MNEK: the proud pop star you’re looking for
Singer/producer talks about multifaceted music and debut North American solo tour
MNEK’s confidence is contagious.
The pop star openly structures his work after his favorite albums of the past. He’s able to juggle humor and adversity in his music because he isn’t afraid of being honest. And when he puts a photo of his hero in front of him in the studio, he gets the results he wants.
This confidence even radiates on the phone, where he’s just as much of an open book as he is in his music.
It takes someone with this level of confidence to give Beyonce’s “Lemonade” its most honest single. And it takes that honesty to create “Language,” the British pop star’s debut album, which is his first step in conquering the U.S. market.
MNEK is finally bringing his catalog to North America this month, and plays Toronto’s Velvet Underground on the 23rd. Before his show, I talked with MNEK about the music that brought him to where he is, using his craft to tell his full story as a gay black man and helping fans come to terms with themselves.
Before understanding you as an artist, I want to understand the things that inspire you. I’ve seen you post about this album a lot, so how much of an influence was Janet Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope” on your musical upbringing?
MNEK: I grew up listening to loads of Whitney Houston, Bob Marley and just everything that was on MTV. So there was Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Mariah [Carey], all them lot. So then it was really only when I got to my teens that I really paid attention to albums and get my own sense of what albums I liked and what albums resonate with me. I spent so many years trying to figure out what kind of album I wanted to make and what I want people to feel like at the end of it. Listening to “Velvet Rope,” especially, is an album where I just was engulfed in it from start to finish and I loved what it represented. I loved how it had lightness and darkness and it also had an overall just vibe. It was her telling a story. And with this album, even my first album, I could only do this if I was telling the same stuff that was real to me or real to my community or real to what I wanted to say.
With this record, “Language,” the themes range from, as you said, the light and the dark. There’s the mispronunciation of your name and a little humor there. Then there’s topics like racism, homophobia and love in general. Was it difficult to find the balance between the humor of mispronunciation and the honesty in your powerful messages there?
MNEK: I can only be myself and myself is a very multifaceted person, as we all are. The best thing for me was to showcase the different parts of who I am and there’s a part of me that does think about the world that I’m living in and I’ve grown up in. I’m 24, I’m black, I’m gay and I’m in a world where I’m very much a minority in many ways. And so I do think about these things. It’ll be like tone deaf to not at least acknowledge it in my music. And then there’s another side of me that just wants to laugh and then have a good time. There’s songs for that. I’m happy that I’m able to do those and that people have received it and understood what I tried to do there.
I read that you started making music in your bedroom at age nine.
MNEK: I started making beats when I was nine. I started to make my own melodies and things like that. I guess it was just one of those things where I was just a fan of music. For me, it started out with me being a fan of music and me being a proper music addict and wanting to know about artists and wanting to know how the song was made by watching all these documentaries. And then it was just like, okay how do you make that? How do you make music? How do you create things that make people feel something like that? And I’m still on that journey. I’m still figuring out how.
You said you watch these documentaries. I saw that you actually studied producers like Darkchild and Max Martin. In tracks like “Body,” you experiment with some pretty tight vocal layering and “Free” shows you pairing yourself with a vocoder effect. Where did you pick up on the importance of vocal layering? Was it through studying these producers?
MNEK: The truth to the vocal layering is that I love to sing. It's really as simple as that. When it comes down to my favorite singers, it’s people like Mariah and Beyonce. Their knowledge of their voices and their knowledge of how to harmonize themselves is just so inspirational. But on top of that, it has been listening to the work of these producers that I look up to from Jam and Lewis to Darkchild to Jermaine Dupri to The Neptunes. These are all people that I really admire and have made some of my favorite records of all time. I guess it was natural. Vocal production is just almost more important to me than the musical production because there’s so much that can be done with the vocal and so much that can be said… It’s something that I pay attention to because it makes a song.
And you found yourself working with artists that have also worked with these producers you admire. Obviously, Beyonce with Darkchild. How does it feel to see things like that come full circle?
MNEK: It’s really cool. I always struggled to take it in because it’s one of those things where it’s something that happened. It was something that was very brief in time. I’m still figuring out how it went weirdly enough. And it’s cool that [“Hold Up”] ended up on “Lemonade.” It’s really sick to hear anything that came from my brain be sung by Beyonce who I’ve looked up to my entire life. It’s really cool, it’s really amazing and I hope that it’s not the end of that. I hope that they’ve appreciated what I did and they’ll tell other people. That’s all I can really hope for.
You mentioned Mariah earlier. I saw that you kept a photo of “Daydream”-era Mariah Carey in front of you microphone in the studio during the recording of “Language.” Can you tell me the story behind how that ritual took shape?
MNEK: What you see is what you get, really. I’ve got a bunch of pictures in my room of all my favorite artists. I have Mariah, Janet, Destiny’s Child, Keyshia Cole, Rihanna… they’re all on my wall. I have all these pictures of Mariah. I kept some around and I glued some on the wall, but I literally just kept this one in the studio. I was like, “Hey, might as well just put it in the booth.” So there it is.
Has there been any results from that?
MNEK: It does work. It really does work. She keeps staring at me like with kind eyes. You know you want to deliver a good vocal because it's like she’s rooting for you.
You mentioned that you enjoy hearing from fans who you helped come to terms with themselves. How does it feel to play a role like this in somebody’s life?
MNEK: It’s very humbling. It’s great to really meet these people, talk to these people, hear their stories and hear them come out of their adversities. And from a selfish point of view in some respects, for me it makes it more than just making music. The reason I’m in this industry is to make music and that’s what it’s all about. I was like, “I just want to make songs.” That’s all I’ve ever been good at. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. And it just makes me happy. But then, it’s different when what makes you happy is making someone else happy. And that gives it a purpose and it makes me so happy. It makes me want to try harder.
Your solo tour hits Toronto’s Velvet Underground on Feb. 23.What are you looking forward to most about embarking on your own?
MNEK: First of all, I’ve never been to Toronto. So I’m really excited to come to Toronto and catch a vibe, see people and perform. I really can’t wait. And it’s my first big tour. I’ve had a mini tour in the U.K. with three shows, but this is a six-show tour. I’ve been thinking really hard on my set list and trying to make it tailored to my American audience. They haven’t seen the “Small Talk” EP live. They haven’t seen any of the remixes. I’m trying to incorporate all these things in there and not make it a really long-ass show.
Brenton J. Blanchet is the managing editor and can be reached at Brenton.Blanchet@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @BrentBlanchSpec.