Ahead of his Somerset House Studios artists residency, Nick Levine talks to Mykki Blanco about his dramatically different new album, texting Madonna and working with Kanye West.
No other musician is quite like Mykki Blanco, the creative titan who’s beginning a short artist residency at London’s Somerset House Studios. Mykki, who likes the fluidity of using both “he” and “they” pronouns, is a rapper, performance artist, songwriter and poet who’s worked with fellow musicians as varied as Kanye West, Kathleen Hanna and Charli XCX (on the ‘Pop 2’ track ‘Femmebot’). When Madonna wanted someone to play Joan of Arc in this year’s ‘Dark Ballet’ video, she called her mate Mykki.
Mykki is an also an LGBTQ rights activist who used their 2017 video for ‘Hideaway’ to tackle the stigma faced by people living with HIV. Two years earlier, Mykki had revealed his own HIV positive status in a plain-speaking and powerful Facebook post which was widely covered in the music press – much like Gareth Thomas’s disclosure that he is HIV positive this weekend has been widely covered in the sports press. When I speak to Mykki a couple of weeks before his Somerset House Studios residency begins, he’s friendly, relaxed and as emotionally literate as you’d expect from someone who has a tattoo that says: “Sally Field in Steel Magnolias.”
He’s also incredibly excited about his upcoming second album – due in 2020 – and moving from Portugal, his home for the last three years, to London for “the next five or six months, I hope”. This new album is such a different beast from their 2016 debut ‘Mykki’, they say, that their upcoming gig at Somerset House Studios will be one of the last chances we’ll get to see Mykki’s current punky live show.
What can we expect from your artist residency at Somerset House Studios?
“I’m probably going to be tinkering around there, working on some different projects, and using it as a studio to write and maybe take meetings. But I’m excited for the artist talk [on September 18] because I’m going to be talking a lot about what went into making my new album, which was the first time I was really able to elevate my practice in a way. And then on October 4, I’m doing a live show. I’m excited for the show, but to be quite honest, these shows that I’m doing this fall are really the last hurrah for a certain era of my career.”
“Because I’m going to be forming a live band when I tour the [next] album because the record has so much live instrumentation on it. It’s really going to be a whole new elevated stage show for me because for, like, the last six years of my career I’ve pretty much been doing an MC-DJ set. Even though there are a lot of elements to my [current] stage show – it’s kind of like punk performance art – it’s been a similar format for the last six years that I’ve really stretched all the way to the limits. You know, I don’t know how many more things I can climb! But I will say this: that style of more confrontational performance is what’s made me such a strong performer. I know it’s given me a lot, and I know now that taking those skills into a more structured setting with a live band is going to be this double whammy for the audience. So this Somerset House show is going to be kind of bittersweet for me. I’m so focused on this new album, which I’ve been working on for the last year and a half, and I want to give people this whole new live experience, but truthfully I’m not going to be able to do that until next year when the album is out. I will be playing some of the new tracks at the Somerset House show, but for me it’s kind of the last hurrah.”
“My new album is dramatically different. These shows are a last hurrah for this era of Mykki Blanco”
How different is your new album?
“It’s dramatically different. It’s got production that you wouldn’t expect necessarily to be rap production, though obviously I’m still rapping. But there’s only one beat on the entire 17-track record that feels like an obvious hip-hop beat. I guess, without getting into it too much, I had this elevated way of working for the first time where I was able to build production with session players, something I’d never done before. In the past I’d only ever worked in a studio with a producer, like, making beats from scratch. We did do that on this album too, but I also worked with backing vocalists creating a lot of hooks and different soundbytes because I didn’t want to sample a lot on this record. I wanted this record to be a record that gets sampled, so I really created my own samples. And it was a chance for me to work with some people I’ve admired my entire career, like Anohni, Devendra Banhart, Saul Williams and Jónsi from Sigur Rós, as well as new musicians like MNEK and Kelsey Lu.”
So it really is a whole new era of Mykki Blanco.
“I guess for me it’s a turning point. I came from this background of being a performance artist doing mixtapes. I guess at the very beginning [of my career] the idea of music almost felt secondary. I didn’t come into this business feeling like a musician, or even being a musician – I’m not classically trained or anything, but I do think I’m a good songwriter. This whole process and how I’ve evolved has really been about me learning musicianship and being able to realise an idea sonically without just relying on the producers I’m working with. You know, sometimes I’ll see things online, well-intentioned things, which are like ‘I wish Mykki Blanco was more famous’ or ‘more people should know about Mykki Blanco’. But for me, this is year seven of my career, and for someone who didn’t start making music until they were 25, I feel happy about my journey. With his album I’m still poring over every aspect of it; there’s still tiny things that need to be ironed out. And I know that people are going to respond to it because I’ve never given them this level of craft before.”
You’ve spoken about how your collaboration with Madonna came about in previous interviews, so I’ll just ask this: What did you take away from working with her?
“That she knows what she wants, and she’s worked really hard in her career to now be able to achieve that and not make any compromises. She’s also really unapologetic about what she wants – she’s a straight-shooter. It was just really inspiring for me because I was like, wow, I hope one day I can work at this level where basically everything I want gets fully executed really smoothly! And I guess what I [also] took away from it is that it’s really awesome being part of her legacy. For me to work with Madonna and have people who probably have no idea who I am say, ‘Oh, this is an interesting artist that Madonna’s giving a platform to’, that’s a pretty nice thing. I don’t think it’s good to live your career by co-signs, but this is a pretty nice stamp of approval to have.”
Did her work as an LGBTQ ally factor into your decision to work with her? I guess at this stage in your career it must be difficult to know which artists are right for you to work with.
“To be honest, not really. You scan your brain to see like culturally, politically, is this something that’s really right for me? Last year a lot of people were very confused when I was working with Kanye West. I did the Teyana Taylor track [‘WTP’] with him but then I continued to work with him in private for about four months, just doing songwriting stuff. A lot of people were like, ‘How can you work with this person who’s supporting Trump?’ But for me, it was like, I know there’s this whole thing this person is doing [that’s controversial], but I also know what this person is and has done creatively. And I know what I can gain creatively from having this experience of working with this person who’s an idea factory and who really pushes the people around him to stretch the limits of their own creativity. And to be honest, I knew it was going to be a pretty short-lived experience where I would have it and take away all the awesome things from it that I could, and then that would be it. Whereas Madonna and I have become friends in a way where, like, I can text her a picture of a really nice vase I’ve seen in Italy. And maybe she won’t respond right away, but then later she’ll be like ‘oh that’s pretty, I’ve been to that place’. It’s a different kind of thing.”
“I can text Madonna a picture of a really nice vase I’ve seen and she won’t reply straight away but then she’ll say, ‘oh that’s pretty'”
In the seven years you’ve been doing this, to what extent do you think things have improved for queer musicians?
“The world has changed and the acceleration in terms of how much queer visibility there is, it’s huge. I guess my gut reaction is that, if I were launching my career now, I’d have made a bigger splash [than I did seven years ago]. But at the same time, I know I’ve gained so much by being one of the artists who kind of helped to make this world that we’re living in now. Of course, I don’t think that Mykki Blanco is, like, the artist who changed the queer narrative in the media and in the music industry! But I do believe that artists like me, Le1f, Cakes da Killa, Big Freedia, and even pop stars like Charli XCX who came to make music with more of a queer slant, I do know that we’re 100 per cent responsible for helping shift how [queer] people now are perceived within the media. You know, we live in a world now where we have the Justin Bieber-like pop stardom of Troye Sivan. Things are radical, things are awesome, though obviously there’s a still a lot more work to be done in terms of gaining total respect in the industry for queer artists.”
The talk ‘Grounding Practice: Mykki Blanco’ takes place at Somerset House Studios on Wednesday September 18. Mykki Blanco also performs at Somerset House Studios’ AGM on October 4. Get tickets here.