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Getting Real with Brian McKnight

The R&B Crooner Talks Music, Family and Getting Back in the Studio

Written By: Elizabeth Nutt Getting Real with Brian McKnight
Photographed By: Shane Radacosky
The Expert: Brian McKnight
Credentials: R&B singer, songwriter, producer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and 16-time Grammy Award nominee.

On Jan. 29, 2016, Brian McKnight’s 16th studio album, Better, will hit shelves—a name that harks back to McKnight’s extensive career. McKnight signed his first record deal at age 19 and has since sold over 25 million albums worldwide. He’s an unstoppably consistent force in the music industry and he’s toured successfully for over a decade, continuing to tour through 2016. And yet, the artist still works toward becoming a better musician: “I need to work, ” McKnight says, “to prove to [my fans] that I’m here for a reason.”

McKnight was raised by a family of classically trained pianists and church choir singers with his brother signing a record deal at age 18. His family’s musical history is perhaps why the artist remains refreshingly humble, despite having won a litany of prestigious awards, including American Music Awards, Soul Train Awards and Billboard Songwriter of the Year. Today, the celebrated McKnight is focused on supporting the next generation of prodigious musicians in his family—his own sons, whom he refers to as two of the most talented people he knows. But the philanthropic singer has no plans to keep it all in the family; he also runs the McKnight 360 Foundation, founded in 2012 and aimed at bolstering arts programs for children at schools nationwide. Fans, rest assured: Brian McKnight’s passion for spreading his music around the globe isn’t ending any time soon.

Q: Describe your childhood. Growing up in New York, how and when did music make its way into your life?

Brian McKnight: Well, we grew up singing in church. My mother’s family had been singers, and my children are the fifth generation in my family to sing in the church choir. Basically, our family was our choir in church, my grandfather being the minister of music. When I got to kindergarten, I was shocked when I realized that not everybody could sing.

Q: In what ways did singing in the church choir influence you as a musician?

BM: Singing in church gives you the confidence to get up and sing everything. And once you learn to sing with purpose, it’s easy to get on stage and sing about love and things like that. The church choir is also far more astute in terms of knowing what’s good. The pop world is far more forgiving, but singing in the church choir, you’ll learn more from that than from anywhere else.

Q: You signed your first record with Wing Records at age 19. Tell me about your high school years.

BM: My older brother signed a record deal at 18, and until then I had thought that singing was just something we did in church. We started singing in bars and clubs when I was 15, and at that point, that was the extent of my whole idea of being able to make a living on some level other than being a church musician.

Q: What artists did you look up to or try to emulate? In what ways are their influences present in your music today?

BM: I was an athlete, too, growing up, and I actually wasn’t really thinking about musicians as far as the people I looked up to. I really thought that making records was temporary. But I thought I’d be in the NBA, so my heroes were always athletes, players like Michael Jordan. What I tried to do was look at what drove them, what was it about them that made them great other than what they were just born with? What did they have to do to work to become great? At some point in your adult life, you’ll have to be on a team, and you need to know how to excel in a team situation. That’s kind of the way I approach everything I do—from that standpoint.

Q: What challenges did you face in terms of navigating the industry as a young person?

BM: The very first contract could be the worst contract you ever sign, but you just have to get in, no matter what you want to be, and that’s the hardest thing. And then it comes down to staying there, once you are in. When I found that record deal, it was such a release because I thought the hardest part of it was over.

Q: What were some lessons that you learned in those early years?

BM: I learned that although it seems like I’m in this really glamorous position, this career is still going to be about the work, writing the songs, putting my head down, and making the right decisions. It took me three years to put that first album—Brian McKnight—out, and during that time I was watching all these other records come up, but I got my record deal on my first single. Nothing’s going to come easily; you have to work for everything you get. And it really has nothing to do with the work itself; it has everything to do with how much you love it, because it’ll always be up and down.

Q: Who were some of your mentors over the years?

BM: Obviously, there were people that were instrumental in my career. My brother got a record out and won three Grammys on his first album. Once he did that, I thought, if he can go and do that, I can, too—typical brother mentality! Even in my family, which has been musicians forever, none of them ever went professional. I’ve always been the kind of person who knows that the only person I can really count on is me.

Q: You play nine instruments and you’ve been nominated for 16 Grammy Awards. Describe the education and formal training that you received as a musician.

BM: I’m pretty much self-taught, I’m the guy who can pick up pretty much everything and I’m musical enough to figure it out. I wouldn’t say I had formal training, but if you sit in that choir with the people that are in my family, you get that training because they’re all formally trained.

Q: From where specifically do you garner creative inspiration?

BM: I live life the way I live it and whatever happens to me or around me or in front of me is the fuel for whatever comes out in the songs I write. I also believe that the more music you know, the more music you’ll be able to write. Most of us are just calling upon other things we’ve already heard. There’s nothing new under the sun, but the more you hear the more you’re able to create.

Q: What are some of your favorite stories or moments from your career?

BM: I did a show recently in Cape Town, South Africa, and I was called back for a third encore. For some reason that night, I finally believed that I was Brian McKnight. What does that mean? It means that most of the time, whether I’m walking down the street or at the gym, people will stop me and recognize me, but I’ve never let myself get wrapped up in that world. But for those 25 seconds on stage where 10, 000 people were screaming and crying—well, you almost believe it for a second that you’re really that awesome. I’m still surprised that people show up, and it makes me feel like I need to work, to prove to them that I’m here for a reason.

Q: Is there a particular song that you’d never tire of playing?

BM: I don’t get tired of singing anything—I think it’s silly when other people say that because if the audience is coming here to hear a particular song, then I’ll play it four times in a row for them if that’s what they want. I’m so connected to all of my songs, and everything that comes out of me on stage is mine—it came from my head and my heart, and people are there to hear me. That’s the only thing that matters to me.

Q: What is your lifestyle—and schedule—like today?

BM: It depends … people always ask me, “When do you go on tour?” Well, we’re never off tour! One weekend I’m in Vienna singing with the orchestra, and then I’ll be singing the National Anthem at the Patriots game in Boston. And then I’m headed to do a private show in Miami on a yacht. Every weekend I’m somewhere singing. When I’m not working, I’m at at the gym or playing golf.

Q: Your sons have joined you on tour. What was that like for you?

BM: Two of the most talented people I know are my boys. They grew up way more privileged than I did. It’s been great to see them evolve over the years and to see where they are today. I have so much hope for where they’re going, too.

Q: What was the impetus for founding the McKnight 360 Foundation? What motivates you to give back?

BM: I think arts programs are so important, especially at a time when so much is taken away from kids, depending on the school district that children happen to go to. Without these other aspects of life and the things that enrich their lives, kids don’t have the same kind of chances that we did.

Q: What are your upcoming projects and plans?

BM: I’ve got a new record, “Better, ” coming out in January. I never really thought I’d make another one, because there isn’t a market anymore for what I make. But I really felt like I had more to say. And there are some other things on the horizon, but I don’t want to jinx anything. My “Better” single is out now and it’s doing really well. I want people to know that I’ve really gone back to my roots. My new album is just me performing live in the studio with the band playing—it’s natural.

Q: What’s something the public doesn’t know about you?

BM: You won’t understand who I am unless you listen to my music. I’m very rarely serious, and when people meet me they always say, “I had no idea you were so funny!” I do not take myself seriously at all. I laugh at myself constantly. The only way you’re really going to get to know me is to come and see me play. I put clues about who I am in my music.

Q: Who are your favorite artists of all time?

BM: That’s easy—Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan.

Hoop Dreams: McKnight initially wanted to be in the NBA. His heroes growing up were basketball players, not musicians, because he was certain that a successful career in the music industry was only temporary—if not impossible.

Playing With Stars: Brian McKnight has collaborated throughout his career with countless other successful artists, including: Quincy Jones; Justin Timberlake; Mariah Carey; Diddy; Rascal Flatts; Nelly; Willie Nelson; Vanessa Williams; and Kenny G.

Globe Trotter: Brian McKnight has performed all over the globe during his career, but his favorite venue of all time is right here at home in Los Angeles: The Hollywood Bowl.

B E T T E R /// Believe It. Brian McKnight Talks His New Album “Better” and Life in the Music Business.

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