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Interview: Brian McKnight

9 min read

Over the course of 2 decades, R&B singer-songwriter Brian McKnight has remained at the forefront of music’s evolution. The 16-time Grammy Award nominee has carved a catalogue of hits over the years that have melted our hearts and kept the flame of musical seduction burning bright with his smooth vocals and romantic lyricism.

Most widely recognized for his 1999 hit Back At One, Brian McKnight has not just created a musical legacy of his own over the past 20 years, he has also contributed to the legacy of many of music’s biggest artists, having collaborated with the likes of Mariah Carey, Justin Timberlake and most recently, Colby Callait.

With his latest record, More Than Words, being released last month and in preparation for a tour which begins later this year, we spoke with Brian on the phone this week to talk about the new collection, working with Colby Callait and his views on the music industry. Here is what Brian told us:

Brendon Veevers: How are you Brian?

Brian McKnight: I’m good thanks.

BV: Where in the world are you speaking to us from today?

BM: I’m in Washington DC. I’m actually on a golf course right now and the weather looks like it is good enough for it (laughs).

BV: Your latest album was released last month and the album is called More Than Words, Can you tell us about the album and the main inspiration behind it?

BM: Basically every record that I’ve written is completely autobiographical. I’m at a point in my life now where I just, I don’t wanna be that guys who just says things just because they are something that somebody else wants to hear. I want to believe in the things that I say, particularly when it comes to being with someone. The reference to the song More Than Words is exactly where I am in my life right now. If I decide to get into a relationship, it’s because it is something that I wanna do, not because you know, most of the time I just do what I do – because that’s what I do (laughs).

BV: You are known not just for your voice but for your songs romantic themes. Are you a true romantic away from the mic?

BM: Hmmmm, let’s just say this – I can go there if I need to but I’m not just some guy who is thinking romantic thoughts all the time. I’m a guy – I watch sports all day. But women want a real guy, someone who can be romantic when he needs to be. Women love us because we’re guys and not just because we are reading poetry to them all the time. That’s absolutely not me.

BV: What are you like in the studio because I know you play a lot of instruments so I would imagine you would be quite a perfectionist when it comes to piecing a record together?

BM: When I am writing records, basically I hear the entire track and all of the music as I’m writing, so when it comes to actually putting it down in the studio, I kind of already know what I want. I liken it to this; when most people are riding around in their cars, listening to their favorite song and singing along with it, that’s how I sing and do songs. Just songs we haven’t heard before (laughs).

BV: You have done a few performances to support the release. How have your fans responded to the new songs?

BM: Well I don’t do it. Regular concerts these days I may put Sweeter in there, only because it’s a single but I learned a long time ago, even with Back At One when I wrote that during the Anytime tour that people only respond to something that they’ve heard. So, I have to let it, you know, let it marinate for a little while longer before I decide to start interjecting new songs. If I do it’s usually just a piano vocal and just play a snippet before going back into something that they know.

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BV: Do you go in to a new release with any expectations given the success you have had over the years?

BM: No, not these days. These days I make records as a promotional tool. I’ve realized that things have changed so much and when you have 60 million other things going on, it’s gonna be tough. Unless you have the opportunities like Justin (Timberlake).

BV: You have worked with Justin Timberlake in the past and he has just made his big musical comeback with The 20/20 Experience recently following quite a lengthy absence. What do you think about his return?

BM: The thing about Justin is that he was able to get away from things for a while to focus on doing something else. With that there is a lot of anticipation, waiting for whatever things he was going to do was probably the best way to do it. If you leave for too long they might forget you.

BV: Having released over a dozen albums in your career so far – how do you keep things fresh for yourself as an artist?

BM: I think that for me the concept is what keeps me going. There is always something going on in my life that I have to write about or I will get backed up like a computer drive. If you don’t download things then you’ll overload the memory. I don’t feel any pressure from the industry stand point but I have to write – it’s what’s inside me. As long as people continue wanting me to make records then I will make them. I really do love what I do and I don’t think there isn’t any age limit on that. I have more to say and I will let people in.

BV: You worked with Colby Caillat on the new album. How did the collaboration come about and can you tell us about the track that you worked on together?

BM: You know what, I met her on a plane and I didn’t even know who she way. I mean, I knew her name but I hadn’t really seen what she looked like. I just thought I was sitting next to this cute girl but then I put two and two together that that’s who that was and I said that we should write. So she came over and we wrote that song (Words).

BV: You have worked with some of the industry’s biggest names over the years. What attracts you the most to working with another artist?

BM: When it came to her (Colby Caillat) I liked what she did. I think she can sing and I think she is a great writer. It that works for me I wonder, if this person who has this style of music that is different to my style and when I don’t necessarily do their style of music, I wonder what we could come up with together. That’s kind of how that worked and I will pick anyone if we have the same sort of goals. You never know where that next big song is gonna come from.

BV: The music industry has evolved dramatically over the last 20 years. Digital downloads have almost replaced the physical format entirely while many acts prefer to release music independently. As someone who has been witness to the rapid changes in the industry over the past 20 years first hand, what are your thoughts on the industry’s evolution?

BM: Well, I think it’s great for those artists who would have never had the opportunity to be in this business if it were still the way it was when I started. Technology is fantastic. The unfortunate part is that it allows anybody to make music and I’m not sure that everybody should be able to do, you know, with everything that you do professionally, not everybody can do it. You know. We don’t go and watch non-professional players play professional basketball or football or sports. If you have got $1000 you can go and make a record and get it to sound like whats on the radio and there’s not really much musicianship and people wonder why records just don’t sell anymore. Look, its no coincidence that Justin is doing as well as he is – he’s very talented. Look at Bruno Mars over the last year, Adele also, she is very talented but for whatever reason the record industry turns out the same regurgitated nonsense and they wonder why records don’t sell as well as they used to.

BV: Acts come and go at a rapid pace these days – as an artist who has been around for 20 years, what do you think the secret to longevity is?

BM: I think I was lucky that I came out when I did and before all this nonsense came out. If I were 19 now and were trying to make music it would be very, very difficult for me. I could probably get on one of these shows, X Factor or American Idol or something but even that doesn’t last as long as you might think and for the amount of people that actually get on those shows. I have a fan-base and I try to stay true to my fan-base.

BV: So you have a very loyal fan-base?

BM: Yes I have a very loyal fan-base and I am very thankful for that.

BV: You have achieved an impressive amount of success throughout your career. What would you say is the highlight?

BM: I don’t really think there has been a highlight. For me it’s always been ‘I’m still here’. People are still wanting to come and see me. People have seen me like 10 or 15 times and say to me “We saw you. We’ve seen you every single time you’ve come”. You know, even if it’s the same show, they come. You know, that makes me feel really, really good about my artistry.

BV: Are there any plans to tour the new album?

BM: I’m in the touring business. I do 100 shows a year so I never really come off the road to be honest with you.

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BV: So you enjoy being out on the road and taking the live experience to your fans?

BM: Yeah I love to see the fans. Ultimately they’re the ones who have allowed me to have the life that I have. They have supported me from the beginning and they have continued to support me. I intend to go and see them as long that they continue to want to see me.

BV: What else is on the 2013 calendar for Brian McKnight?

BM: As of right now I am on the road doing a play called Love Lies which is why I’m in DC. So, for the next 6 week I will be doing that and then I’m gonna take a month off an then star the tour in July.

BV: We look forward to seeing you on the road this year Brian and thanks for speaking with us.

BM: Thanks so much

Brian McKnights latest album, More Than Words, is out now.