Interview: Miguel

miguel

It has been something of a whirlwind few months for Miguel.  His second album, Kaleidoscope Dream, climbed to number three in the Billboard Charts, its exquisite lead single ‘Adorn’ earned him a Grammy award for best R&B song and he’s been supporting Alicia Keys on her ‘Set the World on Fire’ tour.  His flight only landed in Dublin a couple of hours ago but there’s no time to rest: there are interviews to do, then preparations for the night’s show – the first gig of Keys’ European leg of the tour.  Then in two days he will be popping back to the States to perform on television with Mariah Carey before immediately returning to Europe to continue the tour. It is perhaps understandable, then, that as he sits down across from me, America’s favourite new R&B artist seems a bit tired.

“I’m a little sleepy but I’ll be okay”, the singer reassures me with a grin as he pours himself a glass of water.  And, indeed, it isn’t long before Miguel is talking animatedly about the tour so far, and how interesting he finds the variety of the crowds who come to watch Alicia Keys.  I point out that such diversity in audience is something that he himself could boast, with critical accolades coming from outlets as far removed as Entertainment Weekly and Pitchfork.  “Yeah, it’s pretty cool”, he agrees before hesitating slightly, “I mean, Pitchfork definitely wouldn’t have been paying attention to my music a couple years ago – but my music was different then.”

Miguel’s 2010 debut album, All I Want Is You, was met with relative critical apathy upon its release and the music style it showcases, while good, is far more in the vein of standard top 40 R&B than his current output.  Kaleidoscope Dream, meanwhile, has been incredibly well received – perhaps in part due to being released in the aftermath of the likes of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, artists with whom Miguel is often compared.  “I’m happy to be mentioned in the same breath as any artists that are doing something different and unique, so I guess I take that as a compliment”, he says of such comparisons and, although his response initially seems somewhat wary, he does quickly add, “And I’m a big fan of both of their music.”

He is also a big fan of current poster boy of hip-hop Kendrick Lamar, with whom he worked on an excellent version of the slick and sleazy ‘How Many Drinks’.  Much to Miguel’s frustration the track did not make the final cut of his beloved Kaleidoscope Dream, and was instead recently released as a remix.

  

All of that isn’t to say that Miguel is not still very proud of his debut, however – “You should listen to it”, he tells me with no trace of irony when I admit that I’ve yet to do so properly, “It’s really good.”

This sense of confidence in his work is something that is visible throughout the interview and, in general, Miguel exudes an affable air of certainty regarding his occupation.  “I truly believe this is what I’m here to do, y’know?”, he tells me towards the end of our conversation.  Statements like that should seem a bit corny, perhaps, but given the quality of Kaleidoscope Dream his self-assurance certainly seems justified.  It’s an excellent album – all sensual, lush, innovative, spacey and soulful R&B with swooning Marvin Gaye meets Prince vocals and an almost baroque sense of theatricality. All of this is combined with the often startlingly frank, honest lyrics – “just lie to me, lie to me…tell me that the pussy is mine” he begs an unfaithful lover  on ‘Pussy Is Mine’ and while the title and conceit should be questionable and borderline misogynistic there’s something almost humbling about his decision to put such an incredibly raw song on the album – again, perhaps an indicator of his innate self-confidence.

With that confidence in mind I ask if any of this monumental success had seemed possible to him at the time of releasing his first album.  “You imagine it”, he says with a thoughtful smile, eyes lighting up behind his sunglasses, “But you don’t really know.  I mean, you know and you believe it but it’s a completely different thing when you achieve it. And I think that’s the greatest part – you believe, even in those moments where it seems completely out of the picture, you keep on believing and you fight for it and then one day all of a sudden it comes almost unassumingly.”

He talks a lot about believing, and I wonder aloud if it has anything to do with his unusual upbringing.  His parents divorced and Miguel spent his childhood between his mother’s fiercely religious Christian household and his father’s more relaxed – in his words, “not religious” – home.  “I think, more than anything, that just taught me how to make choices”, he says after some consideration, “What it is I believe in, what I stand for…deciding for yourself what you’re gonna be.  And I think that all contributes to solid creative decisions.”

On the subject of creative decisions, I ask how much of his second album is representative of him.  Certainly Miguel’s marketing and music videos have been heavily dependent on his personal control.  “Kaleidoscope Dream is definitely the clear picture of who I am and what my lifestyle is like – what I’m drawn to, what inspires me”, he reels off with enthusiasm,  “It sounds like my life – the sound, the pace and the taste and the texture of how I live.  I think that’s the biggest difference between the albums; that this one is more of an honest portrait of who I am as an individual.”  Every now and again Miguel will say something like this – something that seems more like a prepared sound bite than an immediate response – but as the interview progresses it becomes apparent that this is just the way he is.  The more he talks, the more Miguel’s genuine love for what he does comes through and if he talks like a press release now and again it’s out of a sincere desire for people to appreciate his music.

This concern with presenting himself in a certain way means that I can’t help but broach something that must have shaken his confidence a little – the incident at the Billboard Awards a few days prior to our meeting.  Mid-performance the singer misjudged a stage dive and landed unceremoniously on top of two fans, right on top of one of their heads. “Everyone saw that.  Did you see the memes?!  I’m ‘that dude’ now”, Miguel says with a good-natured groan, although his formerly poised position does seem to slump a little, “I feel horrible for almost injuring someone but”, he pauses, and continues in a very measured manner, “Anyone who’s seen me perform will tell you I’m a very passionate person. In the moment I just do what feels right but that’s no excuse – I shouldn’t have done it.  The hardest part is not being able to go online and apologise, for legal reasons – I can’t say anything, it fucking sucks.  I’ll tell you though, that first night I was really, really in a bad place.”

Is all this media scrutiny worth it, then, I ask – is this what being successful means? “I get to do what I love so with that comes a huge responsibility – a trade-off”, he replies judiciously, “I have to sacrifice something for that, and if it means being in the public eye; making mistakes in front of thousands or millions of people; if it requires being laughed at, being judged, being torn down – whatever it requires, I do it regardless.  For me there’s no separation between public success and personal success – as in, I don’t think one has to be sacrificed for the other.  The ultimate success for me would be to remain true to what I believe in and still touching the world – as idealistic or clichéd as that may sound.”

Something tells me he doesn’t have to worry too much about his aspirations being idealistic – Miguel’s music is exciting and fresh and, combined with the sense of sincerity and genuine compassion he exudes, success on his terms seems a fairly realistic aim.

“You don’t really have to like me”, he says, frankly, as the interview comes to an end, “You don’t have to love me, but at the end of the day I think life is all about being passionate.  I respect passionate people, I appreciate them – not everyone’s gonna like you for the decisions you make but as long as you’re passionate about what you do and you stick to it they’ll have to respect you.”

Again, it is one of those strange, almost-rehearsed sounding sentiments, but the way that Miguel talks makes it clear that he means what he says.  There’s nothing all that rehearsed about his performance that night, anyway – it’s polished, yes, but the way he leaps around the stage with an incredible energy and abandon makes me consider what he said about passion and getting caught up in the moment.  In the aftermath of the Billboard Awards there’s no doubt that Miguel will continue to get some abuse and, while other rising artists might have let it get to them, it’s to his credit that he takes it in his stride.  His genuine passion for what he does combined with his creative insatiability means that, regardless of whether you’re a fan or not, Miguel and his theatrical brand of soul-infused R&B are here to stay.

As he says in regards to his success so far, “You send a man to the Moon, but then you realise there’s Saturn, there’s Mars – there’ll always be another star, another planet; it’s innate.  So all the fighting I did, all the hard work I put in – I realise now that was just to prepare me for the next level.”

After we part ways, my immediate feeling is that there is something very engaging about Miguel; that the sometimes out-there things he says are reflected in the soaring and strange sounds in his music while his frank honesty is similarly conveyed in his lyrics.  And so, for all I scrutinised him for it, it seems Miguel has a point about how Kaleidoscope Dream is an honest self-portrait.  His talk of the Moon and Saturn still remains farfetched on consideration – though if he keeps things up, it seems that Earth might well be Miguel’s for the taking.

Kaleidoscope Dream is out on Sony and you can buy it here.

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