Singer-songwriter-producer Miguel

This year’s Best R&B Song Grammy winner talks about his musical style and what may follow his critically acclaimed sophomore CD.

Known by his first name, Miguel Jontel Pimentel has established himself as one of the most significant artists in pop-R&B. The singer-songwriter-producer's work has been described as eclectic, and fusing a variety of styles into his music has won critical acclaim, as well as a 2013 Grammy (Best R&B Song for "Adorn" from his sophomore album, "Kaleidoscope Dream"). A native of Southern California's San Pedro area, Miguel developed a passion for music and performing early. After becoming known in the underground through his collaborative work, he signed with Jive Records and dropped his first album, "All I Want Is You," in 2010.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Miguel is having a breakout year. His most recent album, “Kaleidoscope Dream,” debuted at number one on the “Billboard” R&B charts, and his performance of his single “Adorn” at this year’s Grammys all but stole the show.

He’s being called a true R&B innovator, combining elements of soul, funk, hip-hop and rock. Let’s take a look first at Miguel singing his single, “Candles in the Sun.”

[Clip]

Tavis: Literally not even two months ago, Jeffrey Osborne, the great R&B artist, as you know, was on this program, and Jeffrey was lamenting the death, the death of R&B.

Miguel: Wow.

Tavis: This was before you hit the Grammys.

Miguel: Wow. (Laughter)

Tavis: He got a chance to see you do your thing and steal the show. There are a lot of critics, music critics, that is, who are referring to you and a couple of other artists as the new progressive R&B artists. How do you read that kind of compliment?

Miguel: I think there’s always been progressive R&B music. I think more than anything, though, it’s just the timing and that people are willing to pay attention to it, you know? And when it’s getting a chance to kind of be in the forefront.

I suppose maybe, you know, we’re all a bit tired of this kind of superficial R&B music, that it’s kind of been all we hear in mainstream music, or being played via mainstream outlets. So we’re all wanting something with a little more depth and a little more personal. You take blues, it being the birthplace for rock and roll; R&B being the birthplace for hip-hop. You know, we’re seeing a genre who was always kind of at the cutting edge and at the forefront kind of take a back seat and almost be less the influencer and be more the influenced.

So I supposed it’s just kind of a, you know how music is kind of cyclical and trends are cyclical in that sense. Maybe it’s just kind of that time where it comes back around.

Tavis: To your point, Miguel, about R&B and hip-hop, I’m fascinated by that, and I take your point, which raises this question – to what extent do you think that R&B took a beating from hip-hop in this particular genre, in this particular arena, in this, you know, period of time, everybody your age and younger or slightly older, for that matter, wanted to be a hip-hop artist.

How much of – and I love hip-hop, so I’m not trying to cast aspersion on it.

Miguel: Right, no, me too, absolutely.

Tavis: How much of hip-hop, how much of the success of hip-hop, came at the expense of R&B?

Miguel: Well you can – it’s a very visual thing. You can look at, you know, in the ’90s, all of the R&B groups, a lot of our favorite R&B groups, Jodeci, SWV, the styling, even down to the styling, it was almost chasing this, like, harder image, which is, which is cool. I appreciate all of that and I’m a fan of it, I grew up listening to that.

Boyz II Men, like when they first came out, it was all very much after the styling of hip-hop. To its credit, hip-hop is my favorite genre, to this day, and it’s hard not to be influenced by the culture and by the movement of it and by the soul of it. But I think ever since then, R&B never really had its own identity. It was kind of lost in the identity of another.

As opposed to I think now what we’re coming to is a place where it’s no longer about a collective identity, a look and feel, or a sound. It’s more about the individual perspective, at the same time staying true to this soul that’s driving the expression.

So whereas my perspective will always start at a soulful expression, it is the sonic that is built around, and my lifestyle, that kind of gives it a different edge. Gives it a different edge.

Tavis: So let’s back up, let’s rewind the tape, like, a year or to.

Miguel: Let’s do it.

Tavis: Before people knew who you were on the Grammys – Kelly Clarkston and others are shouting out, “I don’t even know who you are, but I want to sing with you.”

Before all that happened on the Grammys, you got to a point in your career after your first record where you decided to get more involved in taking control of your career, and I’m always fascinated by people who, again, decide that they are going to manage themselves into success.

So you put out these mix tapes, and I’ll let you explain for all the old folk watching PBS right now who don’t know what a mix tape is. I’ll let you explain what the mix tapes are, but just take a second here and explain to me how you basically, you and your team, crafted the success by going to social media and beyond, and built up this opportunity to get you, ultimately, on the Grammy Awards.

Miguel: Absolutely. Well, interestingly, another huge part of hip-hop culture that has become almost a staple or almost an expectation is for an artist to put out free music via a mix tape, and then you do that online, which is a collection of music that you put out for free.

On the one hand, as a marketing tool, it can be extremely effective. You look at artists like Drake, who from his very first mix tape really was touring and making money without a deal, and took that and created his career as a musician.

Or you look at Frank Ocean, who did, who was a more obscure artist on Def Jam, writing an album complete, but was kind of sitting in the wings, just kind of waiting, and because of being fed up, put his own music out and took the momentum of that, and obviously has made quite an impact on music.

Kind of watching as my career at the time was, it was moving forward. I’d been able to, we had put music out, we had successful singles, but I wasn’t connecting as an artist. There was no, people didn’t even know that it was the same artist singing these songs that were being successful on the radio. They didn’t know that it was me. There was no connection.

I was just frustrated, so I kind of took a look at my peers and was kind of watching who was making these moves and how they were doing it in a smart way. I wanted to do it in a way – something similar that didn’t compromise my value for music.

Because at the same time you’re putting free music out, you almost devalue how value – you’re just kind of giving it to them, so people, why would they go pay for it if it’s free all the time? They can go to their favorite blog and find 25 songs from this artist. Why are they going to pay $10 for 16 songs of yours, or what have you?

So I came up with this idea to put out a series of EPs, free EPs. Each one had three songs on them. I would shoot one video for each EP, and I would put them out over the course of three months, and then just kind of use it as a marketing tool and see what was the best way of releasing music.

So we did that last year. The vehicle was called Art Dealer Chic, the project, and the very first video we shot for the very first EP was for “Adorn,” which has become the most life-changing song in my career thus far.

Man, it just was so exciting to watch people really connect to this video. I put the video out first, and the anticipation thereafter for each EP just kind of was insurmountable, and just kind of built.

Tavis: But you weren’t getting paid, though.

Miguel: No. (Laughter) No, no.

Tavis: There’s a problem here. There’s something missing.

Miguel: But when I was eight years old, writing songs or stealing my uncle’s four-track recorder from his garage studio or working all these years before I had a deal, I wasn’t getting money either.

Tavis: Yeah.

Miguel: So that’s not the reason why I make music. To completely honest, as a creative individual, I do this for my own sanity. It’s something, it’s an inherent need.

Tavis: See, I love that. I love that about it. So now we can work our way up to the Grammys right quick here. So what did or has the success of being on that show, being seen by, like, 30 million people almost, how’s that impact one’s career when you get to that moment after all these EPs.

Now here you are on the Grammys, and everybody’s watching you, and you steal the show.

Miguel: I only knew that I wanted to have a good time. I only wanted it to be everything that I imagined it to be.

Tavis: Was it?

Miguel: It was more. It was more.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Miguel: Just kind of looking around, taking a glance at who I was, because we were right in the middle of the aisle, so we’re here with all the musicians and producers and executives and so on and so forth. It was kind of like this moment of realization, that it was really happening, and it was kind of like you can almost kind of shrink in that moment, or you could celebrate it, and I promised myself when I was a kid that if I ever had the chance, I was just going to have a good time.

Tavis: Yeah.

Miguel: If you ever had a chance, and there I was. Since then it’s just been really cool, man, to have artists reach out and want to work. It’s been really cool.

Tavis: Well, this is not the end of the story. We’ll put a pause in this story for the moment, because I suspect that while this is Miguel’s first time on the program, it will not be his last.

So there are two ways you can check his stuff out. You can go online and get the free stuff which is out there, and he’ll appreciate that. But I think he’ll appreciate just as much you buying the new stuff. (Laughter)

Miguel: Absolutely.

Tavis: You can do that too, but remember the name – Miguel. In case you didn’t see him on the Grammys, I’m sure somewhere online you can find the performance. But it was an amazing performance, and you will be seeing and hearing this name a lot more in the coming months and years. Miguel, good to have you on this program.

Miguel: Thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: It’s my honor, man, my delight.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 17, 2013 at 1:58 pm