Interview: Brian McKnight Talks New Album, Working With Sons, Lack of Talent in Music Industry
When you talk about R&B Royalty over the past couple of decades, one of the first names that would undoubtedly come to mind would be Brian McKnight. Not only has he given us countless hit records over that span, but he’s also written and produced the majority of his work; a rare and very admirable accomplishment in this day and age. As he prepares for the release of his new album “Just Me”, he’s able to deliver an album that is lyrically is right on par with the rest of his career fueled but with a fresh sound derived from working with the next generation; his own sons. Additionally, with the way the r&b landscape has evolved to a more commercial sound during this same period, who better to speak on the root cause. In this interview for YouKnowIGotSoul, we discuss what to expect on his new album “Just Me”, what it’s like collaborating with his sons, artists getting penalized for being talented, why we don’t see more true musicians, how he continues to find motivation to make music after all of this time, what he’d like his legacy to be, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your new album “Just Me” which will be out this month. What can we expect to hear on there?
Brian McKnight: It’s a double album actually. Back in January and February we shot a live DVD. So basically everyone’s getting the audio from those live shots along with ten new songs as well, studio tracks. I wanted to do something special for the people that have been with me from the beginning as fans and I’ve never done a live record before. I wanted to try and capture this one man show I’ve been doing, this sort of acoustic unplugged thing, I wanted to share that with those who may not have seen it or haven’t had access to see it. So it’s a two disc set, two discs for the price of one.
YKIGS: For the studio album portion of it, what approach did you take on it compared to your previous albums?
BM: The songwriting approach is always the same, I can only write what I’m actually going through, I write my stories based on my life. Production wise it’s different because I produced this album with my sons, a production company we started called Catch. Basically I worked out of the studio in our house and if I worked on something I’d pull it up on the hard drive, and my sons would take it and run with it. They are the next generation and they are the ones that are listening to the music on the radio. This album sounds a little differently in places than other records that I’ve done because of the influence of my two boys.
YKIGS: I’m glad you brought up your songs because I was looking at the tracklist for this album and I noticed your son Brian Jr. was featured on one of the songs. Talk about what it’s like working with him and also seeing your songs grow up as musicians.
BM: It’s an interesting thing. As a parent you want to expose your kids to as much as possible and hopefully they naturally gravitate towards the things that they love. I’m not sure I would have picked this life for them, but most kids seem to want to do what their dad’s do. The fact that we have a studio in our house since they were 12 years old, they have taken to it like fish to water. It’s great to see that they have their own way of doing what they do, they’re not trying to be me. Another thing is the fact that they also have talent, because trust me if I didn’t think they did, I would have told them they had to go to college and have something to fall back on. *Laughs* They’ve chosen to make their music differently, so it’s a great feeling as a fan as well as their dad.
YKIGS: Looking at the tracklist I noticed that you used numbers following a couple of the song titles such as “Fall 5.0” and “Husband 2.1”. Can you explain why you decided to include this?
BM: You know what I’ve thought, and I don’t mean any disrespect, but we’ve all had computers in our lives for how many years? I got my first laptop back in 1994. Being that in college I was a computer science and math double major, mathematics still plays a major part in my life and music is all math anyway. So basically, in any software that you get, when the new version comes out, they add another number to it or they add another number behind the point depending on if they are fixing something mid stream. There are five versions of “Fall”, the one that I decided to put out was the fifth version hence the 5.0. “Husband” was the second version and then I added another tweak to it, I didn’t change it completely for a third time, all I did was take the second version and tweak it a little bit, so that’s where the 2.1 came in. And really, it was just something else to talk about. When you’re me, if you do the same thing over and over again, people will only say “Oh, that’s just what he does.” We live in a time when you almost get penalized for being talented and it sucks. You almost want to think well maybe if I was mediocre or maybe if I was just ok, then people would get behind that a little more; it’s a very strange time that we live in. I was listening to a lyric by one of my favorite lyricists, and he said “back in a time when genius and fame went together.” I had to think for a second because it’s been a long time since that’s actually been the case. But that’s whole nother political situation, not to go off on a tangent. *Laughs*
YKIGS: You brought up a great point about getting penalized for being talented and I see that all of the time where talented artists aren’t getting the attention they deserve. With the way the r&b landscape has evolved and changed since you’ve been out, have you felt you’ve needed to change your style at all to kinda keep up with the younger generation?
BM: No, I mean if you listen to “Fall 5.0” it’s definitely the best of all worlds. You have electronica on there, you have r&b, there’s so much, but the songwriting doesn’t change. For me, you can always change the packaging and this is what I always say, if you start with a great song, you can always produce it to sound like the times. I think that what’s happening now is we’ve become a generation of beatmakers and trackmakers and the songs aren’t there anymore. Now when you hear an actual song, it’s almost something that’s foreign. People always ask me if I think real music is going to come back, and I don’t know because they’re letting anybody into this business; you don’t have to be talented, you don’t have to be able to do it live, you don’t have to be able to do anything. All you have to do is have a great personality and have a cool costume and you can be a star. And you wonder why people don’t go out and buy music! *Laughs*
YKIGS: Why do you think that’s the case? You’re someone who writes, produces, and plays instruments in addition to singing, which I have a great admiration for. Artists these days, they don’t have to do any of that but just sing. Why don’t we see more true musicians like yourself?
BM: If I knew the answer to that question then maybe we could change things. I think that people are always going to go for the easy way out, everybody wants to be a star and it’s the same thing that’s happened in every industry from the entertainment standpoint. Reality TV has killed the sitcom and hour long drama on television. Movies are a dime a dozen these days too. The technology that we have these days has made things more efficient but has also allowed anybody with $1000 to make radio quality records and make videos and TV shows at a very low price. At the end of the day, economically, if you can sell something that you didn’t spend a lot of money on, that’s always going to win. So it doesn’t matter if it’s good and it doesn’t matter if people love it, people want to see themselves on television. Unfortunately, and I’m not denigrating anyone, but most people don’t have a lot of talent. So it plays to the lowest comment denominator and it’s unfortunate but that’s the way that it is now. The only problem with that is has been where you used to get fifteen minutes of fame, maybe now you only get five or three. If that’s ok with you where you can only be famous for that short amount of time and then you have to go get a job later on in life, that might be the price you have to pay. I always go back and say I’m still selling out 20 years later whether people buy my records or not and I’m perfectly ok with singing these same songs for another 20 years, so at least the groundwork was done. I’ll continue to put out records because I can’t stop writing, but I would really prefer to be this way than the other way.
YKIGS: I always love to hear the creative process of very talented musicians like yourself. Can you take us through the process front to back of writing and producing one of your songs?
BM: You know what it is, the thing that I think is different with me than other people is I don’t set out to do anything. The day begins for me, and at some point during the day I’ll have four or five musical ideas in my head. I guess one of the beautiful things is I have a studio right in my house so I can just go right down the hall and turn those ideas into fruition. Eventually you have enough songs for an album. *Laughs* That’s the way I’ve worked since the time I was 19 and that’s the way I still work at 42. Songs will find their way into my head and at some point today or tomorrow or maybe next week, when I’m not playing golf I’ll go and I’ll work on it. *Laughs*
YKIGS: You’ve been in this music industry for over 15 years and you’ve had over 10 albums. I see a lot of artists in this industry who start out doing their own writing but as they spend more time in the industry they tend to leave the writing to someone else. Where do you find the motivation to keep writing good music?
BM: Here’s the deal, if you live your life, and the thing about me is I don’t live and breathe music 24 hours a day. I go out and live so that I have the fuel and things to actually write about. That’s why I don’t get stuck in those ruts because maybe I’ll take a year off and not write anything. That recharges the batteries and you live some and you go through your ups and downs and it gives you something to write about. I really write about the same subject all of the time, but how do you do that and remain fresh? I think that some people just forget to live in the middle of all of this and life is so beautiful that you’ll never run out of things to say if you continue to live. So that’s the way I look at it and as long as I keep that mentality, songs will come.
YKIGS: You’ve had so many memorable collaborations over the years. Is there one that stands out to you as a favorite?
BM: I tend to live in the now, there’s been so many over the years from Justin Timberlake to Guy Sebastian who was the Australian Idol, looking back at the guys who could sing and some of the things I’ve done with David Foster. On this record I do a duet with my son and it’s very difficult for people to distinguish who’s who. It’s really fun for me to be able to work with those guys because this whole record I produced with my two sons. To work with them and to get their take on things and to have them finish things that I start has been a great process and I think this is one of my favorite periods. Your career goes in sort of three stages, the beginning, the middle and the twilight. So now I feel that 20 years in this is probably the twilight for me and I think it’s fun to have that kind of inspiration that these guys know what they’re doing and guide me a little bit. It’s been a lot of fun.
YKIGS: You had a successful radio show going for awhile. Did you feel like the opportunity helped to keep your name out there while you weren’t actively recording new music and touring?
BM: Well it’s funny because I was doing everything at the same time; I had two radio shows, a TV show, and I was touring at the same time. What happens is you get these calls and get these opportunities and either you take them or you don’t. I’ve always been the type of person to want to rise to a challenge no matter what people say, whether they like it or they hate it. At the end of the day, I don’t want to ever say “I should have done that, or I should have done this.” Everything is a learning experience and I think I wore myself a little thin so that’s why it’s great to be able to let go of all of those other things and focus on just doing concerts again. It freed up my time to have a better quality of life, but I loved doing the things I was doing at that time with the radio and the TV at the same time.
YKIGS: When your career is finished, what’s the legacy you’d like to leave on the music industry?
BM: Hopefully on my epitaph, it will read my name Brian McKnight with the years, and it will say “This guy wrote a few pretty good songs.” That’s all I’d hope for.