Interview: Brian McKnight – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

Posted: November 12, 2008 in interview, music
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Brian McKnight

Date of Interview: 11/12/2008

© 2008 Clayton Perry

When Brian McKnight sings, the world slowly fades from view.  Even bluebirds pause—and turn green with envy—because his melodies are hypnotic and have the power to envelope nearby listeners in the spirit of love.

Since 1992, Brian McKnight’s smooth, velvety vocals have blessed the ears of music lovers worldwide.  And with the recent deaths of Luther Vandross and Gerald Levert, he stands as one of America’s last modern-day “soul men.”  Even so, fans of every genre can readily identify his work—without question or pause.

Upon review of his tenth studio release, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Brian McKnight managed to find time in his busy schedule to settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Lionel Richie, “Win,” and his 16 GRAMMY nominations.

Clayton Perry: In 1998, you released Bethlehem, which served as your first Christmas album.  Ten years later, you revisited the holiday concept with I’ll Be Home For Christmas.  Your second offering is much different from the first, in terms of style and delivery, so what influenced the stylistic turn on I’ll Be Home For Christmas?

Brian McKnight: Well, with Bethlehem, I tried to make a record that people could listen to all year round. Over the last ten years, I figured out people wanted their Christmas music to sound like Christmas music. That’s what it’s supposed to be. When we think about Christmas, we think about Charlie Brown Christmas and Burl Ives. That’s what really gets you in the spirit; it’s not the contemporary songs about Christmas that you remember 20 years down the road. So I wanted to make a very traditional-sounding record and then sprinkle in a little bit of Brian McKnight here and there. I did most of it live. It’s all big band and the orchestra and I did it in a six days. I tried to make a record by considering that if I was making it in 1965, how would I do it? That’s the approach I went for.

Clayton Perry: You are right in saying that a lot of contemporary songs don’t really fit when it comes to holidays, but one of my favorite Christmas songs of all-time is “Let It Snow.” Since the song came out in 1993, I have played it every single Christmas. It’s apparent that Christmas means a lot to you, having put out two Christmas albums of your own and producing Boyz II Men’s classic Christmas Interpretations offering. What special attachment do you have to the holiday and what is your fondest Christmas memory?

Brian McKnight: I think my attachment stems from the fact that it’s the one time of the year when my entire family is actually together. It’s the one time, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, that we all try our best to get together and be thankful for the year that’s passed and really look forward to the next year because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. So I think that’s where the fondness comes from. It’s not necessarily about Santa Claus and all those sorts of things, even if those are elements of it. It’s about reflecting and really being thankful. I think the essence of this CD, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, is what it’s really all about. That’s why I chose that song to be the title because for me, being gone all the time and knowing that this is the only time that I know I’m going to be home, this is what it’s really about. I think my favorite Christmas memory is with my kids. When I started having children that’s when I started getting back to the whole essence of it because I was grown by the time I was 15. I thought that Christmas was just for little kids until I had my own little kids. I said, “You know what? This Christmas thing is really a special time that we really should cherish as much as possible.”

Clayton Perry: Speaking of the kids, on Bethlehem you made it clear that Christmas is all about love. Well, two products of your greatest love, Nicholas and BJ, join you on a new version of “Let It Snow.” As you were recording together, what did that experience mean to you, on a professional level and a personal level? What kind of thoughts were running through your mind when you were in the studio together?

Brian McKnight: I think both professionally and personally, I’m just so proud that my children have not only embraced their talents but they’re actually using it the way that it was intended. A lot of people think that, because I do what I do, my kids would choose to not do that just because of my status. Nicholas and BJ are actually embracing it and they’re doing it to the best of their ability. That’s all I ever asked – whatever it was they did, just do it 110%. That’s what they’re doing. It’s kind of surreal. You sit back and you watch them and you’re a fan, but then you’re the dad, too. So you can’t be too congratulatory. It is really an amazing thing to see. It’s hard for me to really put into words.

Clayton Perry: Having kids and balancing that with your career, how has fatherhood influenced some of your decisions?

Brian McKnight: Well, because I had two kids so young, what I wanted was to never do anything that would be detrimental to their development. A lot of people don’t think they’re role models. Well, when you have kids you really become their biggest role model. There’s saying that “children may not do what you say but they’ll definitely do what you do.” So you really have to watch what you do. That’s the way I try to live my life.

Clayton Perry: After all these years, you’re one of the few R&B artists who has been able to have longevity in the business. I’m curious to know what – personally or professionally – you think attributed to that?

Brian McKnight: That’s the question I get all the time. It’s very difficult to answer because there’s no way of knowing what the consumers want. Other than the fact that I’m going to stay true to the sort of the landscape that I’ve set up for myself, I try to be the best Brian McKnight I can be, at least musically. I wouldn’t say personally all the time – at least musically, I try to do that. I think my fans have responded to that over the years and have always supported me because I’ve done my best to keep the level of excellence in the work that I do.

Clayton Perry: Of all the songs you’ve recorded, my personal favorite is “Win.” I stumbled upon it by accident, when viewing George Tillman’s Men of Honor. Keeping the song’s lyrics in mind, I was really amazed to know you’ve been nominated for 16 GRAMMY Awards over the course of your career – but you’ve never won one. What kept you motivated, especially in the early years?

Brian McKnight: The motivation comes from the adulation I get from people that use the music for what it’s used for. I don’t make records for awards. I’ve gotten some and that’s great and I have them displayed in my house. I know what you’re saying. But…I’ve had a hand in the sale of 60 million albums and those are the awards I have up on the wall. That’s what’s more important to me, that that many people have been touched by some of the music I’ve been able to create over the years.

Clayton Perry: Over the years, you’ve written a lot of incredible songs, but you’re also an incredible interpreter of songs. You’ve covered a lot of songs, including “Distant Lover” and “Send Someone Your Love.” When you cover a song, what qualities do you look for in another artist’s song?

Brian McKnight: Well, if you’re dealing with Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, you’re dealing with royalty. So you have to pay homage and you have to do it respectfully. All the songs that we loved when we were kids are the ones that stood the test of time. You cover a song because you love it that much. And a lot of times what happens these days is record labels want you to cover a song just because they think it’s going to be a hit. That’s not always the case. So you try to look for songs and you try to affix yourself to things that have that traditional intrinsic value. And you try your best to do the best job. You’re never going to be as good as the original but you can come as close as possible.

Clayton Perry: When you look back at your career, is there a particular album that represents a special era of your life?

Brian McKnight: You know, it’s interesting. I write songs about moments in time, so each record is indicative of that moment because everything is so personal to me. From Anytime on, everything was personal.

Clayton Perry: Of all of your albums, U-Turn is perhaps the most personal. And in my opinion, I think it’s one of the most underrated in your catalog. One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda.” Has there ever been a moment in your career where you look back on and say, “I should’ve done something different stylistically on a song?”

Brian McKnight: Not necessarily. I think all the decisions that you make, everything that happens, happen for a reason. Your career has to be somewhat reactive because you don’t know by making these events happen what’s actually going to happen, you know? So you just have to do your best with what you’re given and hope you make the right decisions because you can’t go back.

Clayton Perry: Recently, you have ventured into other forms of performance art.  Currently, you are the host of The Brian McKnight Morning Show on KTWV The Wave Smooth Jazz radio station, and you have also garnered critical acclaim on the Broadway stage as Billie Flynn in Chicago.  What do you appreciate most from these alternative art mediums?

Brian McKnight: I think it is the immediate response. You can’t get that from records, being in front of an audience every night not necessarily doing what you’re known for. When it comes to the radio, it’s about power. You’re on the radio everyday dealing with an audience that you can sway one way or the other and they’re actually listening. It’s really a trip that that’s what happens. It’s great that I’ve been on both sides of the microphone because I understand how hard it is from dealing with them. From an artist perspective, it’s revealing as well. So it’s great to see both sides.

Clayton Perry: Having spent nearly two decades in the industry, is there any advice that you’ve received along your artistic journey that was of great importance?

Brian McKnight: Lionel Richie told me that it doesn’t matter what critics say, it doesn’t matter what people say. Keep writing great songs. There’s nothing that can keep you from doing that. I always start with the song. I’m a songwriter. People ask me what I do. I tell them I write songs. I sing and I perform and, you know, I do everything. But really, I’m a songwriter first and foremost.

For more information on Brian McKnight, visit his official website: http://www.bmcknight.com/

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