When Sarah J. Edwards met Miguel, she wanted to dive into the more spiritual side of life and creativity with him. Past the historical formalities, she began her interview with a pivot point to ignite dialogue, rather than a question: The Power of Thought. It spurred a really honest, unexpected and vulnerable conversation. This is for anyone seeking a way to make their dreams come to life.
-First published, London, Spring 2018
Photography and Interview by Sarah J. Edwards
Art Direction by Sally A. Edwards
Location: West End, London
Miguel On How The Power Of Thought And Words Are Paramount To Success
Miguel Jontel Pimentel is contemplative, live wire energy. Oozing positive vibes, he owns a trademark smile that can light up the room — it even manages to out glow his dope combination of totally tropical shirt, uniform side stripe pants and unquestionably comfy Gucci open back shoes.
This is a true story of patience is a virtue, because in order for Miguel's creative journey to really get going things took several unexpected turns: record company delays, hold ups and surprises.
Now not only does Miguel have some of the past decade's most returned to songs, including Sure Thing, Adorn, How Many Drinks?, Deal and Skywalker, he's also widely considered the musician's musician and has that - 'you can count on him' trust with artists, thing.
Sally and I met Miguel for the first time at our good friend Michael Voltaggio's Ink. It was pre-dinner rush and the place was yet to open. Slick staff were gearing up the spot for a busy night and Sally, Miguel and I hogged the dons tables for a meet, green tea, some of Ink Sack's infamous wraps and what turned out to be some remarkably inspiring chat.
A few weeks later, we reconvene in London for Miguel's BLAG cover session. This time in the basement club room of Edition Hotel, where – with the kindness of housekeeping, we've lit the space with multiple floor lamps. That coupled with a secret route to a typical West End back alley, this shoot is all out DIY.
Luckily for us, Miguel is a very chilled out and eager, Grammy award winning singer/songwriter. Our jump off conversation involved us all realising we have a huge desire to make sure what we do has meaning and recognising the vulnerability you have to embrace to achieve, well, pretty much anything. We can all look at the greats and talk about how they inspired us, but we have to make sure we're putting work out there that entertains, is notable and encourages. The following conversation is raw, honest and very much at the heart of what creating for a living is like. It's a chat between three artists in an increasingly unpredictable world. Past the glamorous images and slick productions we all create, here's a glimpse into what we're really thinking and feeling.
Sarah: Can I get a quick history so my facts are straight, please?
Miguel: I signed and cut to an independent label as a solo artist. It didn't really go anywhere. I signed to Jive, with the indie label owner's consent — I spoke to him on the phone and like four months into the deal, I got hit with some cease and desist type shit. I spent three years trying to figure that shit out. Him trying to hold me hostage and shit and I hate to say it like that, but he felt like he needed to be compensated, unrealistically.
Miguel: Thank goodness for Mark Pitts, who signed me — he had a lot to do with it, because he said you need to speak to him personally again, talk to him, fuck all these lawyers. Just have a man to man conversation. I remember at the time I was like 19 or some shit like this. Or 20. Then, also the fact that Mark was like, 'Listen, if you ever need anything, I'll listen to anything you send me from here on out, just let me know.' And I think that had a lot to do with it. So I stayed with ByStorm / Jive and I was like 22.
Sarah: Was it two years until you got a release?
Miguel: It was three fucking years.
THE POWER OF THOUGHT
Sarah: So first of all, I wanted to talk to you about the power of thought and that was going to be my pivot point for our conversation, as opposed to a regular question.
Miguel: I love that.
Sarah: I think it's unbelievably important to get an understanding of that and about associated energies. So I'd really like you to freestyle a bit about that.
Miguel: Yeah, I'm about it. Cool, let's get it. For religious people, for spiritual people, prayer is the time and place to really think about and mediate about what you want, what you need. What you're not happy about. For people who aren't religious, I think — it's built into religion, prayer and meditation. It's an exercise that is part of the culture of spirituality in any religion, you know? I think, we forget if we're not religious the power of it. You know?
Miguel: And really focusing on things that, you know, I mean it can go either way. If you focus on things you don't want, that's what's going to happen. You know? That's what we were talking about. If you focus on things you do want, somehow it manifests in your life.
Sarah: If it comes slightly differently, then you realise, I must be really specific about that thought. [laughs]
Miguel: Oh my goodness! Yeah, yeah. You've got to be careful. What is it? ['You gravitate to that which you secretly love most.'] I think that's the exact quote. That's Funkadelic.
Sarah: Yeah, it is! So, with that in mind. I'm freestyling now too. We talked about this, do you think social media can be a hindrance to that concept?
Miguel: Oh my god...
Sarah: Well, there's a veil over a lot of it isn't there?
Miguel: Well, it's a lot of misguidance. You know what I mean, social media will have you confused about what you really want. It's a fake version of what is real.
Sally: For me, it interrupts my thoughts and it causes judgements.
Miguel: Dude! I mean, it's as simple as do you like or not like. Do you know what I mean? [Laughs]. I was watching one of the illest things, it was the most simple and clear things and it was in a Rick Ross interview, he was sitting there and he said, 'People won't even take the time to like a photo or read under your picture.' Do you know what I mean? It's like, you know they're not going to help you on some everyday shit, like, that's free! That's free! And for him, what he was saying was, 'I don't care, I like stuff. If I like it, I like it. If I retweet it, it costs me nothing to give love.' I think that people have forgotten that love is free."
Sarah: Yeah, that's great and very true.
Miguel: And it's actually one of the most powerful things to give. That we actually can wield, you know what I'm saying? I don't know man, it's...social media, it creates a culture of judging on what everyone else likes. It's a little too...it's just fake man. It's weird. It's really weird.
Sarah: What do you think the pros are?
Miguel: Obviously the ability to communicate a thing to a broad audience is super powerful.
Sarah: Yeah, so you can communicate what you're doing. The way you want to do it and from you and connect. But I only use it as a touch point for connection, I'm like...
Miguel: Yo! I really wish it was one way, one direction almost. The interactive part is the treacherous portion of it, because the interaction is happening behind space and time. You know what I mean? It's like people feel a different sense of liberty to express, essentially a lot of people take out their own frustration with their life and their world in their interaction in social media and that's not fair. It's just not fair in everyday life, because you're kind of untouchable, it gives you the freedom to really do and say what you want. You know?
Sally: I think it's causing knee jerking because it's so instantaneous.
Miguel: Oh! It's just mean. We live in a culture of mean.
Sally: Mean and meme. [Laughs]
Miguel: Mean and meme! It's crazy man.
THE POWER OF WORDS
Sarah: It is. From that, I wanted to think about, are you conscious of the words you use and how that supports action from yourself and those around you. Does that make sense?
Sarah: That is a yes or no question isn't it really? [Laughs]
Miguel: Yes! Yeah, yes, I am conscious of the influence. Technically all of us as creative people we are leaders.
Sally: And sensitive.
Miguel: And sensitive! Were we already talking about this? Did we? Did I say this?
Sarah: See if we did, because we talked about a lot.
Miguel: We, first of all as creative people, we have to be sensitive. It's a part of what allows us to tap into our emotion and then project it into whatever medium that we choose, right? So, yeah, I'm fucking on some Erykah Badu shit, I'm an artist and I'm sensitive about my shit. And so, I'm not only sensitive about just what's happening here immediately in my itty bitty bubble of whatever, but like, in the macro. I see what the fuck is happening. I was just reading; a straight-A student, black kid, at a house party, he's literally 5.4 GPA, honor roll student, on the football team. He went to a house party and if it wasn't for the bodycam on this police officer's person, he would've probably got away with saying that the car was trying to back into him and that's why he fired into the car. But according to the bodycam camera, the car was actually trying to go away from the policeman and he shot into the car, subsequently killing this completely innocent child, who is a straight-A student, on the honor roll and had everything about him... High school! You know? That shit is...how can you not feel for that? Yeah, I'm fucking sensitive and conscious about it. I think also though - and this is a new thing for me, is finding my way of addressing it, that doesn't feel like pointing the finger. You know what I mean? I mean, navigating how people take things now is where our creativity is going to really kick in. It's like, how do we creatively address what is really happening? That is inviting and not off putting. That's kind of like, where my head is at.
Sarah: Yeah, when you've got that awareness, do you feel like you want double back on and check what you're writing lyrically?
Miguel: You know, it's a question of purpose. You know?
Miguel: Like, I can start writing a song about some everyday life shit or whatever, I will sometimes be like, 'What the fuck is this about?' This shit is happening outside, you know, thinking about what is current.
Sarah: ...because you have a job of being current and having longevity, it's the same for us.
Miguel: It really is a challenge for creative people and this is in every median, at every stage. It's like, at what level do you feel the need to comment on what you see is right and wrong with the world. You know? And I guess, there's no right or wrong answer. It's just about being true to yourself and how you really feel. I guess because I'm a little more...like I never voted until this past election. I didn't vote for Obama, I didn't vote for anyone, I never did but that's also because I was raised religious and I am a little bit of a cynic when it comes to our political system and the powers that be. So I never believed in the systems that are in place, I never believed it. So that kept me from voting even for people that I thought were good people or I believed in what their plans were, but until this last year for whatever reason I felt - and it hasn't changed, I still don't believe whoever we see is in power is really controlling the direction of where things are going. But for some reason now I feel some responsibility. So, it's like a maturity thing I suppose, it could just be that I'm getting older and I'm like, well, I do eventually want to have kids and my decisions now are going to or my indecision to act is going to have some consequences later on. I'm still figuring that out for myself. Yeah, what is happening now is definitely part of what's going on in my mind. I'm constantly checking myself, like, 'Yo, does this even matter?' What really matters now?
Sarah: I think that's not necessarily an age thing, I think that's an 'of the time' thing, there's so much more cropping up we have to navigate, more opinions and more ways to be judged. It's so nuts.
Miguel: Man. The judgement. [Pauses] Man. It's just crazy. Not to keep going on, but it's just like anyone has a voice, which is amazing but it's also fucked up, because just in general...[pauses] median. What that means is that the median is the majority. It's obvious. But, in art and culture and blah, blah, blah, the deciding factor of what is viable or what is current or what is important is essentially dictated by the median.
Sarah: [Laughs] That's true.
Miguel: So that means, anything extraordinary and anything that is like completely under gets lost because the median can't...there's no value there to them. They can't perceive it because there's no knowledge to understand why it is extraordinary. They only know the median. Does that makes sense? Do you understand what I'm saying? That's scary.
Sarah: It is.
Miguel: Essentially the taste level is going to drop because the mass is the deciding thing. The middle is the deciding thing.
Miguel: And that's why I feel all of the things, like in the States, programmes that are enriching, like music and art and even sports. These programmes are being yanked from, like systematically pulled...funding for this stuff is pulled from the school system so that means that we're having...
Sarah: It's the same here in the UK.
Miguel: You feel me?
Miguel: You kind of have to wonder like, what's the purpose? Why? Why? What are you building? You're building people who are not going to question. You feel me? And that's the real...that's some crazy shit. So, I think about this shit.
Sarah: So do I, I think it must be something that by being creative and we have our go to places to get our inspiration and our energy and what not to fuel from, that we're obviously seeing that. Also, whenever we're talking with television people, they literally want you to give them a version of something that exists and if you say, well it doesn't really exist. They're like 'Ewwrrugh,' and [laughs] the shutters go down.
Miguel: It's at the point where it's upsetting. It's really upsetting. It's hard not to be upset and think, what do you do? What the fuck do you do?
Sarah: What do you think drives you now that you've seen that? You've obviously got some fight in you to even be thinking about that.
Miguel: Ummm...I guess it is back to like, 'What's the purpose?' And this word, it's probably one of the most...you know, after both Bowie and Prince passed last year. It really... Listen, most people may not look at me as some, I don't act like I'm some kind of savant. I can't play any instrument fluently. I'm not the best singer, I only know that I have strong instincts. Two people that I looked at as kind of like the epitome of what artists should be as musicians are both gone. So, then you're looking at, well, who's left? Who are the leaders left? And then you look and go well, wait a second. When Prince and Bowie were my age, they were already like five, six albums in, you feel me? Already established and had really made their mark and I just felt a tremendous sense of...I'm responsible, like, I'm responsible now. These are my teachers and they're gone. Who's going to teach whoever's paying attention to me? Who's going to be the ones who are going to inspire? I know it's not for me to take on, on my own shoulders but I know that I have to have something to do with the next shit! And, it's kind of a heavy thought. So, I keep coming back to this word and that is purpose. What's the purpose? Like, I just want what I do to be purposeful. Even if only certain people see it, I want it to be purposeful and that's what I was saying, when I was having coffee with Gia [Coppola] recently, I was saying the same. 'Yo, I just want to be purposeful.' I don't want to do some arbitrary bullshit, you know? And here's the thing, the music I'm creating, it doesn't all have a message, but you better believe that with the visuals that are coming, it's purposeful. I'm trying to find my way to address what I see as wrong or at least supplement what I feel we need and do as much as I can to feed that, because we're missing a lot right now. We're missing a lot, it's a crazy time, you can see it in the culture.
Sarah: We've got a really big purpose behind what we do with BLAG. I won't tell you it all now [laughs] it would take too long, but it's about encouragement.
Miguel: I want to hear, I want to hear about it. It's educational, you know what I mean.
Sarah: Yeah, yeah.
Miguel: Educating people, there's a major purpose behind that. Educating people about things that are important, you know. I know what you guys have created is purposeful art. Things that are like.., 'Yo! This shit is dope! It's culture.' That's what I'm saying, the median doesn't understand that shit. They're getting it from heeerrre [points to phone and pauses]. It's fucked up, yo!
Sarah: It is. It's so scary.
Miguel: And they're looking at numbers.
Sally: Yeah, I know!
Miguel: Like, the numbers are being dictated by one, a lot of fake shit and two, a taste level that is not educated. It's the median. It's like continuously going down, it's crazy.
Sarah: It is. It really is.
Sarah: No. Don't apologise.
Miguel: Cynical, you feel me. [Laughs.]
A KEY MOMENT OF ENCOURAGEMENT
Sarah: Ok, I've got one. The next question, I can't answer myself, in terms of someone encouraging me, but I can think of things and influences. So, I wanted to know, if you can pinpoint and describe a moment of encouragement that propelled you forward significantly?
Miguel: A moment of encouragement that propelled me significantly? Hmmm...
Sally: I can answer mine, if that's helpful?
Sally: We lost our father when we were 18, then we moved to London and started University. Then we just dropped out, carried on doing the magazine and took jobs in the music industry to fund it. The summer after we lost our father, I was working at a music festival and I saw the Beastie Boys in the crowd and I turned to my friend and Sarah and said, 'It's the Beastie Boys, I've got to meet them, I don't know how.'
Sarah: It might be worth adding their music totally got us through art college and that time. We'd wanted to put them in the magazine, hadn't we?
Sally: I turned around and whistled at them, like a builders whistle and shouted 'Oy, come here!' and from that point they were and are in our lives to this day. They encouraged me more than anybody and taught me about dining, travel and music, everything.
Sarah: We would just be on the ground together, whenever we were in each other cities. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, you name it, together.
Sally: So it was literally like watching the people you admired become your best friend and also we'd just be on a real human and personal level. They encouraged me non-verbally by being like that around me.
Miguel: Mmmm, being human and being open. Mmmm.
Sarah: I'd have that and then I'd also say, when I was a teenager, hearing NWA and Public Enemy, because everything was cut up and noisey and crazy and it wasn't like pop.
Sarah: I was like there's anger there, but it's really funky and it made me picture so many different things, because I was only hearing it on the radio and funnily enough I became really good friends with Public Enemy. Chuck is like a big brother. He's brilliant.
Miguel: Chuck is the fucking dude. He's so fucking dope. I met him one time and that's it, at a show of his. He's so chill and also you can get a sense too, everyone around them was real cool.
Sarah: We'll have to get you in front of each other properly.
Miguel: I'd love that. He knows a really good friend of mine, someone I consider a big brother, so that was our point, both knowing him. Like, 'Oh shit! Yeah! What's up?' But that's legend. He's a legend. Encouraging...
Sarah: So, that was my encouraging via what I'd visualised by listening to their music and then they ended up being in my life, which is amazing.
Miguel: Mmmm...you know who is super encouraging and has been really encouraging in my life more recently. First of all, to continuously do what we do, we've had so much encouragement along the way.
Sarah: Yeah, for sure.
Miguel: So, my father was probably one of the most encouraging people, growing up. My Dad, was like.. 'What do you want to do?' 'Do whatever you want!' I grew up playing sports, he's like 'You're great at playing soccer, you could play any sport you want. What do you want to play? You could do it, if you want to do it though, focus.' You know? 'You want to sing? Do that.' He was just like 'Whatever you want to do...' He was like, 'You want to be a fucking doctor? Do it.' 'Whatever you want to do, just do it.' Mark Pitts who signed me, he fought the label to not drop me. You know, he was like, 'No! I believe in you. I believe that you have something to say and that you have a point of view and it hasn't been heard and what's going on now.' At that time, we're talking about 2007, leading up to 2011 which was when my first album dropped. He was just really like, 'Hang in there, I'm going to figure it out and there is light at the end of the tunnel. I'm going to do everything I can.' And he did. He protected me, like the label changed, it went from Jive to RCA, he brought me with him. Convinced them to take me on. He was really encouraging and to this day, he's waiting for me at the studio. He's always super encouraging. Someone more recently who'd been really encouraging is Dave Sitek [TV on the Radio, Producer]. He's probably the most insanely...we were talking about spirituality earlier, but like, he's one of the most insanely spiritually creative people I know. I saved a text message conversation that we had and he's like...essentially what he was saying was, 'What we do is not for us. It's for the kids. It's for everyone else, it's for them. It's for them when they're not feeling like themselves and they need to believe in something more. When they need to feel not alone. They're trying to say something and they don't know how to say it. It's for them, it's not even for us. Take yourself out of the equation. Forget that you even matter, because you don't.' You know what I mean. He's like, 'Just trust the fact that you have somehow been chosen as a vessel.' [Laughs] You know? 'And for whatever reason, you're able tune into a radio, tune into the right frequency and that is god. That is your connection with whatever the higher power is. Trust in that and then everything comes, because your purpose is really to inspire other people, you know? I keep that shit. That's in there. When I'm kind of crazy, I just go visit the text message. It's real.
Sarah: That's really good. What next? [Pause] This might be a good one, I want to make sure I follow suit, I like that story, I feel like we're creating a novel. Alright, can you tell us about a time in your life when you felt that everything had to change? Have you ever had a moment when you felt everything had to change and what were the standout moments you used to make it happen?
Miguel: Urrrgh. Yeah, [a couple of years ago. It] was one of those years for me where I think I was really beating myself up about the reception of my last project and it not being as successfully accepted or embraced on a commercial level. It got amazing reviews on a critical level, but I had just seen like a completely different side of the social media part of it, you know what I mean? There's a way to quantify everything now and when you realise how people start to treat you differently it really starts to fuck with you, if you're not really, really rooted and I thought I was. I started to really kind of create this façade, it was like a caricature of myself. Like, everything's cool, everything's alright but like really, it's not. My friends and family literally had to come together and have a real conversation with me. Like, 'Where are you? We're not connected anymore.' At that point, a lot had to change for me. It's taken their patience and their love and that kind of stuff to build my own confidence up again and to just have the kind of creative energy that doing this shit requires, because when you're knocked down sometimes it's hard to get up, you know?
Sarah: It is.
Miguel: When you're hit out of nowhere, when you're not expecting it. It's different when you see it coming and you have a sense of how to prepare or maybe glint the punch or whatever, but when it comes from a direction that you have no idea and you're not sure why or whatever, it can be really staggering.
Sarah: Do you think you were too early? That seems to be what happens with us. We'll put BLAG together and be so excited about who's in it and it's just like - the featured artists go big maybe up to a couple of years after.
Miguel: Man! See! I was telling you! I mean...
Sarah: That's why it's nice that people can still see it, you know?
Miguel: Yeah. Part of me is not wanting to think about the why so much.
Miguel: But I definitely got lost in it. Man, you can get lost in that shit, just trying to figure out why or like, 'Was I too early? What was wrong with it? Or what didn't go right? The truth is, to answer your question. [Pauses] I have been consistently ahead.
Miguel: If you listen to urban [radio] whatever, R&B music, before All I Want Is You came out there were no guitars on the radio. Like the sound was not like that and the good thing about that time period was I had singles that people were able to grab onto, but they kind of wrote me off as a R&B dude. Then, from that moment it opened up opportunity I think for the audience and even labels to see that a more creative R&B was a viable [thing]. So, there's off-shoots of that, my contemporaries are all amazing and who do their own thing. But there was a time when I got caught up in other people's notoriety, feeling like, but 'Yo, did you listen to what [I made]?' And you can get really lost in that shit and there are people who are just, you know, ahead of things and are tapped in, I'm not always it, you know what I'm saying? [Laughs] But, it's happened before and I just think you just keep pushing. You've just got to keep pushing, fuck it. They get it eventually.
STYLE & SUBSTANCE
Sarah: In our industry and taking into account everything we've talked about that's important, style and personal presentation has become a real key to success, as well as your content. So, how would you order the following [laughs] style, substance?
Miguel: It depends on what your purpose is?
Sarah: Ok, you know what your purpose is.
Miguel: My personal, I think, it's always going to be the content. It's always going to be the content first. Everything is just like...I had a conversation with someone who's a friend but also was like at the time was working for the number one ad agency and he explained something to me that was simple and powerful. It was like, 'Yo! Just look at the hierarchy of what it is you are trying to accomplish. What do you do? You do music, so most important is always going to be the fucking music. [Laughs] Everything else should be secondary. Anything that detracts from the most important thing needs to be toned down, because it's taking away from what the focal point is supposed to be.' That's kind of like, I don't know if I explained it as well as he did, but for whatever reason it really clicked at the time. Also, I think simple is always better. [Laughs] Simple is better!
Sarah: It's nuts though, because we were hanging out with a friend of ours who's a really successful television director and she was saying even if you want to work in the industry infront of the camera, behind the camera, whatever...at whatever level, they're looking for a certain look now. I was just like, 'Oh my goodness.'
Miguel: You've got to look like you belong there.
Sarah: Right! And know what you're doing and constantly be checking that you look good, like, 'I brought all my A-game at the same time.' It's a lot of pressure.
Miguel: I mean, we live in a visual world. A hyper visual world.
Sarah: I know.
Miguel: It's one of the ripple effects of again, social media, blah blah blah.
Sarah: So we're putting this all deluxe content together! [Laughs]
Miguel: Right! [Laughs] Well, that's kind of like why music is kind of secondary. It's not as prestigious. Music just isn't looked at with the kind of esteem or respect because it's not as visual. [Laughs] Like, if you don't do a video right now, if you don't have some visual to go with it, people will write it off.
Sally: Do you think people don't know how to really listen to music properly anymore?
Miguel: Shit! Even, I don't listen to music the same. I don't!
Sally: I don't get to listen to it as much as I used to at all. Sometimes I'll just immerse myself with big headphones, just lie down and get amongst it and then go...that's when stuff starts flowing, but it's very rare that I actually get to do that now.
Miguel: Man, it's been so long since I did that and that's pretty cool. I mean, who does that? Kids aren't doing that shit. Kids need to be. I don't know, that's tough. I do think it's because we don't, we're used to being constantly stimulated here visually. Like, yo, between conversations, how often do you look at your phone?
Sarah: I'm getting really good at not. [Laughs] That's on my list of things to do, say the positive things you want in life and don't pick up your phone. [Laughs].
Miguel: Woooord. It's a distraction.
Sarah: It is. I was going to talk to you about that. Ok, let's do a couple of these...word game, first thing that comes to mind when I say 'kindness'?
Miguel: First impression.
Sarah: [Laughs] It was going to be that or important! Loyalty.
Miguel: Uurrghhh... Indispensable.
Sarah: [Laughs] Ok! Good. I like it. Ok, last question...I think... What do you think are the most important elements to achieve your goals out of these two: Play it safe or take risks?
Miguel: I'm risks all day.
Sally: You have to be if you're creative. You have to!
Miguel: I'm risks all day. Yeah. And that's not even like just saying it.
Sarah: I have loads of other things I could talk to you about. Oh go on, ok, top five MCs.
Miguel: Top five MCs?
Sarah: Yes, please just because I love hip hop.
Miguel: 3 Stacks, Mos, Biggie, Pac, who am I forgetting now? You know what though, honestly like the fifth spot, I go back and fourth but I will say Elzhi is one of the illest lyricists that gets overlooked. Elzhi from Slum Village.