Mikky Ekko’s Most Magical Year

In past years, the Grammys have left America wondering, “Who is Arcade Fire?” and “Who is Bonny Bear?” This February, Mikky Ekko made his grand entrance on TV’s biggest stage, appearing alongside Rihanna for a riveting performance of their duet “Stay.” While his name and face are likely familiar if you (like me) lived in Nashville within the past few years, it launched the Louisiana-born artist’s fast-rising trajectory as a globetrotting pop star.

He’s also known as Steve Sudduth, but the name Mikky Ekko will be on everyone’s lips sooner rather than later. The singer and songwriter’s taken on a chameleonic role, working with everyone from haunting harpist Active Child to hip-hop hero Clams Casino to EDM kingpin David Guetta, with whom he just dropped the charity single “One Voice.” His recent work also includes an appearance on the soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I caught up with him while he was on tour with Jessie Ware earlier this month.

The last time I saw you was Next Big Nashville, 2010. I remember you were covered in glitter, yeah?
Or face paint. I think there was a time and place for it, but that’s kind of fallen out of my way. I wanted to take some time off to work on my songwriting, I felt like that was the weakest link in the chain, and I really wanted to figure out what it was I needed to say. So that’s been my journey since then, working on that and putting together a band and management and a bunch of other things.

Do you still live in Nashville?
Yes, I still live in Nashville, that’s still home base for me. I think it’ll always be like home, I grew up in Mississippi. It’s really the only place I feel I can recharge my batteries. LA, I’m always working, New York, I’m working, London, I’m working. Those are the big three, and when I come back to Nashville, I get to get grounded again.

I left two years ago, but it seems like it’s changed a lot since then.
I agree, since I’ve been on the road, writing. It’s an interesting plot there now. There are a lot of people who seem really hungry to foster the arts and music scene there, and not just the traditional [country music]. Even the rock scene began growing five or six years ago, when Jack [White] and the Black Keys came to town, and obviously Kings of Leon and so on. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff being made there now, and we’re getting a little more of a spotlight put on that. As a scene, it feels really wild there. I met up with Jamie Lidell two or three weeks ago, just to hang out, and we talked a lot about that, where the art and music feels like it is in Nashville. He’s a really good dude, really creative as well. For me, it’s a really exciting time in Nashville. I like going back there. For a long time, it felt sort of lethargic as far as pushing the boundaries, but now there are a lot of people who are really good who are willing to do that. There are veterans fostering a lot of the young guys in Nashville, too, which is cool.

It definitely seems like there’s more mentorship and community down there. I think that one of the things that draws people to Nashville is the family aspect. Because it feels so familial, I think there’s immediately a kinship and it’s easy to create those kinds of bonds in Nashville.

How have you used your time in Nashville to develop yourself?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to say. I still have that problem, I think because I really didn’t feel comfortable with my songwriting foundations. I needed to go back and work on that, because I feel like I’ve worked hard to develop my voice and the character of my voice and knowing what my influences are, but then I continue to just try to push that. The songwriting’s made a really tremendous leap for me in the past couple of years.

Who’s someone you really look up to as a songwriter right now?
Adele. We’ve worked with a lot of the same people, but that last record really opened my eyes to what a song could be, but still maintain its credibility and it’s not feeling like it’s trying to sell a song or sell a hit. It’s about really having something to say. I’d probably say her, first and foremost.

You seem to have been building up hip-hop influences, as well.
Hip-hop, electronica. I’ve been in with people more visible, like Pharrell and Clams Casino, who’s done stuff with A$AP. I was in with Illangelo from the Weeknd, I went in with [Ryan] Hemsworth. It’s been all across the board. I was hanging with Marnie Stern this summer, we did a session and hung out. Because the record’s not out yet, I feel like I can try to get in as much as possible.

That’s a lot of possible directions you could go in.
Totally. But with this record, it’ll be okay. If it feels a little bit scatterbrained, that’s fine, I’m not too worried about that. Because the focus has been the songwriting and figuring it out, I know how I can make my quirky stuff, but also have a foundation in traditional songwriting and really connect with an audience rather than me. I used to really write into a vibe, sometimes it was cool and sometimes it was whatever. I’ve learned a lot since then.

You’ve worked with some big producers already, but who else would you like to work with?
I’ve been talking to Blood Diamonds, got a few things from him. When we went through Miami, I spent a day with Diplo. That was fun, because his stuff is really hard. It’s not all hard, but there’s a really interesting bounce and swagger to it. There are still areas of this record where I’m trying to fill out those colors and keep up the momentum. What does a more bombastic climax sound like without having to go anthem-y? I can write the anthem-y stuff relatively easily, but that’s not the stuff that gets my gears going, anyways. I respect it, but there’s something about really heavy feet on a track that I think is really cool. That’s what I loved about the track with Clams that I put out last year, the beat is so beast when it comes in.

I think I’m trying to get in with Julio Bashmore, I’m going back to London in a couple of days. It can be a little difficult, really the most difficult thing is reeling it in and just focusing. It’s so exciting and I like just zipping over and spending a day hanging and vibing out, but it’s been good to build those friendships.

Also, these guys are from a more singles-oriented dance and hip-hop culture.
What drives me with those guys is that, I don’t know how you would define selling out, but I don’t want anybody to feel like they’re going mainstream for the sake of money. There are some of those guys who could really change the sound of music and really push the boundaries, and I hope to be an artist who is able to come in and make some of those things more accessible for the masses. Whether or not people know how cool production is, but trying to mold that with a more traditional song, or a more accessible song. Santigold is someone I thought was really good is that, the way she worked with Dave Sitek and Diplo and Switch and John Hill. I really respect her as a songwriter, as well.

That’s interesting that you talk about selling out as a sound rather than taking a bunch of sponsorships.
The way I see it is that if I’m not able to invest in others because I can’t afford to keep things going, there’s a fine line for me. I want to be responsible with my gift, and I want to respect the integrity of the art–and that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day–but there are things I want to do in terms of pouring money back into my community. Like, now I can afford a studio where I can just let guys come over and use my stuff, whom I believe in or whom I could potentially sign to a publishing deal. It gives me the margin to invest in creativity.

So you’ve thought about starting your own label?
Not necessarily my own label, I don’t really have time for that right now. But there are a few guys from home and a couple others that, if they were ever interested, I’d be happy to throw them some money for a while to write. That would show people in my world that I’m more invested in them. I’m just trying to strike while it’s hot, plant small seeds with people who can get an inch and take a foot and then take that foot a mile. That’s all I’m trying to inspire or help foster.

Regardless of the politics, there were some cool things with what Mad Decent did over the past few years, and Top Dawg. I suppose it’s been more on the hip-hop side, because I’ve been more in that world lately. I’m not really hip-hop, I’d never call myself hip-hop, but I gravitate toward that kind of creative zone.

It’s about continuing to build a family, and if there are other people who get another shot. I wanted to write with Marnie because I’ve loved her stuff for a long time. There’s a lot that money can do that’s good, and I’m not trying to do it to make money. I’m not writing songs about making money, I don’t care about that. But it’s that part of investing in the future, and what can I help foster, how can I improve things? I want to give people a chance the way I got given a chance. That’s really important to me.

That kind of relationship seems to typically gravitate around labels.
I see that, but for me, it’s about not holding people back. Whether it’s a label or a publishing deal, however people want to view it, I’ve always talked to my guys about whether they’d be interested in it. If they’re able to take it to the next level, they’re able to do that.

Do you think living in Nashville helped shape your attitude towards business, since everything there is so industry-focused?
I think of Nashville as a music city, rather than an all-industry city. It’s not a fashion city, it’s not a movie city, and I think there are different kinds of bonds that are built. For me, it’s about trying to build a family structure that feels worth growing and worth investing in, and finding people who treat each other like family. I think that’s why, at least for me, I hoped to put it together.

Does being Southern have something to do with that mentality?
Totally. I grew up in Mississippi, was born in Louisiana, my dad’s a preacher. For me, it’s all about fostering relationships. I think that weighs really heavily.

Having traveled a lot outside of the South, does that also make you more aware of that identity?
Yeah, that’s why I wanted to leave to do most of my songwriting. It was about getting out of the South, out of my comfort zone, and putting myself in a place where I was really forced to confront preconceived notions of what I wanted to write, what I was okay with writing or not writing, and it did a lot to change my perspective. Even putting myself in with pop people I would never think of collaborating with, like I wound up writing with Stargate. But that was the kind of thing where I was like, “I need to just go in and try it, I just need to see what happens when I put myself in this position.” Benny Blanco did some production on my song “Kids.” I really wanted to grow as a songwriter, and as a producer, being in a room with those guys, [it’s about] understanding the formula so you can manipulate the system.

And this all for your LP?
I’ve written somewhere between 120 and 150 songs in the past year and a half.

So you could put out 12 albums if you wanted to.
Some of them would be total crap, but it’s been a crazy season of growth for me, and I’m really excited about this record. As soon as the debut’s done, I want to keep pushing stuff out as quickly as I can, smaller instrumental stuff that I do with Clams or Hemsworth or some of those guys and just continue to push what the acceptable boundaries of what’s pop music or what’s cool music. Because I take myself too seriously, or not seriously enough, usually, it leaves me in a pretty feisty place. But it’s usually an internal battle.

Would you say this has been the best year of your life?
Yeah, it’s been the most magical year, I think. It’s been the most magical year of my life because I’m full of wonder now, I’m in a spot where I always believed that anything could happen, but after experiencing it, it’s only continued to push me to push myself. I’m really excited about next year. Everything has become unbelievable and believable at the same time.

Well, you started the year at the Grammys with Rihanna.
That was essentially my first live show since you saw me. I’d played a couple of shows after that and the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. The Grammys was the first place I ever wore in-ears, a real David and Goliath type moment, sort of, “If I can get through this, I can get through anything.” After that, it’s like, “What do I want to do? Where do I want to be in five years? What do I want to be making? Can I be more aware of who really wants it and who wants to be cool and kicking it?” But it’s been an insane year, I feel really fortunate to have had the opportunity.

BlackBook Exclusive: ELEW And Rachel Brown Bring Piano Soul To Rihanna Cover ‘Stay’

Throw the fiercest rockjazz pianist, the honeyed voice of a Harvard grad with Bermuda roots, and Rihanna & Mikky’s aching hit "Stay" into a recording studio, and you get an acoustic, summer rendition that transports you to a late-night beachside bonfire. The stripped-down version – a collaboration between musician ELEW and singer Rachel Brown – showcases ELEW’s signature tender vivacity at the keys, and Rachel’s soulful dive into a song known for its yearning Rihanna-in-a-bathtub video. 

And when you’re done watching the video, get to know ELEW in our very special interview. He’s ecstasy.

Follow Bonnie on Twitter here