Interview: Mikky Ekko, Songwriter Extraordinaire
Get to know the guy behind Rihanna's "Stay," and find out what pop star he's itching to pen for next
Singer/songwriter Mikky Ekko believes in quality over quantity when it comes to music. After speaking with the Nashville native about his writing style, career path, and upcoming debut album, it's clear he's not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill pop singer.
Though Mykki's seen success around the blogosphere — his breakout song "Pull Me Down" made waves when it was released in the fall of 2012 — his highest profile work to date is his acclaimed collaboration with Rihanna on the hit song "Stay." Written with up-and-coming pop songwriter/producer Justin Parker, "Stay" has been in our Top 100 chart ever since its simple-yet-striking music video was released (which Mikky stars in!), with people around the world coming together over the beautiful, simple piano ballad that showcases the raw and intimate side of RiRi we thought we'd never get to see.
But Ekko is more than a featured artist on a hit pop single: read our interview with Mikky and get a sense of how down-to-earth, well-spoken, and highly driven this rising star truly is.
MetroLyrics: Can you tell us how you got into music growing up?
I grew up singing in a church. That informed the way that I understand music and people coming together, people playing instruments together. I grew up in the south, [where] I gravitated towards a lot of black gospel as a kid. My mom listened to almost exclusively classical music, and my dad listened to Three Dog Night, Doobie Brothers, and a lot of stuff like that. As a kid, I really liked it,'cause it's just kind of out there and all about [the] song lyrics. I was born in Louisiana, but I grew up in Mississippi, and there's a lot of country music there. A lot of country people. And I was one of them. *laughs*
[As] I grew up, I liked stuff that was a little bit tougher, a little bit edgier, pushing more boundaries. I cut my teeth on Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Blur. Then later on, just a lot of Bjork, Radiohead, and Pixies.
MetroLyrics: As a singer/songwriter, what inspires you to write and make music?
I was out one evening with Dan Wilson, who wrote "Someone Like You" with Adele, just talking with him, [and] we were trying to see if maybe it would be nice to write together. He said to me, "The only thing that's worth writing is something that absolutely must be said", and I was like "AW! Man, that's such a cool way [to think about it]", 'cause I always felt that way about [songwriting].
I always wanted to make waves that haven't been forced sonically. Whatever it takes, I don't care. I'll work harder, I'll put in a thousand extra hours just to make it a little bit different, to make it a weird place that's not factory pop. [So] when he said that, the way that that translates in my life is: you have to make your life more necessary. *laughs*
When you really have an opportunity to touch people, or when you have a gift, you can't be selfish with it. At the end of the day, I think that if you have that gift, you have a responsibility to people [to share it]. It's [in] our design that we should connect with other people. I don't wanna speak for anybody else. That's what I think.
MetroLyrics: What's your general songwriting process like?
You know, I'm not going to give you all my tricks. What I'll say is this: before Dan Wilson, I was listening to a lot of hip-hop. And what I realised about hip-hop is [that what] a lot of the greats know how to do is freestyle. Even great songwriters. I imagine if you said to Ryan Adams, "Write a song about me right now", he could do it. He could sit there, and within ten minutes you'd have a song about you. It might not be incredible, but I can do it too.
The thing is, when you learn to [write], you have to learn to manifest who you are. And that's what these [hip-hop greats] are doing. They're not doing that to be cool, that's the language that they speak. So if you can learn to manifest the idea that you are, it'll come out naturally in your speech. Then all you have to do is learn to sing those words. Figure out what the most important words are, and then repeat them. *laughs*
MetroLyrics: I know what you mean. Some of the greatest lyricists are hip-hop artists, because that's what they're all about. So it makes sense.
A lot of it is born out of struggle, and it becomes the dance of [their] life. Music is just the necessary language.
If it's not totally necessary for people, then the songs that they write don't mean enough to really matter in people's lives. Because their ideas are too small; they're limiting. And most people have the tendency to do that, I think.
MetroLyrics: Let's talk about "Stay", which I thought it was one of the best pop songs released last year, if not the best...
I think it's the best. *laughs*
MetroLyrics: *laughs* How did your song for Rihanna come about? What were you thinking about when you wrote it?
It was the most ironic moment in my short little life. Justin Parker (who also wrote "Stay") wanted to go in with me [on the song] because he saw my footage from way back when of me doing, against my better judgement, a Jeff Buckley tribute. I was up there singing "Mojo Pin", and he heard me sing that, and that's why he wanted to work with me.
The way [Parker] understands songs is — he knows how to create a really interesting dynamic with chords that keeps you pleasantly surprised. And that's so important. My whole goal was always to separate myself from the competition, no matter what it meant. Justin knows how to give people access to these really heartbreaking chords, and he understands how to push and pull really well with the chords. He knows how to put hurt in the chords, and that's really good because I gravitate towards that.
At the end of the day, I worked so hard [on] that...but I didn't even like it when I got done with it.
When we finished the song, I was really just afraid of a lot of things. Later on I went back and listened to ["Stay"] and realized that people are vulnerable. That's what I didn't like about it. When I went back and listened to it, it was like letting someone take a picture of you after disaster hit or something. And like, at the time, you're just like "Why did you take that picture?" *laughs*
MetroLyrics: You're in the midst of recording your new album. Could you share the main focus of this album with us?
The focus of the album for me has been, the more I write, the more I learn that I just have to be honest with people because that's how I can communicate. And the more honest I am, the more I have to let all my flaws out. Which sucks sometimes. *laughs*
People will hear me roar on this record. Like they have definitely not heard me roar before. There's some pretty intense songs [on this record]. There's one song called "Riot", and the intent of that one is not to 'riot' specifically...well, a little bit. I want to come out there and establish very clearly how much I care about giving people hope and showing people what the future is. I just wanna take people and pick 'em up and hug 'em. I think people really matter.
MetroLyrics: Let's discuss your breakout song "Pull Me Down", which is so beautiful sonically as well as lyrically. Why do you think people are connecting with it?
Because it's an honest love song that's about more than sex. What I wanted to create was just something that said, "I love you but I refuse to talk about [sex]. I wanna show you how much more I love you than that". I wanted to try and find ways to say: what does [love] really feel like? [Clams Casino, who produced the song, and I] wanted it to sound like a totally new place. I mean, that's just what I gravitate towards when it comes to music. I was like "Aw, Mik! This could be an incredible tune."
For me, I try to force myself to write something great, and within the first hour that I was hanging out with [Clams] ever, I wrote the words. I think that I was forcing myself to freestyle when I did that. I wanted it to feel sensual but not sexual. Because that stuff comes anyway for people with love songs, whether you're even writing about sex or not. People will draw their own conclusion, if it has a nice route, you know what I mean? It's just about puttin' in the hours. We worked so hard on that song.
MetroLyrics: Who have you been working with on this album?
I've already written with Justin Parker, who I wrote "Stay" with. [He's written] a bunch of stuff with Lana Del Rey, and a song with Bat For Lashes on her most recent record. That song "Laura", you know it?
MetroLyrics: Yes! We love that record.
ME: Yeah. He's an incredible songwriter. And the thing is, you can hear how he emotes. He's brutally honest with his chords, and he just...he refuses to let it just rust. He keeps pulling you through.
I've also been in [the studio] with John Hill, and Clams Casino. [Clams] is just my boy. *laughs* I don't even know what we're like when we get in the room. That's sort of always the goal, you wanna keep growing but you just never change, really. We just learn more stuff.
The reason I wanted to go in with John Hill was because he did just that. He worked on the first Santigold record. I [also] worked with Dave Sitek and Dave Sardy, specifically on "Riot", and they've produced a bunch of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs material, as well as TV On The Radio. What all these guys brought to the table was just something fresh. I feel really, really fortunate. I'm learning from some of the coolest people on the planet.
MetroLyrics: Is going on tour and performing live something that you hope to do in the near future?
Yeah. I've been talking with some really, really incredible people about the live show. I want to try and do the same thing with the live show that I do with my music: I wanna give people something that they've never experienced before. It's really exhausting, but it's worth it in the end.
MetroLyrics: What kind of music are you listening to at the moment? Is there anything that's on your radar that you're obsessed with right now?
Yes. I love Actress. Actress and Marnie Stern. I've been obsessed with her forever. I think that her perspective is really important. And it was a sound that I've never heard before. I was like, "You brave little fairy. I want to run around in circles and like go into battle with you". *laughs* I'm looking forward to [her] new record. I'm always trying to find a way to work with these people that I love, but then I also feel like I need to prove my own art first. I need to make sure that I'm growing. I only care about [listening to] stuff that is taking me places that I've never been, 'cause that's where I wanna take people.
You know what I want to do? I wanna write with Katy Perry.
Because I think she wants to say more than she's getting to. And I also think she's getting to say what she wants to say, but there aren't a whole lot of people who like care about pop stars as people either.
I think that she's got an incredible voice and a pretty cool perspective. I don't really love everything that she writes, but she's a good songwriter. And people already need her in their lives. I don't know how I would write with Katy Perry, but if I was to write with her, the only thing that I would do is just try to expose everything in her body that hurts. She's already kind of is doing that. She hasn't really gone there, but she knows how to.
MetroLyrics: Is there anybody else you'd like to write for?
In my life, I just write for me. But I think that, inevitably, I usually get a pretty good sense of what someone is like. But...I always just write for me. It's more like therapy, really. *laughs*
MetroLyrics: Yeah, that's essentially what [songwriting] is. It's you putting your feelings out there in a certain way.
You just have to make it acceptable for people.
Watch Mikky Ekko's heartbreaking and haunting music video for "Pull Me Down" on VEVO below:
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