I am on the phone with Brian McKnight and I can’t believe what I’ve just done. In an effort to impress and engage, I tell McKnight that his nickname should be “The Mood Maker” because he has such a knack for creating just that with a song. And this man —whom I consider to be half human, half musical genius— starts giggling. And he continues to giggle as I share that the lead single off of his latest album More Than Words, “Sweeter”, is my favorite.
Throughout his 20-year career and over the course of 15 albums, he’s given me other favorites as well: “Anytime.” “You Should Be Mine.” “Let Me Love You.” “Back At One.” But back to the giggling. I’m not sure why it takes me off-guard so, but I smile on the inside and press on past my expectations, which were that he would be charming and engaging. The humility and lightheartedness juxtaposed with his confidence, introspectiveness, and insight on the state of the world and the state of music today are all pleasant surprises. It’s all Brian McKnight. And it’s all there, in the music.
VH1 TUNER: Let’s talk about the album cover to start — are you naked? And is that a woman’s foot in the picture?
Brian McKnight: Well, here’s the deal with that picture… the original picture was not as dark. The label felt like even in 2013 that the cover was too risqué, so they darkened it. But yes, I am naked. In the original picture you could see [the woman’s] legs and everything. I was hoping that people would look at it and say, “I wonder what either just happened, or is about to happen. It’s more artsy than it was supposed to be seductive. It’s just a cool picture that I had an idea to do, and we did it.
You have a gift for setting a mood with a song. What’s your secret to creating that music magic?
As far as the creation of the music itself, and the mood, that’s just what goes on in my head. I hear the entire musical form in my head before I even sit down to start playing the stuff. I’m probably the furthest from being romantic that you’ve ever seen, I’m not even close to being romantic in any way until I have to be. But I guess when I need to do that I can go there, but I don’t even really think about it. I let everybody else decide how they feel about what I do. I just do it.
You come from a musical family, and you’re definitely bringing it second-generation McKnight style on this release, which features contributions from your sons Brian Jr. and Niko. And they both can sing!!! What was it like working with your sons on this project?
Well, I’ve been working with them now for years, this isn’t the first time we’ve worked together this way. It’s great to have really super-talented kids, it’s just not that great to have them at this time, because they’re at a time when talent doesn’t matter that much anymore, and actually it can be detrimental to a career. We are living in the age of the “music personalities”—not musical artists. It’s all attitude, and it’s much less about performing and actually being able to sing, and being able to play and being able to write. And consequently it’s not exactly the recipe for sustaining a long career, unfortunately.
So you’ve shared the basketball court and the studio with Justin Timberlake, who you worked with on the 2002 Grammy-nominated “My Kind of Girl.” Justin brought “sexy back” in 2006 and is now back in the game with his latest release. After being away from the music scene for about two years, how are you stepping up your music game with this album?
I don’t know if I’m bringing anything other than what I always bring back. What I hope that people always do when they’re listening to a song like “Are You Ready To Learn?” or any of my records is take a step back and look at life – look at your own situations, and I think that’s something that we don’t do anymore.
I write about moments and I don’t make blanket statements about anything because no one has all the answers, nobody’s come up with a foolproof way to do anything when it comes to emotions. We’re all different and we’re all the same where that’s concerned. It’s just crazy to live at this time where people are just so influenced by nonsense, and then they hide behind their keyboards. And everybody’s so mad all the time! You know why that is? Because there’s no love. There’s no love for each other, there’s no love between men and women – everybody is just angry all the time, and I think we just need to try to find a way to get back to a time when we actually cared about one another.
Speaking of Justin, when’s the last time you hung out with him? Have you been hooping it up on the basketball court?
Nah, we’re both really busy. I think when we were really, really cool it was kind of when *NSYNC was dying down, right before his movie career took off, and before he got married. We weren’t grown up yet. As grownups now it’s harder to get together and do some of those things we love to do.
I don’t know. That’s a hard question to answer because I do everything myself. And I think we live in a day and age when the first thing people ask you is, “Who’d you feature? Who’d you this, who’d you that?” And I’m like, “Dude, I been making my own records since day one.” And my favorite person to work with is me. So it’s not that I don’t want to work with people, I just have these things that I want to say that are coming from me, and they don’t necessarily lend themselves to a whole lot of extra people being involved. I am at my core a singer/songwriter a la James Taylor, or a la Billy Joel. It’s not that I don’t want to work with people, but I do just love doing my own thing.
You had some mixed reaction to your adult mixtape song “If You’re Ready to Learn.” What was the takeaway or lesson from that whole experience?
That was a parody from the very beginning. The idea was that people take themselves way too seriously, and they take me way too seriously, because I don’t. Everybody who had a problem with what I did were people who don’t even listen to me anyway. If they have, they haven’t listened to me since when I was in their consciousness with hits on popular radio stations, so they were only going on what they heard, and they don’t even really know me. I still think that’s one of the most clever songs I’ve ever written. Most people don’t even listen to words. They have no idea what I was talking about or even who was talking at the time. People don’t like when you point out to them and remind them that they’re not very smart.
You got your first record deal at age 19 and have been making hits ever since. What have you NOT done in music that you would still like to accomplish?
Oh, I’ve done everything that I’ve ever wanted to do. The thing about now is just being around. People still spend their money to come and see me, which is the most awesome thing in the world after 20 years. So as long as I continue to do that, that’s all I could ever hope for honestly.
When I listen to your songs I think about that scene from the movie Roxanne, where Steve Martin hides behind a tree and tells Rick Rossovich what to say to Daryl Hannah. You’re able to say in a song what either a woman wants to hear, or what I guy wishes he could say, like with “Sweeter.” What are the ingredients of a good song? And what makes a song great?
Well, let me clarify what that song really means. For me, “Sweeter” is really the way you should feel when somebody makes you feel that way – the mundane things in life should come alive for you. When you’re in love with someone, and you feel that, you then notice how much the sun is shining and how blue the sky actually is, and things really come alive for you. I’m never really trying to make good songs. I’m always trying to make great songs. And the ingredients are always the same. If you have the right melody with the right lyric with the right chord changes with the right subject matter, you have the ingredients for a hit song.
With this new album you give your fans more:
At this very moment you wish that you had more:
Right now, music needs more:
[Photos: BrianMcKnight.com, Getty Images]