Miguel talks First Ave, racial expectations, sex


When the ceiling collapsed Wednesday at First Avenue, thoughts turned to the injured. Thankfully, they appear to be OK. Then, of course, there was the matter of First Ave's concert calendar, which boasted a biggie Saturday in Miguel. The venue was able to relocate the R&B/rock 'n' roll star's show to the State Theatre, where he'll test out his killer new album — the abrasive, amorous, and adventurous Wildheart. (The switch-up means additional tickets were made available to the previously sold-out gig.)

We were able to snag a phone call with Miguel ahead of Saturday's show. In it, he talked about Prince's influence, the (possibly) racially motivated nature of genre labeling from rock critics, and the creative power of sex. 

City Pages: Let’s start with the obvious – what were your thoughts when you heard about the ceiling collapse at First Avenue?

Miguel: At first I was like, man, that can’t be real. And then I thought about it and was like, well I guess it could be – it’s been there for a long time [chuckles]. Because I’d never played there before, and just for the legacy of the venue, I thought it was going to be really cool. But there will be another opportunity I’m sure. I’ll be excited to play there when it’s ready.

CP: Prince is a big influence on you. Tell me about what he means to you as an artist.

M: In history there are too few artists that really challenge not only themselves but their listeners with their artistry. They challenge the way we thought, the way we look at ourselves, the way we look at the world. Prince is just one of those artists, man.

CP: You performed with him at the Rally 4 Peace show this spring in Baltimore. What are your thoughts on Black Lives Matter and everything they’re trying to address?

M: In general, I would love to support any cause that’s motivating and mobilizing to make some kind of change or affect some positivity to combat the obvious issues that need to be addressed when it comes to inequality toward ethnic people in general. When I can and if I can, I intend on supporting.

CP: Do you ever anticipate taking your own music in a more activist direction? Activism in music almost seems like a thing of the past; most artists tend to avoid it.

M: As my perspective and my interests change, it’s starting to reflect in my music. It’s interesting how your priorities change as you get older and you start to pay attention to what the fuck is going on.

CP: Your new album is your most critically acclaimed yet. What’s different with this one from previous ones, which were respected, but didn’t get this level of props.

M: You can never guess if people are gonna be really into what you put out. I feel this album is more aggressive, overall, I mean that sonically and lyrically. Lyrically, I feel it’s a better album in general. There’s a lot more dynamic and variety to lyrical approach. And sonically, I think it really conveys … I guess the way I see the world, the way my life moves. I don’t know why people like this shit, man! I just make music I love, and maybe that’s what comes across.

CP: Did you feel like you were coming from a more honest place this time? Did anything fundamentally change in your approach?

M: My approach? I think maybe I was less inhibited.

CP: And why is that?

M: Maybe I don’t care to inhibit myself to appease the tastes or expectations of others.

CP: Do you feel like there are specific expectations placed on R&B artists today?

M: Man, I didn’t even make an R&B album, so please call it rock ‘n’ roll! Of course there are a lot of expectations. Everyone wants to tiptop around the fact it’s … I wouldn’t say it’s a straight-up rock 'n' roll record, but for them to tiptoe around rock 'n' roll and use other things like funk or whatever … the album is not really a funky album at all. It’s way more rock 'n' roll. I don’t know.

CP: So you’re frustrated with the way it’s being presented?

M: It’s not really my way to care. I more laugh at how even still, somethings are really … I mean, it just takes consistency, really just reiterating the same thing over and over for people to wrap their minds around someone of ethnic origin doing something opposite or contrary to what’s expected of ethnic people.

CP: So you think, and I may be guilty of it right now, there's sort of a racial branding in ignoring rock 'n' roll and putting the emphasis on R&B, soul, and all that?

M: I don’t know. Personally, I think it has something to do with ethnicity. Then again, there was a time when rock 'n' roll was flourishing. It might be that critics think rock 'n' roll is dead, so they don’t really use that term. I don’t know. It’s not really my job to care about genre; I just pay attention to the way people describe things. When you see it and you hear it, you know that’s not funk, man. I know you know music more than that, so why would you describe it like that? It’s interesting.

CP: I fell trap to that just now. And you’re right, it is more of of a rock 'n' roll record. It’s strange that rock, something that was co-opted by white people from black people originally, has become so white-seeming.

M: Man, we could have this conversation and go into the whole of the human psyche. Why is it when people think of R&B, they categorize it or stereotype it as being overly sexual and always about love – what genre isn’t?! What genre doesn’t talk about sex and love? We’re human beings, that’s what differentiates us from any other animals. And the fact we’re able to express ourselves creatively – not only in music, in any medium. We’re sexual beings and it comes out in our heart. Through history, whatever genre or medium, sex and love are the continuous thread that link everything together. You can listen to heavy metal and that shit’s all about love and sex, yet R&B is supposed to be this stereotypical sex thing.

CP: Totally. Warrant had “Cherry Pie” and the metaphor isn’t too hard to decipher.

M: You can go through any of those bands – Poison, fuckin’ Guns N’ Roses. Not all of it, but it just sucks that R&B is kind of pigeonholed to be one kind of thing. I’m not mad, because I understand there was a time, where even to me, it became a caricature of itself, you know what I’m saying? But I don’t think that means there should be that expectation.

CP: I’m gonna ask a dumb question. Your music is mood-setting music. But what sets the mood for Miguel?

M: You gotta create your vibe wherever you go. I think it’s more about the moment. I don’t really look for go-to schemes, you know?

CP: Again, I don’t want to fall into the trap you just described, where yes, all music is sex. But your music – I think one headline called it “fucking music” – is very much about sex. What is it about sex that you find so creatively invigorating? It’s all over the record and it’s done in such a fresh-seeming way, even though it’s about the oldest thing humans have ever done.

M: I think it’s more about the emotional dynamic of sexuality that’s interesting to me. It’s such a vulnerable place, where ego, fear, lust, love – it’s an area where you’re exchanging so many dynamics of your personality. Confidence. Insecurity. All of those things are swirling around. There’s a lot to dissect there.

CP: You’re associated with a lot of great artists when people write about you – Marvin Gaye, Prince, D'Angelo. Do you concentrate on your own legacy?

M: It’s a balance. I think part of it is trusting yourself to do what feels right in the moment. But then also keeping in mind that, if possible, you want to leave footprints on the sands of time. You want to leave something that transcends your blip on this plane, in this dimension, that affects people in a positive way. As I’m growing and evolving, I pay a lot more attention to the legacy that I want to leave behind.