Brian McKnight / Brian McKnight has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide, has his own late night talk show and his own radio show. He plays nine instruments and has worked with a range of musicians from Stevie Wonder to Willie Nelson and everyone in between. He took a break during his sound check in Miami to call the Weekly and chat about music, sports and the secret ingredients to writing a song that lasts forever.
You are best known for your love songs. When writing a love song how do you know it’s going to “work”?
Well here’s the deal, for the most part I don’t know whether or not it’s going to work. All I can do is write it and then hope that there are other people out there that have been through the same things and feel the same way. If I were to sit down and try to write a song that I haven’t really experienced I think people would know it was not genuine.
You are also a multi-instrumentalist; have you found one specific instrument to be your main songwriting tool?
It’s interesting because it goes in waves. The reason I would say the guitar is because it’s mobile. When it comes to playing the piano and writing on the piano or on a keyboard, it’s much more difficult to carry it with me. But lately, because I built a studio in my house, it’s much easier to walk across the hall from my bedroom and I’m in the studio. So I can put down my ideas much easier. I’d say its pretty 50/50 now, between acoustic guitar and piano.
Have you found one to be more romantic than the other?
I find the guitar to be more intimate. I’m not sure it’s the instrument, but more of what you play.
You have two sons who are also both musicians. When did you realize they both inherited the talent gene?
Very early, from the time they were 3 and 4, they were riding with me in the car, harmonizing to whatever song was on the radio. They are now the sixth generation of my family where the gift has been passed down hereditarily. Their mother’s family is also musical, so they are getting it from both sides. They have their own group called McKnight and they will be performing with me at the Valentine’s Day show in Honolulu.
Have you been to Hawaii before?
I was there for a good friend’s wedding, which was when you guys had the big earthquake and the blackout. We ended up just playing golf all day long and lucked out ’cause his wedding was the day after the blackout.
We are slowly losing a lot of our original soul and R&B singers, recently Teddy Pendergrass. Out of the modern artists, who do you feel has had the torch passed to them?
I would probably say Musiq Soulchild, man. He seems to be holding up the banner for real soul music, probably more than the rest of us. I think the rest of us are still chasing hit songs and trying to adapt to the music of today, where he has found his niche being able to really be original and do his own thing, while still staying in the confines of what they’ll play on the radio.
Do you find yourself inspired by what he’s doing?
Yeah, I would say I am. I’m inspired that there’s hope for the next generation, that there’s still some music to be made.
I notice that with the Grammys this year, more songwriters are winning and getting recognition, versus just the artists with beats and hooks.
Well I think you are talking about storytellers. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end. If you’re going to be a songwriter, to me it should be synonymous with being a storyteller. I think, lately, we have gotten away from the story.
Back to the original soul singers we briefly discussed, what have you learned from them?
There is a sense of knowing where they come from and how they stayed so true to it. There was originality in the music that they wrote and performed and in their performances. The beauty of YouTube is you can go back and watch the performances from your favorite artists that are not performing anymore or have passed away and you can get the essence of what they did, why they are so popular and why so many people love them. It always seemed like they were striving to be their best, period.
What do you think you can express through a song that cannot be expressed any other way?
Music is so universal you can tell someone else’s story and they can relate to your story… What I try to do is paint a picture in your brain of what I’m talking about, and that hopefully you will be able to plug your own situation to it, which is very difficult to do when you are being specific about how you feel about something.
You do that with both the lyrics and the melody?
Yes, it’s the combination. This is what I know about a song that lasts forever. It’s a great melody, with great lyrics, with the right chord change at the perfect time in somebody’s life.
What’s one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I’m very rarely serious about anything. I think people listen to my music and think, “Oh, here’s this serious guy that sings about love all the time and being hurt all the time and blah blah blah.” I’m actually a sports fanatic and I’m probably the most competitive person you will ever meet, at everything. I want to win no matter what. Originally I’m an athlete. I played and lettered in football, basketball and running track and that’s what I was supposed to do. This music thing was just on the side, until it became full time.
When did music become full time?
In 1996 I broke my ankle right before I was about to leave for camp to try out for the NBA. I’m 6’5” and 205 pounds. I don’t look the typical singer.
Man, that’s such the cliché, but its real! At least you had music to fall back on.
Well, it wasn’t my parents’ first choice of something to fall back on, they were thinking like a doctor, but you know it kind of worked the other way around.