Known for guest features on hits with everyone from Rihanna (“Stay”) to Active Child (“Sublte”), Nashville-based musician Mikky Ekko released his debut EP in 2009. Titled Strange Fruit, the EP caught the attention of hip-hop producer Clams Casino (A$AP Rocky, Lil B, The Weeknd) and the two began working together, releasing Ekko’s third single “Pull Me Down” in 2012. It wasn’t until earlier this year, however, that he dropped his first full-length, Time (RCA).
While Ekko’s collaborations range from crooning R&B to alternative indie rock, his solo music is a unique exploration of his own imagination. Most tracks are inherently pop, yet he retains certain songwriting elements and a flexibility that are often lost within mainstream sound. From “Love,” an upbeat song on the tired topic, he goes to “Riot,” which is carried by fuzzed electric guitars and heavy drums, and even features the occasional heavy scream in place of his usually smooth voice. In his rare spare time, Ekko also remixes songs, one of his favorites being Little Dragon’s “Pretty Girls.”
Even though he and Little Dragon are currently both on tour, Ekko and Yukimi Nagano (of Little Dragon) took the time to catch up over the phone. He was in L.A. and she was in Portland, but this weekend, Ekko is in Cincinnati, Ohio, playing at the Bunbury Music Festival and Little Dragon is in New York for Governors Ball.
YUKIMI NAGANO: How’s L.A.?
MIKKY EKKO: L.A. is L.A. I’m actually in a changing room right now because I think I’ve got to be at some event tonight, so I’m trying to find something to wear…three hours beforehand. [pauses] Okay, here we go, full attention. Sorry, that was super rude of me. I appreciate you taking a minute to do this.
NAGANO: Oh, of course. I’m glad it happened!
EKKO: I didn’t really know you before [this], but I’ve been keeping up with Little Dragon for a long time, and I’ve been a fan of your voice. I mentioned to a friend that I was looking to do some remixes, just because that’s something I enjoy doing. He asked if I was interested in doing anything for Little Dragon and obviously I jumped in immediately and was like, “Yeah, I’d love to.” I really only using the vocals, because I wanted to reinterpret, give it my own meaning, my perspective. That was one of my highlights of last year, getting to do that.
NAGANO: We love it. Do you have time to do remixes? Usually we feel like it’s hard to fit it in.
EKKO: No, I don’t really have time to do ’em, but if I have an excuse to, rather than feel pressure to do it, then I enjoy doing that sort of thing late at night. I was wondering if you feel like you know when something’s done, like when the production’s done? Do you think that’s easier as a group to figure that out?
NAGANO: I don’t know how it is to be alone. [laughs] But I can imagine maybe it’s easier as a group, because you’re going to have so many opinions. We usually have different opinions on when something is done. In the band, some people feel like, “It needs so much more,” while someone else is like, “No it’s perfect like this. Keep it simple.” We definitely have an easy time starting ideas and a really hard time agreeing—we have a lot of “clashes.” We need a deadline to finish something, or it’s never finished. We have a few songs that Håkan still works on. They started maybe six years ago, and every now and then he’ll bring them up and add stuff or take away stuff. What about you?
EKKO: I’ve worked with a lot of different producers, a lot of different writers on the album, so I mostly feel like I learned a lot about what I don’t want to do the next time around. Initially I knew I’d need that person in the room who’d be like, “Yo, you’ve got to stop, and let it breathe for a little while and let it exist.”
If you didn’t get it right then that’s fine, but you need to be able to look back and see the work that you’ve done, rather live in it for so long. If I can sit down and let it lead me, if it feels like it keeps me breathing the whole time, or keeps me floating, that’s when I’m willing to let it go.
NAGANO: That’s a good sign. For us, after that, it’s the mixing and that’s a whole new argument. Like, “The bass drum needs to be more like this!” “No, it needs to be like this!” “I like fuzzy!” “I like non-fuzzy!” Do you have a lot of opinions on the mixes?
EKKO: Big time. Most of the producers I work with are decent mixers. We’ll wind up in these spots where I’ll get the mix back and I’ll put a few more pieces of production together and send it back to the mixer. It’s so easy to change the entire perspective of the song by changing the mix.
NAGANO: Totally. We usually mix ourselves—not because we’re awesome mixers or anything, there are people who are way more in that bubble than us—but this guy Jaycen Joshua mixed this last record. He came back with one song and everyone was so terrified because it was like “Yukimi became a robot!” It had a little auto-tune… [laughs] It was super radio. So it was about having a conversation about what we wanted, and it turned out really good. But mixing can definitely change everything.
EKKO: One of my strict, strict rules is a no auto-tune policy. I went through a few different mixers to find the right people for this album. If you’re in a place where you can mix it yourself and you know what you want to hear, it’s nice that you can mix it as part of the evolutionary process. There were a couple songs I think that very specifically needed a mixer. It just needed that third dimension, I guess. [pauses]
Who were some of the first people you listened to early on? I know that’s such a basic question, but was there one song you remember singing for the first time, where you really wanted to sound like another singer?
NAGANO: When I was like 15, 16, and then 18, 19, I was touring with jazz stuff. I didn’t really like jazz that much and was unhappy in that genre. It was what I was doing just to get by and pay rent, but I was really into R&B and stuff like that, so I really wanted to sing like Faith Evans or Mariah Carey. But I definitely don’t have the skills to sing like that.
So Erik was super into hip-hop, Håkan was into synths, and Fred liked electronic music. In the beginning it all sounded like bad copies of R&B music. We weren’t American black, but we wish we were. [laughs] We just embraced the fact that it wasn’t who we were and we experimented more and found our own way of being influenced by those sounds instead of trying to make it sound like [them]. It was like, you’ll never be satisfied because it’ll never sound like what someone else has done, because you’re not them! What about you?
EKKO: I don’t know. It was weird because early on my mom listened to mostly classical music and my dad was pretty much oldies. I always listened to a lot of Nirvana and Soundgarden, and simultaneously 112 and Brian McKnight and stuff like that. I really loved R&B. When I heard Jeff Buckley’s Grace, that one took a while to grow on me. It wasn’t immediate like it was for some people. I think, being a male singer, I always hate another great male singer’s voice before I can love it, unless it’s just really far from what I do. [laughs] But I fell in love with that album and remember being so blown away at what he was able to do. That is a great record. When you’re piecing together melodies and lyrics, is it more like building a house for you or navigating a river?
NAGANO: [laughs] I feel like I’m still learning a lot with writing lyrics. In the beginning, like the first record, I wasn’t so aware. Our first record, we didn’t know it was going to come out; we were just making music because that’s what we loved to do. It was unconscious in a way. Now you know you’re going to have to play music for the label, you know you’re going to have to get an opinion from the manager. Now, I’m so much more conscious and it bothers me. I try to find my way back to writing without being too analytical or not thinking about whether this is good or is it bad.
EKKO: That struck a chord with me—I started in ’09 with a few EPs, and there are some songs that I really like on those EPs and then there’s songs that I hear and am like “What was I doing back then?” [laughs] But I took a step back because I really wanted to focus on my songwriting, or songwriting with other people. I wanted to go learn from other people who were really good at the classic, more traditional idea of songwriting. I think that, now, it’s a very song-oriented album, and you hear that. It’s exciting to know I can take that and apply it to what I already know about where I used to live in my head.
NAGANO: I can really relate to that. I’m at the same place. I’ve definitely also been like, “Damn, I just want to be able to write a story and a good song.” I also had a couple weeks in L.A. and I was going to write with people, you know, songwriters. I had never done that before. I’ve mainly written by myself.
EKKO: It’s scary at first.
NAGANO: Yeah, and I learned a lot from it. I was like, “I don’t want anyone to expect that anything’s going to come out on an album, because I’m just here to learn. If something good comes out of it, something good comes out of it.” I had one writer say to me “Okay, I think you’re music is—don’t take this in a bad way—but it’s very self-indulgent and selfish. You write music for yourself and if you just open that door and let people in, the audience is going to grow and it’s going to become more accessible.” Basically, this person writes hits and I don’t write hits. If you just open that door, you’re going to get a hit.
EKKO: [laughs] I want to name names, but I’m not going to…I’ve had some very similar experiences.
NAGANO: I think it’s a bit scary. It’s like you have this color, and if you keep mixing it with other colors, suddenly you realize what you had was so pure and you’re diluting something. At the time you can’t always see that. My lesson from that [songwriting process] was that I should go back to where I was and try to make that first pure even more strong. The more sure you are about your own thing and what’s really you, the more that comes across as something different and not…
EKKO: One of them…There’s something really precious in that—if you try to tame something that’s meant to be wild you wind up jeopardizing the nature of why it exists. It took making this album for me to see that. I love everything I’ve made, but you really reminded me there’s something special about what you do and what’s very particular about your voice.
NAGANO: What’s your inspiration for lyrics?
EKKO: It depends. When I was writing the album I was really trying to push myself to the edge. I was kind of on the brink of insanity the whole time. I wanted to keep the album diverse, and I enjoy writing in a lot of different styles, so I pushed to find that vicious place, or that vulnerable place, and let it exist as intensely as I could. That was where it started, but lately I’ve been in a place where I start with a bass line, until words start forming, just letting that drive me. It made me remember what it was like when I started initially—when I started that’s how I wrote because I didn’t know any better. I was just like “I want to make music.” Then there were all these things that I learned to get myself over certain humps, but I think it just comes down to: do I have something to say or not? If I’m feeling something I should try to get that out, and maybe it’s not words, but trying to turn it into something. [pauses] Do you like being in nice studio spaces or kind of in between?
NAGANO: I really like our studio. It’s definitely not in any way slick; it’s very homemade, literally. Everyone has their own room to produce and write, and [there’s a] big rehearsal space. It’s an old, run-down building and apartment space. We’ve had it for like 10 years.
EKKO: That’s really similar to this studio I’ve got in Nashville. I think that kind of thing comes through in the music. That was the only why I said that. I didn’t really think about how that was going to translate. [laughs] What I was trying to figure out was if that was what the studio is like. There’s kind of an angst that’s born in that [type of space] and you can hear it in the music.
NAGANO: Yeah, I like it. I used to live there at one point too. It’s home. I don’t know about you, but I find it a little stressful when you’re in a really nice studio and you feel time ticking and the bill getting higher, you know? It’s so stressful! In our space you obviously pay rent, but it’s chill, it’s our space. For that reason I prefer it.
EKKO: The same here. You need a sanctuary. Somewhere where it doesn’t feel like it’s being tainted by everybody’s opinions and other people’s money. I think I’m kind of homesick right now. I haven’t gotten to record in Nashville for a while.
NAGANO: It is Music City, right?
EKKO: Yeah that’s it’s actual, proper nickname. It’s been the place where the music scene’s really growing. Everybody’s able to pour into each other creatively, and pop into the studio and pop out. It feels like a community. As an artistic community I think it’s really cool.
NAGANO: Gothenburg’s definitely a music city as well, but I think just because of the weather—it’s so cold and miserable—people stay in. Coming to the States and going into the store and people are like, “Hi, can I help you?”—I’m not used to people randomly talking to me that I don’t know. It takes a little getting used to because Swedes, compared to Americans, can seem a little cold and introverted.
EKKO: It’s so funny you say that because the first time I was in Stockholm, everybody was real cordial, but I started having these nightmares that I was being watched by aliens, basically all the time. My theory on it was that it was really, really unnerving to be in a place where English isn’t the first language. Sorry, I’m not going to go down a rabbit hole…hopefully we’ll cross paths in person.
NAGANO: Yeah! Good luck at your event tonight.
EKKO: Thanks. Hopefully I’ll find something to put on.
TIME IS OUT NOW VIA RCA. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.