MNEK On ‘Language,’ Representation & Working With Beyoncé: Interview

MNEK & Hailee's 'Colour'
MNEK and Hailee Steinfeld's dazzling 'Colour' video is a cute fairytale.

MNEK has been breaking the rules all of his life. After being championed by the first wave of music blogs in the mid-’00s, the artist/producer signed a songwriting deal in 2009 at the ripe old age of 16. It didn’t take long for his name to grace the credits of major UK hits and he tested the waters as a pop star with a well-received debut EP. The Brit finally broke big when “Never Forget You,” an infectious collaboration with Zara Larsson, became a worldwide hit. The song’s success opened even more doors, leading to studio time with Beyoncé and Madonna.

Given his songwriting prowess, MNEK would be forgiven for keeping his artist project on the back burner. But he has larger ambitions than mere stardom. The hitmaker, who is touring North America in early 2019 (find out more here), wants to use his platform to change the very notion of what a pop star should look and sound like. I recently caught up with the (now) 24-year-old at the famed Capitol Records Tower in Los Angeles and asked about his critically-lavished debut album, Language, and the importance of representation. Get to know him a little better in our Q&A below.

Are you relieved that Language is finally out? I know you’ve been chipping away at it for a while now.

I’m really happy it’s out. I’m happy with the album I made. I’m really happy that people have responded positively to it. I just want on a mini tour for it in the UK and it was so cool. It wasn’t in massive venues, but it was so great to meet people who have just listened to the album and really loved it. The fact that they spent their hard-earned money on me is so humbling.

Particularly, at a time when people don’t really pay for music.

They don’t buy music anymore. I mean, it’s fine. It’s cool. You find other ways. I’m trying to remind myself that I love doing this. I really love being an artist, but I make my money from songwriting. You know what I mean? If I just did this, I’d go broke. So, it’s good to have this as a day job. This is my passion, but frankly, music is hard to sell.

You have spoken about being an ambassador for black gay men in pop music. Was it always a goal or did it just happen?

It kind of developed. I always wanted to be out in my music, from when I signed my record deal. But then I just didn’t know how. Ask anyone growing up gay, you’re constantly developing and finding yourself. I didn’t have as much experience to talk about. Also, I love R&B. But I don’t think I make R&B music. I make pop music. I make music that is pretty commercial. But, at the same time, I’m a minority within a minority and it can be challenging. I feel validated about what I’m doing when I meet fellow black gay men or black gay women.

They say that it’s good to have someone that they can relate to. It’s literally everything that I wanted. I just wanted someone that looked like me on TV, you know? A valid, successful person who’s living their best life. I don’t want to be the last person doing what I’m doing.

I hope things are slowly changing. There are more queer, black artists coming through.

There are so many amazing out, gay, black artists who are really great in their own fields, but they aren’t necessarily trying to make pop music. I guess my thing is different because I am trying to be part of that world. But doing it my way.

I love how you turn tired, old tropes upside down on songs like “Girlfriend.” It’s one of my favorites, but it shocked some people.

That’s the exact thing, if a female sung that song verbatim, it wouldn’t be an issue. I think that the core thing about “Girlfriend” is that it is just as simple as me singing it and me doing it in a low register that makes it kind of outrageous. It’s just as simple as me singing it that makes it scandalous. Back in the early 2000s, girls were singing songs like this all the fucking time. Listen to “My Little Secret” by Xscape.

I love that song.

I love that song too! It’s shameless. “I like being with you and your girlfriend in the same room, the fact that she don’t know really turns me on” is rags! I just wanted to have lyrics like that to make people say, “Oh shit.”

Another one of my favorites is “Honeymoon Phaze.”

Yeah. “Honeymoon Phaze” is my favorite on the album. It’s indulgent. It was written for my best friend. It was one of those songs that just felt so good to write. It was based on a real situation.

Another one that stands out is “Crazy World.” It feels very timely.

I didn’t want to make an album that was entirely about love. I mean that’ll come. There’s just so much happening in the world right now. I think it would have been very tone deaf of me to just go ahead and make a love album. “Crazy World” is view or lens on what I see around me. And I know people relate. Because everyone is going through the same shit, it’s just in different shapes and sizes.

Have you already started thinking about the next album?

I’ve started writing new music, but I don’t know what I’m doing yet. Which is fine. When I started making Language, I didn’t have an idea. I knew what I wanted to do more so within the last three months of putting it together. That was when it was like, “Hey. This is the body of work. This is what I’m trying to do.” And the same will apply to the next EP or the next album. But I do want to have one more single from this album.

Can you reveal what it is?

It’s a secret. I just want to get everything right. I’m going to be funding it all myself, like the video and stuff. So I want it to be perfect.

That’s amazing. Speaking of videos, how important is the visual aspect to you?

I hated my early videos. I really did. I hated “The Rhythm.” Hated it. It’s not my vibe to have lot of white people jumping on trampolines. [Laughs]. I was young and really misguided. I think “Tongue” was the first video that I have ever made where I was like, “This shit is lit! I cannot wait to put this out!” You know what I mean? I felt like I was really being my proper self and I loved being part of the editing process of it. I have loved making videos for this album. I’m making ones that I really want to make.

Were you still writing for other artists while recording Language?

Yeah. Totally. I have three songs on the new Little Mix album. Two songs I’ve co-written and another song that I just did a little bit of production on. I’ve also got a song on the new Clean Bandit album. And what else? Honestly, there’s so much happening. For example, someone will randomly record a song I wrote years ago and put it on their album.

Is it strange when that happens?

Sometimes I’m like, “Why this song? Okay! Enjoy! Go ahead!” [Laughs]. My goal is to learn to be less precious about the stuff I’m writing for other people because I’ve got my own stuff to be precious about.

Can I bring up some of your classic cuts?

Sure.

We have to start with “Living For Love.” Because Madonna.

[Groans]. Really?

I’m sorry!

It’s totally fine. The thing about “Living for Love” is all I did was sing. I co-wrote “Hold Tight.” That was a song I did with Diplo. Madonna took it and tweaked it. She invited me to the studio in London and was like, “Can you just sing some [backgrounds] because I love your voice.” So I sang on “Hold Tight.” And then she said, “Okay, I have another song called ‘Living for Love.’ Do you wanna do some BDS?” And I was like, “Okay, whatever you want!” I think she used them for a remix.

What is Madonna like as a person?

She was really cool. Very motherly. She gave me lemons and tea. She invited me to her birthday party. It was literally on a boat in France. I didn’t go. I was in New York, meeting my first boyfriend.

You also co-wrote Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” with Diplo.

With that one, I went to Beyoncé’s house in LA. She has a studio there.

Your life is so glamorous.

It seems glamorous. I don’t know, I’m very blessed to meet the people I’ve met. Obviously, Madonna and Beyoncé are people I grew up watching on TV and they are like the premium of what a pop star is supposed to be. I worked so hard on “Hold Up.” Beyoncé played me the instrumental and all it had was the chorus. I took it back to London and basically wrote a whole song around that chorus. And then, she picked out a section from it and said it was going to be the bridge.

“This such a shame, you let this good love go to waste, I always keep the top tier, 5 star, Backseat lovin’ in the car.” That’s my bit. I believe Father John Misty did the verses. I just did that little section.

Please tell me she was cool. I’m a lifetime member of the Bey Hive.

I really liked her. I thought she was really, really sweet and beautiful in person. Jesus Christ. You know in Lemonade how she has all the different words for each song? She had all those words on paper scattered across the studio. “I want a song that represents redemption. A song that represents forgiveness. A song that represents this or that.” It was great to see how her mind works. It was very inspiring.

I also really like Christina Aguilera’s “Deserve.”

I wrote that song with Julia Michaels. It was actually during the writing camp for Beyoncé. That was the first time I met Julia. I think “Good For You” had just come out for Selena Gomez. Everything started popping up for her. It was sick to see her work. I created this whole whole busy ass beat and she’s like, “Can you take out the drums? Can you take out the synth?” And then she just came up with, “Sometimes I don’t think I deserve you.” And I was like, “Ohhhh okay.” And then the song literally just wrote itself.

We just went back and forth, line for line. It was so fun working with her. And then Christina Aguilera heard it and she loved it and then I was able to meet her several times. She invited me to her birthday party and came to my studio in London. It was totally cool. Totally chill. I really like her. It was great to work with her and hear her sing.

Thanks so much for your time.

Thank you! It’s been really fun.

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