With 16 studio albums, more than 40 singles, over 25 million albums sold worldwide and multi-platinums to spare, R&B singer and multi-instrumentalist Brian McKnight is the definition of success. However, when speaking to him about his long music career that started back in 1992, it’s clear that accolades are not his focus — McKnight performs for the love of his audience, and writes new singles for the love of his craft (and his wife).
With that passion, he’s bringing his tour to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, June 18, where he’ll perform his new single “Faithfully” and the classics that made him a household name. We got to chat with McKnight about the upcoming WHBPAC show, his new song, his views on the industry today and more.
Brian McKnight Speaks with Dan’s Papers
What kind of experience or feeling are you hoping to bring to your Hamptons audience?
My goal is always the same. One, play the music that people are coming to hear. I never shoot around my audience — I know what they’re coming to hear so I play that — and to do that to the best of my ability. To have people leave saying that they’d see me again and that they’d pay more. That is my goal. To sound that good, to entertain that well, that’s been my goal from the beginning and that will always be my goal.
Have you ever performed in or visited the Hamptons? And if not, are there any spots you’re excited to explore?
I have been there, but I’ve never performed there. I have friends who have houses out and around. My wife and I have looked at homes, but we haven’t found one; if we were going to move to New York, that’s probably where we would settle down. It’s just great to say, “Yeah, I’m playing in the Hamptons this weekend.” It’s kind of a cool thing to be able to say. …
But for me, it’s not necessarily the place itself, it’s the people who are there. I’ve been touring for so long that I’ve got friends all over the place who I don’t necessarily get to see. When you come to a town where they are, where they’re close, it’s great to be able reconnect with them.
With such a long list of tracks and hits, what would you consider your go-to song for most performances?
If I had to pick, there’s about 10 songs that have to play. But on top of that list, it’s probably “Back at One,” “Anytime” and “One Last Cry” — those are the three that I know that everyone is coming to hear. It’s just about where you put it in the show so that they’re waiting for it, but they don’t have to wait that long.
Is there a song, either hit single or B-side, that is especially meaningful to you?
Every one of my songs since my wife and I met has been written for her. I’ve never had a muse before in my life, so the fact that I finally have that — and those songs like my latest single “Faithfully” and the single before that “Nobody” and the song from my wedding “Everything” — when playing those songs, every one of these shows is really a love letter to her and the man that I have become because of her.
Those other songs I mentioned, they’re great and they were big hits, but they don’t mean as much emotionally, to me, because there’s no emotional connection to them, other than that they made me money, which is a different kind of emotion. The fact that I am the man I am today, a man that I finally am proud of because of her, those songs are the most meaningful.
That’s beautiful. So tell me more about “Faithfully.” Is it going to be part of an album in the future?
As I look at the landscape of how music is released and consumed, it just doesn’t make sense to me to create an entire album of songs where you’re only going to get one or two singles. If I only release a single, then each one is treated like an entire album, which to me makes the most sense in the world. And it’s the way it’s always been. Even my biggest record only had three singles on it — well, there were 15 songs on that album, what did we do with the other 12? They’re just kind of there.
It’s kind of the way of the present and the future, and the way I see streaming and the way it happens. When I get my streaming statement, it’s not the album — I mean, the album streams too — but it’s the individual songs that actually rack up the streaming revenue and the streaming “streams,” for lack of a better term. It just seems to make more sense to put all the focus on the song that you want the most focus to be on as opposed to putting out an entire record which people don’t buy anyway.
As a multi-instrumentalist, is there one instrument that you connect with most, and has your preference evolved during your career?
Not necessarily; it’s whatever the song dictates. On the record, I’m playing all the instruments, but when it’s live, it’s a different thing. I don’t like to be strapped to the piano for a show; I like to be free. Playing guitar and singing makes more sense because it allows me to travel and to be standing.
Some of these shows I’ve been doing, I haven’t played piano at all, it’s been all guitar. It also helps me to practice. I’m a notorious non-practicer. A lot of these shows we’ve been doing lately, I’ve only been playing guitar. So there’s not a preference necessarily, it’s whatever the song dictates.
Whether just for yourself or as an avenue to create new sounds in your songs, is there an instrument you’d still like to master?
God, if I had that kind of time. I mean, not really. The saddest thing that’s happened to music today, in my opinion, is that instruments have been taken off of the radar. I remember vividly watching as a kid … rock bands in the ’80s where there would be a guitar solo where Eddie Van Halen, Steve Lukather or Steve Vai would, in the middle of song, be standing on top of a mountain killing a solo. The fact that doesn’t happen anymore, and hasn’t for a long time, it doesn’t appear that anybody cares that it doesn’t happen.
But if you go on social media, you see that there are so many talented instrumentalists out there who are never going to get their fair shake of the music business, because it’s just not something that’s prevalent anymore. It’s really sad that people don’t tend to care about that anymore. … But music still has to be creative, so you have to find a way to get your thoughts and ideas out there while pretending not to be able to be very musical. It’s a very strange time to be making music. …
I think the line is: How do I stay modern? Stay somewhat relevant, but also have some sort of musical integrity? Because for me, there has to be a certain amount of teaching this next kid who wants to be musical — show him a way to do that. … How do I write meaningful songs at a time when meaningful songs, at least emotionally meaningful songs, aren’t necessarily what’s the most popular? How do you do that? By continuing to be an example of someone who does that.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your long and impressive career?
Every time I go and do a show, people still come out to see me, and it blows my mind. It truly does, I don’t take it for granted one bit. Whether it’s 20 people or 20,000, because it’s a very strange range — I’ve played clubs this year and I’ve also played you know the Brooklyn Nets Arena. It’s a wide range of different types of people and the audiences that come, and 30 years in, they’re still coming.
See Brian McKnight performing at WHBPAC on Saturday, June 18 at 8 p.m. For tickets and more info, visit whbpac.org.