As the last remnants of the CD era are dusted away, the R&B singers that find their way into the popular consciousness are getting quirkier. On the strength of quality rather than perceived marketability, plastic personalities have been bypassed by the honestly strange. The genre had to bottom out before new ground could be broken and it did, during a period in the mid 2000s when every single sounded like it could be sung by any R&B artist, with a few words changed for gender. It was as if all the singers were going through the motions in the same melodramatic relationship or waiting by the phone for a rapper to call asking for a hook. Prior to his 2012 breakout, Miguel experienced that low. The Los Angeles native has been in the industry since he was a teen and at one point he found himself singing and dressing to meet a label’s standards rather than his own, white tee and all.
Now, on Kaleidoscope Dream, his superb second effort, Miguel has found his own voice and become one of the leaders of his genre’s reinvention. The album is smooth soul music with an underlying adventurous spirit. Miguel, who wrote and produced the majority of the tracks, unabashedly declares his deviation from the norm while alluding to an eclectic blend of influences. On the morning after Kaleidoscope was nominated for five Grammys, including the Song of the Year award for the standout track “Adorn”, we rang up the progressive melodist to talk about his growth as an artist and found him to be as sincere and halcyon as his music would suggest.
First off, congratulations on the Grammy nominations. What was your reaction to that news?
At first I was like “Are you sure?” But then the night went on and I had a couple of drinks and I realized that it felt fucking awesome.
When a new artist emerges, people naturally make comparisons. You’ve been likened to Prince and Marvin Gaye among others. Who would you cite as your influences?
It’s a broad range. Melodically, my main influences are the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. Lyrically I’ve been inspired by David Bowie, Phil Collins and a whole slew of emcees; A Tribe Called Quest, MF Doom, Biggie. But when it comes to the music, the production, I would say The Police, Queen, Funkadelic, Prince, Michael Jackson. Different artists for different things.
That’s a diverse list. How were you exposed to such a wide spectrum of music?
I grew up in a music lovers’ environment. My dad was always listening to really different stuff – I remember him introducing me to Kraftwerk, stuff like that. He was open to everything and I think that’s where my musical taste comes from.
Do you feel like you’re just now finding your musical identity, as a solo artist, or did you have this same vision when you were writing for others?
It’s a never ending process. When I signed, I began to find my voice as musician, my unique perspective and on this album the picture came more into focus. Now I’m making deliberate musical decisions and I have confidence in what I want to accomplish.
“Adorn” is a massive hit and has been nominated for the Song of The Year Grammy. Is there a ‘eureka!’ moment when you complete a song like that?
I’m not the best at picking songs that are going to be hits. That’s not my thing. I only know when a song is special, when it’s right, when it’s complete, when the emotion is captured. That’s my goal for every song; to communicate emotion. Even though music is all sonic, it isn’t anything tangible, when a song has real emotion in it, it becomes tangible in the way that your body responds. It can be something as small as a change in breathing. When that happens, that’s when I know it’s real but I can never tell when a song is going to connect on a huge level.
Do you ever find it difficult to separate your song-writing persona from the reality of your relationships?
Those real moments are what art is about. To a certain degree you have to know what is and what isn’t appropriate to write about in detail but then again, that’s the beauty of creativity; it’s supposed to be a reflection of life. To not draw from real experiences would almost be sacrilegious to the idea of art.
You’ve said before that when you worked on your first album that it wasn’t really you. Do you feel like the current musical climate is more open to eccentricity?
Absolutely. In other genres it’s always been about individuality. In rock it’s always been about what separates you from the other acts. Somehow R & B became such a commercial thing and lost the purpose and that was to be true to the emotion and soul of the music. Everyone got caught up in trying to be commercially successful. I don’t blame the labels – it’s a business but at the same time the music became disposable. I’ve always wanted to be a timeless artist and all the artists that I look up to, that have survived, are all very unique. It was important for me to be true to that ideal, to my intention. Now there are a few of us in this genre that are finding success because of our individuality and that will only encourage the young kids that are aspiring to become artists to find their own voice. The labels are realizing that it’s worth it to take chances and seek out creativity instead of a certain mold, they’re seeing that there’s money in it. [laughs]