Singer/Songwriter Brian McKnight

The multiplatinum recording artist talks about the inspiration for her highly anticipated album Better, and performs the title track from the project.

Brian McKnight is not only a singer, but also a talented writer, musician, producer and arranger. Known for his romantic ballads, he's proficient on nine instruments, including keyboards, guitar and trumpet. His music is rooted in gospel and jazz, the genres he listened to as a child in a musical family—an older brother is a member of the vocal group Take 6—and that tradition is being carried on by his sons, singer Brian Jr. and guitarist-singer Cole Nicholas. The latest project from the multiplatinum singer is the highly anticipated album Better.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome multiplatinum recording artist, Brian McKnight, back to this program. The 16-time Grammy nominee singer, producer and songwriter has sold now more than 20 million albums worldwide. In January, he’s set to release his 16th studio album. It’s titled “Better”. Not sure you can do any better, man. You haven’t been doing bad yourself [laugh].

That’s a lot of nerve. He called it “Better” [laugh]. Be sure to stick around until the end of this programnot that you’re going anywhere anywaybecause Brian’s going to perform the title track from this highly anticipated new album. Brian, good to have you back on the program.

Brian McKnight: Good to be here.

Tavis: You been good, man?

McKnight: I’ve been great.

Tavis: You look great. You’re always in good shape, but you…

McKnight: No, you know what? I thought I was, I thought I was.

Tavis: What you been doing?

McKnight: Well, this young lady who’s in my life now, the last young lady that will ever be in my life, she’s got me eating right. She’s got me thinking differently about a lot of different things as far as health goes. And I tell you, just minor tweaks in which I was normally doing and 35 pounds and six inches on my waist and just–I though I was in shape even at 25 and I’m even better than I was physically then.

Tavis: I was going to ask a question. I got to phrase this right before Brian hits me in my chin [laugh]. You send her to my house, but I don’t want that to come out the wrong way [laugh].

McKnight: We got something in the works that I think I really want to focus on with particularly men of our age to really get them in the best shape of their lives, because it didn’t take a lot. It just changed not necessarily what you did, but the way you did it, the way you do it, the times you do it. I think people think you have to go the gym and kill yourself. Well, if you do that and you don’t do the other things too, you’re not going to see the kind of results that I got in six months.

Tavis: I’m learning as I get older that you can work out all day long, but that food is so, oh, God. I hate to admit that, but it’s true.

McKnight: It’s metabolism

Tavis: It is, yeah.

McKnight: She has basically turned my metabolism back 30 years.

Tavis: Has it had any impact on your artistry?

McKnight: Absolutely.

Tavis: In what ways?

McKnight. In every way because I’ve also thought that I knew about love. I thought I knew about it because I’ve wrote about it. But even when I was writing before, it was almost from the outside looking in because I didn’t think that this kind of relationship and this kind of person existed.

Because we always are making allowances for the things that she doesn’t have or he doesn’t have. In this particular case, I actually found someone that had everything that was on the list. It took me 42 years to find it.

And what ends up happening is, as you find that, your health gets better and your work gets better and it permeates every aspect of your life, and then you don’t do the things you used to do. You don’t hang out anymore. You don’t see how much you can get away with because you’re afraid to lose someone. I’ve never known what that really felt like until now.

Tavis: So, before, the writing was, although good, it was aspirational, and now it’s actual.

McKnight: It was moments in time. There were moments of elation. Now I tend to write–and as you listen to the CD, there’s a permanence to what I’m talking about that hasn’t been there before.

Tavis: How do you then process the 42 years of your life that you can’t get back?

McKnight: Well, what you do is you don’t worry about the past because I wouldn’t be the person that I am that she’s also fallen in love with unless I had been through all those things. I think that now I know what not to do. I think that what we end up doing is we regret the things that we’ve done and we keep making those same mistakes over and over again.

I would never have said this before. I used to think that you didn’t change for someone and I totally believe that that is exactly what you do now because you see something better. You have something bigger to live for and to live up to. I think, through all of this, that’s what I’ve learned.

Tavis: So my experience has been in talking to artists like you over the years that they write about where they are at that moment in their lives. So I guess I have some sense of what we’re going to get on this project.

McKnight: Yes. Yeah, there’s nothing sad, there’s nothing–now there’s fun stuff. You listen to “Just Enough to Drink”, that’s a fun moment. But every single one of these moments were the aspects of our now four years since the day we met until now being together exclusively for two years, and all of the things that sort of happened along the way that we both share.

Because this is her CD as much as it is mine. She knows that because she was there for–I’d never let anybody in on my process, but she’s been there every single moment of this time and it’s great to be able to share that with someone.

Tavis: I mentioned to you when you sat down before we came on the air that I got to track three and got stuck.

McKnight: Good [laugh].

Tavis: Well, maybe not. I ain’t got to the rest of it yet. But I got to track three and I got stuck and I was saying to you and you corrected my terminology, but I was saying to you that what surprised me about the fact that I was digging this track, track three, “I Can’t Take It” is the name of it. I was digging that thing so hard and I found myself–I’ve been a Brian McKnight fan for years, everybody knows. But I was like I love your slow stuff…

McKnight: Yeah, sure.

Tavis: And I was like this thing’s got a little–the pace on it is a little quicker, but I still found myself grooving to it.

McKnight: There was a concerted effort on my part to make things just a little faster. Every song on this CD, there’s only really one, maybe two and a half songs, that are…

Tavis: They’re ballads, yeah.

McKnight: At funeral dirge speeds. Even those have been popped up a little bit. I think that, in the world we live in today, it’s going to be very difficult to get those kinds of songs played. And all I’m really trying to do with every CD because they’re all over the place is to have one. If there’s one thing on there you can relate to that I’ve done, what I hope to do. Now if there’s two or three, that’s even more icing on the cake. But the fact that you picked that one, I was like, yeah.

Tavis: But is that you deliberately setting the bar low? Because “Songs in the Key of Life”, I dig every track on.

McKnight: Yeah, but that’s a different time. You know, Stevie, when you listen to that particular album, one of my favorites from him, he was dealing with not only what was happening with him, but what was happening around him. I think that conceptually that was a whole thing for him. See, for me now, it’s not necessarily concept, but I love country. I love rock. I love all these kinds of things.

That’s one of my problems, that I don’t know how to just make one thing that sounds the same because I grew up listening to the guys that had that freedom. Prince has that freedom to do all these kinds of things and that’s why I play so many instruments because I wanted to be adept at all of them.

And sometimes that gets me in trouble because they don’t know what category to put me in because I never wanted there to be categories because, when I was a kid, there weren’t. You’d hear Willie Nelson, then Earth, Wind & Fire, then Chicago, then Billy Joel. It’s like, well, what is this?

You know, the compartmentalization of music is one of the problems that we’re having now because it’s like, well, that’s adult contemporary. We’re going to leave it over there. So when people hear it or they hear what it is, they don’t even try to listen to it because they now associate that with something else.

Something very interesting that’s happening when you talk about Black singers. In the pop world to some people, when you say that, they’re assuming that it’s rap and we don’t even get an opportunity to get on, you know, and I’m not sure if that was something that was on purpose [laugh]…

Tavis: Deliberate, yeah.

McKnight: Or whether or not it’s just evolved into that. That’s why I don’t like when people say, “Well, as an R&B artist”…I’m like hold on, slick. I’ve had pop hits, I’ve has this, I’ve had that.

Tavis: Don’t pigeonhole me, yeah [laugh].

McKnight: Now if you want to ask me the question, say “As a Black artist…” because I’m definitely that.

Tavis: But some people, though–let me take your thing to its logical conclusion. Some folk would push back on even that label as a Black artist.

McKnight: Well, but that’s the truth.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It all depends on your perspective. You are an artist…

McKnight: Well, African American…

Tavis: I mean, everybody loves you. You’re not just–I mean, who sees you as a Black artist anymore? Because of all the crossover hits you had–I hate that word crossover, but…

McKnight: That’s true, but I think from our generation maybe, but from the kids’ generation because now that’s always been the case that advertisers and music always goes after the 16 to 21, 22 or 25 demographic. And from their standpoint, they’re like that’s R&B because there really isn’t R&B anymore, which isn’t a bad thing overseas.

Because when they say it, they’re talking about from Motown to everything and they look at it as a great thing. It’s not always–there’s a little bit of a stigma that’s attached to that phrase in America whether we want to believe it or not.

Tavis: Left right quick. You were on Celebrity Apprentice.

McKnight: I was.

Tavis: You know the question, right? [laugh]

McKnight: Yes [laugh].

Tavis: I’m not going to ask the question. Just give me an answer. Give me a statement.

McKnight: This is what I will say.

Tavis: Okay.

McKnight: I try to stay away from political conversations because a different perspective doesn’t always do you a favor. I don’t know one person that loves lawyers, okay? For over 200 years, that’s all we’ve had to choose from to run this country.

I don’t know if Donald Trump is the right answer, but I think it’s a step in the right direction as a corporation of the United States that we should have somebody running this who understands how to put a corporation in the black. I don’t know if it’s him, but I don’t know if doing the same thing we’ve always done is the right answer either.

And that’s the way I look at it because when I think about the things that I’d want to happen in this country, one of those things is that I want to keep as much of the money that I make in my pocket, and the way to do that is that our economy has to be what it should be.

You know, maybe I don’t know as much as everybody else, but that is something that’s important to me. You know, to do it the same way with the same career politicians that we’ve done this with may not be the way to go. That doesn’t mean that we go this way. That’s just my view on it, you know.

Tavis: And you’re entitled to that.

McKnight: Yeah [laugh].

Tavis: And I appreciate and respect that. The new project from Brian McKnight is called “Better”. As I said at the top, I don’t think he can actually do that. He’s awfully good anyway. But Brian is going to perform the title track from the new project called “Better”. You don’t want to miss that. Brian, good to see you, as always.

McKnight: Always.

Tavis: Thanks for coming on. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith. Don’t move. Here comes Brian McKnight.

[Performance]

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

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Last modified: December 15, 2015 at 2:09 pm