Miguel California Dreamer
Published Jun 30, 2015Miguel loves L.A. He hopes you feel the same.
"I wanted the album to feel like twilight in Los Angeles," he says of new album, Wildheart. "When the sun is setting and the sky is blooming and the magenta is just in the sky and all you can see is beautiful. That's when all the seedy shit starts to pop out."
A city of contrasts — that's L.A. for you. As its native son, the Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer relates. "Palm trees in the hood. Grimy and happy, just standing out and beckoning you in this ironic way."
Wildheart crackles with energy; it functions as artistic advancement — guitar heavy, but flourishing with interrelated tendrils of pop, funk, rock and electrified R&B across 13 tracks, concurrently acknowledging genre while refusing to be regulated by it. Thematically, it weaves across impressions of fate, sexual desire, isolation and the fickle/fleeting nature of love — mutually exclusive abstractions that reveal both Miguel's growth as an artist and as a denizen of Earth.
"Wildheart is more about understanding that you can take a little bit of crazy, and a little bit of delusion to do what you were put on this earth to do. That's different for everyone. There's a time to address yourself and what you believe in — what you stand for and your purpose."
Born in 1985, Miguel Jontel Pimental — his mother black, his father Mexican — has always felt out of step with his reality. He says as much on "What's Normal Anyway," a track that explores his multi-ethnic background and how it informs his sound. "It's saying I'm going to be what I want to be — not what you tell me to be, or what you think I should be," he offers.
He came up in San Pedro and later Inglewood, absorbing the strains of classic R&B that his mother listened to, and introduced to the sounds of classic rock, jazz and West coast hip-hop by way of his father; his parents would split up when he was eight. Growing up moderately poor in a fatherless household, feeling and looking something unlike the other African-American kids in the neighbourhood — "looking half-Asian and half-black," he would say — Miguel turned inward in his teens, seeking salvation in poetry and music creation. After borrowing a four-track recorder from a relative, making it as a recording artist became his life goal.
But it was a hardscrabble path that would see many low points and financially insecure times along the way, when things seemed like they would never work out. He continued to write songs, creating the soon-to-be hit "Sure Thing" and signing to Jive Records in 2007. He suffered through various delays of his own debut project even while he contributed to albums by labelmates like Musiq Soulchild, Asher Roth and Usher. His album would finally break in 2010, but even off the strength of "Sure Thing" and the J. Cole-starring "All I Want Is You," the album was under-promoted and underperformed. He was still seeking his musical identity as the business side wondered how to market him.
"I don't think loneliness has anything to do with solitude, you know?" he asks now. "I think loneliness really is the feeling of being misunderstood and not having enough near to relate to. Everyone deals with that on some level. I understand that feeling very, very well. It's very much the story of my life. I can't win for losing — I'm not black enough or I'm not Mexican enough. That's how it felt growing up."
Commercial success for Miguel is both alluring and abjured. Much like Miguel himself, Wildheart is firmly anti-establishment, not immediately accessible and yet yearning for mainstream acceptance. It comes off as someone feeling out themselves and their world in a public forum. "I would be lying to you if I said I didn't want commercial success. I'm a competitive person," he says. "I want my career to be an example of sacrifice without compromise. That's what I have to live for. I want commercial success, I want critical acclaim, I want it all. Because I give myself for this shit. All of my time and my energy goes into this, and I fucking love it. I was put on this world to do this shit. So I would be lying if I said I didn't care. Yeah I want my album to be number one. I want it to be number one for weeks. You don't have any control over it, but I want all of that."
It's a sentiment that crosses over into his musical approach, a multifaceted, frenzied vibe that infuses the rock of Prince, the funk of George Clinton and the new wave of Frank Ocean into something that takes a while to settle into before grasping the genre intentions, commercial considerations be damned. Indeed, it was moving to current label RCA, and creating the well-received electro-funk album Kaleidoscope Dream, when things started to feel like success was in reach. That project soared with Grammy-winning hit "Adorn," well-received numbers like "How Many Drinks" and "Do You Like Drugs," and winning spots on late night TV's Saturday Night Live and the Grammy Awards. It finally revealed the commercial potential wrapped in his artistic aspirations. At 29, he's at the cusp of his third decade, and his approach to a parameter-pushing, carefree life has crystallized.
"I just do what the fuck I want," Miguel says. "It's not my job to define my sound." (Clearly, it's a conversation he's had countless times.) "That's the job of business — it's their job to categorize my sound to help people find my music in the store. I create. I create a place that resonates with me. And a lot of it is rock'n'roll, a lot of that is soul music. But it's not really my thing to try and define it. I just do what I feel, from where I feel. That's my job.
"I would be lying to say that those thoughts don't cross my mind — to appeal to a broader audience. But at the end of the day, the sound is going to change next year, and this album is still going to have my name on it for the rest of my life. I have to make the music that I'm going to be proud of in 100 years. I think it's more about what resonates with me and what I can look back on and say 'I'm completely proud of this.'
"I think that Kaleidoscope Dream and Wildheart are truer to my perspective. I think the last album was the beginning of my dream, in a way that I believe our lives are curated by our subconscious patterns and our conscious decisions."
Working with longtime collaborators Pop and Oak, and bringing along someone like producer Benny Cassette onboard, Wildheart builds off his last album and takes it a step higher — the concept is be and do everything and anything that resonates with one's true being. Work on the new album commenced in early 2014, and it was completely recorded in L.A. to capture his Southern Cali-centric vision. Overall, more than 30 tracks were created, 13 of which made the cut. With names like "Hollywood Dreams" (about the fleeting nature of stardom), "Waves" (in which he coos about making love just "like we're filming in the Valley") and "N.W.A." (where veteran rapper Kurupt comes along for the ride to speak on sexual predilections), the atmospheric Wildheart speaks to his love for his native city and his mantra for belonging and self-determination. He's come a way from San Pedro and Inglewood — he now lives comfortably across the way in Playa del Rey. The days of figuring out identity and where he fits in are largely behind him.
Miguel is a true representation of his multicultural hometown: sunny by day, grimy at night (like Venice Beach), the cosmopolitan street smarts of Hollywood Blvd., the pomp and prosaic of Mann's Chinese Theatre, all dreamily wrapped in a surreal sense of danger and exhilaration. By extension, Wildheart explores a culture of contrasts, holding fast to a pastiche of hope and desperation that he wanted to capture on the project. "Figure out what you love, figure out what you stand for, and allow your actions to reflect that. That's the way things go — be it through media, through society, or whatever — we are all kind of taught that success is one thing or idea: money or whatever."
Screw that, he says. "I think that's why it seems like there's not enough for everyone. In all actuality, if we paid attention to ourselves and what we want, we'd figure out that we don't all want the same thing. We don't all want to be doctors, we don't all want to be lawyers, we don't all want to be artists or musicians or movie stars. Some people want to be evangelists, programmers, bartenders or road workers — and that's okay, it's not up to anyone to judge. And that's what happens — there's so much programming that happens through those different outlets like social media or friends or family — it almost makes you feel that you have to conform to society to be successful. Taking the time to figure it out for yourself — that's what I want to inspire. Figure it out for yourself and live it."
Indeed, Miguel's success has been defined by balance, a state realized by his belief in transcendental meditation, a practice that's helped him define his centre. "I consider myself to be an ever-evolving human being and my music reflects that," he says. "That's what changes in life — the biggest thing. Because of what you've learned and experienced, you start to look at things from a different lens. I suppose I want my albums to be a reflection of how I felt in the world at the time that I created the music. So this album has to be a lot more aggressive, and probably more bold. It's me facing a less serious side, even though I'm not joking. It's who I am at this time.
"When we shot a rocket into space, we saw the moon. When we got to the moon we saw Mars. And when you get to Mars, you're going to see beyond. And when you get to beyond, you're going to see beyond and beyond and beyond," he muses. "It's because we are built to go further, to imagine further. The mind can conceive what it perceives. So the further we go, the further we see. And the further we want to go. It's a never-ending continuum of wanting to push and go further."
Wildheart is about never being content and ready to ascend to the next level. "I don't ever want to be happy where I am. I don't believe that's what we are here to be, to be complacent. I think that there's a value in being content, but being content and being complacent are two different things. I do want to be content always. But I never want to be complacent."