Brian McKnight is a living R&B legend. Having produced 11 albums in just under 20 years he’s earned kudos and his music stripes, which has allowed him to explore his other creative interests to maximum effect. TV, movie and theater roles have endeared him to the public and critics alike, starring on Broadway and making his mark in the world of radio with his own show. Now he’s set to conquer both Oprah and The Donald’s domains with a new talk show and an appearance on Celebrity Apprentice.
A doting father with a social conscience, listen in as Brian chats with pride about his talented children, talks about his love of Marvin Gaye and tells us why his new album is set to be the new millennium What’s Going On?
Clutch: Why did you decide to record a holiday album?
Brian: I’ve already recorded one about ten years ago and I thought it would be a nice creative bridge between my last album and this next one, which is almost done as well. For other reasons it’s always great to catch a holiday season with an album, not a bad idea. And I wanted to go in and make a record the way that they used to make it fifty years ago. I went in in six days with the orchestra and the big band and cut a record and had it done in less than two weeks.
Clutch: So how did you choose which songs to record?
Brian: I picked the songs that were the most near and dear to me. I love the Christmas season and I wanted to make a record that sounded like Christmas. My last Christmas album was very contemporary. I thought people wanted to listen to Christmas music all year round if I made it right. And it was OK but I really feel like when you go in the stores and you watch television it’s all about the classics and I went in and I ‘Brianized’ a lot of it so that you know it’s me. For the most part I kept it pretty straight.
Clutch: What makes this holiday album so different?
Brian: This one is Brian McKnight (lol!). I think obviously there are my fans out there that’ll be pleasantly surprised at the musicality of this album. Well, maybe not my fans because they’ve come to my show, they’ve seen me play. For those people who may not know my love for jazz, my love for the classics is tried and true throughout this album, more so than I could ever do on a commercial Brian McKnight record. It was fun to do that. It’s all live. There’s no machines on this album. It definitely makes it different.
Clutch: What’s your favorite song on the album and why?
Brian: Well, I never look at any CD that I make as one song at a time. It’s one complete, whole thing. I love the idea of putting on an album and leaving it on from beginning to end. In order to do that you have to take people on some emotional journey. It’s very important the way you sequence the album so that it kind of flows and takes you up and down, up and down. I did The Christmas Song but I kind of did it as if I was Marvin Gaye in 2008. How would he do The Christmas Song? I tried to figure that out. And that was a lot of fun to do.
Clutch: You have a new album out in February. What can we expect?
Brian: Well, when I first started writing the songs for that album it was very much like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?. Not sound wise, but the subject matter. There’s a whole lot going on over here politically, racially, economically and I’ve been influenced by that. And my first thought was like, maybe I’ll just make a What’s Going On. Then I said, You know what? Maybe … is not ready for that kind of record. So there’s gonna be some of that missed in with what I normally do.
Clutch: OK. The album’s quite political so I must ask…Where were you and what were you doing when you heard Barack Obama had been elected president of the USA?
Brian: I was at home. I watched eight hours straight of CNN!
Clutch: As long as you weren’t watching Fox that’s OK!
Brian: No! It’s whats expected. I really didn’t think the Republicans had a chance. I think that for the black folks who are my parents age they’re the ones who could tell you a much better story because I’m sure they never thought, and I never thought so in my lifetime we’d see something like this. But it’s pretty amazing to me that the powers that be in America are so fed up with the way things have been that they’re willing to take this route. Though I truly believe he’s the man for the job but I’m preaching to the choir. I’m the choir! And I’m also still the minority in America. So that has to mean that it wasn’t just minorities who elected him. It was those people that would never have thought they would have done this. It was truly amazing.
Clutch: You’re now 11 albums deep. Is there a favorite album or one that brings back particular memories for you?
Brian: Well, they’re all special because I write them all. And every single song is a moment of time in my life. I can’t say that I have a favorite. I have just been so blessed to do something that I love for almost twenty years and actually be able to make a living from it and be able to touch people’s lives over the course of those years. That in itself is something that I marvel at everyday, that I can still walk down the street and people are like, Hey, Brian! Your song! You’re like, Are you serious? ‘Cause there’s so many artists that have come and gone in that time who don’t have half the body of work. I mean, for a minute there I was putting out a record every thirteen or fourteen months.
Clutch: You’ve worked with many people over the years. Is there anyone you’d still like to work with?
Brian: Well, what we’re doing now, I’ve put a studio in my house and my children are actually making their record. So being here in an executive producer capacity while they’re making their record is the greatest thing in the world.
Clutch: How old are they?
Brian: 19 and 16.
Clutch: And what kind of music are they doing?
Brian: Well, my youngest son is a guitar prodigy on the rock side so between the two of them it’s like R&B, pop, rock sort of hybrid. It’s pretty amazing. I can’t really explain it.
Clutch: TV, theater, radio, music… How do you manage to balance family life?
Brian: Luckily my kids are older now and they don’t need much parenting. When I was married and they were younger, my ex-wife handled most of that and she was very good at it. I owe a lot of what they’ve become to her.
Clutch: You’re also working on a new talk show. Will you be the male Oprah?
Brian: My show’s at night and it’s about giving people a look behind the velvet rope. Arsenio meets 2009 kind of thing. It’ll feature everyone and anyone. We’re actually signing the deal for that at the beginning of December so you may see it air the second quarter of 2009.
Clutch: You’re soon to appear in Celebrity Apprentice. Why did you decide to go on the show and what did you learn from the experience?
Brian: I thought it might be fun and I thought I could win some money for my charity as well, Youthville USA, an agency in North Carolina that places at risk youth in foster care. I learned that I’m not as ruthless as people think. I didn’t know how ruthless I was going to have to be to win.
Clutch: When you were growing up did you always want to be an entertainer?
Brian: No, I was supposed to be a professional athlete but because the music came first I decided to take the bird in the hand instead of the two in the bush. I was in college; I was trying to have something to fall back on. But I read a quote that said, if you have something to fall back on you’ll allow yourself to fall.
Clutch: You’re an accomplished actor. What do you prefer, TV or theatre?
Brian: I love the theatre. I loved doing Chicago last year on Broadway. It was one of the highlights of my career. I really didn’t know what to expect or even if I was going to be capable of doing it with the finely polished performers that are there everyday. It was a truly wonderful experience.
Clutch: How do you balance your faith with being in such a cut throat industry?
Brian: It’s my faith that keeps me in the industry not of the industry.
Clutch: What’s the biggest life lesson that being in the industry for 20 years has taught you?
Brian: You can get caught up so much in trying to be successful that you don’t enjoy your success. So now that I’m older and wiser I’m working hard but I’m trying to enjoy my life at the same time.
Clutch: You’ve achieved so much. Is there anything left you’d like to achieve?
Brian: Still being here, that’s the number one thing. To be here as long as I wanna be not because I have to be.
Image Credit: Jennifer Robbins