22-year-old Miguel Jontel doesn’t know the meaning of the word “rejection.” Sure, he’s faced it; with a sound that crosses genres and breaks the typical radio-friendly mold, many record labels had no clue what to do with him as an artist even if they recognized how enormously talented he was.
Persistence became this musical pistol’s weapon of choice. He hustled his way through the industry as a songwriter for the likes of Musiq Soulchild, Mary J. Blige, and Usher, while not-so-quietly taking the world of underground alternative-soul by storm with his mixtape “Mischief-The Mixtape,” which samples the essences of funk, soul, hip-hop, reggae, and rock.
Now signed to Bystorm/Jive Records, Miguel is ready to unleash his debut album, tentatively titled Gravity, to be released this year.
Neon Limelight jumped at the chance to chat with Miguel for our New Artist Week. We got down to business chatting about everything from his earliest musical memory, his journey through the music biz, his dream tour, and his debut album.
Neon Limelight: What was your earliest musical memory? What formed your love of music in your head?
Miguel: I remember this one time when I was helping my dad fix the sink and a song by Prince came on the radio. [My dad] was telling me about Prince because he’s a fan himself, and just the way he was telling me about his music — I had never heard anything like it before. I was really young, like five or six. He was telling me he plays guitar and that he was an amazing writer and he was kinda giving me a background on him. I was watching my dad talk about this artist and I think the look in my dad eyes while talking about the way the music made him feel made me want to make people feel that way.
NL: Is that when you decided this is for you? Did you ever think you’d be something else?
M: I started out dancing. My mom convinced me to sing for my kindergarten talent show. I was five years old. Ever since that moment I knew making music was what I was supposed to do.
NL: You’ve been performing as an unsigned act for quite a while. How did you end up at Jive Records?
M: I ended up at Jive because I was convinced that the only way to make it as an artist was to make it as a writer first. That’s because I’ve been getting rejected for so long by, like, everyone. I’ve been in everyone’s office and it seemed no one knew what to do with me. Partly because of the way I looked and the way I sounded. Like, ‘This kid, his name is Miguel, but he looks like he’s Asian and black. [He is half black, half Mexican.] He sounds like he’s full black.’ [laughs] There are so many examples. I think, at the time, music — they just didn’t know what to do with me. So as a writer, my songs made it to [the President of Urban Music at Jive] by the name of Mark Pitts, and after a long period of time, he had gotten a good idea to my full sound. I sent him a song called “Sure Thing,” and he saw the body of work over six, seven months and realized no one could do these songs like the writer himself. So we [set up a meeting], he saw me, we vibed out, and he signed me a week later.
NL: Awesome! It’s so sad when you say you were rejected by so many because they didn’t know what to do with you. That’s the part of the industry that irks me the most; great music gets overlooked because it doesn’t fit a mold. How frustrating is that for you?
M: You know what… I think that’s where you earn your stripes. Every person, regardless if it’s music or if you’re a student, if you’re passionate about something, nothing worth having comes easy. I think it’s kind of life’s way of making you enjoy it and reminding you that there’s a time for everything. That’s just the way that I look at it. All of those rejections in the past — I wasn’t ready, I don’t think. It wasn’t my time. It just took the right time. It kinda strengthened my resolve to pursue my dream.
NL: That’s great that you see it that way! Let’s talk about your album. How far along are you in making it?
M: I would say about 90% of the way. Only two or three songs away. Because we have really great songs, I keep doubling back to make sure that it’s a great album, not just a bunch of great songs. I don’t want any song to outshine the album as a whole. No one song is more important as the entire album. I think my focus on that is going to make a huge difference in the way it’s received. Like, people are so focused on giving singles. They want a hit. I think I’m more focused on giving a great album.
NL: Besides Prince — when I was describing you to someone I said he’s like Raphael Saadiq meets Lady GaGa meets Prince meets Michael Jackson.
NL: You’re all over the board! No one can place you into just one genre. What other inspirations to you grab from to cultivate your sound?
M: All of those! I listen to a lot of indie music. I listen to bands like Francis and The Lights, Grizzly Bear, a lot of underground hip-hop, underground production like Flying Lotus, J. Dilla. I think I’m just all over the place and that’s kinda why you can’t really put your finger on what I am or what I sound like because I’m drawing from so many different worlds of inspiration.
NL: If you had to put yourself into a genre or create your own, what would it be called?
M: It would be called “eclectic.”
NL: What were you like growing up? What kind of student were you?
M: I was always in trouble for talking in class. [laughs]
M: But then I was quiet outside of class. I knew a lot of people, but I didn’t have a lot of friends. I got good grades.
NL: Even when you were talking in class?
M: Uh huh! [laughs] My mom would have beat my ass! [laughs]
M: I was a good kid.
NL: Let’s get back to talking about your writing. Do you write a lot by yourself or do you have a partner or a group of guys you work with?
M: When it’s for myself, I write by myself. When it’s for other artists, I enjoy collaborating, especially with the artist, because my thing is individuality and it’s really hard to make something ring true to the artist unless somehow they are involved. I just feel like it’s as real as it will be for some artist who don’t write for themselves to collaborate with them. At least then there’s some of their personality or their perspective.
NL: Where have some of your songs landed? Give me a list of names we might have heard singing your songs.
M: It’s a very, very short list. Usher, Musiq Soulchild, Mary J. Blige, and that’s pretty much it.
NL: It’s a short list, but it’s a big list. Those are some serious artists.
M: I’m working with Cassie at this point. We’re still supposed to work more, but that’s it.
NL: Are you working on Usher’s latest project?
M: Yes, on his newest album. Upcoming.
NL: What kind of stuff are you writing for him?
M: It’s classic Usher in the sense that he sounds amazing on the records, but then it’s edgy in the sense that’s he’s reaching out to not only to his immediate family — the people that’s been with him since the beginning — but he’s also reaching out to a more “worldly” audience — or a broader audience. Not a reach, but he’s definitely stepping out just a little bit. I don’t know how else to explain it. [laughs] I think everyone at this point are reaching out to a broader audience because we’re realizing that there’s a whole world out there.
NL: Getting back to your own album, I know it’s 90% done, but if you could collaborate with anyone, who would you want to see on your album?
M: Sade. As far as artist go, that’s the only person I can think of. Producers, I wanna work with Flying Lotus… I’d like to work with Mark Ronson. I don’t really have a huge wishlist. I’m very, very easy. I’m very content. I have a few underdog producers who are amazing and talented who understand me and broaden my vision. I’m so, so happy and blessed to work with them that it’s kind of like a win-win situation on both ends. They’re helping me in the sense that they can kind of take my ideas and bring them to the next level, and hopefully I help expose them to an audience who may not have known they’ve been around for so long and are so talented and creative.
NL: If you could put together your dream tour, who would be on it?
M: Gnarls Barkley, Outkast, and D’Angelo.
NL: That’s hot!
M: I would love to open up for them. That’d be a great tour. What!?
NL: [laughs] I could totally see you working with Melanie Fiona, too.
M: That would be sick! That would be really, really dope! I should write that on my wishlist. [laughs]
NL: What do you think of the music that came out in the last decade?
M: There was a lot of great music that came out, but it’s not music that you would hear on the radio. It wasn’t mainstream so to speak. The last decade was more or less a regurgitation of the last four decades. There was some progression in there when it comes to underground stuff. That’s why I like independent music. With mainstream music, everyone is trying to go with a quick fix.
NL: What do you think needs to be brought to music in this decade and how do you plan to add to that?
M: Individuality is my mantra. I think that should be the primary focus with upcoming new music and already established artists making music. Just be yourself. Use your own voice. It’s really hard because some of these artists have already established their brand and their brand doesn’t speak to individuality, you know what I mean? It’s kind of a ‘what do you do now’ thing, but I think since art has so much to do with society and so much to do with… culture, the more and more we regurgitate what’s already been digested, we become stagnant as a culture. But if we can infuse individuality and our own voice and perspective into our music, it promotes a broadening of perspective. People start to think outside of the box. Then it’s kind of like a cycle of inspiration and individuality. I think that’s what we’re lacking.
NL: And that’s what you plan to bring to music to change it this year?
M: That is what my entire career will be based on. That’s my brand. [laughs]
More on Miguel: http://www.myspace.com/miguel