Interview: Mikky Ekko Is Going For It

Most artists can’t lay claim to playing the Grammys without even having released a debut album, but Mikky Ekko continues to prove he isn’t most artists: After appearing alongside Rihanna to perform her chart-topping single “Stay,” for which Ekko co-wrote, co-produced, and sang guest vocals, the Southern gentleman is proving he’s only just begun. Case in point? The past month has seen Ekko release a collaboration with Active Child, drop a charity single with David Guetta for the United Nations’ 2013 World Humanitarian Day campaign, and confirm his presence on the upcoming “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” soundtrack. Fresh off of opening for Justin Timberlake at the iTunes Festival in London, the RCA-signed artist will soon be heading to the East Coast, with a New York show on Nov. 4. Ekko, 29, sounds off below on family, fame and the “Rocky” montage.

On home:
Home for me is family, and I have a family that I love very much. A lot of what family does is help each other grow. When I’m in places where I feel like I’m growing that family and that sense of community, that’s also where home is for me. Nashville and London have been the two places that have fostered most of that. Finding other communities and other pockets allows me to continue to sponge it up, wherever I am.

On what fans don’t know about “Stay”:
I think a lot of fans don’t know what a struggle it was for me and for everybody who’s helped me and worked with my record. We had to think long and hard about giving that song up and making it work, because it was really an important time for me and what I was trying to establish. When we realized we wanted to move forward with her [Rihanna] and do it together, it sprung so many new, good problems into the equation. Knowing now how a song can impact people, it forces me to really check my ego in terms of trying to find songs that hit people on a deeper level, and to not be afraid to do that.

On realizing he had to pursue music:
It was just a slow process of elimination where I realized that was all I could do. Nothing else really made sense for me to pursue given what I know is in me. I knew that was all I wanted to do all the time, so I thought: How do I push myself to be great at that, knowing that I think I’ve got something that I can push to be great?

On the payoff:
Just doing it is a payoff. Money is what it is. That stuff comes and goes because at the end of the day it’s just one man and one woman sitting around counting it. You can’t count happiness. You can count your blessings.

But for me, it was really important to know that you go and do this forever and the payoff is there. Truthfully, I don’t think in terms of payoff or no payoff. It’s in the question: How do I work smarter, harder and faster to push myself to be a more complete human being, or to expand my knowledge in a way that produces a greater spike in the chaos?

On what to expect from his debut album in early 2014, which will feature production from Pharrell, among others:
You’ll hear me going for it. Because it’s the first record, you’ll hear a lot of my flaws and my insecurities. That’s sort of the point of this, really, to get all of this and to put it out there. I hope to constantly surprise other people and myself with the kinds of collaborations I’m doing. That keeps it totally wild for me. And that’s what’s most interesting for me: never, ever being predictable.

On pre-show rituals:
For me, the ritual is in the rehearsal. That creates the ultimate synergy onstage. It all feels like in those rehearsals that it’s the “Rocky” montage every day. Every day is that “Eye Of The Tiger.” When I step in the ring, it’s just about being focused and making sure I’m ready to go out there and bring it.

On questioning as a source of his music:
The world is just a strange place. I started out as a psychology major and then made the wise decision of becoming a philosophy major, and then the even wiser decision of becoming a musician. So you take a look at my path and say, “I don’t know why that dude does anything except mess with his own head.” Most of what I try to do is challenge my idea of the world or its status. I struggle with a lot of those ideas on a day-in, day-out basis: What do I think, what do I believe, and how can I continue to grow and understand the world on a larger level? I hope that it comes out in my music.

On people coming to see him in concert:
It’s kind of like being given a superpower. I’m not saying I have a superpower, but that’s what it seems like to me. People are really coming to see you, and it’s like they need something from you or they’re committed to that. They’re giving you liberty in a lot of ways to move them or affect them and that’s crazy. If five years ago you would have told me people would let me do that? It’s crazy. So then what do I do with that? How do I grow my superpower? How can I add to it? Crazy.

On how he would describe his music:
Dynamic. It tends to be pretty eclectic. Stylistically, if I had to move toward a genre, it lands in the murky swamps of alternative pop. Even I don’t know what it is or where it’s going. I prefer to let people hear it and make up their own minds. As soon as I think I know what it is, or someone else does, it pushes me to make something that challenges that idea.

On the moments before performing at the Grammys:
I’m with one of the brightest and most beautiful pop stars on the planet—arguably the biggest on the planet. As the curtains are about to go up, she came over and we shook hands quickly, and there was a feeling of having been there before. It was at that point when everything slowed down a little bit in my head and I was able to be really present. That was a crazy shift for me in my brain. It was just being able to see someone in the human light just for a second—not as a flawed human or anything— but more like two people in high school about to perform at a talent show. And I’m new to that high school.

On success:
Every day that things grow, I get a little bit less time with my real friends and with the people who really love me and have poured into me for years. So there’s a compromise there. Success for me, then, is all relative, because I miss that. That’s real life for me. That’s the epitome of awesome. The weekends that I used to have that I don’t anymore, with my best friends, hanging out and tailgating and doing whatever. But I guess right now it’s that I’ve made this decision to run, so how do I get faster and stronger and how do I continue to push myself? That’s all I can think about now. To measure success is to get involved in a numbers game, and that’s not real life. That’s counting.

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