Photo via Spin

Photo via Spin

By Tim Larew

Mikky Ekko’s debut album Time, released in January, takes listeners on a deeply emotional journey, one that’s successfully (and beautifully) shared in just under an hour with exactly zero features. In an age of oft-watered down major label releases, Ekko’s album is a rarity. There’s very little normalcy to the way the 30-year-old Louisiana native went about delivering Time, but it worked.

The album, like all the best debut efforts seem to do, tells the story of Ekko’s life to date through his own, one-of-a-kind lens. It’s vulnerable, intimate and strikingly personal, but at the same time, the music is undeniably far-reaching. Themes of loss, redemption and unwavering determination coupled with equal parts somber and uplifting production create an album that virtually anyone can connect to on some level, and the resulting product is a tremendous source of pride for Ekko.

Everything about Time and the way he speaks on it feels sentimental and close to home, an effect that correlates directly to his Southern upbringing in which family was held at the highest value. When Ekko sings or simply speaks (in this instance, to me), it’s clear that he has a shrewd understanding of the weight of his own words. His delivery is delicate and powerful at once, and his messages come through as clear as any.

Ekko broke through on a mainstream level in late 2012 with his contribution to Rihanna’s hit single “Stay,” but now, little over two years later, there’s no doubt that he’s made a name for himself, and done so by adhering to no one’s standards but his own. Time is a wonderful album powered by brilliant songwriting, sweeping hooks and intricate melodies, but most importantly, its depth indicates that there’s so much more where it came from.

Get familiar with Mikky by reading our interview with him, and purchase Time here if you’ve yet to do so.

What was your first experience with music and when did you start to realize it was something you really wanted to take seriously?
You know, I think what’s important is that realizing music is what you wanna do is the same as anything. It’s just like, I think one day I realized that music was a huge part of my childhood. I grew up around two parents who were always singing or playing, and for me it was always important that I was a part of that, but I didn’t realize that was what I wanted to do until much later. And I don’t think there was a single moment, it was more I realized there was nothing else I loved as much as that, and it struck. I was like, I better chase this fast. I wrote a couple songs when I was a teenager and it was fun, but when you really decide to pursue it the fun becomes work, becomes fun, becomes life.

Around when was that?
It was like, my second year in college and I was just like, you know what, I think all these classes make sense to me, but I don’t feel mentally stable enough to do any of this stuff. Ultimately I wound up splitting from college and really focused on trying to be around people who were better than me as a musician and as a writer and finding friends who were solid human beings who care about your growth. I think the worst mistake you could ever make as a musician is wanting to “get into music” and be around a lot of people who don’t know what it means to grow as a human being. You have to grow as a human first to really be successful. Success is only measurable in your mind.

I think the worst mistake you could ever make as a musician is wanting to “get into music” and be around a lot of people who don’t know what it means to grow as a human being.

I know you grew up in the South and bounced around a lot, how did being in Nashville and Louisiana and all of these southern areas influence everything you do?
Initially I didn’t realize how much it influenced me. Like, how would you say your parents are an influence in your life? I realized that the South was a natural extension of who I am, so a big part of this album for me was giving people access to what I do. I wanted to make something that was more left field, just kinda out there and in my dream zone, you know?

It was sort of creating a landscape where I could go live there and escape, but I realized what’s important about where and how I grew up is that it’s all about family. It’s all about making yourself accessible to people and that it’s not forced and feels natural. This album feels really natural for who I am. It’s crazy diverse. It’s intense at times, but I think it’s really important that people see that that’s just in me.

Did you spend a lot of time alone writing the album? There is a lot of depth and pain and themes like that throughout the album. You seem like a very reflective, deep thinking person from listening through.
At the end of the day I realized this album was about the pursuit of a song, and I had a new friend tell me that and it stuck with me. Sometimes you need people to cut the bullshit with you. I’m somebody who works really hard to have people in my life—to keep people in my life—who keep me honest with myself, and I hit a point with this album where I realized the whole thing was really heavy. All the sudden I went, that’s not all me, but I don’t know how to write the other side of that. All I’d been writing about was all the trouble, all the pain to get that out, but I feel like I’ve written that, so what do I write now?

I pushed myself to create an album that for me is a totally genuine statement of who I am as a human being, it doesn’t even have anything to do with me as an artist because your artistry is always secondary to who you are as a human being. Always. Like you can fake it, you can put on hats, you can make cool ass mixtapes, but at the end of the day you have to look at yourself in the mirror and say this is who I am, and I just wanted to give people access to who I am with this album.

There are no features. It felt super personal, I assumed that was a conscious decision to make it all you.
Yeah, you know I got approached after everything was done, like, “Hey we’re thinking about a couple features for this album” and I’m like, “Oh god…”. I considered it because it’d be nice to have a girl’s voice on this album, it’s a pretty sensual album at times, but I was like, the timing’s not right. I need to put this out and just let people know who I am.

And your situation with RCA, they let you have creative freedom with that?
Honestly I’ve had a lot of friends who’ve had trouble with their labels but at the end of the day, RCA has been really, really good to me. They gave me time. Here’s the thing: where most people make mistakes is when they go in knowing they want a deal but they don’t know what they want from the album, and they don’t realize that when you sign on with a major label, that’s about giving people access to who you are. What’s important to recognize is that when you partner with a major label, it’s a business partner.

I view them as a business partner, but I treat all my business partners like family, so they knew what they were getting on the front end and they were supportive of that, and that was the most important thing in our relationship is they knew they were supporting a family. What I said to them when I came in is, the only thing I ask is that you push me as an artist and if you’re pushing me to be the best artist I can be I’ll deliver, and that’s what was important to me. They agreed, and I believe in this album genuinely, just like that.

Were there other labels interested when you signed?
Yeah, I was doing the rounds because I had done a bunch of writing and been in with a ton of writers. I wrote like 220-230 songs for this album, and that’s why I say it was about the pursuit of a song because I knew there were these emotions in me I was trying to capture, and it’s like a hunt. I knew if I didn’t get it on my debut then I’d want to put out this album later on that was focused on emotion, and then people would be like, what is this dude doing? Is he trying to sabotage himself?

And what you were trying to get across would have been buried by that point.
Exactly, it’s like, “He’s the dude that does the R&B stuff, the pop stuff or whatever,” but it’s like by allowing me to put a tune like “Riot” on this album, like that tune for me represents what this album is all about—self-expression and there are no limits to self expression anymore, you can be who you wanna be, you can find your people, and that’s what I intend to do with this album.

I want to take it back a little bit to “Stay.” How did that come about and how did that change your career trajectory at the time?
That song happened after a really, really long night where I drank too much and I was almost too hungover to come into that session. The important thing was that my regret for that long night played into who I wound up being as an artist, and I think what “Stay” taught me more than anything—I had never written a song that vulnerable—and when I sang that song, when I performed at the Grammys with Rihanna, the weight of that song hit me, and I rethought the entire album. I thought to myself, if this is really about showing people who you are and meeting people where they are, I wanna create something—no, I have to create something—that is accessible for people. And it’s really, really difficult.

When you’re having an emotion like “Riot” where you’re angry with everything that’s going on in the world on some feeling vicious shit, you want somebody to connect with, and for me it’s like, well I can be that, because that’s me, that’s in me, why wouldn’t I put that on my album? This is about showing people who you are, this is the debut and that’s where I wanted to meet people, with a song like that where you can know the intimate parts of me and with a tune like “You”—that’s the easiest tune on the album. I don’t know man, I poured it all out. I could go into every single song.

So you’re really just saying it was how “Stay” resonated with people that made you approach this album the way you did?
Yup, like for me, every song on this album is a personal “Stay.”

Talk about how expectations changed after “Stay.” Pockets of people knew who you were, but then that song is a huge single and all the sudden you have masses of people knowing who you are. How did you take that new wave of attention and bridge the gap? Did it put more pressure on you?
Honestly I think it put more pressure on other people. Because initially—most people have no idea how it happened—initially I told Rihanna no she couldn’t have it, and people looked at me like I was insane. I said no because it was for my album, and it was an important emotion for me, but ultimately I realized what it meant to her and why it meant that, that’s what changed it for me. Suddenly I had a bird’s eye view of what I was trying to create, and that was something that was connective.

Initially I told Rihanna no she couldn’t have [“Stay”], and people looked at me like I was insane.

What’s important to me is connecting with people because that’s where I’m from. For me it’s like I go home to Nashville and being with my family I pick up right where I left off, and that’s how I treat people when I’m out of town. I’m in London right now, I wrote part of the album in Stockholm, New York, LA, Portland… all over the place, and what’s important is that it’s about the investment in the people because we don’t have much time here.

What’s been the initial response to the album, how are you feeling about what you’ve heard so far?
I mean, for me it’s been pretty overwhelming. It’s been magical. I’ve been working towards this my entire life and I genuinely laid it all on the line, I didn’t hold anything back. I pulled songs from the album that I felt were songs that were just a vibe for me because I really wanted to connect with people. And immediately what I started seeing was a lot of different people have a lot of different favorite songs, and it seems like it’s starting to land in people’s lives and that’s super cool.

You just alluded to it there but a lot of artists talk about how their first album is their whole life leading up to that point, so when you start to work on new material, where do you look to for inspiration?
I’m very much someone who listens to where I am at the time and try to get in tune with who I am. A mentor of mine once said, what’s really important about who you are is knowing that what you’re saying at the time needs to be said, and that’s what I’m listening for, that’s what I’m tuning into with my body. I’ve got a lot of songs that are really, really important to me that I haven’t had a chance to track or put out yet, that to me makes for a really exciting album number two, because anyone who loves this album will love everything I do, and I can promise they can trust me if they’re into this album.

Do you have a favorite track?
It has to be “Time” because it’s the album title and because it did take time, and what’s important to me about that song is the sentiment of it, and the lyric is so heartfelt that I wanted to write something that felt classic to me. And I also got to record it with all my friends in Nashville—every single person on that track is a friend playing an instrument, it nearly puts me in tears every time I think about it.

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