When I was 15, I felt like I was 21, because I was already doing everything that people who were grown were doing. Whereas, now, it seems kids who are 21 are more like 18. It’s a different dynamic. I was ready emotionally. What I wasn’t ready for - and I don’t think anybody can you prepare you for this - what fame and money can do. That at a young age, I don’t think anybody can prepare you for that.
“Luckily, because I write and produce all the music, I just sort of force myself into working all the time, just keeping my head down. I liken it to being a submarine commander. You do what you have to do under the water and every now and then you put the periscope up to see where you’re at. And then you put the periscope back down and you go back to work. It turns into a lasting career, by being that fastidious about I was doing. Of course, I had some fun along the way, made some mistakes,” he laughed. “But at the end of the day, none of this happens without going back to work.”
In the ‘90s, McKnight, who can weave a wonderfully silky ballad, emerged as a major artist with such hits as “Anytime” and “Back at One.”
“When you start having real commercial success, then you say,’Oh, that’s how I’m supposed to write. Okay. Gotcha.’ And then I abandoned a lot of the jazz and a lot of the other things I was doing on those early records, because you like being really successful,” he laughed, “as opposed to, ‘Oh, he’s just critically acclaimed.’ That’s the line that I have to walk down, to be critically acclaimed, accepted by the fans and to also be commercially viable, as well. That’s a tough line to walk down.”
His soul/pop singing and songwriting were soon equaled by his showmanship. “When I first started, I wanted to be Miles Davis. I thought music should be about music, not about the show. It shouldn’t be about how you look or any of that. I quickly found out that people want to be entertained. I’ve turned into an entertainer.”
McKnight has hosted his own radio show, a TV talk show and starred on Broadway. “When you take on a challenge like those, there’s no way to know where it’s going to lead you, where it’s going. You just have to embrace the experience. Radio was great, because it allowed me to be with the fans every single day. Doing Broadway allowed me to make my own show much more theatrical than it used to be. To tell stories and to really draw the audience in, using the music as a conduit between those two worlds. The television show was a labor of love. I learned a lot about the TV world, that it doesn’t matter how many people like what you do. If they don’t have one of those little boxes in their house, it really doesn’t matter.
He also appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice.” “That was raising the Q-rating, period. And raising money for charity. I wasn’t trying to win. I was just trying to remind people that didn’t listen to R&B radio or watch videos, that Brian McKnight still existed. At that time, I was in negotiations to get that my show, so it was great to be on ‘Apprentice’ and have it lead right into that other thing.”
McKnight has amassed a long and remarkably diverse list of collaborations, including Justin Bieber, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Rascal Flatts. “What it tells you is that music should not be compartmentalized. And when I was a kid, it wasn’t. I heard Willie Nelson and Earth Wind & Fire and then Gino Vanelli all on the same station. What we’ve done is effectively alienated artists from working with other artists.
“People ask you to work with them, because they respect your music. And you ask them to work with you for the same reason. It has nothing to do with, ‘Oh, I want to do a country song, so let me find the greatest country act out there.’ No, we’re mutual fans of each other and you figure out a way to do something together. And I think that’s one of the greatest joys I have from working in this business, is that I’ve been able to work with the gamut of people in this business, everything from classical all the way to country. It’s pretty awesome.”
His own music keeps evolving. “I think that’s the only way you can stick around. I can count on one hand, people that are still viable that came out the same time that I did. I think that’s the other problem with those recording stars that are being created today. They’re trying to get as much as they possibly can right now. There’s no place for it to go. There’s no place for it to grow. And that’s the sad part. They may be really successful right now, but what’s going to happen five, 10 years from now? Where are they going to be able to go to continue to delight people who like you right now, who are 17, who are going to be different when they’re adults? How do you keep them? How do you evolve with them? How do you grow with them? It seems like nobody’s really thinking about that. You have different priorities when you become an adult. Diapers or a record? I don’t know.
“When you’re 20 years old, you don’t think about the fact that one day you’re going to be called ‘old school,’” McKnight said, laughing. “What I know is, I can go out for the rest of my life and play the same songs that people have loved for the last 20 years, without ever releasing another album. Once you can come to terms with that and understand it, then that’s a good place to be. Even though you may release a new album - because I’m always going to write new music - it’s okay, because at the end of the day, they want to hear ‘Anytime’ and ‘Back at One’ and all those old songs. And maybe you can sprinkle something new in there every now and then. But as long as they still want to do that and you can still give them a great performance, people will continue to come.
“The greatest kick for me is when I show up at the venue and people are there to see me... still. Of all the things they could go to tonight, they decided to spend their money and come see me... after 20 years. You cannot beat that.”
Yet, for McKnight, 42, performing isn’t the greatest satisfaction. It’s the songwriting. “I let the creation part be a solitary thing. I let then the people that listen give me their feedback about what it means to them, because, when it goes into a song, it becomes something different for every single person, because I try to be clever and use a lot of double meanings and literary tricks in the songs and most people will fly right over those things, the use of onomatopoeia and all those things I thought were stupid when I was in AP composition and now I use them every single day. And if you don’t know that I just used alliteration there to add something, then you don’t know. But hopefully all those tricks will turn into something that will remind you of those lyrics somewhere down the line. And you can apply them to some aspect of your life.
“All the songs I loved when I was a kid, I still love. That’s all I ever wanted to do, create things like that as a songwriter. Forget about the singing and all that other stuff. I don’t care that much about that. Songs last forever.”
For updates on Brian McKnight, go to www.bmcknight.com.