Miguel offers up potent R&B cocktail
When super storm Sandy shut down New York City last October, R&B star Miguel took the opportunity to get some work done.
“Four miles away it was complete mayhem and where we had lights and power. You would think it was just a regular rainy day,” the 26-year-old tells MSN over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “It was a horrific event for some of the people in New York. My heart and prayers go out to them.”
Miguel (born Miguel Jontel Pimentel) waited out the storm in a Midtown studio with an artist whose career he is developing. Although he declines to name names, he is using his rising success to assist one or two up-and-coming musicians that he sees potential in, adding that their sound is “definitely different” from his psychedelic take on R&B but “still soulful and unique in their own way.”
“Soulful” and “unique” are two words Miguel repeats often when discussing his favourite music.
“I’m such a huge fan of individuality. I love to celebrate that,” he explains. “I think there’s something really interesting that comes out of a collaboration when two people are aware of who they are and willing to embrace new ideas. The things that come out are uncanny.”
Personal perspective can sometimes get lost when a musician aims to reach as broad an audience as possible. Labels will convene songwriting boot camps to bang out a series of hits that might find success on the radio but do not necessarily reflect the singer’s life experiences.
In composing his sophomore album, Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA/Sony), Miguel set out to make music that was emotionally visceral and deeply personal. It’s a hazy and intoxicating blend of textures; seductive, slow-burning grooves, shimmering guitars, rumbling bass and dreamy falsetto that evoke classic rock, soul and funk acts such as The Zombies, Marvin Gaye and Funkadelic.
Since it came out in October, the album has received glowing reviews that align Miguel with a new guard of young R&B performers such as Frank Ocean and Toronto’s The Weeknd that place a high value on subtly and mood.
Whereas most contemporary R&B released at the major label level strongly emphasizes vocal acrobatics, Miguel often treats his voice as another instrument in the mix. “Subconsciously it was more about the vibe of the sound so lyrics and vocals took a backseat to the overall feel,” he explains. “It was about sculpting a sound.”
Listeners seem to be feeling his approach. Kaleidoscope Dream debuted at number three on the Billboard 200 album chart and at number one on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart and is turning up year-end ‘best of’ lists, as is lead single “Adorn.” He also caught the attention of pop superstar Beyoncé, who brought him into a recording session for her upcoming fifth album.
Although he’s a new voice for many, Miguel has been building a following through urban radio since the release of his debut album All I Want Is You in 2010. The Salaam Remi-produced title track became a sleeper single that summer and its follow-up “Sure Thing” reached number one on the R&B/hip-hop chart in the United States.
He wrote the latter song, as well as “Quickie,” “Vixen” and “Strawberry Amazing” during a burst of creative inspiration at age 21.
“That’s when I changed my creative process to not writing anything down and just recording what was in my head. It was a very liberating moment,” he says. “That changed everything. It led to moments like writing “Sure Thing,” the song that got me signed. The rest is like history.”
Attending the Coachella music festival in 2004 was another turning point. It opened up him to a wide range of musical influences beyond the staples of rock, hip-hop and R&B he grew up listening to at home in Los Angeles: David Bowie, Queen, Prince, D’Angelo and Slum Village, among others.
Seeing acts Radiohead perform for the first time at Coachella took him back to his seminal music memories from childhood.
“Like the first time I heard ‘Roxanne’ by The Police,” he recalls. “I was in my dad’s car. He had a Nissan 250 ZX and it came on the classic rock station. He turned it up loud and he knew every word and I remember rolling the windows down.
“It as a Friday because my father only picked us up on the weekends,” he adds. “I just remember him going [sings falsetto] ‘Put out the red light! Put out the red light!” I’m looking over at my dad going this is so cool! It just felt so cool! It was just a great feeling. I want people to feel that way [listening to my music].”
So, what do Miguel’s parents think of his success?
“My mom likes the songs that are not so sexual,” he says, laughing sheepishly. “She raised me to be the kind of person that is outspoken so I think she’s proud of me for that. My father loves all the music. He just loves music. So it’s dope. And he knows good shit so knowing that he loves my music is really special.”
One of the not-so-sexual songs on Kaleidoscope Dream is Candles In The Sun, a pointed political ballad that ends the preceding 37 minutes of tortured romance and blissful euphoria on a bluntly serious note.
Although the song was inspired by his beliefs about social problems and economics, he opted not to delve too deeply into the subject – a move that hints at potential new directions for the rising singer-songwriter.
“When it comes to social commentary I could’ve gone a lot more in-depth,” he explains. “But what was important was to show people that my life is not lived in the bedroom. My life is not all about romance.”