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Notion 064 Feature: Cover star Miguel

Bringing Sex Back

While his success may be the definition of a sleeper hit, there’s nothing sleepy about the neo-RnB star: scandalous and romantic, beloved of JT, duetting with Mariah and touring with AliciaMiguel’s time has come.

WORDS: MICHAEL C LEWIN
PHOTOGRAPHY: JAMES ANASTASI
STYLING : ALEXIS KNOX
HAIR: PAUL DONOVAN USING REDKEN
MAKE-UP: LUCY GIBSON USING MAC COSMETICS
STYLING ASSISTANTS: EMILY MEOLA / FRANCESCA BARRY / MEGAN CLEWS-PANNELL
PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTANTS: STEFAN EBELEWICZ / JAMES DAVEY / MATT KERR

The first time I put Miguel’s unimpeachably brilliant album Kaleidoscope Dreams ‘pon de office stereo, it was derided by my tasteless colleagues for being ‘blah, just bland’. It lasted five perfect songs from its impeccable 11 before it was swapped for becalming, tepid neo-house (as is so often the way in our office). Nine months later, it’s never off the stereo. This isn’t surprising in retrospect: Miguel Jontel Pimentel’s career has been one long sleeper hit, converting non-believers with the gradual inevitability of climate change to the church of his unique psychedelic RnB.

The relaxed man I meet getting out of a large black car whilst I’m having a crafty fag outside the studio is both what you’d expect and not – genial and definitely less bothered than the crew about working a bank holiday. He has the quality some male stars have that the women almost always don’t – he’s very engaged with the people around him even when he doesn’t need to be. (The girls tend to be more shut down, which I’ve always assumed is because they get so much unwelcome attention they’ve learned not to invite it unnecessarily with, say, a careless fleeting acknowledgement of your existence.)

When he sits down, the ‘awkward’ incident of the past few weeks doesn’t seem to be playing on his mind, so in the end I don’t risk bringing him down about it and asking the obvious, viz. that awful hashtag in the title of ‘Beautiful’ being his fault or Mariah’s. Does he have any insight, I ask instead, into why his success has the gradual sleeper hit vibe? In the midst of the first of his (many) long pauses that follows the question, I brace myself for a bad interview. I needn’t have: he talks in circles, considering and rephrasing, but very engaging. He sputters a bit of a response this way and that, before he leans back grinning, “Aww, shit man. I don’t know!”

“There’s a few variables that are uncontrollable: the timing; this new-found interest in RnB music, unique RnB music, it just… it was good timing I guess.” He looks around himself, still grinning and quite feline, surveying what’s around him and finding it good, as well he might. It’s taken a while to get here, with plenty of false-starts, but he’s enjoying it now.

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It’s significant that it was the fifth song of Kaleidoscope Dream that was to cause the office playback to end: that song being ‘Do You…’ – or, to finish its main lyric, “Do you like drugs?” An off-hand, psychedelic pop-rock song, ‘Do You…’ could have the quality of novelty gag and actually stayed in solid **-on-iTunes territory for me until I experienced the further revelation that is Miguel live. This song live—you guys, this song. What seemed at first a middling, jokey song suddenly became immense, a huge, fuck-you, lighters-out, arms-round-strangers, crying and kissing and smiling epic: one of <the> good times songs of a generation for whom drug taking is less rebellious than abstaining from alcohol. And it only scraped into my top five big pop moments from that gig.

In his Timberlake-endorsed quest to reclaim and reimagine RnB, I think Miguel has two very important qualities on his side (as well as, you know, amazing tunes and ambition and stuff): in an era when popstars flaunt their media-trained self-help mantras of “being true to themselves”, Miguel actually <is> honest and true to himself. Hence: “Do you like drugs?” An amazing conceit for a song, obviously, and so close to the knuckle in its directness; you can only ask that radio-unfriendly question of your audience in the context of an epic pop-rock stomper if you’re really look-in-the-mirror honest with yourself.

That ties into his second great quality, which is that Miguel is a master of the ‘moment’ in all its forms: the moments of our internal lives on big nights out, that moment we wonder and wonder and finally bravely ask that other person we’re lusting after, ‘do you like drugs?’ in the hope we’ll grow closer in the chemically euphoric moment; the fact we cherish those moments in our memories and are just <thrilled> when a singer of song can conjure an ur-moment out of them through high quality tuneage; and that fact his song-writing runs headlong towards big pop moments with fist epically raised in delight.

Dealing with the honesty first, there’s a telling anecdote in his formation, in that gradual rise, that might point the way. He was born and raised in San Pedro, L.A., to a Mexican father and African-American mother, lending him both that unique feline look and a grounding in early R&B from his mother and in funk, jazz and rock from his father. He was writing songs on a guitar with a four-track by 14. Signed to indie label Black Ice at 19, and, in the mid-00s, going nowhere with an independent label, his manager was submitting demos to various big-wigs, including Mark Pitts (then head of Jive, now president of urban at RCA). The song that made Pitts jump was ‘Sure Thing’, which Miguel described as “highly personal… no one was ever supposed to hear it.”

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Surely that taught you that you were on to something, that people responded to you writing from an uncomfortably honest place? “Oh absolutely. I think most of our favourite artists find a way to do that – to say something that is so real to them that it cuts through. I think we all share similar truths. Once we start discussing our honest emotions that’s where we find the purpose in music and art – this relate-ability and feeling we move solely upon instinct. That’s the barometer – oo, is this too true, is this too honest? I don’t know how someone’s going to take it – always a great sign. That means that, even in my own, there’s a risk I’m taking. That’s a responsibility for an artist, regardless of the medium – are you taking a risk? Are you taking it for yourself? Therein lies the creativity and the whole adventure part of it.”

The mind kind of boggles, given the content of his songs, that he ever wrote songs not to be heard. Does he still? “In my own mind, yes I do write songs that no one else is supposed to hear, but those songs, like you said, that happen to be more personal tend to be the most impactful. I think I’ve thrown that notion away that it’s all for me. Because the part that’s for me is just creating. I do that part for my sanity. But, it would be a disservice to my purpose not to share it. The whole purpose is to find some commonality through your art.”

As he says that I cringe a bit because it’s one of those awful things Americans say, but thinking back to that euphoric live ‘Do You…’ I have to admit that he does follow through on it emphatically.

‘Sure Thing’ was to be the summer sleeper hit that raised his profile following the disappointing US release of his debut All I Want Is You, which didn’t actually arrive until 2010, three years after Pitts signed him to Jive. He was 25 at this point, late for a popstar to just be starting out, but ultimately maybe a bit useful to allow him to discover himself and make some mistakes, “Trying to get into as much trouble as I could with a fake ID and a little bit of money – there’s quite a bit of trouble you can get into. Trying things on for size, seeing if it fits or not. Obviously you can hear it in the music!”

“In the midst of waiting around for things to take off, sucky as it is, in retrospect, it definitely allowed me to become acclimated, and just do some personal growth. I think my entire career has been… the trajectory isn’t steep in its climb – and that, the speed at which my career has been progressing works for me. It allows me to keep my humanity.”

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After under-performing on release, All I Want is You and the singles mutated into word-of-mouth successes; by the time Jive was rolled into RCA in late 2011, Miguel had some cache and was able to negotiate to control his own marketing, where that ‘humanity’ came into play. During sessions for Kaleidoscope Dream he released some of the songs in demo form over a trio of ‘viral’ EPs (basically, downloads) called Art Dealer Chic, which he has said was to “reconnect with his peers, the people who read the same magazines and blogs as me.” I quite like that – you can’t imagine many big RnB artists checking out the BNM on Pitchfork every day.

So, the slow pace has suited him just fine, thanks. “As we progress and evolve, I don’t feel like I have been moving too fast to miss things, I can cherish it.” That makes sense. What have you cherished? “Moments, man! The main moments that have made impacts – I can legitimately say, I can remember those sessions for Art Dealer Chic, I can remember those moments: I was in New York working on Kaleidoscope Dream and it was in the midst of working on it that all those songs for Art Dealer Chic came together – and I realised in that moment, this is what I want to put out, how I want to put it out. I remember that time, and after putting out Adorn and the video, and I remember the response, I remember these things and they’re valuable.”

He remembers, just like he remembers those little moments he’s lived of thrills and trouble and insecurity and lust and loneliness, those insignificant passing moments in our lives of nights and mornings after that seem so vast and consuming at the time. “I’m a dive bar guy, I’m a scuzzy guy, I like things to be dirty and gritty. I want see fucking street art all over the place and I wanna see graffiti and I want… you know what I mean? I like to drink beer, I’m not – listen, I can be celebratory too…”

You drink beer with those abs?!Ha! Yeah I do. Shit. Gotta do a lot of running, which is not my favourite thing. So I try and stick to whisky. I think… it’s not the picture that’s been painted of RnB.”

This touches on another important facet of Miguel’s personal mythology – he may be “bringing RnB back” as JT says, and sees himself in the tradition of rhythm and blues, but he always “knew I wasn’t, even my personality wasn’t the quintessential RnB dude with the stereotypical urban vibe.” ‘Sure Thing’ set the precedent for many of his more amazing tracks, songs which eschew the balls out, suck my swag braggadocio of virility and power in favour of revelling sexuality and intimacy, and occasional bouts of outright insecurity.

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So while we get the salacious anticipatory bragging of the simply massive ‘Adorn’, he’s still beseeching: “let my love adorn you / know that I adore you,” “never neglect you.” And, let’s be honest, who could resist him when bagged with that irresistible squelchy bass beat? Much is also made of ‘Pussy Is Mine’, his frightened plea to his girl to confirm she’s his alone, made so attention-grabbing by the language and effective by being suddenly stripped down and demo-like, at odds with the rest of the album’s fractal psych-haze, like he’s suddenly sober and alone in the midst of the intoxicated fantasy he’s been living.

Amidst the rest – the honesty and the sense of moments, the obvious star quality – what wins through with Miguel really are the songs and production. What sublime tuneage! So many epic moments of grand pop pomp – it’s all well to isolate the moments we all experience, but what he does is translate them into grand celebratory pop moments, painting our lives with widescreen glamour and justifying how important they felt to us.

The curious make-up of his influences – soul, psychedelia, classic rock, American country, RnB, hip-hop – are carefully lifted from for effect. The power chords in ‘Use Me’ (YES!) compelling you to pump your fist in joy and release, the bounce and strings and sudden kick drum bliss of ‘How Many Drinks?’ that suit its louche lothario seduction attempts, the sweeping Marvin Gaye political posturing in ‘Candles in the Sun’: together at once they are indeed a kaleidoscopic dream, but individually they are perfect moments.

It was all by design: “It may not be discussed directly in the subject matter of the album but I think what I was trying to do was to paint my conscious thoughts with the lyric and my subconscious emotions with the sonic, and it was that marriage that kind of gives people an understanding of who I am.”

Kaleidoscope Dream was the realisation of a big picture, a philosophy: “the complete belief that we’re in control of our realities, and we all have our own KD made up of our conscious and subconscious thoughts, you know. Our conscious decisions, our subconscious thoughts and our feelings. And therein lie our personal truths – everything we experience and our direct future are a reflection of what it is we truly believe. And so, it’s like, KD is my way of saying this is what I believe in – this is what I believe in, this is the sound I believe in, the feel I believe in and the texture and the taste of my lifestyle and this is what my subconscious feels and how it moves and why it moves that way.”

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When you think of Kaleidoscope Dream, who is the Miguel you see? Who is that a snapshot of? “I think of that scene in Forest Gump when he first starts running. He’s running away from those kids, who are chasing him with their bikes, and he’s got those braces on, and he’s kind of skipping along… and as the scene progresses those braces start to break off of him and he’s starting to learn to run. That’s what KD is for me. Me shunning whatever was keeping me in, shunning those boundaries I guess.

“I think I’ll always create with a big picture in mind. For me it’s never about singles. It’s about, what is the story I’m telling? Where am I at in my life, if I was to take a snap shot, so if I listen back to this I’ll remember exactly who I was at this time. What was I going through, what was I feeling, what was I discovering, what was I letting go of? How do I document that differently this time.”

These are the things Miguel captures, the great incidental details of our lives lived between 8pm and 4am in grotty kitchens and sticky clubs: with folded lottery slips and scuffed cd cases for entertainment and a transitional half-forgotten cast of missed chances, almosts and shouldn’t haves; the climactic success and cinematic romance; the blasé rush of denying the night is ending and the dizzying knowledge of defeat. He was able to live a lot of these banal 20s experiences unknown like us, and Kaleidoscope Dream’s fractal spin brings these things immediately back to life, celebrates them with the overwhelming importance we felt they had at the time, and helps us find our way back to them with a nostalgia from their familiarity, yet reaffirming them as the shocking and exciting experiences they were to live.

“There is something scandalous and romantic about everything I do,” he says after another of his long pauses. “Even when it’s not about romance. My life is that way. I like to play this slap and a hug thing. Even when it’s a compliment there’s something smug about it. Or, when it’s dark there’s something light hearted about it. It’s this contrast that I love playing with in my life, and that’s what it is about my brand: it’s like, as goofy and light-hearted as I can be, I’m still very cool and very dangerous. But it’s that juxtaposition that makes me who I am, and you’ll find it throughout my music.”

Like what you see?! Well of course you do. You can see the rest of the pictures from this fab shoot in the latest copy of Notion 064 available here or on your iPad/iPad mini through our wonderful app.

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