Haunting, sparse and soulful, the sounds of Californian crooner Miguel are giving contemporary R&B the kick in the backside it’s been waiting for. Read about the making of his new record Kaleidoscope Dream in our magazine feature.
When Miguel opened for Usher at his recent London show, it was by no means incidental. The R&B legend is the young gun’s mentor, the two of them brought together by music exec – and one-time Notorious BIG manager – Mark Pitts.
“Mark was very keen that we become as close creatively as possible,” says Miguel in his LA drawl. “He wanted to put me in with Usher so he could show me the ropes and give me advice. I was a nobody kid. Usher just trusted Mark, plus he’d already heard some of my music and was a fan.”
So Miguel ended up co-writing three songs on Usher’s 2010 album Raymond Vs Raymond and supported him on the US-wide OMG tour. Miguel’s contributions to the album were far removed from the will.i.am-produced anthem that gave the tour its name: OMG might have been the danced-up, dumbed-down hit that sold the albums, but it was tracks like the spacey, sexual opener Monstar, the sparse, slo-mo Mars Vs. Venus and the Cali-funk Pro Lover that made it so good when you got it.
Miguel’s earlier solo 2010 album All I Want Is You was chock-full of the same such eargasmic R&B. Sure Thing had an old-school fuzz and feel, a haunting choral harmony ran through Girl With The Tattoo, Quickie was a cocky call for a swift shag over clashing instrumentals and Hard Way was a hip hop beat softened by the swoon of his voice. It went criminally unnoticed in the UK, but hopefully his new work, Kaleidoscope Dream, will make a bigger dent in a 2012 climate where Frank Ocean’s obscuro-R&B has thrived.
Like Frank, who first made a name for himself through a free mixtape, Miguel was keen to circumnavigate the norms of releasing this time round. Certain tracks on Kaleidoscope Dream were initially put out via Art Dealer Chic, a tripartite (and freely downloadable) EP, perhaps to appeal to the influential music blogs who love a leak or a slow drip. The tease of tracks helped draw people’s attentions to their rarity and quality and fans on critic-infested forum I Love Music were going wild; many of them claiming that lead track, Adorn, was the song of the year.
Alongside Frankie O and The Weeknd, Miguel is one of R&B’s biggest game-changers; all of them switching up the genre, harnessing their love, fear, doubt, horniness and loneliness in a clever, cool new manner, albeit with soul.
“You can hear it the moment you hear the voice. There’s a soul, there’s feeling behind it. It’s progressive, it’s not the same sound, not the same topics, not written from the same perspective. People lost sight of the individuality and R&B became so urban,” he says, suggesting that machismo meant male singers couldn’t be emotional or experimental. But he adds, “I think the great part about R&B now is that individuality is starting to be celebrated again. There are a few people who are really pushing the boundaries of what has become the stereotype. Artists in the genre are tired of the bullshit and the same regurgitated, soulless stuff. The soul of it had completely gone and it lost sight of what it was.”
Kaleidoscope Dream is Miguel’s way of “sitting down and having a drink with the listener”. But which drink and what’s the chat? “It’s Jamie, Johnnie or Jack, so Jameson, Johnnie Walker or Jack Daniels. We’d catch up on current events and talk about women as well, obviously. I want people to understand the full spectrum of my personality.”
Even though he’s from LA, he’s been living bicoastal in recent years and wanted to record the album in New York to reflect the life he’s been living there: “Being a Lower East Side kid in skuzzy bars with random people drinking, ending up at random parties, having a good time, making fucking stupid mistakes and laughing about it the next morning.”
When I tell him that I adore Adorn, he sings a short refrain, reminding me what an odd feeling it must be to have music pouring out of you. “It’s real cool watching a song from its inception and then seeing it become other people’s song. I remember the night I had the Adorn chords in my head, then getting home and playing the chords and drum pattern. It wrote itself in two hours.
“Then I went and listened to it in my car. That’s how I know if I love a song or not: if I get in my car and I’m like ‘Oooooooh’ [pulls pained, satisfied frown], then I know. I remember playing it at about 3am, sitting there jamming and being like, “This shit feels crazy. I don’t know if anyone else is gonna like this shit, but I love it.”’
His music’s for himself in another way too – as a way of staying sane. “I think all artists are a bit emotional. I try and reserve my emotion for my music and in everyday life, keep it as even as possible. If I wasn’t making money, I would do this regardless. It’s like health – mental fucking health.”
Words: Stuart Brumfitt
Photographer: Kim Jakobsen To
Fashion Editor: Francesca Turner