Miguel presented some troublesome issues to industry exec and A&R’s. His bi-racial background (Mexican and Black), singing voice, and subject matter didn’t quite fit the mold of “R&B superstar”, so Miguel was told to stick to writing for other artists, rather than seeking the spotlight for himself. It was get in how you fit in for Miguel, who didn’t let definitions deter him from his dream of making music.
“It was hard for them to place, they didn’t know what to do with that,” he told me via phone. “But fortunately, times have changed and with the advent of the Internet, our spectrum of music and the palette of music that we’re familiar with and able to pull from is a lot broader. That’s what has changed. Also as a person I’ve grown more aware of myself and comfortable in my own skin, so that definitely helps. I’m sure they can feel it more now.”
Miguel’s music has been felt from a growing fanbase, as well as a collective of emerging Hip Hop artists ranging from his high school friend, Blu to NYC’s Emilio Rojas. We caught up with Miguel to put him under the First Look Microscope. Here he talks about his entrance to writing as a way to deal with his parents divorce, the buzz term that is genre-defying, and what it means to be level-headed. Check it out below.
RubyHornet: Good to talk to you today. I’d like to just start by having you introduce yourself for some of our readers who are unfamiliar with Miguel.
Miguel: My name is Miguel. I was born and raised in L.A. I grew up in L.A. I’m a singer/songwriter, and I love what I do.
RubyHornet: Is the name Miguel the only one you’ve performed with? Did you ever have other monikers?
Miguel: I used to go by Jontel when I was younger. I’ve been listed as Miguel Jontel before, but I prefer to go with my first name… I’m happy with the name my parents gave me.
RubyHornet: Speaking of your parents, I read that you started writing music at 8, when your parents got divorced. Have you shared that with them, and how have they supported your musical aspirations?
Miguel: My mom definitely knows and I’ve had conversations with my dad before where I’ve let him know that’s how I dealt with it. They’re both proud of me for the fact that I found a positive way to deal with negative feelings. In their own ways they’re both supportive of me. Both of my parents are going to have different personalities and ideas as far as who I am, especially when they’re divorced. They might see a certain side of me and not the other, and they each support me in completely different ways. They’ve always been behind me and believed in me.
RubyHornet: As far as the early writings go and your growth, were the early works more centered on particular topics or tones, and how have you seen this evolve or change as you’ve gotten older? I’m sure writing to let go of frustration can be different than writing to describe a really great moment or something for people to listen to as they party.
Miguel: Right, right… It definitely evolved. When I realized that I could describe how I felt on paper and write it down, especially when it came to something as powerful or touchy as my parents divorce, or how I was feeling because of my parents divorce… it was just a matter of time until I could apply the same principles of writing down how I felt to other emotions, whatever they maybe. When you discover a spoon as a child, you might find that you use it for food, but then you might take it to the sand to play or other different things. You figure out that you can use it many ways in life. I hope that’s a good example. Haha…
RubyHornet: Someone asked you about the song writing process and how you start a song. You said each song starts with honesty. I just want you to expand on that a little bit. Many times when an artist says that, fans may take that to mean that everything you sing about actually happened to you, or every character in your songs is you. That could be the case with you, I’m not sure. But often times artists can tell a story that is about someone else completely. Paul Simon comes to mind as someone that tells a lot of first person stories, but not necessarily about himself. Can you tell me what honesty in your music means to you, and can you have honesty, while not necessarily singing about yourself?
Miguel: It’s an interesting line to walk and I’m glad you asked that… I can’t say I’ve always done this, but the songs heard by people who know who I am now, they’re all personal. They’re coming from my perspective. But as a song-writer, not always. I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of the person I’m writing for, if I’m writing for someone else or just trying to be creative. It depends on what the purpose is, right? In that sense, it just depends on the application as a writer. I try to put myself in a different space so it’s more relate able to the artist and it feels more real to them. When it’s for me, I’m pulling from real experiences and emotions that I’ve been through that may have affected me in some way, shape, or form. It just depends on what the application is.
RubyHornet: What does that entail when you say you’re putting yourself in their shoes? Do you have to have certain conversations with the artists you’re writing for? How do you balance getting their perspective vs. keeping the qualities that made them want to work with you?
Miguel: Sometimes I don’t have the privilege of being able to sit down with the artist. It could be that I’m doing research on them with whatever I can find online, or what I’ve heard them sing before and try to expound, or what I see them put out. There’s different ways, but the Internet has become such a big help because we’re almost allowed into the lives of so-called celebrities without having to ask them. Sometimes it’s easy to just find what they’re going through in their daily life. If I’m fortunate enough then they do have something online, they do have some of their personal business online or some kind of information that gives me a better insight into who they are as a person, what kind of decisions they make and how they think.
RubyHornet: You told Hip Hop weekly that “for a long time nobody really saw me as an artist, so it was explained to me that maybe the best route was for me to write for others and hopefully get on that way.” Do you know why that was, I guess what you were missing, and what changed in the minds of others? What does it mean to be as an artist vs. someone who can write for others, but is not The Artist?
Miguel: I think there are a lot of factors that go into that. Just thinking about our culture (American culture) when I was growing up, being an R&B singer meant that you looked and sounded a certain way. If you sing R&B songs you’re Black, you dressed urban, and you sang about love. That’s why at the time when A&R’s saw me it was really hard to put together. Here I was this Mexican and Black kid with the name of Miguel who looked like he was Philippino and Black, and sang like he was Black and wrote songs like he was a mixture of things. It was hard for them to place, they didn’t know what to do with that. But fortunately times have changed and with the advent of the Internet, our spectrum of music and the palette of music that we’re familiar with and able to pull from is a lot broader. That’s what has changed. Also as a person I’ve grown more aware of myself and comfortable in my own skin, so that definitely helps. I’m sure they can feel it more now.
RubyHornet: Your bio, and pretty much each write-up I’ve seen on you uses the phrase, “genre-defying”. I’m just curious to get an artist’s input on that phrase or description. I think sometimes it’s used a lot, but nobody really knows what that is describing.
Miguel: You got some really good questions by the way. I’m excited to answer these questions because I’ve never heard them.. Super dope. That is such an ambiguous phrase now, especially when used to describe artists. My take on genre-defying is noticeably creating music that includes and exudes different genres and styles. It has to be done noticeably. It has to be done in a way that hasn’t been done before. It has to stand out, it can’t be generic and it can’t sound like everything else. If you’re doing something that is creative in the sense that it’s brand new, or fresh and new, it doesn’t have to be something so different that it’s not familiar. It just has to be something we haven’t heard before. The moment you do that, then you’re genre-defying. I do think it’s used, as you said, as a buzz phrase now just to sound cool. When a lot of times it’s a lot of regurgitated nonsense. Maybe they dress them differently this time, but they sound the same.
RubyHornet: You’ve been embraced by a crop of young Hip Hop artists such as Blu, Emilio Rojas, U-N-I and others. What was your entrance more or less to these artists, is there an overall aesthetic that makes this collaboration fluid?
Miguel: Everything started in high school for me as far as really pursuing a career as an artist. I had the pleasure of meeting a really good friend of mine, his stage name is Blu, he’s made a huge huge buzz and incredible music so far. We all started at high school. I met him and as he was growing as an artist, after high school we stayed in contact and we were friends and made music together. I’ve always loved Hip Hop and him being around me, they basically put me onto the illest Hip Hop and the realest Hip Hop, the history of Hip Hop and the newest cutting edge emcees that were coming up in Hip Hop. At the same time they were including me in making cutting edge music that was going to affect people later on. So, because he was putting me in those circles with DJ Exile, Aloe Blacc, Stones Throw, and Sound In Color, I was kind of one of the peers. As we created music, and as Blu was building Below The Heavens I was able to be part of that. Because they embraced Blu, they embraced me as well. I’m so super-duper thankful for that. I was on one of J. Dilla’s tracks before he passed. I was able to make some really really good musical friends that helped me grow and define who I wanted to be as an artist. I think that’s why they embraced me, because I was affiliated at such a young age.
RubyHornet: Speaking of that, when you have a circle more or less in high school and start to make music with people in high school because there’s a vibe there, there’s a lot of freedom. Both you and Blu since that time are on major labels. I’m just wondering if that’s changed the record making process? Maybe a few years ago if someone had a track they wanted you to get on, they went about it a certain way and you determined your collaborations a certain way. How has being on a major label changed your working relationship? Are you more conscious of ‘ok, there’s more rules in making music now”?
Miguel: Definitely for me, I’ve been allowed a musical freedom that I don’t think is common to artists nowadays on major labels. Maybe it’s not that I’ve been allowed, but the music I make is not so far beyond. I make pop music, it’s just that the way I make pop music is not the way that pop music or R&B or however labels would categorize my music, is not the way it sounds now. And it never will be. Maybe it’s just that, and that I never go too too far where it’s not familiar enough that they can’t relate. It’s still individual and very personal and very different to what is here and now. Going about it now isn’t really any different, to answer your question. I can work with whoever I want, and it’s really not a problem as long as I really want to do it.
RubyHornet: With the Internet, putting out songs via different blogs, and releasing mixtapes for free is a great way for any artist no matter where they are located, to build a fan base and spread themselves across the country and really the world if they can do it. You’re going to make a jump from the music showing up on various sites and fans being able to grab the music for free to now with a proper album and proper release, getting people to buy the records. Have you thought at all about that and the relationship you have with your fans in terms of getting them to make this leap from downloading the music and now purchasing your actual album?
Miguel: Because I’ve built rapport with the people who rock with me, I feel that they would be more than happy to buy the music. You have a restaurant that might be high priced. If the food was amazing, impeccable, and presented to you in a way that was desirable it tasted amazing, every nuance was something new and something you enjoyed, then when you get the bill, you won’t have a problem paying that. Now if you go to a high priced restaurant and they give you small portions and it tastes like cardboard, and you could have gone somewhere and got it for less, then obviously you’re going to be disappointed. It really comes down to, are we as artists, and I say that as a generalized statement, cause the real issue when it comes to people buying music now is, is it worth it? Is your product worth it? What are you putting out? Are you putting out something that is A-plus quality? Or are you putting out something that is B quality and charging A-plus rates? You can go to jail and they’ll give you food. It doesn’t taste great, but you can eat it. Now if you were to ask someone to pay for the food in jail, now that’s a different story. It all just comes down to quality. I don’t it’s a big transition, I just think it’s about giving people quality music that they can attach their emotions to and relate to.
RubyHornet: I read in another interview that you said when you look in the mirror you think, “I can do better…. I’m always like man, you got a good head on your shoulders, but you got a lot of ways to go, a lot of ways to grow.” Just curious what does having a good head on your shoulders entail in your eyes, and have there been key points in your career, where it’s really manifested?
Miguel: I think that now, when things are not so hectic, and things are actually real… I’m not a huge name that everybody knows. I can walk into a Wal-mart or Target, to the mall, or Melorse and it’s not like my song’s on the radio or I’m a huge star or anything like that. I pretty much have the pleasure of still being ambiguous. What that allows me to do here and now is to choose the people I want to be around me to keep me level-headed. Hopefully, because this is something that comes along with being on a national stage with national radio, which is something I hope that my music can reach, that is definitely the goal. When that happens, if that happens, things won’t feel so real anymore, and I’m not going to be so ambiguous. The reason that people come talk to me or approach me may not be genuine, probably won’t be genuine for the most part. But now it isn’t that way and I have the privilege of choosing the people around me that help me make the decisions that will be true to myself because they know me as an individual and they care about my well-being. I think keeping a level-head, and knowing that I’ve done that is shown through the people that are still around, and give it to me 100% real and don’t let me get beyond myself and believe the hype. Because from what I hear, it’s easy to do. And I’ve done it, just like anyone else. I’m no greater. I have my imperfections, and inclinations. I think it’s just about finding those people that know me for who I am, and what I really want to accomplish on that path.
RubyHornet: Lastly, for those of our readers who are just hearing of you now, what would you like them to know and keep in mind as they explore your music?
Miguel: I really don’t have anything to say. I want people to listen to my music with no pre-notions. I don’t want to give them any ideas about what they will be hearing. I just want them to go into it the same way they would anyone else and hopefully people are able to feel the honesty. Hopefully they find this interview interesting enough to check it out, and then come to their own conclusions. That’s what music is about, finding what you relate to and just vibing with it. Hopefully they enjoy what they read, and more so what they hear.