The Path Forward: Miguel Interviewed

His Clash 113 cover story, in association with Comme Des Garçons Homme Plus

The second law of thermodynamics was contributed to by many scientists and engineers including Rudolf Clausius, James Joule and Lord Kelvin, but the father of the law remains French physicist Sadi Carnot. In 1824, he published his book, Reflections On The Motive Power of Fire, outlining the second law and the limits of what the universe can do.

The second law focuses on entropy and how energy in the universe gradually moves toward disorder. Where disorder lies, order tends to arise, it theorises. For example, a sand dune is caused by a disorder in wind, which causes an order of ripples amongst the sand. This is true in life as in nature: everything contains a ripple effect.

Miguel understands this now. “I feel like we’re in a pivotal time in history,” he says, “where we either continue recycling events or we choose a better way.”

Miguel Jontel Pimentel is 33 now and with time, comes pain – and freedom. There’s push and pull weighing on the singer/songwriter’s voice this summer Tuesday afternoon as he speaks to Clash from his home in LA. Born and raised in the fishing ports of the San Pedro community in Southern California, you might imagine someone who’s come this far, reached the kind of global success he has, would consider the stakes to be steadied at the moment. But they’re not: they’re higher than ever for Miguel, and he’s leaning into himself to paint the trail forward to recreate the new version of the genre-skating soundscapes he’s managed to craft for over four studio albums, four EPs, numerous chart-gracing hits and the Grammy award-winning R&B song ‘Adorn’.

“It’s been a journey,” he admits. “My grandmother left [Mexico] and gave up music herself to come make a better life for her family. In so many ways, that decision rippled through and I carry that with me.”

The Path Forward: Miguel Interviewed

The child of a Mexican father and a black mother, Miguel’s parents divorced when he was eight, subsequently splitting his time between his very religious, old-fashioned mother, and his more liberal father, who introduced him to a wider array of music. The current social climate resonates with Miguel, and like many of us, he’s had to flip back and forth between indignation and reflection, belt in between cadences of piercing optimism via spirituality and recognisable comfort in nihilism and, ultimately, make a choice: to be continually exhausted and/or unaffected by the political tide at swing, or to accept the challenge of creating with responsibility in reverb. And that deposit of intention cashed in with the Spanish-Language EP, ‘Te Lo Dije’, which found Miguel finally trusting his Latino roots to elevate his emotional grip on five songs he had originally delivered on 2017’s critically acclaimed album, ‘War & Leisure’.

Miguel has never shied away from standing up for his roots, his people and his home, debuting the charged-up, social commentary ‘Now’ from that latest full-length at a benefit concert in Adelanto, California, in late-2017.

Adelanto, home to the largest detention centre in the state, headlined the ‘Schools Not Prisons’ tour (a California public education campaign), where Miguel took the stage to fight back against the abuse of detained immigrants and spread awareness of the mass incarceration happening across the state and country. It was a statement that worked to fill in the gaps where his music may have only scratched the surface, touching on political themes that have permeated his discography, such as on ‘Candles In The Sun’. These moments mean more, however, and he’s working to be more consistent with his advocacy and participation.

“I could wake up and smoke weed and just fucking kick it and watch movies. Trust me, I’m the most lazy person at times,” he laughs. “But also my ‘why’ is bigger than me right now, so what works is always drawing back to that ‘why’. Why am I here? Why do I do anything? And for me, I connect with people more when I create, and ultimately I believe that’s what moves us forward. So I need to get off my ass and do something that helps me do that.”

In 2017, Miguel joined Mexican pop singer Natalia Lafourcade in a beautifully rendered version of the Coco theme song, ‘Remember Me’, laying the foundation to carve out his own space amongst the group of Latinos taking over the mainstream and rejuvenating the airwaves today. And although he grew up around a lot of his Latin side of the family, he hadn’t been to Mexico until a recent trip with his father and brother brought him back to those mountain roads his family had travelled.

Spending some time there gave way to a feeling of necessity “to create music to get me back here,” he tells Clash. Complimenting his soothing tone with a couple of well lent, under-appreciated voices in Latino music, Miguel retouches his sweet funk duet with an ever-alluring Kali Uchis in ‘Carmelo Duro’, while Madrid rapper C. Tangana cruised a verse in ‘Criminal’ and featured too on ‘Te Lo Dije’ – a dreamy, string-heavy, bachata love ballad – assisted by the harmonious, all-women mariachi band, Flor de Toloache, rounding out the impressive introduction to Miguel’s proper bilingual debut.

The Path Forward: Miguel Interviewed

Miguel seems to have found the answers to the question he posed back in 2015 – the seventh track from that year’s ‘Wildheart’ album, ‘What’s Normal Anyway’, toils between laying out his insecurities from an early age and asking who gets to decide on how he should be. Previously touching on the idea of childrens’ formative elementary experiences being pivotal moments in the development of their later insecurities, Miguel had written: “Children don’t have a filter. When they notice there’s something different about you, they voice it. That’s when you become self-aware. That’s a pivotal point in the way that we look at ourselves even, because depending on how you are accepted socially in those early, early circumstances, you start to formulate your own insecurities, and it is very much based on the opinions of others.”

But Miguel obviously isn’t a child anymore and his quest for validation has evaporated to an extent and transitioned into a more acquiescent openness of the hero’s journey.

“I’m in a place overall where I’m exploring a lot of different mediums of creativity and how do I apply that globally,” he says. “It’s really led me to kind of set a heading, which has forced me to acknowledge a lot of my not-so-great mental patterns. It’s been dark but in a really positive way. It’s a little hard to explain. There’s definitely been darker tones, in a really beautiful kind of release.”

The Path Forward: Miguel Interviewed

Has that been a freeing process?

“Just being able to say: I’m not always skywalking, I’m not always that dude, I’m just not, and understanding that’s okay,” he reasons. “Just wanting to figure out how to peel back more layers for people who give a fuck about anything that I create. I’m just really having fun being creative and trying to learn how to apply everything to music and design.”

Miguel’s songs often reference dreams and with ‘Sky Walker’ came about the carefree, idealisation of self, and the hero version of Miguel, but those demons live right on the other side of dreams too. Look no further than corporeal songs like ‘Do You…’ and ‘Pussy Is Mine’ to make sense of the juxtaposition he poses, yet it very well could be this balance that allows Miguel to remain fair-footed in a central concern for self-expression as a tool to explore further. Yet, he maintains, he will always keep his sex-driven, rebel edge – “I don’t wanna go to Heaven,” he smirks, quoting the Notorious B.I.G in a moment of clarity, “with all the goodie-goodies.”

You can’t strip away all the bad parts, we agree. But again, disorder tends to find its way back with a method attached intended to settle the madness. Does Miguel feel his art has to be reflective of the world in a way?

“I’m more of a filter,” he responds. “I take what I see and my experience and then I spit out how I feel about it. I was raised in a religion where purpose is kind of an end goal. When I was younger, the purpose was always bringing glory to God and talking about His plan. When I got older, I found I didn’t subscribe to all these ideas as fully anymore, but what did stick with me was that we all can help level each other out somewhere.”

The Path Forward: Miguel Interviewed

So, does he feel a responsibility in his work?

“To be straight up, yes I do,” he reveals. “I realised that I put out a song and there’s kids and adults who know and are singing all the words to 'Sky Walker’, and grandparents who know the lyrics to ‘leaves’ from a couple albums ago. You start to realise your words have meaning and power, and what you stand for means something to people. For me, it might be because of how I was raised, but I do feel I have a responsibility. I think Nina Simone said how can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That’s what art is about.”

“I’m playing in and the balance of the light and the dark,” he continues, “which is fun, without any limits to myself saying I can or cannot. “I’ll be honest with you: there was definitely a time where the expectation trumped a lot of my own personal creative process and it distorted what it was that I wanted to create. I couldn’t differentiate what was really important for me to get out.”

This was the case when Miguel signed his first deal with Black Ice, an independent record label, back in 2004 when he was 19. After years of involvement as a teen with the production company Drop Squad honing in his musical prowess, the label would now take control of Miguel’s image, choosing to market him as the prototypical urban R&B artist. His first video (for the song ‘Getcha Hands Up’) saw Miguel draped in an unconvincing oversized brown leather coat with a white fitted, double XL white tee, with baggy jeans almost completely covering some white Air Force Ones. For Miguel it simply wasn’t true to him and the kind of music he was bound to make. The impending debut album, ultimately, was then shelved.

The Path Forward: Miguel Interviewed

Once again though, where chaos lives, order creeps, awaiting its unveiling. It’s beyond puzzling to think Miguel could have been made to look and sound as he did on that record, but seemingly, and increasingly marginally these days, things do happen for a reason. On the set of that first video in 2005, Miguel would meet a young girl at the casting call who went on to play the bartender in the video. Her name was Nazanin Mandi. Ten years later, Miguel and Mandi confirmed their engagement in January 2016 when Nazanin shared a photo on Instagram sporting a massive diamond on her finger. Last November, at Hummingbird Nest Ranch, a Spanish-Style estate, in Santa Susana, California, the couple tied the knot after almost 15 years together.

How has life been since he married? Does it feel different?

“It’s different, but it’s the same,” he says. “It’s just a different kind of consideration and care in the partnership. I know without a doubt – and not that I didn’t know, not that I ever questioned it – but there was a different level of we were ready to show the people closest to us that we were fully committed to each other, in the most respected and historically upheld institution, in marriage. I don’t think that we needed it to know, but I will tell you it is a different kind of thing. It’s hard to put your thumb on it. We’re coming up on our first full year and it’s just like time is going so fast but it is really dope.”

The Path Forward: Miguel Interviewed

It’s with that same fervent attitude that Miguel took his trajectory back into his own hands, arriving at Jive Records under veteran music executive Mark Pitts with a new deal in 2007. In the midst of contract disputes and a sidelined debut for almost three years, Miguel cultivated a fan base underground while lending his hand to mainstream acts at the time like Usher and Asher Roth. Finally, after years of patience, the breakthrough came in the J Cole-assisted, hip-hop and soul-infused record ‘All I Want Is You’. Once the lawsuits and the dust settled, Miguel released his debut album, ‘All I Want Is You’, in November 2010.

After releasing three volumes of free EPs under the Art Dealer Chic handle, Miguel’s 2012 sophomore full-length, ‘Kaleidoscope Dream’, which arrived in the midst of a transition from the now-defunct Jive to RCA, was a testament to doing more with less. On it, Miguel – in a hazy, dream-like state over light production, harmonious instrumentation and tightly wound synths – gets personal and walks the line between lust and love, seeking a balance between the two. With its hits ‘Adorn’ and ‘The Thrill’, the album entered the R&B/hip-hop chart at Number One, crossing into Billboard 200 Top Five and receiving multiple Grammy nominations, taking home Best R&B Song in 2013.

The next album, ‘Wildheart’, cashed in on Miguel’s exploits with his cross-genre dabbling, containing alternative sounds and pop-infused vocals to immerse himself fully in his own creative expression. Then, on 2017’s self-produced ‘War & Leisure’, we found the artist at his most distilled and maturated, with notable guest spots from Travis Scott and Rick Ross. The progressive album lives under the veil of politically charged undertones as a response to the current climate with string heavy reverb, embracing his darker tones with a bubbly and colossus of cool sound, much like in “Banana Clip”. In the midst of all these solo works, Miguel has remained a highly sought-after collaborator, working with the likes of Mariah Carey, A$AP Rocky, J Cole, Dua Lipa, Tame Impala, and the late Mac Miller, among others.

As for new music from Miguel, it’s definitely coming. “I’m currently working on three albums, three projects simultaneously,” he reveals. “You asked me a question earlier about if everything’s all interconnected, and in this first iteration of launching and introducing the concepts that we’re talking about right now to my fans and to the people who would really be into this shit, there is a through line so that it’s understood that I’m coming from a real place. These are things that I had to work through my own depression for, my own anxiety, my lows, and rediscover what my purpose was. Or maybe even reprogramme and redefine what my purpose was. So this is an eventuality that I’ve worked for and I’m super excited for people to discover that part of it and to come with me on this journey as they discover the music.”

Further to these efforts at fortifying his following, the singer opens up on plans to launch Schedule1C: a multi-sensory creative platform and ecosystem that works to inspire curiosity and critical thinking for kids. “I don’t know if there’s a more informal way of saying it,” he explains, “but basically I just want kids to fucking look at what the world is and say, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way, it’s not set in stone.’ There’s so much smoke and mirrors, and if you have a curious mind, you can discover that you are a weapon. The more you unlock yourself and unlock your desire to connect with people, exponentially we become more of a weapon.”

“Overall, I think that’s my message: finding a balance of things that make you, help you shine and help people realise that they are themselves and they’re their own energy and light source, but not being so bright that you’re not acknowledging the fact that, yo, we’re fucking human. I think that’s just is what it is.”

The Path Forward: Miguel Interviewed

As this year – and, indeed, this decade – comes to a close, it becomes a chance to reflect deeper on personal development. Looking back, does Miguel now feel satisfied with where he is – both as a person and a musician?

“As an artist, I’m grateful to learn the power of being able to express myself and connect to people,” he discloses. “I want to do that at the highest level. I’m poised right now. I feel a different kind of purpose and a desire to have fun, but not at the expense of greater costs. And I’m not willing to compromise – which means I feel dangerous as fuck right now!”

Does he ever feel like being vulnerable and being so honest could hurt him because of the way the world is?

“If you’re being honest with yourself, who gives a fuck?” he laughs. “Really, when I think about, being honest is always to some degree going to be challenging. I’m a commercial artist; I’ve made a living off making music. Now, has all that music been soul crushing and life changing? No, let’s be real – I have a song called ‘Quickie’! I was being honest though. The meaning really comes from inside. I’m completely transparent and it’s my Achilles and my super power. It’s just human. I try my best to just be myself. Some people fuck with that, other people don’t fuck with that. And if you do, I love you, and if you don’t, well it’s all good, I still love you! And I’mma still do what I do. That’s the best that I can do.”

Throughout his career, it seems that, for Miguel, humanity has always been the constant variable between good and evil. And frankly, that balance, as much as we may try to control it, falls strictly in the hands of the universe. This is not to give excuses to the foolish, the ones currently in power, or the rise of populist movements around the world, but rather to place in context the manner in which order, as stated in the second law of thermodynamics, can corral disorder. At the end of the day, art remains the vessel through which we do not hope to control the sand dune, but rather put pressure on the sand dune to, by all means, find a better way forward.

The Path Forward: Miguel Interviewed

Words: Nate Louis
Photographer : Mehdi Sef
Creative Direction : Nicolas Aksil
Fashion: Sonia Bédère
Set Design: Alex Segura
Make-Up: Laure Dansou at Walter Schupfer Management
Hair: Tony Wullschleger at W Studio
Photography Assistant: Gaëlle Pilleboue

All clothes and black necklaces by Comme des Garçons Homme Plus.
Trainers by Comme des Garçons Homme Plus x Nike.
Creepers by Comme des Garçons Homme Plus x George Cox.

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