Tokyo families talks to Brian McKnight

By on June 16, 2016

Brian McKnightBrian McKnight is a true romantic, in every sense of the word. The 47-year-old New York native has been crooning his way into the world’s hearts for nearly two decades with his silky-smooth melisma and self-written love ballads. But the Back at One singer’s romance goes beyond the love songs; McKnight has a zest for life, fueled by passion for both music and family. His sons are often among his entourage these days – even on his latest Japan trip, when he sat down to chat with us right before his show at Billboard Live Tokyo.

Japan seems to beckon McKnight annually, and it’s not just the fans. “There is a dream,” starts a humble McKnight, impressively zen thirty minutes before his next show, as other reporters line up outside his dressing room, “that the message of your music can cross the entire world.”
There’s also the culture. “Every year that we come, we see how our culture is permeating more and more,” states the self-proclaimed history buff. “The Eastern culture is older than [the Western], so when you see Japanese hip-hop kids, it’s crazy, ’cause for the most part, everybody’s been the same for thousands of years.” When I mention the outrageous Harajuku and Shibuya scenes, McKnight gives a hearty laugh. “It’s wild to see.”
And the fans? “They don’t really speak English, so I can’t do my schtick,” he chuckles, referring to the stage antics he pulls off with his band, such as taking breaks to mock-admire his reflection in a mirror, or selecting a swooning woman from the audience to serenade. “But they hear your music, which is refreshing, because I can just play. I’m a musician first, so it’s nice to go back to that.”
Talent alone didn’t put him on that map; the singer has a strong drive, one he owes to his father. “My dad, a sportsman, would always give us these speeches about how if you’re going to do something, give it a hundred-and-ten per cent. His work ethic is what made me the way I am.” His competitiveness also cultivated in his upbringing as the youngest of four boys, each a year apart. “[My parents] waited four years to have me. I guess they wanted a girl… didn’t work!”
In his youth, McKnight was in church choirs and high school bands, and learned to play a whopping nine instruments. “You wouldn’t believe this, but I like playing the bass more than the others. In [my high school band], the ugliest member was the bass player, and all the girls wanted to be around him. So I learned to play the bass; I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing out.”
At the fresh age of 18, McKnight received his first record deal as part of his brother’s gospel choir Take 6 – only to be signed himself the following year, going on to pen countless hit singles, work with industry legends, and eventually win endless awards, as well as host a Los Angeles radio program and, as of last a few years back, The Brian McKnight Show, a national late-night TV talk show.
At the beginning of his career, McKnight married his college sweetheart Julie and fathered two children – Brian Jr. (nicknamed “BJ”) and Cole Nicholas (“Niko”) – and the singer didn’t think twice about juggling both. “You just do it. I don’t panic. I look at [situations] and figure out ways to either beat problems or go around them.” 
“I was married to the right person at the time,” acknowledges McKnight. The couple divorced in 2003, but the pair still remain good friends; according to him, the split bettered their relationship.  “I wouldn’t trade it for the world now. We do things as father and sons that would’ve been impossible if I waited till I was 30 to have kids.”
These days, music is a McKnight family affair. Backstage before their father’s show, Brian Jr. is off in the corner of the dressing room mingling with the crew, while Niko sits nearby, jamming out to his iPod.
The boys are musicians in their own right, and their father is a huge fan; they are McKnight’s go-to guys for critique on his songs, and later in the evening, they would join his father on stage. “Niko is the best guitar-player you’ve probably ever heard,” McKnight proudly gushes, sparks in his eyes. “And [BJ’s] an incredible songwriter and singer as well.” 
He insists that he had nothing to do with their musical talent. “My parenting philosophy was always this: Let your kids be whatever they want to be and do what they really want to; give them as much support and encouragement as you possibly can. It just so happens [BJ and Niko] want to do what I do! Kids today play video games all day – not my kids; they’re in the studio.”
“I always tell kids that there are a lot of artists out there, but not a lot of talent. The only way to have talent and become great is to work at that, instead of being famous. Anyone can be famous but not for very long. My kids take that to heart and practice; they want to be great.”
So, what does family mean to Brian McKnight? “There isn’t anything else,” he replies. “After I’m gone, my kids are ultimately going to be what I’m judged on, so I want them to be ten … fifteen … twenty-five … a hundred times better than I am.”

Interview courtesy of Billboard Live Tokyo. 

About Martin Leroux