Brian McKnight (USA) talks Better, longevity, and upcoming Australian and NZ shows

R&B songs about love and heartbreak are all too rare nowadays, even more infrequent when we’re talking ones that sound distinctive and sincere. The 21st century is riddled with shallow hits of sex and drugs that rely on catchy hooks or smart production to have any lasting appeal beyond a radio expiry date, so it’s no surprise that 90s nostalgia is becoming increasingly viable for the global live music scene. Many look back to that decade as the unequivocal peak of R&B, and that was largely due to artists like the legendary Brian McKnight – a singer-songwriter, arranger, composer, and producer that has given the genre some of its most endearing hits such as “Anytime”, “One Last Cry”, and the instantly recognisable “Back At One”.

Such an artist, who had – and has – an effortless way with words, melody, and rhythm, will always be relevant in the hearts and minds of R&B fans around the world, and so his upcoming return to Australia and New Zealand – with a full band in tow – comes as some very welcome news.

Marked for early-to-mid October, the tour will take the veteran and his band to six cities including Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, and Wellington, showcasing both his timeless hits and McKnight’s latest album, Better, a project which signals a big refresh for the artist’s sound as well as a return to his roots with live instrumentation and mature, expressive songwriting. The majority of songs included on the album seem to reflect where Brian is at in his life right now; anyone who follows him on social media can easily tell the man has not only fallen deeply in love but has also found a big inspiration, one which has been channeled into making this one of his most grounded offerings in years, best showcased by latest single “Everything”.

“I had so much more fuel to write about, so much more going on in my life at the time so it’s just natural as a writer [to release a new album], I had something to say I guess”, said McKnight when briefly speaking to the AU review ahead of the tour. “At the time I was still working independently, and then right after I finished [recording Better] I signed a deal back to Universal – that’s why we have the DVD coming out next month, it’ll be the first time I’ve put out two things in one year.”

The DVD McKnight referred to is an upcoming project titled An Evening with Brian McKnight, which was recorded in January of this year at historic L.A venue Saban Theatre. The multi-camera and live sound recording will be hitting Blu-ray, CD, digital, and stream services later this month (23rd September), featuring a comprehensive collection of Brian’s best known hits as well as three new studio tracks produced by Aaron Pierce (Boyz II Men, Fifth Harmony).

“This DVD project that comes out next month on Universal…it’s so cool that it’s coming out right now, 25 years after the first album. That’s pretty much full circle for me.”, Brian said. “For those songs that have been performed for the last 25 years, they’ve sort of grown up with me. I think that this live show we do now, it’s really a combination of all these years of writing these songs and performing them…[this DVD is] something I wanted to give back to the fans, because they made me who I am – musically and as a man. When you’re making records, when you have a career in music you never think that 25 years are going to pass, but here we are, it’s amazing that it’s all coming together at the same time”.

In addition to hearing songs like the aforementioned “Anytime” and “One Last Cry”, new material, and the energy they have quite obviously inspired in McKnight, is a huge reason to get excited about this 2016 tour, as well as the fact that these songs were written and recorded for live instrumentation, a return to form for the singer who has worked with both organic and synthetic sounds in the past.

“I think I wrote all the songs before we actually went in and recorded all of the live instrumentation”, said Brian. “I really wanted it to feel more like the records we made back in the day. So today [usually] it’d be that you try to write to the beat, but that didn’t seem natural to me. I wanted to do what I did before, so I called all the guys and was like ‘I have these songs written, let’s listen to them’…I put it all out to the guys and we made a record in just a few days, like it was [the old days], it was amazing.

Down a choppy phone line, the excitement and passion in Brian’s voice when he spoke about the new music was obvious, a dedication often lost on R&B acts who have been around for as long as he has. When asked what keeps him focused after all these years, Brian only has one response: the fans.

“The fans! The fans dictate to you when you’re done. When we announced this Australian and New Zealand tour, my Facebook went crazy…my Twitter went crazy. All those folks were saying they want to come along. When you get that kind of response you think like ‘wow, I’m still present in these peoples’ minds, who are thousands of miles away and who only see me once every two to three years’, it’s pretty amazing. How can you not be motivated to keep making music then?”

Obviously a passion steeped in a genuine appreciation for music is also an important part of Brian’s vitality over two decades after his debut. An artist must have a strong emotional and mental connection to music to have that will to keep going for as long as possible, and that’s a trait reflected in McKnight as a fan of the music that has come before him.

On the music that evokes nostalgia in him, the same way his own music evokes nostalgia in others: “every Stevie Wonder album. Every Steely Dan album. That’s my musical bible right there, those two right there embody everything I ever wanted to do in this business. Those are the records I go back and listen to now when I feel like I’ve gone off my path, because they sound like they were recorded yesterday. They are so classic, and so relevant in my mind of what music should be. That’s what I tell people all the time. Music for me isn’t just about one thing, about listening, it’s also about learning, it’s about execution for me. I want to go back and listen to the greats – I want to listen to Miles Davis playing the entire Kind of Blue record…it’s about learning and artistry, about hearing something that nobody else can do, performed at such a high level”.

McKnight is without a doubt part of that group of musicians that embody true artistry, being a hugely talented multi-instrumentalist as well as such a natural songwriter. It’s this kind of talent that he seems to credit his longevity to.

“Very rarely artists come in on their own terms and get to do everything – whatever they want…it doesn’t really matter about talent in the beginning. Talent is what keeps you here, getting in the door is just about how you start [in the music business].”

While talent is definitely the valued trait for McKnight, he doesn’t deny the effectiveness of having a good team behind you, something he seems to have realised after recently signing to Universal.

“I think this business has always been about the idea that people get with a company that has influence that believes enough in what you do, that makes sure you get out there when you’re ready to get out there. That’s the way it’s always been from the very beginning and that’s kind of the way it’s always going to be. I kind of lost sight of that for a minute, thinking that social media would be able to support every dream I had, and it doesn’t really work like that. You really have to find somebody who wants to invest in you, who has the power, otherwise you hang up.”

Though he’s still quick to point out the benefits of social media to artists.

“I think social media has given everyone a voice. Social media makes everyone a celebrity on some level. I think that diminishes the power of an artist who bases their trade on their talent, that’s one of the downfalls. But the good thing is that you can connect with your fans all the time.”

That relationship with his fans around the world and moving to Universal seems to have taken Brian out of that state of mind where he wouldn’t have a definitive answer if asked about whether or not he’d record a new album. When asked the question in the past he has always seemed in two minds, but this time he’s answer is immediate and enthusiastic.

“Oh I do see it! I definitely see it. Now that I’m with a company who knows what they are doing I’m excited about what another record would sound like”.

Brian McKnight Australian and New Zealand Tour 2016

October 7th | Jupiters Hotel & Casino, GOLD COAST | All Ages
Tickets | 132 849

October 8th | The Star Event Centre, SYDNEY | All Ages
Tickets | 136 100

October 12th | Perth Concert Hall, PERTH | All Ages
Tickets  | 08 9231 9900

October 14th | Palais Theatre, MELBOURNE | All Ages
Tickets | 136 100

October 15th | Wellington Opera House, WELLINGTON | All Ages

October 16th | ASB Theatre, AUCKLAND | All Ages