Mykki Blanco
Photo by James Bantone

Mykki Blanco: “I was in an existential place”

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Short Profile

Name: Mykki Blanco
DOB: 2 April 1986
Place of birth: Orange County, California, United States
Occupation: Rapper, performance artist

Mykki Blanco's new album, Stay Close to Music, is out now via Transgressive Records. Explore creativity and wellness with Mykki Blanco as part of the SLHF programme in London, 7 December 2022.

Mykki, when you released your celebrated self-titled debut album in 2016, it was called one of the year’s most riveting musical self-portraits. Is that something you have in mind when you’re creating?

No — because I think that would make me feel narcissistic. There’s that saying, “An artist should not think about themselves too often.” Maybe that’s true! I have always been an extrovert. And I think what life teaches you when you're an outgoing, ambitious child is that you need to watch yourself. I think extroverted children are taught that fine line of: don't be arrogant, don't think that you're better than other people, don't be pretentious. I have found that when it comes to celebrating a moment or delving into my work, I am reticent, because I don't want to exude those qualities. I’m very okay with a certain amount of discretion, but at the same time, I feel way more comfortable drawing from my own real life when it comes to my actual lyrics.

Is that a difficult balance to maintain?

It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started writing songs that are about my actual life, and not just narratives. Writing from a narrative perspective is a very theatrical thing to do, but at some point I was like, “Okay, can I write about myself and my experiences?” And now, I mean, take a song like “Family Ties” featuring Michael Stipe, for example, that song is about the abusive relationship between my ex-boyfriend and his father. Even though that song is about their particular relationship, and about me when I had to deal with that when we were together, I realized that when people listen to that song, for so many queer people who had that messed up relationship with their fathers, the lyrics are very simple, but also very universal. There’s a universality to it that makes it more balanced.

“I got to a place after that first album where I did not feel like my music was maturing, and I needed to change that.”

Apparently during the creation of that album, Stay Close to Music, as well as your previous record Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep, you went through a big sonic transition that changed you both as a producer and as a person. What was that like?

Because of the nature of how I built my career, I've never really had the support of a major label. And if you don’t have that support from the industry, you have to get out on tour. So I did this stateside and internationally, and it was all set up through social media networks, Tumblr, early Twitter, early Instagram and Facebook, because predominantly queer communities all over the world could say, “We want you to come do a show here.” Once that started happening, I really needed to invest a lot in my performance, my show had to be unforgettable. That’s how I got my notoriety, that’s what I had to do to build myself up as an artist. It made me a seasoned performer, but the schedule was relentless. It was hardcore. And the downside was that I wasn’t in the studio that much. I got to a place after that first album, Mykki, where I did not feel like my music was maturing, and I needed to change that.

Was it difficult to have that kind of really honest conversation with yourself about the work you’ve been doing?

Oh, yeah. I mean, at one point, it was about stepping back and asking myself, “Okay, how many club tracks can I really make?” I’m not at that point, like, I’m 32 years old, I’m not going to make a song about Molly, you know what I mean? I was in an existential place. I was having impostor syndrome, and honestly, at some points in this whole process, I thought, “Okay, is it time to hang up the towel?” But I was honest with myself: I want to create an album or a release in which I could sit through the whole entire thing and feel like I've been taken on a sonic journey. I approached my other projects very conceptually, but I don't think I’d made music truly from the heart yet. And that's what I set out to do. I want to be a musician's musician. I'm not classically trained, I don't play any instruments, but I've invested so much more into my songwriting.

Is it true you also refused to use any samples at all?

Yeah, I mean, we just had jam sessions! We did use computer programs, but they were secondary, we had no sampling. I was working closely with the producer Falty DL, and that’s someone I can be really honest with, we’re always working together to elevate and make things better… That was exciting for me. The whole experience of this new way of working really expanded my scope of: what is authentic? What is inauthentic? Does it even matter if we’re making good music?

You recently said that you feel like you’re in exactly the place that you need to be as an artist, and that the path you’ve taken to get here was the only possible route, despite any ups and downs.

Oh, I think it only makes sense that my sonic maturity has come to fruition now! I've been making music for 10 years — I started when I was 25 or 26. If I had started making music when I was 15, maybe my sonic maturity would have come at 25, but that was not my trajectory. This is intentional. I’ve thought about this really hard and worked really hard to get here.

Family Ties ft. Michael Stipe, from Mykki Blanco's new album Stay Close to Music, 2022.

What do you remember about your early days when you were first starting out? You hadn’t always intended to make music, right?

Right, I was around 25 years old and I had a performance art project in college that was inspired by Yoko Ono. We would literally, like, put on a blender and sing along with a chainsaw. (Laughs) I've always been so drawn to the most far out stuff, especially when I was younger, but music was a whole new world that opened up to me, starting with that art performance; I started producing and composing stuff, but it was still in the lens of a performance art project. I didn’t even realize I was actually making music, I mean, up to a certain point, I thought I was still in this interdisciplinary arts world.

How did that change for you? Was there a lightbulb moment?

It was actually my first manager, Charlie, who said to me, “Do you even realize you’re making music?” (Laughs) I then started working with other producers and realized, “Okay, I’m not so good at the producing part, but I am good at the songwriting part.” So I focused on that, over time, I started becoming more comfortable being a curator, being someone with an idea. I made my first EPs and I’ve got songs on the Internet that are going viral. And now I’m in the place that I’m in now.

I guess when you’re an artist, you have to accept that you can never get too comfortable in any position you’re in; anything can happen.

I’ve come to accept that over the years! With my trajectory, there have been so many highlights, there have been so many actions, huge things that have happened, cultural twists and turns… The nature of fame is that it fades, and it changes. Who’s to say what it means anymore? There can be some artist that blows up on Tik Tok and is so famous in a very specific genre that you and I have no idea about, but they can pack out a 2000-person capacity room. And even if I have a million followers on Instagram and Twitter, there's always gonna be someone who is discovering me for the first time. I think that's just the nature of the artist that I am.