“I thought that true love was a just fairytale but I have it and it’s pretty amazing,” declares an elated and seemingly genuinely love-struck BRIAN McKNIGHT, the Buffalo-born R&B singer/songwriter who has just released his sixteenth album, ‘Better,’ via the Kobalt label (“it’s a venture between my publisher and myself,” explains the singer, who has previously recorded for Wng/Mercury, Motown and E1 Music).
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Brian McKnight was being touted as the new R&B kid on the block. But time flies and now its twenty-five-years later. While the majority of R&B stars from 1992 have long gone, Brian McKnight is still here and making music that continues to be valid and relevant. With twenty-five years of recording history behind him, the softly-spoken and articulate singer/songwriter- who’s been nominated for a Grammy sixteen times but never won – has achieved a remarkable longevity in a genre where fame is usually a fickle mistress and careers are mostly excruciatingly short.
He’s had a chart-topping single and album – ‘Anytime’ in 1997 – and been a consistent performer in the R&B arena since 1992, when his silky smooth, gospel-reared tones were introduced via his striking debut single, ‘The Way Love Goes.’ A quarter-of-a-century on, McKnight is still singing and writing songs about love and romance but this time an enriched sense of personal experience informs his material on ‘Better’ – and the irony is not lost on the singer. “After all the love songs that I’ve written, it took me till I was forty-two to actually find a real love,” he laughs. “This whole album is really the story of my relationship with my girlfriend, Leilani, and ‘Better’ itself is really the anchor of how I feel, considering that I didn’t think real love really existed. You can tell this album has a far more optimistic view of life in general than any one I’ve ever made.”
Talking exclusively to SJF’s Charles Waring, a rejuvenated McKnight sheds light on the background to his new album and reflects on his past and different aspects of his career…
Is there any song in particular that has a real personal resonance for you in regard to the relationship that inspired ‘Better’?
All of them do at different times but the two that really embody those things are ‘Better’ and ‘Like I Do.’ I think the lyrics of those songs and the combination of the way I’m singing them and the melody that I chose to create to help to transport you to where we are – which I really wanted to do – and more than anything I wanted to let people know that this is actually possible. When people look at my Instagram or Leilani’s Instagram, they look at the pictures that we put up there; they’re starting to come on to the idea that they can actually find it because a lot of people felt the way that I did, not that I was hoping “oh gosh one day I hope I can find love” because I was fine just being the bachelor forever, just being the rolling stone gathering no moss kind-of-thing, but when you really find someone that you want to really be with that’s better than any other aspect of trying to be with someone.
Had your previous romantic experiences disillusioned you before you met Leilani?
It wasn’t that I was disillusioned, I just feel like unless you find the person that has everything that you want, in the meantime you still have to try. There are so many times when you meet someone and you say ‘oh yeah, this could be it,’ and five minutes later it’s not, and you move on to the next thing. So for us, in this situation, it was really about getting to know each other – of course that was her idea, not mine. (Laughs).
Do you always write songs from a personal perspective or do you try and put yourself into other people’s shoes?
Sometimes I do. If someone else is going through something or I see something in a movie or television… I have done it that way but I think that the audience is sophisticated enough to know and tell the difference between something that’s a real thing for you as opposed to you fudging it by coming across something that’s abstract. I think people are smart enough to know when something is real.
How does this album compare stylistically with what you’ve done before?
Well, stylistically it’s most like my very first album because there’s very little computer-driven music on this album. My band and I were in LA for three days working on another project and we cut fourteen songs in three days live to a click, like we used to do twenty years ago. These songs really lent themselves to be played, not to be programmed, and I think I’ve been trying so hard these last five years to find a comfortable balance between drum machines and Logic (music software) and all this new technology with the way I write and sing. So I decided to go back to what I really know. I’m playing keys and the guitar player, the bass player and the drummer are all playing at the same time. When people hear it they say, ‘what is that?’ and I say ‘well, it’s natural.’
That organic feel certainly comes across well and like you say it sounds very fresh compared with what else is out there at the moment…
Yeah, yeah, I wanted it to be that way. I didn’t want to chase whatever else is out there anymore. If you love it or if you hate it, I’m going to put all of my music out into this album. That was my goal from the beginning.
You’ve been in the music business twenty-five years now, since your debut album landed back in ’92 – what do you think that you’ve learned most in that time?
I think the one thing that I’ve learned is that you cannot predict what’s going to happen. You can’t sit back and try to figure out what people want or leave it up to them to decide. When we all started in this business we would dictate to the audience what was great and they picked up on that based on the fact that we believed that it was great. But that’s all changed. What’s happened in the last ten years or so because is that the technology now means that everyone with a computer can make music and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
The music business has changed beyond all recognition since you started, what’s your take on it at the moment? In some ways is it better for you as an artist because you can interface with your audience via Twitter and Instagram…or do you think music’s been devalued?
It’s both actually. It’s great to be able to interact with your fans on a personal level, even though it’s not actually personal, it’s closer to anything else that we’ve ever heard. The problem is we are being forced to do our jobs for free. And I’m not sure how many other people would actually do that. Obviously, we love what we do but there’s another generation of people now who truly believe that music should be free because it is (laughs). That makes it very difficult.
And I suppose given those views, it becomes very difficult for an artist to make or sustain a career in the music business…
Well, I think for myself, it’s not so much of a problem but for new artists or nineteen-year-old kids, who may not be able to get the kind of the following that would allow him or her to actually have a career or make a living doing this job because it’s changed so much. They’ve got to give everything away for free and it doesn’t help when Rhianna gives away her record for free (laughs), because she can go out and tour, she can go out and do all those other things that will allow her monetarily to do it.
She can afford to give it away…
Exactly, but most artists can’t.
How much has the way your career’s developed and lasted surprised you?
It’s an everyday surprise. I never thought in my wildest dreams that after all this time that people would still be coming to see me. Every night on stage it blows my mind because it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long but when I look at my children and when I look at how many albums I’ve made – this is my sixteenth CD since ’92 – it’s really mind-boggling but I’m still thankful and grateful that people have come along with me for this ride. It’s not anything that I ever thought would happen but it has and it’s really an amazing feeling for about fifteen seconds every night on stage (laughs).
Do you have any unfulfilled musical ambitions?
Umm, not really. If it all ended tomorrow I think I’d be happy about what I’ve done. I think that for any performer longevity is the barometer by which we’re all judged and as long as people want me to go on stage every night and people continue to want me to create music I will stay and do that until you don’t want me to anymore.
What’s been the biggest highlight so far in your career?
I don’t really look at my career in terms of highlights and low lights. I think I’m at this place right now and to be at this place right now I’ve had to go through many obstacles and lots of highs and lows and for me it’s about the entire journey. Obviously playing the O2 in London and playing the Hollywood Bowl in LA were great things, but for me it’s always about the people. When someone comes up to me and say they made their children to a song that I wrote is truly an amazing feeling.
Going way back, what attracted you to music in the first place?
In my family on my mother’s side we’re all church musicians first so I don’t remember a time when we weren’t doing something musical. My brothers and I sang in a little quartet, my aunts and uncles sang and my grandfather was a minister of music in our church, so walking and talking was like doing music for us. I think when my brother (Claude who founded vocal sextet Take Six) got his deal and I saw him on the Grammys that was when I said, ‘oh, you know what? If he can do it then maybe I can do too’ and that’s when I really focused on trying to make it in this business.
What circumstances led you to get your first record deal with Mercury Records in 1992?
I had a publishing deal and was writing songs. I had been a professional writer about a year and really just wanted to get those songs to other artists to see if they would sing them and every time I sent out those demos they were asking who’s singing, writing and producing the songs. And I said it was me, me, and me and they offered me a deal. And, to be honest with you, I thought I’ll do this for a while, and then do something else but it turned into a twenty-five year career (laughs).
You mentioned your brother, Claude, who leads the group Take Six. Was there ever a time that there was a possibility that you might join their ranks?
No, I can’t do the group thing. It’s too much of a democracy and I’ve never been good at sharing… and sharing six ways would be very tough for me (laughs).
After Mercury you moved on to Motown. How did it feel to be at such an iconic label with so much history attached to it?
It was interesting. At that time, here in the States at least, Motown wasn’t what it was to the rest of the world. I get this question a lot when I tour Korea, Japan and in the UK because outside American people were still holding it up as an icon but here in the States it had deteriorated, right around the time that Berry Gordy had sold it (in 1988 to MCA) and wasn’t a part of it any more. So on the one hand, being where Stevie Wonder was and being where the Jackson 5 had been and Marvin Gaye and all, it was great, but on the other hand it wasn’t what it had been before that. So it was kind of a weird place to be because it was all part of Universal at that point because Universal had bought Polygram who had bought MCA and it was kind of like being lost in the shuffle a little bit, even though I was on Motown and Motown is the greatest label forever – well it was in the sixties and seventies, sure, but in the nineties not so much.
What fact about you would surprise your fans?
I think people are really surprised when they come to see me about how I use humour in my shows. I’ve always wanted to be a stand-up comic on some levels as well and I know I can play and sing but when people see me and say, “I didn’t know you were so funny… You’re like a real entertainer,” that’s what I like more than all the other accolades.
Finally, you’ve been nominated for a Grammy for a record sixteen times and never won. How does it feel to have got so close and yet still be so far away from winning?
I don’t want to sound like the guy who’s bitter because I’m not, but to me it’s not a huge prize and I don’t value it so highly when you’re getting an award from the industry itself. To me, it’s always been about what the general public thinks. People don’t really understand how you get a Grammy and what you’ve done in the charts has nothing to do with whether you get one or not. So it’s a popularity contest on some levels and it’s been touted as the award to get but I don’t sell records to get awards. I never really have. It’s great to be recognised I suppose but at the same time for me it’s about the platinum records on the wall and the fact that people still come to see me all the time. I guess some people would kind of think that’s kind of like a cop-out on some levels but if they ever give me one or not, I don’t think success is measured by how many Grammys you have.
Thanks for talking to SJF and I hope you visit the UK soon…
Oh I’m sure we will. I have a meeting later today about it and we’re aiming to get to the UK, Asia and Australia, so were coming soon.
Brian McKnight’s new album, ‘Better,’ is out now via Kobalt.