Brian McKnight
Brian McKnight

Brian McKnight has spent his entire adult life crooning about love: good love, lost love, unrequited love and even crazy love. Yet for all of the ups and downs that have inspired his music throughout the years, Brian McKnight’s ability to write a heartfelt ballad that strikes a poignant chord has remained consistent.

When you talk to Brian McKnight he exudes a confidence that comes from years of holding his own in the tumultuous waters of the music business. McKnight attributes his success to his ability to exist as a self contained unit of musical writing, publishing, impeccable vocals and instrumental acumen.

Now, re-inventing himself as a budding late night talk show host with the upcoming The Brian McKnight Show airing on The CW Network this fall, McKnight wants to pick up where Arsenio Hall left off nearly fifteen years ago, with his sights set on capturing a new generation of popular culture buffs.

During our chat we talked about family, fame, fatherhood and the creative process of writing a song. (Allison Kugel): How did you celebrate Father’s Day?

Brian McKnight: Actually, my sons and I were at the house and we really didn’t do much of anything; we just kind of hung out. They show me all the time how much they love me. I’m just happy that we’re all together. I watched the US Open at home and they were at the house. They came in the room and said, “Happy Father’s Day!” (Laughs) Since you’re a musical family, how does that play a part in your home? Do you and your sons listen to music together or play music together?

Brian McKnight: I just built a studio in the house and I’m making a record, and they’re making a record. So in that sense we’re constantly working, sort of, together. They’re teenagers so they have their own lives. It’s very rare that we actually sit around and do much of anything together besides work. Would you say they are following in your footsteps?

Brian McKnight: I would say that they’re going to do what I’ve done. I think they’re going to take their steps way further than I took mine. At least that’s what I’m hoping for them. Was your father a musician or musical at all?

Brian McKnight
Brian McKnight

Brian McKnight: My dad was a rocket scientist. He worked at Aerospace for thirty-five years. I really didn’t know much of what he did. He was a think tank guy, and I think he’s got a 180 IQ. On my mother’s side of the family is where the music comes from. She is a classically trained pianist and a church singer. But my aunts and uncles, and my first cousins, everybody sings. Can you remember how old you were and what you were doing in the moment when you knew you wanted to become a musician?

Brian McKnight: I don’t know if that moment’s come yet. I had lots of dreams growing up. It wasn’t until I got my first publishing deal that I said, “You know what? I could probably do this.” And I had just seen my brother (Gospel singer, Claude McKnight), the previous spring, get [several] Grammys. So I said, “If he can do it, I can do it.” And he likes to remind me that his group (Take 6) has been the most nominated group in Grammy history, and I think they have twelve. I was at his house the other day and he likes to casually motion over to them. “It’s over there by the Graammmy.” (Laughs) Give me a brief rundown of what publishing is in the music business.

Brian McKnight: I think that people know me as a singer. I don’t look at myself that way. I’m a writer. Let me put it to you this way, as far as a job goes I have made way more money as a writer than I have in anything else I’ve done. When you own copyrights, that’s intellectual property which you get paid for, for the rest of your life, no matter what happens. Most people these days just want to be famous. Unfortunately, fame and rich don’t always go hand in hand. But people will take fame all the time, until they realize what their check looks like. It’s kind of cool to be famous (laughs), but which would you rather have? Me, personally, I’d rather have money.

Brian McKnight: People say it doesn’t buy happiness, but it will pay for the search. I think it allows you the luxury to not have to worry about money. Or it buys you freedom.

Brian McKnight: You’d think that, but even when you have money you still worry about it. It is a curious thing that the more money you make, the more you end up spending, and then you’re under pressure to make more.

Brian McKnight: Exactly. Who gave you your first big opportunity in this business?

Brian McKnight
Brian McKnight

Brian McKnight: Probably Ed Eckstein. He was the President of Mercury Records at the time. He’s the one that signed me. The guy who was doing A&R for him had the tape first. He left the tape on the seat in Ed’s car when Ed was leaving to go home for the day. So Ed put it in his tape player, pulled over to the side [of the road], called the guy back, they called us and I was out in LA two days later. You’re the consummate musician. You write, you play multiple instruments and you sing. When you’re writing a song does it start with the words, an instrumental sound or a vocal sound?

Brian McKnight: There is no one way to start writing a song. There’s only one rule though. You never start writing a song in a room full of people, because everybody thinks they’re a writer (laughs). People are like, “What about this?” People start trying to figure out different ways to say “the” and I’m like, “Just say ‘the.’” And then what happens is, everybody then wants a piece. You learn the hard way. Most of the time if you look at my records and who wrote the songs it’s just me. If you’re at a get together with friends and you’re writing something, and someone says, “Hey, why don’t you use this word instead of that word,” they then want money?

Brian McKnight: Um… yeah (laughs). What happens is, if that song comes out on the record, they’ll say, “Well, I was there that day and that’s my line right there. I put that line there.” You can get sued like that, and they will win. I guess writing is a solitary thing anyway.

Brian McKnight: It depends. Some people only do music. Some people only do lyrics and melodies. For me, since I do everything, I never really needed other people even though I have written songs with some people. Are you able to write when you’re feeling happy and carefree, or are you like most of us where you have to be a little sad or heartbroken to write?

Brian McKnight: No, I can write no matter what the circumstances, because I’ve filed away those emotions. I don’t have a shrink. I write songs to get it out. So once I’m full and I live my life enough, then that’s the inspiration for all the tunes. I wrote a song today and I don’t know where that song came from, but when I’m finished with it I’ll be able to look back and say, “Oh, I wrote that because this happened three weeks ago,” or last year. Do you ever fall prey to writer’s block?

Brian McKnight
Brian McKnight

Brian McKnight: No. What I did was, about a year ago I decided not to write a song for a year, because I had been writing songs every day for twenty [years]. And then I started writing this record and the ideas were coming sporadically. And then miraculously this week five things have come in. It’s not writer’s block, but what happens is I can’t force a song. It just has to come. I have to trust that it’s coming. Your song Anytime, who is that written about?

Brian McKnight: Anytime started out as a song asking the fans why they’re so fickle. When I realized it was too deep, I then made it seem like it was about a relationship. There’s no one person that I can say that song is about. After my first record I sold two million. My second record didn’t do as well, and I was like, “What happened?” And I was trying to make a statement. I was really getting too deep, and I took a step back and said, “You know what? This is all about me and what I give to them, and I can never think that I can just give them anything.” So in the second verse I switched it to be very specific, “I still have your picture in a frame.” The first verse has nothing to do with a relationship if you really listen to the lyrics. But no one would ever know that unless you ask me. You recently signed with E1 Music which used to be Koch Records. What kind of music are you going to make with them, and what slant will this new album have?

Brian McKnight: I do what I do. This joint venture I’m doing with them, it’s giving me a lot of freedom to do whatever I want, but because there’s so much going on with me I can’t just make anything. I have to continue to make the kinds of records that my fans expect. So I’ve gone in with the idea of let me write some great songs and let me figure out how to produce them so that it’s today, but let’s start with a great song first. I’ve taken some steps on this record that may be a little different thematically. I’ve messed around with some Reggae on this record which I have never done before. But I need six or seven bona fide Brian McKnight songs where people can say, “Ok, he satisfied me there. I don’t know if I love that other thing, but at least he gave me what I expected.” You have duets with Jill Scott and Stevie Wonder on this album. Tell me what you admire most about each of them?

Brian McKnight: That they’re true artists in every sense; great writers. They sound just like they do on the records when they’re live; great personalities too, and just really good people. I like working with good people. How did those collaborations come about?

Brian McKnight & His Sons
Brian McKnight & His Sons

Brian McKnight: With Jill I had a song in mind that I had written a while back. I said, “Hey, if you have some time and you’re in town, come by.” And twenty minutes later she was done. With Steve it’s just a matter of calling him and seeing if he’ll call you back. And when he does then he’ll get to you when he has the time (laughs). Your sons are also signed with E1 Music. Did you make the introduction for them?

Brian McKnight: The deals are all sort of self contained with them. It’s not a traditional record deal. It’s my thing that we are allowing E1 to be a part of because I love what they are doing over there. In a traditional record situation it doesn’t seem like the best time to be a part of that. What E1 is doing is it’s giving artists an opportunity to do their own thing. Creatively, do your sons come to you for advice, and do you try to oversee what they are working on? Or do they say, “Dad, butt out. We want to do our own thing”?

Brian McKnight: They’re doing their record the way they want. I have not written one note of it. It’s their vision. Their success will be completely hinged on their abilities to do what they do. I believe in them, and I believe that they should have their story to tell. They will definitely stand on their own two feet. I want them to surpass me ten times over. Let’s talk about your late night talk show premiering in September on The CW Network. What made you want to do your own late night talk show?

Brian McKnight: I was working at Extra for awhile, and the idea even then was, what do I need to do to sort of be what Arsenio [Hall] was for us, for this next generation? I had an idea about how we wanted the show to be. A lot of people passed on the idea that we had, so we kept working on it, and finally Litton Entertainment decided to take a chance on us, and The CW Network has granted us the opportunity. There’s a lot out there, but there’s still a lot missing, especially from what Arsenio did, and a place for artists and a show for fans, specifically. It’s a lifestyle show, giving people an opportunity to be behind the velvet rope that they very rarely get a look behind. How so?

Brian McKnight: With everything from fashion to the people who are on [the show], and what they talk about. This isn’t a show about, “Hey, you’ve got something coming out. I’m going to talk to you for five minutes about that.” It’s going to really be more about, come over to Brian’s place and hang, and you’re invited. Will you incorporate your music into the show, or will you strictly be a host?

Brian McKnight: If you’re asking me if I’m going to sing, I’m gonna sing. But there’s going to be so much audience interaction, not just the studio audience, [but] the audience at home. I will sing on every show, but the audience will get to pick what songs I sing. The audience is going to pick, once they know who’s on the show, some of the questions that I ask. What types of questions do you think are off limits, or the kind of question that you would not feel comfortable asking, during a late night talk show format?

Brian McKnight
Brian McKnight

Brian McKnight: I’m not the gossip guy. One thing about working at Extra I didn’t like was how they wanted to only deal with the negative aspects of people’s lives. I’m really about [being] positive, and showing and extolling the virtues of people in a positive form. I’m not necessarily about coming on the show and dealing with whatever your problems are. This is about bringing the positive aspects of what everyone is doing to light. Who is your dream guest?

Brian McKnight: Michelle Obama. Will you produce or be strictly in front of the camera?

Brian McKnight: I’m both, actually. I’m not the only [producer], but I’m not going to do anything that I don’t want to do. We’re listening to other people who are veterans, but again, my name is on the show. I would rather go down with my own ideas, than go down with someone else’s. I have two personality questions for you. What makes you feel invincible?

Brian McKnight: My parents were very good at letting us know that there was nothing that we could not do if you put your mind to it, and if you plan to do it. And if you do it then you better give it everything you’ve got. Don’t half ass anything. I think it was really about upbringing. What is the one thing that makes you feel fearful?

Brian McKnight: That’s funny, because I’m really not afraid of anything. People who know me know that. At the end of the day if there’s something that you have to do, if it precludes you from doing it and getting to the next level, then what’s the point?

The Brian McKnight Show is nationally syndicated and premieres September, 2009.

Brian McKnight’s ( latest album is slated for release in September, 2009 through E1 Music.