„Lyrics Always Come First“ – Myles Sanko im Interview

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Mit Aromen kennt sich Myles Sanko aus. Die Zeiten allerdings, in denen es darum ging, Zitrone mit Soya und Oliven mit Kimchi zu kombinieren, sind lang vorbei. Seit ein paar Jahren mischt der ehemalige Mensa-Koch zu Cambridge nämlich nicht mehr Olfaktorisches sondern Auditives: Hip Hop mit Jazz, Soul mit Rap, Funk mit Pop. So auch auf seinem neuesten Album „Just Being Me“, das immerhin dritte auch seinem eigenen Label. Über die Doppelbelastung als Künstler und Label-Manager in Personalunion, seine französische Staatsbürgerschaft und die Frage, warum es keine zweite Chance für den ersten Eindruck gibt, sprachen wir mit dem Multitalent via Skype.

JOINMUSIC: What do you reply to the people that label you as the British Gregory Porter?
MYLES SANKO: Ha – the British Gregory Porter. I didn’t know about that. Haven’t heard that before. I mean, Gregory makes amazing music, and not just music. He did and does amazing things for the jazz and soul world. He has really opened up the gates again, you know. That’s a great thing. And to be honest: I’ll take it as a compliment, but I’m different from Gregory. And I think he is completely different from me. There might be common grounds somewhere. But apart from that – we are two different artists with probably two different visions. But the main important thing is that we both love music, and are singing from the heart.

JM: Alright – that was just a little teaser for starters. Before we get down to your new album – I would like you to tell us a little bit about how and when you decided to become a professional musician and what brought you to release your debut album on your own label – which is still pretty unusual.
MS: So you wanna know about my journey…

JM: Yeah.
MS: Well, my musical journey started a while back. It started through Hip Hop. I was a fan and a lover of Hip Hop in the late 90’s. I then got into funk when through a bunch of friends that played funk and soul. And then I was in a band with my younger sister which was more of a Pop/Hip Hop kind of thing – we did that for a couple of years. We even recorded material. And from there I wanted to move on and kind of have my own funk band, That was what I wanted to do. This was around mid-2000s, when I did this. So I put together a funk band called Bijoumiyo but is was all improvised, free-form. James Brown was our idol at that point and we were sort of feeding from that. We did that for a couple of years and that was my beginnings as a professional musician. Before that I was earning money as a chef at the University of Cambridge. And then music started taking more of my time and my passion and everything else. And in late 2007 I felt I had to make a decision. I order to give this a 110% I went for the music and left everything else behind. It was tough times – but it was exciting times. And then about three years into it, the leader of Speedometers, a funk band in the UK, spotted me online and asked me to record on a brand new album they were working on, and guess who was featuring on that album? – Martha High, one of the backing vocalists of James Brown. I found out some inside stories about James Brown and it was just cool. We did a couple of tours across Europa and Japan. And after doing that for a couple of years, I said, ok, it’s time for me to do my own thing. I want to express myself in my own way. And then not much later I released my first solo EP “Born in Black And White”. And although you said it’s kind of strange in this day and age to release your album on your own label – well, if you’re coming out of nowhere, and you have the mentality that I have – if nobody wants to give you a chance, do it yourself – instead of sitting back – just do it. You go for the world. Don’t wait for the world to come to you, that’s my motto. – So I put some money together, recorded my album, put it out there and here we are, three or four years later, with my third album coming out.

JM: Awesome. Your motto reminds me of that great Charles Bukowski poem – if you really want to do something, go all the way. Which is what you did and you succeeded.
MS: Yes, and this is what I’m trying to do. And I’m still having this mindset of working within the centre of my own world. And I’m working with independent labels at the moment trying to share good music with the good people.

JM: Speaking of good music. Your music, starting from your first album to “Just Being Me”, is not devoid of complexities at all: You have brass, woodwinds, strings, choirs – who’s responsible for the arrangements?
MS: Well, all my music on my first two albums“Born in Black And White” and “Forever Dreaming” is co-composed with a good friend of mine Thierry Los from Paris. Musically, I’m responsible for the production, lyrics and melodies. As for the arrangements on the first two albums I co-composed them with Thierry. In terms of my new album “Just Being Me” I suppose the title says it all: 80% of all the writing and composition was done by me solely. In terms of arrangements I surround myself with musicians that I handpick. People that are likeminded to me and that I want to work with. But as for all the melodic and harmonic ideas that come from me, I pass them on to my musicians to expand on them with all their creativity and experience.

JM: How do you go about composing: Does the muse have to kiss you or do you apply a sort of prussian work ethos?
MS: Ok, I’ll tell you the process of how it works for me. So firstly, lyrics always come first.

JM: Sorry – to interrupt you here – but did you just say “Lyrics come first”?
MS: That’s right. Lyrics come first.

JM: Lyrics come first – now that is pretty unusual.
MS: Yeah, I guess, that’s my Hip Hop background…

JM: I see
MS: …where we sat down writing down lyrics all the time, you know. And thanks to technology and the revolution of the smart phone you can write on the go. Which is good because ideas come to you all the time. And I remember a while ago I was listening to some podcast or something on the radio and a lady was talking to a writer who said you should always have some kind of notebook with you because ideas come to you all the time. Every moment you look around the corner, every time somebody says something to you. And if you don’t write it down, you will forget it, there’s no doubt about that. So I try my best to take pictures that inspire me, album covers, writing down little notes here and there. It’s never a complete song, it’s just an ideas. And I accumulate these ideas and when it comes to writing a song, I look back at my notes and just pick some of the lines. Sometimes these lines can encapsulate what a whole song is or should be about. And then I’m inspired by that. So the words come first. And about “Just Being Me “ in particular: I had a whole bunch of words and thought, okay, it’s time to write the music. So I got my laptop and my midi-keyboard out, and started putting music together. And I spent so much time on the music – I composed the horn lines, the string lines, the piano and bass parts, the drum tracks, all midi tracks, 35 of them in total – that I forget about the lyrics for this album. So what I did in February, when the album was recorded, was bring all the midi-demos to my musicians and try to bring their influences to the music, and ended up recording all the music for the album. All without any lyrics. So I had all the music done but no words. And then again it was my old Hip Hop mindset basically, that made me come up with the right lyrics, knowing what the overall message of each and every song was about. To be honest: I’m grateful that everything is done now, recorded, mastered and for us to enjoy, but two months ago I was still fighting to finish some of the lyrics.

JM: “Just Being Me” is your third album exclusively dealing with organic music. Only a few effects and some studio production were involved. Were you never tempted to try out a different genre route? Having your Hip Hop background was fumbling with let’s say a rhythm machine never an option?
MS: No. Not at all. That time will come, maybe. In the near future. But I had a specific plan about what I wanted to do with this album. I was inspired by Gil Scott Heron, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and music from their time. Most of the time when I record an album I have an idea of what I want it to sound like. And this album I wanted it to be groovier than the last two. To have more of a hip hop backbeat, breakbeat kind of vibe to it across the board. Slower BPM’s going down to 80 or even 75, instead of 120 or 130. And I was loving the sound of the grand piano and the strings, you know, the cinematic aspect of the sound. So we have an album with Hip Hop grooves, classic jazz instrumentation (including an upright bass) and soulful energy. And that’s what I wanted to create. I wanted to appeal to the jazz world, the soul world and at the same time maybe a slightly younger generation: this is good, there’s some Hip Hop to it. So maybe on my next album I might employ some loops, a drum machine. But for me, acoustic instrumentation, it just takes you to a place. There’s something about it, it’s familiar territory. Universal, it can last forever, That’s why I enjoy it so much. I know that there’s great electronic music out there, which is fantastic and I do enjoy it myself. But when it comes to me putting something out there at this stage, I’m keeping it classic somehow, but damn fresh, still.

JM: „Classic“ is a perfect reconciliation. At the end of “Empty Road” there’s a string piece lasting for almost two minutes and sounding like something from Bela Bartok. What was your intention behind it? Is it like a grand finale?
MS: No, it’s not a grand finale. It’s actually a grand beginning. A sort of intro. That’s what it is. The track “Empty Road” is lyrically open to the idea of me being religious, cause I am asking for the Lord to be by my side once I embark on this empty road. Because this empty road is vast, I’m just on my own and nobody’s there to support me. But for real this is not about God. This is about my journey. I’m embarking on something that is unknown and I don’t know what the end is going to be but I know I need some support. I’m not entirely religious I would say, you know, I have my own beliefs and everything else. But at the same time I can’t help saying things like God this, God that, Lord here, Lord help me there, you know. So back to your question: The strings on “empty road” is a beginning. There are parts of it where you feel unsure when hearing it. It puts you on edge. And suddenly at the end, there’s a release and it feels like you know what’s coming. It’s the calm before the storm. And that’s what I wanted to do. And that’s what it does to me. I don’t know what it does to you or the next person but it’s definitely not a finale, it’s a beginning.

JM: How will you put this on live?
MS: How I am going to put this on live? – I’m not. No, seriously I would absolutely love to do that and if I get the opportunity to work with a small orchestras on a couple of dates maybe next year, that would be fantastic. I remember the first day I went into the studio and I heard my midi string lines played by real musicians, it just opened a whole new world to me. And I’m ready for my fourth album, to maybe even go more on that cinematic route.

JM: “Sunshine” is not a lover’s song, is it? To me it sounds like it could be about a family member?
MS: No – it’s about the sunshine.

JM: “Sunshine” is about the sunshine?
MS: Yeah, it’s about the sunshine. I have an ongoing relationship with the sunshine…

JM: You do.
MS: ….cause I keep bringing it back in my albums. The energy and feeling the sunshine brings to you, the way it makes me feel, when it’s out there, the eternal love of the sunshine – like if it was there forever, gives life. And thats what the song is about. It’s a celebration of the sunshine. But at the same time you can translate it as you have. It’s a song about love. What or whoever is your sunshine.

JM: Could you describe what aspect of your music you find distinctively British?
MS: I don’t know. But it’s an interesting question. I am not British, I’ve lived in England for a long time. When I write my music I do not go with the aim that I’m writing something British. If at all, the music I write is American. So that’s for sure. My musicians are British. And maybe across the board there’s an element they probably bring to the music in terms of the way they play. But lyrically? – No. Not intentionally anyway.

JM: As for the brits – is there such a thing as a cross-fertilizing network among like-minded British musicians? Like Fat Ronnies Thumb, The Greg Foat Group or the aforementioned Stone Foundation?
MS: No, funny enough, there isn’t. We’re aware of each others. But I just feel like I’m playing a different game. That’s how it feels. I’ve created my family and I’m going my own way about it.

JM: “Just Being Me” for the third time features your image as the cover art. And with regards to the title it definitely feels appropriate. Still – did you consider alternatives for the cover artwork?
MS: No, not really. It just had to be me, and just me, staring at the camera.

JM: Not only on your album covers but also on every single photo I’ve had a chance to look at you are always dressed to your teeth. I guess you have a reason for that – do you?
MS: Yes: It’s the way I want to present myself to the world. And I don’t know if you ever heard the term: Your Sunday Best.

JM: Yeah, I have.
MS: So when you go to church on Sunday, you have to look your best. And I believe that as much as you like to be judged by your actions, the whole world judges you first on what you look like. Your hair, the colour of your skin. Before you even open your mouth, the clothes you’re wearing, the shoes you’re wearing are under scrutiny. And I love a shirt, I love a suit, I love to look good, it makes me feel good. I feel a better me, when I’m dressed this way. It’s important to me to make a statement looking like this. And that is my statement.

JM: Thank you for the interview. 

Foto: Simon Buck

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