Musician Brian McKnight Uses 'More Than Words'

Rhythm and Blues musician Brian McKnight has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide. He's earned 16 Grammy nominations and worked on projects with Justin Timberlake and Mary J. Blige. He's also an actor, father and has an arts education foundation. Host Michel Martin talks to McKnight about his life and new album, More Than Words.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. When you think about people at the top of the R&B pyramid, then the name Brian McKnight surely comes to mind. He's been nominated for 16 Grammys, he's performed for sold out audiences around the world. He's collaborated with other stars like Justin Timberlake and Mary J. Blige, and sold more than 20 million albums.

Now, after the last one, he dropped some hints that that might be enough for a while, but it turns out he does have more to say and his latest album is titled "More Than Words."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORE THAN WORDS")

BRIAN MCKNIGHT: (Singing) It would be the sweetest thing you've ever heard and despite all the things I want to do to you this time, I'm going to be more than words.

MARTIN: That was the title track from Brian McKnight's new album, "More Than Words," and he is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MCKNIGHT: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: In one interview, you talked about how this album is sort of a back to the future moment for you, that you actually went back and listened to some of your earliest work before you started putting this together. How come?

MCKNIGHT: When I'm onstage doing concerts all over the world, people are always referencing the first three or four records, CDs, albums - whatever we call them - that I did and I wanted to figure out why, so I wanted to take a more subjective look at what I think that reason was. And I think the reason was because I didn't really know what I was doing. I was just creating music, so I wanted this album to be more like that. I'm not thinking about what needs to be on the radio. I'm not thinking about anything other than - I'm just going to let this music come out of me and not have any sort of preconceived notion of what I should do. I'm just going to do it. And I like what I did.

MARTIN: This is number 15, right? I'm kind of losing track. Number 15?

MCKNIGHT: Yeah. I think it's been 21 years since my first album came out and I think I've made too many.

MARTIN: Really? You know, I was going to ask about that because I was wondering whether - were you just having a tired moment that day or did you mean it when you talked about how, after the last, you thought, you know what? I think this might be it for me for a while. Did you mean that at that time?

MCKNIGHT: I did. I did mean that at the time because that came up at a time when music was in its hay day. People now have been conditioned to believe they should only buy one song at a time, that nobody can make an entire record that would merit you paying, you know, $7, $8, $10 when CDs in the '90s were $18, $19 and people bought millions and millions and millions of them.

It's weird because I'm not 20 years old, so I'm not like the latest phenomenon and I'm not 60 years old. I'm not like a legend that - so I'm sort of in the middle in this sort of gray area where, you know, I'm creating music and I'm not saying there isn't an audience because there is because all of those people go out and spend $80 to $150 on a concert ticket. But those people aren't necessarily buying records, so I think that the mindset just had to change more than anything.

MARTIN: What were you thinking about when you were putting this album together and why did you change your mind? You did obviously change your mind and...

MCKNIGHT: There were a couple of reasons. One, I'll always write music. Whether I release a record, whether I let the public hear it or not, I'm always writing music. I've written several songs since I finished this album, but you know, the label came back and was like, well, do you want to make a record? I was like, no. Mind you, I already had, like, 15 songs done. I was like, I don't know. You know, I don't know. So they made it - let's just say they made it worth my while to do another one.

MARTIN: I was going to ask. Were they nice about it or was it - were you volunteered Army-style? Brian, you're making an album.

MCKNIGHT: No. They were nice about it. The Gestapo tactics don't start until it's finished.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. Well, tell me about the title track, "More Than Words." Do you want to play a little bit more? Shall we play a little bit more? You can tell us...

MCKNIGHT: If you like.

MARTIN: ...a little bit more about...

MCKNIGHT: Sure.

MARTIN: ...what was on your mind when you were writing it.

MCKNIGHT: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORE THAN WORDS")

MCKNIGHT: (Singing) Nobody really wants to be lonely. I'm a' stay this way for now. I'm just trying my best to be honest and open. I'm still learning how. I'm not saying that I'm hopeless. At some point, it's got to be real, but I must confess that I'm more or less where I need to be. This is hard for me because I want to hold you, want to touch you. It's the game I usually play. I want to feel you. I want to be with you and I know just what to say. It would be the sweetest thing you ever heard. And despite of all the things I wanna do to you this time, I'm gonna be more than words.

MARTIN: So you're outing yourself as a dog here? What's going on?

MCKNIGHT: I mean everybody knows that I have been, I don't know, I don't know what you would call it. Let's just say that at this point in my life, when I say something; I'm going to mean it. And I think that for the last year, you know, being honest has really served me better than my previous plan, which was just to sort of wing it and see what happens.

MARTIN: And when you say by being honest you mean what, telling people exactly what you are emotionally...

MCKNIGHT: Yes. Exactly.

MARTIN: ...exactly what you are planning to do and what you're not planning to do? That kind of thing?

MCKNIGHT: Yeah, I think that what we tend to do this you get into something with somebody and you tell them what they want to hear so you can, you know, have them or be with them, whatever the case may be. And then you end up doing the things you want to do anyway and that always ends badly. So in the beginning, you say exactly where you are, you say exactly what your intentions are and then you let that person decide what they want to do with you. And if it turns into something it does. If it doesn't then you were honest in the beginning. You know, I don't go into a situation saying oh, yeah, I want to be with you forever. Not that I've ever really said that, but you do things with people and they assume because you're being that way with them that that's what your intentions are and that's where it got a little - so the song is really about I'm not going to say anything that I don't mean until I actually mean it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with multi-platinum artist Brian McKnight. His new album is called "More Than Words." It comes out March 19th.

I was thinking about this. You are like a lot of artists; the church played a role in your development as an artist. Your grandfather was a minister of music. Your mother played piano, sang in a choir. You and your brothers sang choir. Your brother Claude is a founding member of the gospel group Take Six. And now you're in a place in your career where there have been some explicit pieces that you've put forward that have created some controversy for you. And I'm wondering, how does that feel to you? I'm not quite sure I understand how you feel about it because I've read different things from different interviews. And just for people who aren't really sure what we're talking about, there was this video you put out on YouTube last year called "If You're Ready to Learn." It's been described as an erotic how-to, a guidebook on female physiology.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: How do you feel about this? I'm not quite sure if you said it was a parody but I'm not quite sure. I've seen in other things where you're not really thrilled at the reaction that you got to it.

MCKNIGHT: Well, I'm not thrilled nor put off by it either. The 30,000 people that were following me on Twitter before I did that know me and they know that I'm constantly doing social experiments because I like to know how people think. I like to know how they feel about certain things. And this all started because I was at a club after one of my shows and the music that was playing suggested to me - considering that the girl standing next to me was singing everyone of these lyrics and the things they were doing on the dance floor were raunchier than anything I've ever seen in a strip club - I decided that I was going to, I went on my timeline and I said to folks, I'm thinking about doing an "adult," in quotation marks, mix tape.

So I wanted them to tell me what they wanted me to write about. So they worth saying things like oh, right about a failed relationship. I was like do you people even know what adult means? So if I was famous enough to be on "Saturday Night Live" and did this song then no one would've said anything, they would have known right away that it was. But the people who were having a problem where people who say things like well, whatever happened to "Back At One," not realizing that that was 14 years ago and that they haven't listened to anything I've done or seen me perform in that timeframe. And what tends to happen is the same thing that happens on the freeway, when you stop on this side to look at an accident on the other side of the freeway because your that nosy, people decided that they were going to jump on this bandwagon that didn't even listen to the song, because I still think that this song is one of the most creative things I've ever done.

MARTIN: Really? How come?

MCKNIGHT: Well, if you listen to the lyrics, you'll understand. As opposed to just...

MARTIN: I did listen to it. Obviously I listened to it because I'm talking about...

MCKNIGHT: Well, then tell me, tell me who the person is that's talking? Do you think that I'm talking to people saying what I'm going to do to somebody?

MARTIN: Uh-uh.

MCKNIGHT: No, it's not.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, are you upset about it? I mean I'm not quite sure...

MCKNIGHT: Not at all. But what I would want people to do, and all I really wanted them to do was to take a step back and listen to the state of music today and the things that they actually listen to and allow it to be in their consciousness. If you're going to categorically deny anyone from doing it then categorically deny everyone from doing it. Don't be mad when somebody who you think shouldn't does something like that.

MARTIN: Are you - well, I mean is it a thing of trying to kind of shakeup how you are viewed as an artist...

MCKNIGHT: Not at all.

MARTIN: ...or was it just for your own fun?

MCKNIGHT: It was for my own fun. People take themselves way too seriously and they take me way too seriously when I don't even take myself seriously.

MARTIN: One of the other videos that you just put out was in connection with this album is for the song "Sweeter."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEETER")

MCKNIGHT: (Singing) Yeah, the sky is so much bluer now since you came into my life, girl. Sunshine's so much brighter now since you opened up my eyes, girl.

(Singing) Yeah, everything in my life is sweeter and it's all because of you, yeah.

I think that's how you want your life to be. If you meet someone they should take the mundane things of life that you take for granted, like the sun shining and the sky being very blue. Yesterday, you know, or a couple of days ago, I was looking up, there was not a cloud in the sky. I was like that's how you should feel when somebody is in your life and that's what that song is all about.

MARTIN: When you go about casting your videos who are you looking for or what are you looking for? Do you have a certain image in mind?

MCKNIGHT: For that particular video I had a friend that was not busy that day and she said she'd do it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Did you tell her you're going to be licking honey off her navel? I was thinking to myself she, I wonder what's that like. You know, you're like hi, my name is Brian. I'll be licking honey off your navel. Is that awkward?

MCKNIGHT: Not when you know someone, and this particular girl I know. Maybe not know like that, but I would imagine it would be strange. But, you know, how do people in movies do it? People in movies do...

MARTIN: I don't know. I was going to ask you. I don't know.

MCKNIGHT: You know. You have to now actually kiss someone or do something even, you know, be naked in front of them. So if you're an actress, if that's what your job is, I think you decide when, you know, where your line is and how far you're going to go across that line.

MARTIN: And I noticed that in looking at your comments page a lot of your fans are African-American women and I wonder do you think about that? Do you think about who you cast in your videos as your love object, as the object of your desire and with an eye toward how you fans feel, if they feel lifted up by the culture? Do you know what I mean?

MCKNIGHT: I think that when it comes to that - considering that the girl who was in the video is actually African-American...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, I thought she might be...

MCKNIGHT: Although - Yeah.

MARTIN: But I mean she's very light-skinned and I'm just saying that there is this whole color cast hierarchy in this that's been talked about a lot.

MCKNIGHT: But I wonder who is keeping that going? I wonder who is really affected by it the most and who the reflection of that actually is? Because I don't see color like that. I wouldn't ever want to do something just to appease somebody so that they don't have a problem with something. I don't think you can decide who you're going to fall in love it when it comes to who you' going to be with. And if you base that on well, I'm only going to be with somebody who looks like this or somebody who is only this ethnicity, I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

MCKNIGHT: I don't know.

MARTIN: Switching gears, not all the songs on this album are about romance and intimacy. There's one track that different. This is called "Try Not to Fall Asleep." Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRY NOT TO FALL ASLEEP")

MCKNIGHT: (Singing) Whatever's going on outside my window I'm not tall enough to look out there and see. When things go wrong in the night and I'm terrified from fright, I thank God that I had Teddy laying next to me. If I close my eyes I know that I'll be missing some friend, a shooting star or something good on the TV. Daddy, don't be mad if you hear me crying, I'm only trying not to fall asleep.

MARTIN: I don't know if you're playing that the club but...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Where did you get the idea for this one? This one's very sweet.

MCKNIGHT: Well, I have a five-year-old daughter and when she was much younger, and as parents, when your child can't actually tell you what their problem is, we tend to get angry, we tend to try to try to make it seem like a child knows what they're doing. And I went to give that child some sort of reasoning to let parents know that, you know, there could be a million reasons why I might be crying or I might be this or I might be that. But here, just another way of looking at it so that before you really take it out on that kid that you take a step back and realize that these kids, they're just kids. They're just starting to live. They are just starting to - because I know I've gotten upset before. I know I've gotten, you know, and I wanted to give those kids a voice just to remind parents that, you know what, I'm just a kid.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's sweet. Have you ever thought about doing an album for kids or kid's album?

MCKNIGHT: Well, that's why I did that song. I had said I was going to do that a while. I wrote this song about two and a half years ago and I wrote a couple of other songs and I got sidetracked making another album, it didn't happen, so I wanted people to hear this. I wanted people to share that experience with me.

MARTIN: That's kind of a nice segue into talking about your foundation, McKnight 360 Foundation aimed at funding music programs in schools.

MCKNIGHT: Right

MARTIN: And you visit different campuses to talk to students and educators.

MCKNIGHT: You know, kids need other reasons to be in school other than just to be in the books. They need to be enriched. They need to be able to have a respite from those other things that they're doing. And music is one of those things that we all love it. We all need it. And if I can lend a helping hand in sort of bridging the gap between what they're getting and what they're not getting, then that's something I'm all for because I had that opportunity to be able to learn about music, to be able to study music and I know that it's really enriched my life and I'd like to share that experience with some of these kids who aren't getting that opportunity.

MARTIN: And I understand that you're back out in another play, another stage production.

(LAUGHTER)

MCKNIGHT: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Which is because you're not busy enough, you're going out with Angie Stone on a new play, right?

MCKNIGHT: Yeah. A Hinton Battle play called "Love Lies" and it's going to be very interesting with this one because apparently, I have to get in a casket during this play. It's like a funeral sort of situation. So that's going to be interesting.

MARTIN: And apparently, if I understand it right, it's the tale of three women who arrive at a funeral to discover that they were all engaged to the same man. And I assume that's you.

MCKNIGHT: Yeah, I assume that's me too.

(LAUGHTER)

MCKNIGHT: So right there, there you have a...

MARTIN: But you're not dead yet.

(LAUGHTER)

MCKNIGHT: I don't know, we'll see. We'll see when you get there.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for talking with us.

MCKNIGHT: You're very welcome.

MARTIN: What should we go out on?

MCKNIGHT: The "Fourth of July."

MARTIN: All right. "Fourth of July."

MCKNIGHT: That's my jam. That's my jam.

MARTIN: All right. There it is. Brian McKnight is an award-winning, multiplatinum selling, singer-songwriter. His latest album is titled "More Than Words." He was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Thank you so much for joining us.

MCKNIGHT: You're very welcome.

MARTIN: We're going to go out on "Fourth of July," which is from "More Than Words."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOURTH OF JULY")

MCKNIGHT: (Singing) Girl you're still the flame that burns me deep in my soul. So remarkable. So incredible. The best I've ever known. When we kiss, it's like this...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOURTH OF JULY")

MCKNIGHT: (Singing) Every time we're together like the Fourth of July. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

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