ABOVE: MIKKY EKKO IN LOS ANGELES, FEBRUARY 2013. SHIRT: JOHN VARVATOS. PANTS: YOHJI YAMAMOTO. BELT: VINTAGE. GROOMING PRODUCTS: CHANEL, INCLUDING LE BLANC BRIGHTENING MOISTURIZING CREAM. STYLING: DAVID THOMAS/OPUS BEAUTY. GROOMING: FRANKIE PAYNE FOR CHANEL/OPUS BEAUTY. STYLING ASSISTANT: PAUL MINTZER.
This year, a star was born onstage at the Grammys. As Rihanna performed her single "Stay"—an uncharacteristically plaintive ballad about a fractured relationship—a mysterious figure in a knit cap emerged out of the shadows to sing the second verse in a ghostly falsetto: 27-year-old Mikky Ekko, the co-composer of the song and a budding pop star in his own right. "The whole thing was funny to me—and not comedy funny," Ekko explains between studio sessions in L.A. two days after the event. "My knees were shaking as I waited to go onstage. But as soon as I heard the music, I felt calm in the eye of the storm."
How Ekko wound up performing on the Grammys before even releasing his own album is just another chapter in the long, strange trip that has led him to become one of 2013's most highly anticipated musical breakouts (his debut full-length is due out this year on RCA). Born John Stephen Sudduth in Shreveport, Louisiana, the son of a tar-plant manager who later became a preacher, Ekko left home and made his way to Nashville at the age of 21 in search of a career in music. Along the way, he created the Mikky Ekko persona as "a character that is and isn't me," he says. "It's like I'm both Lennie and George from Of Mice and Men—and I'm okay with that." Indeed, on songs like "Pull Me Down," Ekko's voice proves alternately cosmic and earthbound, evoking both the otherworldly yearning of Jeff Buckley and the fragile approachability of Chris Martin (before Coldplay discovered lasers and confetti cannons). "I love desperate-sounding music," says Ekko. "I love things so intensely that if I don't set them free, I'll crush them. I want to create new places. You'll just have to trust me that I won't crush you if we go there."
Despite the Rihanna connection, Ekko is no ordinary pop hopeful: "Pull Me Down" was produced with underground beatsmith Clams Casino. Ekko's range of tastes and influences are also unexpectedly diverse—he describes Kendrick Lamar's album Good kid, m.A.A.d city as his "OK Computer," and references musical oddballs like Björk and Marnie Stern as easily as he does cinematic auteurs like Andrei Tarkovsky and Guillermo del Toro. "Uneasiness—terror and beauty—is so fascinating," says Ekko. "I see every day as beautiful and terrifying. That's fun to me."
To see Mikky Ekko's 10 favorite things, click here.