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Interview: Brian McKnight

By Martyn 21 Sep 2016

Brian McKnight 7.19
Brian McKnight

Since he arrived on the scene in the early 90s, Buffalo, New York native Brian McKnight has been one of the most consistent and compelling American RnB superstars of our time. Blessed with a down-to-earth personality, humble charm and a catalog chock-a-bloc full of instantly recognisable slow jams; he's lasted from the New Jack Swing era to now, standing the test of time like few others from his generation.

On Saturday the 15th of October, the man with the smooth-as-silk voice and incredible level of musicianship behind 'Back at One', 'Anytime', 'One Last Cry' and so many other anthems is bringing his full live band to the Wellington Opera House for a special rendition of his An Evening With Brian McKnight show. In celebration of this, we got on the phone with McKnight himself.

Generous and articulate in conversation, while explaining how he built and maintains not just his career, but his passion for music and performance, he dropped more gems of knowledge than a startled cat burglar in Michael Hill.    

Word on the Street: Brian McKnight!

Brian McKnight: That's what they call me [laughs].

What's the secret to this music thing Brian?

I think the real secret is having people in a position to work on your behalf who continue to believe in you. People who will do what they have to do to make sure your music gets where it needs to go. Six months ago, I would have said, "Write great songs and sing really good", but I think that has changed now because I know so much more about the industry. I hate to be the guy who says this because we all want to still believe there is a Santa Claus, and people to recognise it when you're great, but I'm not sure if that is the case anymore.

How important do you think it is for musicians to have a clear vision for what they want to do?

It's very important. As a songwriter and a performer, I have a very clear idea of what I want and how I need to go about getting there. I think that the music business is the part that you have to learn, and learn how to navigate it in order to have a career, and have a career over time. 

I think that part is the other secret, to make sure that every time you are in front of people, every time they see you, every time they hear you, you live up to their expectations.

Do you think you always had a clear vision for your music?

I always had a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the music. If you can convince enough people to like you and like what you do, and they're in a position to get that music to the world, then that's half the battle right there. When I show up on stage and perform, I can't fake that. There is no amount of pulling the wool over people's eyes you can do in front of them. I think that part is the other secret, to make sure that every time you are in front of people, every time they see you, every time they hear you, you live up to their expectations.

When you were a younger man getting your start in music, who were some of the people you looked at and thought, man, if they're doing this music thing, maybe I can as well?

There was only one person really, and that was my brother [Claude McKnight III from Take 6]. In my first year of college, I watched my brother get his first Grammy. As a typical younger brother, I thought, if he found a way to do this, and we grew up in the same house, then it's probably possible for me to try and do this. I grew up at the greatest time in history for artists. Watching Stevie Wonders career, Marvin Gaye's career, Sting and The Police, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson and Prince, these are the artists I grew up with. It was a combination of wanting to be like them, and seeing my brother actually do it.

A lot of the time, it seems like significant events in musician's careers are often a result of talent, work ethic, and luck. Recently, you've been in the younger conversation as a result of the title of Travis Scott's new album Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight.

That's an interesting way to put it. What you hope is that people discover you because of what you do. I'm not saying it's a bad thing what Travis has done, but as I look at my social media and how many people are coming, looking and staying, I'm not sure if it's about my music as opposed to this guy they love referencing me. Maybe I'm overanalysing it. On the other hand, if people are coming to me for whatever reason, that is great. The other side of the coin is you wish it were because of some song you had, or something you had done. But I'll take it however I can get it [laughs].

I don't think I'm quite at legend status, but I'm not done either.

Sometimes great music can take awhile to grow up on people.

Human beings are very interesting, because if they hear something for the first time, no matter how great it is, music is very subjective. They don't know whether to like it or not because they hadn't heard it. How many times have you heard someone say, I didn't like that when I first heard it? Then after they've heard it five thousand times, they love it. When I first 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough' by Michael Jackson, I knew that was a great song. I didn't have to hear it twenty-five times before I knew that. I think that is the difference between how astute the listener is now compared to how they used to be.

Also, sometimes you hear music differently when you're a musician.

Yeah. I was talking to Travis Scott the other night, and he told me to be careful not to be the old guy who doesn't like anything new. I had to think about that because you can be listening to or looking at something and be like, oh god, what is this? Why do people like this? I think sometimes the perception is that you don't like it because you're old, and you're this and that, or whatever, but I don't know, it's a weird position to be in.

Especially when an event like this drops you into these kinds of discussions?

When I was 21 and my first record came out, I didn't think about when I would be 47. I was only thinking about what the moment was like, being on the other side of the coin, it's hard to evaluate where you fit into the whole thing. I don't think I'm quite at legend status, but I'm not done either. It's a weird limbo to be in. 

Music is pretty much all I've ever wanted to do and pretty much all I've ever had to do.

These things take time.

People still think this happens overnight, and it's never happened overnight for anyone. Building an audience is one of the hardest things you will ever try to do. My hat goes off to everyone who tries it. When you try this job, you're putting your life's work in the hands of people who can tell you how they really feel about it. It takes a lot of courage to deal with the negative and positive aspects of that.

I remember a story about early in Al Green's career. When he had his first small hit record 'Back-Up Train', he spent months on the road playing it several times night. There was a point when he was worried no one would ever want to hear anything else from him.

I always feel like if someone wants to hear something I've done, that's what I'm going to give them. As a songwriter, sure I'd love people to love the newer things I do, but that may never happen. When people say "I'm tired of singing this song," I don't get it. If people want to hear a song of mine three times in a row, I'll sing it three times in a row [laughs].

Being able to approach it like this can really make all the difference.

When I step on stage, and ten people are there, I'm excited. If there are ten thousand people there, it's the same excitement for me. I remember when I had to do a show and no one would show up or pay attention. I'll never forget that from the very first ever promotional tour I did, no matter how small or big things get. That's my philosophy. It really doesn't matter to me one way or the other. I get my energy from my audience, not necessarily the songs themselves. I guess that is just my take on that. Even if its forty years down the line and it's still 'Back At One' fine with me! [laughs] Let's go! 'Back At one' [laughs].

Music is pretty much all I've ever wanted to do and pretty much all I've ever had to do. It's because of those people who love my songs. They allow me to continue to live my dream. I will never ever forget that.

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