A one-on-one interview with a legend in waiting, Brian McKnight.
How is life treating you?
Good. Trying to multi-task all this Kobe Bryant stuff on TV, do interviews and keep on top of everything.
The first thing that comes to mind every time a record comes out from you I wonder ‘how does he do it’ and ‘what motivates him still?’
Every time someone comes up to me how one of my songs were used for a wedding or how it got them through a tough time or that they used it to make one of their children. It’s great to be sort of voyeuristic in those people’s lives without being there. It’s wonderful to be the soundtrack of those people’s lives. When I hear that I want to write more songs. It’s a great feeling.
Who was the soundtrack of your life?
There are so many. I don’t really have a specific artist that is the soundtrack of my life or remember the song I heard when I broke up with my first girlfriend. For me I use songs to learn how to play instruments. I love Stevie [Wonder], Michael McDonald, James Ingram, and The Winans. But basically I learned those songs and their structures. People ask me what I do and I say ‘I write songs’. I sing, yeah that is great and good but over the weekend I was away and didn’t have a cd player in the rental car I had and listened to the radio and thought ‘wow, this is what has happened to music’. It doesn’t matter anymore if you can sing or not. But songs will always be written and will be part of people’s lives and I knew that when I was a teenager and I wanted to know what it meant to write songs and what to figure out what that was and didn’t know that at fifteen. I didn’t know it would end up being a career. Its kind of like when you are a kid and you get a toy that is indestructible, you find a way to break it. (Laughs)
Do you see both singing and songwriting as gifts or something else?
It is a gift that you have to cultivate. You have to be born able to do it if you do it the way I do it. But if you are just a lyricist you can learn how to do that. I think anyone can write lyrics. I think when it comes to constructing songs you have to have it in you when you are born.
Carole King and Gerry Goffin would sit in Tin Pan Alley sit and just write all day and crank out hits. Is that something you do or does the song have to strike you?
For me there is no time or day or special circumstance for a song to be written. I’ve been able to have a blueprint of chord changes that I have been able to pull from. You would think that because there are only 88 keys on a piano that there is a finite number of ways but it is infinite because of the combinations. But you can write fifteen songs with the same chord changes. Look at the ‘50s all the songs had the same chord changes; it was paint by the numbers. Once you realize that, the subject that I write about which is love and relationships I can never run out of material for that.
Not to get personal, but did you write the album U Turn during or after your divorce?
I wrote this entire record after my wife and I split.
Does going into the studio take you away from your everyday life?
I use the everyday life as fuel for the songs. If I didn’t live I’d have nothing to write about. There is only so much imagination and living vicariously through other people you can do. After going through everything I have from splitting up and being alone and once I figured that out all these songs showed up. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve so I put them into the songs.
You always hear about someone that has the sophomore slump because they couldn’t live a regular life after their first record yet you keep on.
I went through that on my second record. I thought I knew everything when the first record came out and then I made a record that I wanted to make instead of thinking about what people will expect. I didn’t look at the barometer of where music was. From 1992-1995 was the longest time I went without a record and now it’s about every eighteen months or so. I was still thinking about, in 1990 when I made the first record, things I needed to say. I think it is always a good thing if you can rebound from it. I came back with Anytime. There were tough times from 1995 to 1997. I thought the material was better for the second album than the first but never broke through.
As a fan I’d say you are getting better with each album. How?
I think after Anytime I started thinking more about what fans wanted from me more than I thought what I needed to give. I think I close in on that more and more with each record.
Is there any artist out there that you say ‘if I were spoke in the same breathe as…’ what artist would you see as being an honor to be mentioned with?
There is only one person really even though there are a million successful acts out there, I think Stevie Wonder. If only I could have one-third of that. To have decade after decade after decade to keep people listening to you and have kids find you and know who you are and respect you. For me the biggest thing isn’t necessarily the best thing in the world to be completely successful without being respected by your peers and the general public in general and to stick around for a long time. The fifteen years I have been around it is so fickle and just when I think this is it I can still feel that I’m at the height of my popularity without having my best record sales.
Do you think your music continues to hold up because you tap a universal thing such as love? Your songs don’t have that thing like some artists in the past where you can say ‘that was 1985’ because of the beat or the sound of the time?
Exactly, it’s a good thing and a bad thing though. There are some other people who have been able to change with the time and have big hits of the moment. I think when you hear the radio it’s all about right now. The people who program radio aren’t thinking ‘man we have to play songs that are hits for now until 2023’. It’s not like that anymore. I grew up in the seventies and eighties and those styles will always come back and people will continue to bite off of those styles. I’m really concerned that from the middle of the ‘90s what are kids going to be able to reach back and get a hold of in the 2020s? I think we are getting to the end of the creative process. I don’t know if you ever saw Demolition Man the movie but in that movie the only thing they played on the radio were old jingles because, I never thought of it at the time the movie came out, but at a certain point we are going to exhaust how much more creative we can be and we are going to go back to something stupid or silly to listen to on the radio. It’s wild to think we are at that point.
When Hansen came out I felt we were at a breaking point and that all that was left was pop and then of course they overdid that at the labels and radio. So what is next? Madonna always changes and she is bound to miss the mark like she did with the last record which is the risk you take. But don’t you think that a Marvin Gaye if he were still alive people would still buy his records because of his voice and because they can trust that he will be himself? As you have continued to be? Especially being consistent with quality and so on and not dressing weird or whatever?
I’d like to think that is what people do. It’s unfortunate that people who dictate what music gets to the public don’t understand what they are doing to the business.
I always hope a great song will stick out regardless of what is hip that moment.
I think it does but what happens is the numbers of those songs that they allow to peek through has diminished. There maybe one or two a year as apposed to one or two a month. It’s July now and I’m afraid to see what song they call the song of the year.
Is it crazy to think about the big differences in the ages of your fans from teens to people in their later lives?
It is. When I get on stage I really see it. It’s unfortunate but I can’t be there when people buy the record. I don’t know if they are like me but I listen to a record immediately when I get into the car in the parking lot. It would be nice to be a fly on the wall even to hear the bad, what they don’t like. I can pretty much tell what they are going to like but then I wonder about all the little things I do for me and wonder if they will like it.
Are you overly in control of the production?
(Laughs) I am in complete autonomous control. (We both laugh) I have always been since the beginning. There are two people I look to my manager and my Bruce Carbone at the label. Those are two people that I trust but at the end of the day I can still say ‘no’.
I hear artists say it is hard to self produce after they have attempted it because they don’t know how to be objective. How is it for you? Hard?
Not at all, I look at my job like other people look at theirs. I have it down to such a science that my engineer knows that when I’m in the middle of working on a record I’m coming in at 8 o’clock. I use technology to make me efficient, not to make up for what I can’t do. (Laughs) There is no song that I have done in the last ten years that took me more than three or four hours to start and complete. That is mostly because I’m prepared when I get there. Most people use their time in the studio to work on songs, but I do most of my writing at home. I don’t go to the studio until I have something to record.
Do you demo at home?
I don’t demo at all. I make masters from the very first time I go to the studio until I go home.
You should be doing more producing.
I do an amount of that, not as much as I people want me to. Obviously I did things on Justin’s album and NSYNC and Alicia Keys, but I don’t do a whole lot.
You’d be saving them a lot of time and money.
(Laughs) Well you know.
Do you write a lot of songs or just what you need for a record?
I write a lot. There are thirteen songs on U Turn and I wrote fifty.
Wow, that is a lot.
When are we going to get them?
It depends. There is a lot of speculation about what will happen with the rest of these tunes.
You have a position in life that many can only dream of. What do you dream of?
The dream is to eliminate the middle man and let fans get the music directly from me and without the responsibilities of having to get it to radio and do videos. I think that process causes the fans to not get what the artist is truly trying to do. What we are missing now a days we are missing the wanting. When I first started making records you went away for a while and you would wait until the fans would want you to come back. We make the records so fast now that while you are finishing the last one they want another one.
+ Charlie Craine