It’s 10AM and already Uzo Emenike’s living room is filling up with people. The pop singer, songwriter and producer, better known as MNEK, is preparing for a day of meetings and press around his forthcoming debut album ‘Language’ and a Beats By Dre campaign that ties together his Hailee Steinfeld-assisted single ‘Colour’ and their vibrant new Pop Collection.
At only 23-year-old, MNEK has already built himself an incredible CV, which boasts writing and producing for the likes of Beyoncé, Dua Lipa, Little Mix, Madonna, Diplo, MØ, Rudimental, Julia Michaels and Stormzy, but the weeks ahead will see him making his biggest artistic statement to date, with ‘Language’ dropping on September 7th.
The smell of home-cooked breakfast fills the air, and final touches of make up are being applied to MNEK’s face as he simultaneously juggles gracious hosting duties - welcoming us to take a seat and chiming in on conversations around the Summer’s festival line-ups.
Ready to take on the busy day ahead, he joins us on the sofa to discuss his perception of ‘Pop’, collaborating with Diztortion and Hailee Steinfeld on ‘Colour’ and how he hopes to blaze a trail for others to follow…
How did you get involved with the Beats By Dre ‘Pop’ campaign?
I went over to L.A. and I was having a few listening parties for my record, and I went over to Apple and I played them ‘Colour’ - featuring Hailee Steinfeld - in particular and they really loved it and they thought it was perfect for a campaign they have involving Beats headphones. Worked out really well, they were doing it in different colours and so then it became part of the campaign.
There was a period where people didn't want to be called pop, whereas now it’s embraced more. What is your perception of pop music?
Pop music has always just been music which is really catchy, and popular. It's unashamed: it's not ashamed to be uncool, it's not ashamed to be cool, it can be whatever it wants to be - that's what I think pop really is.
I guess pop is when it's not contrived. I think when it's a whole thing of, ‘It must be cool, it must be edgy, it must be all these things,’ that's when it becomes a bit off-kilter.
The sampler I got to hear from your new album ‘Language’ blends a lot of different sounds and influences. Do you think pop allows you a certain freedom, not being tied to one specific sound?
Right, it means it can be more dynamic, it can be more interesting, it doesn't have to be just one thing. Unless you want it to be, then go for it. My personal thing is that - because I write everything, I produce everything - I want to be interested all the time.
So how did ‘Colour’ come about?
It started off me by myself, I'd written the song and produced a version by myself. Then I wanted to have a bit more tweaking to the production, so I got Diztortion on board to help produce it with me, who's amazing, a fellow Scorpio also, which is really great.
That happened, and then I just wanted another element, I knew there was something else missing, so I got a female section written. And then, when it came to who was going to vocal it, Hailee stepped up to the plate and she's on the record. She’s been great to perform it with, she's been great to do the video with, hang out with and really experience the campaign with.
When you write both the music and lyrics, what tends to come first for you?
It's different every time. A lot of the time, it does come from there being a chorus idea in my head that I can't get out of my head, and so it's like, ‘Okay, I have the Logic session in my head.’ Or sometimes it will literally be I'm coming up with some chords and I'm like, ‘Oh, this could be cool for me.’ So it could be anything, as long as something comes out and you're like, ‘Oh, this is worth developing.’
In this song in particular, what came first?
It was the chorus first. It was definitely the chorus. I'd come up with that and then figured out what chords I wanted behind it, and everything spiralled out of that. There were different changes lyrically to it, and structure-wise and production-wise, because Diztortion did a lot to take it further. It's a really international vibe. He really brought out new sounds on it that I thought were really cool.
When you do everything yourself, is it ever difficult to identify that you need someone to come in and help you to take it further?
It's so hard. My album in particular, because of its title (‘Language’), is very much about learning. So I've had to learn how to balance that and really be like, ‘Oh, I don't mind someone else taking the reins on this a bit more. I don't mind having a bit of help.’ But then my way of doing it is that I can take that help but then at the end, it does have to end with me.
So even if you've done whatever you need to do on [a song] I’m like cool, I'll be taking that and tweaking it however I want it. It's learning, I know there's more to do. At some point I will get to a stage where I can at least give a lot more of the control to someone else and I can give off my input in other ways, but right now I'm a control freak, and I can't help it.
On the flip side to that though, do you feel like you have a lot more freedom being able to do everything yourself, as opposed to an artist who might just write lyrics or someone who is solely a producer?
Oh yeah. It gives me a lot of luxury as far as recording purposes, making records and doing things that for instance I'm able to make tweaks to [my live shows] because I know my way around it. It's a luxury that I definitely make the most of, probably way too much because I think it means that I'm having tweaks of shows and sounds and songs just at the last minute. But it's a great thing, it means I put out stuff I'm really happy with.
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What is the part of your career that you're most proud of so far?
It's very easy just to be very comfortable just making records and thinking that's all I'm here to do, that's all my purpose is, and there's not much outside of that. I think the thing I'm most proud of is that I get to do more than that by just being myself. With this music and the videos I'm doing, with the pictures I post or whatever.
This is like, I get messages from guys who look like me, who are like me, who are happy to see someone like them on TV or in a magazine or online or making music. That's cool, because it means I don't have to be the last person doing it. It means it will inspire someone else and it will make the world more diverse, open more people's eyes to what people like myself are capable of.
What's been the most difficult thing you've had to overcome in your career?
I think it's the other stuff of being an artist. I think it's literally just the business side of things that I don't do really well at because music is such an instinct thing for me. So I guess it's things like comments and numbers and statistics and radio and all these things that you're just bogged down with that make you feel like less than. When you're literally working at making yourself your best self, those things can sometimes make you feel like you're not doing enough.
What's helped you to overcome that?
Bruv, I'm still overcoming it every day. But I love what I do, I love what I do, because of the first thing, it's helping people. It's making an impact beyond just making songs.
And lastly, what does success look like to you?
Making an impact and being a trailblazer and being someone people can look up to: not to be putting myself in a martyr position, because it's what I want to do. I don't ever want to be this person that's like 'Oh, I'm the first openly gay black pop anything…’ It's more that I don't want to be the last.
I want there to be more after me and to be like a template that I never had. Whether that means ten thousand sales or a million sales, it's more about the people it reaches.
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MNEK will release 'Language' on September 7th.
Words: Grant Brydon
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