At the beginning of this year, one life-changing performance thrust a relatively unknown singer-songwriter from Nashville into the limelight.
At the Grammys in February Mikky Ekko emerged out of the shadows to join Rihanna as she performed ‘Stay’, the song that he had penned. Their heartfelt duet stole the show leading to many wondering just who the mystery man was.
Born Stephen Sudduth in Shreveport, Louisiana, he had a nomadic childhood travelling around with his father who was a preacher. He eventually moved to Nashville at the age of 21 to pursue a career in music.
Since arriving in the spotlight Ekko has proved that he’s far from just another pop crooner, working with hip hop producer Clams Casino (who has famously worked with A$AP Rocky and Lil B) on a forthcoming album. His track, ‘Pull Me Down’ made the rounds on the blogosphere and displayed an unusual mix of both artists’ talents, with rich lyrical and sonic layering.
Ahead of his performance at Somerset House last week, we chatted to the Nashville native and discovered that the man behind the music is infatuated with his craft. He’s striving for something bigger than himself – a unique attribute in the current industry.
No doubt the world has yet to see exactly what Mikky Ekko means or is capable of and only with the release of his upcoming album will things become clearer. In the meantime, read our interview to find out a little more about the talented newcomer.
WERE YOU ALWAYS INTERESTED IN MUSIC, EVEN AS A KID?
I always loved music a lot as a kid but I didn’t always know that I was supposed to be making it until I realised I couldn’t do anything else very well. I grew up in the church so that kind of informed what I heard. Dad listened to oldies, mom listened to a lot of classical stuff and I would listen to grunge, a lot of hip hop and alternative music.
HOW MUCH DO YOU THINK GROWING UP AROUND THE CHURCH AND GOSPEL MUSIC INFLUENCED YOU?
It’s hard for me to tell just because it’s so deeply rooted. It’s like, how much is where you’re from who you are now? So I’ve got to say it probably influences me way more than I can even know or give credit to. It taught me a pretty deep reverence for music at an early age, which is a big part of why I try to get a more spiritual experience out of the stuff I listen to. There’s a lot of music that gives me that today – Sigur Rós, Actress, a lot of instrumental stuff like Clams Casino’s stuff and Schlomo. All of that stuff has really informed me.
YOU STARTED OFF AS A SONGWRITER. AT WHAT POINT DID YOU WANT TO BECOME A SINGER YOURSELF
I started off writing for me honestly. I wanted to take some time away to really work on my songwriting. I just really felt like that was an area where I needed to grow if I was going to make sure that I could connect with people. I had to understand the foundations of music and not just haphazardly wander into it. So it was an opportunity for me to explore and work on my voice and make sure I actually had something to say.
I’ve written a lot of songs in the past year and a half – there were probably about 120 for this record. They’re not all very good but they are all an exercise in creativity and patience.
DO YOU THINK THAT STARTING OFF WRITING SONGS AND HAVING THAT ABILITY HAS MADE YOU A BETTER ARTIST?
I did things a little backwards because initially I was writing everything acapella and producing it myself and with a couple of buddies. We were experimenting with a lot of different things, trying to figure out the real importance of the song and what that means. It’s funny because I never really know if what I’m writing is any good. You just kind of write and write and wait for the reaction or try to go on that gut feeling. Yeah, I think that what you said kind of sums it up.
THE DECISION TO WORK WITH RIHANNA WAS QUITE A BIG ONE. DID YOU HAVE A SET PLAN FOR YOUR CAREER?
That move was really nerve-wracking for a while because that was a song that was very clearly traditionally pop, even though the chord structure is more songwriter-driven. It made me nervous to move forward with that. The goal from the beginning has been to take on largest platform I could manage while still trying to maintain the integrity of the art. I just felt that if I didn’t take that opportunity, I would have been burning a really important bridge for the rest of my career. You know, I’m a fighter – even as far as the label’s concerned they’ve given me a lot of room to do what I need to do because I know that’s what people need from me is real honesty and integrity in the art I’m trying to make for them.
SO YOU THINK THAT IF THE MUSIC IS STRONG ENOUGH THEN IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO YOU’RE WORKING WITH?
Yeah, and also in terms of Rihanna, I just realised that she puts out so much stuff, it was just such an incredible opportunity to give someone like her an offering of something she might not normally encounter. Then it was like, how can I segue that back into what I do and draw people in – it was a really fun challenge. I feel really honoured.
THAT FIRST PERFORMANCE AT THE GRAMMYS MUST HAVE BEEN CRAZY…
Yeah, my first two shows were live on BBC Radio 1 and then the Grammys. If there is any sort of hilarious David and Goliath story, that’s mine. It’s something I couldn’t have even dreamt up really, the whole thing is so strange that there’s no way I could have turned it down. It was like, “…ok it’s time to run, so…run!” The next day it was definitely like, “shit, it’s happening what do I do now?”
HOW DO YOU FEEL NOW YOU’RE IN THE LIMELIGHT?
I’m trying to make sure I’m being myself more than anything. I mean that’s what I know needs to come through in this music is that I’m comfortable with who I am and with pushing myself outside of my comfort zone but also trying on a pop hat every now and then and just like making sure it’s not all about me. That’s kind of the point with this project – I’m trying to be totally myself but also making it about other people…if that makes any sense.
WHAT WAS THE THINKING BEHIND THE NAME, ‘MIKKY EKKO’?
Well, it means a lot of things to me and I wanted people to be able to see it and come up with their own idea of what it means to them. I wanted it to be catchy and easy to say. That’s where it started. I think when the record comes out it’ll make a little more sense.
IN TERMS OF WRITING, WHAT’S YOUR PROCESS LIKE?
It’s totally manic; it’s all over the place. I mean there are nights when it’s just me in the big lonely place where I used to live, playing on an old piano in a run down house on the west side of Nashville. Then some of that I will sample and use as the foundation for writing. When I went in with Clams (Casino) we did a lot of that. But for me it’s just about pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. We’ve never written together but Dan Wilson said something that stuck withy me (though I’ll probably misquote him) – he stressed the importance of writing, ‘only what’s necessary.’ For me that was pretty terrifying because it forced me to come to terms with the fact that I may or may not have something to say to people. Most of the time I’m trying to figure out what inspires me and as soon as I figure that out then I’ll run with it. Sometimes its crap and sometimes it’s great. But I like the fever pitch, that’s what drives me is hitting that terrifying climax and discovering beauty there.
DO YOU HAVE ANY UNUSUAL INFLUENCES?
They’re not unusual to me. Clams Casino is a pretty big influence on me, Actress, Pixies were a big influence…there was a lot of stranger instrumental stuff back in the day like Animal Collective. I’m very hands on and I like listening to stuff I haven’t heard, walking thorough places I haven’t been before or putting on James Blake’s Retrograde or Max Richter’s On The Nature of Daylight and driving through LA at sunset or midday and just trying to take in – I know it seems really cliché – but just pondering the weight of humanity. Where are we as a civilisation? What’s worth exploring right now? I do think history is important and you can get that in art galleries but I find them quite stuffy. I want to be where my people are, whatever that means. I don’t know what it all means yet but we’ll find out that’s for sure.
ARE YOU MORE OF A LYRICS PERSON OR DO YOU LET THE MUSIC LEAD YOU?
The music. When I’m writing now I try to get the lyrics first because if I can get that out of the way then I usually know I’ve got a song. Personally I like more abstract lyrics, that’s my preference most of the time. But for whatever reason most people don’t connect with that and that’s annoying to me but I want to reach people and I want to make sure that there’s something being said.
In all the stuff that I love I realised there was a common thread. Like, what was so important about Adele’s record? Well, there are some massive tunes but at the end of the day the production isn’t really that inspiring but at the route of it there are songs that are so undeniable that they’re able to capture people. That’s crazy to me. So I have to put my ego aside.
SO YOU MEAN YOU HAVE TO PUT ASIDE YOUR MORE AVANT-GARDE INTERESTS…
Yeah, or at least I try to use that to frame the emotion now. I know it can all sound a bit pretentious but I want to make sure I’m reaching people, that I’m not pushing people away who would come if I just gave them a song.
IT SOUNDS LIKE THE INITIAL IMPRESSION GROWING UP OF MUSIC BEING SOMETHING REVERENTIAL IS WHAT YOU ARE GETTING AT?
It’s really the only way I know how to emote. Music for me is the only really pure form of self-expression and in that there’s a battle with my ego. Avant versus pop, self versus self – all kinds of stupid crap. I’m so obsessive but that frustrated feeling is what keeps things moving forward.
SO NOT BEING FULFILLED FUELS YOU IN A WAY?
Yeah and then finding those moments where I can be at peace with other people or at war, and creating that place, a sanctuary or shelter, and trying to put that into a piece of music. Sometimes it’s garbage and sometimes it works.
AND FINALLY, WHAT ARE YOU HUNGRY FOR?
I’m hungry for love I think. I could probably think of something a little more clever if it wasn’t so hot in this dressing room! It’s either that or a tub of ice.
Find out more about MIkky Ekko on his website.
New single, ‘Kids’, will be released on 12th August via Columbia.