Image by Joanne Lee
Naked torso draped with a flowy scarf, rosary, and gleaming white robe trimmed with gold, Miguel looks like a cross between a guru and Jim Morrison. Per explicit emailed instructions for his Wildheart performance at Red Bull Studios in Santa Monica, the entire room is dressed in all white and wearing Phantom of the Opera-type masks. Miguel floats through the crowd on his way to the stage, parting the sea of mostly girls who will later lose their minds over his bedroom smile as they scream along with the lyrics to “Adorn.” Sweat trickling down his chest, he’ll quickly lose the caftan. When he asks for a water, he’ll be given a tequila. He’ll tell us he wants to have a drink with us, and every woman in the place is gulping down the Kool-Aid. At one point, I’m almost sure he’s staring directly and suggestively at me, but I’m almost sure he’s staring directly and suggestively at all of us. The first thing he says when he reaches the stage is a hippied-out, “Righteous.”
What’s not righteous is this fucking mask, which, along with a fog machine puffing weird-smelling smoke up my white dress, is making me sweaty and claustrophobic. Starting to panic, I rip it off, but maybe that was the point of the exercise.
“The idea [of the masks] was symbolic,” the singer confirms over the phone a week later. “I was saying, ‘This is how the world wants to see you.’ We’ve all been programmed: we are not individuals; we can be herded and lumped all together. Wildheart is all about individuality. Muting the fucking programming.”
Miguel has had people panting for Wildheart, his third album, since he released a three-song teaser in December. Then again, they’ve been sweating him since 2010, when his buttery voice pled “All I Want Is You” over a spaghetti-Western guitar. With the release of 2012’s shimmering, critically acclaimed Kaleidoscope Dream—which spawned the Kendrick Lamar-featuring “How Many Drinks?” and the hazy, blissed-out “Do You…”—Miguel was at the forefront of aRtsy&B conversations. But with his electric live performances and sexy yet not “grown ‘n sexy” love songs, he also became the millennial generation’s Prince.
Nobody but Miguel is weird or experimental enough, both musically and sexually, to warrant that comparison—and Wildheart solidifies it. There might not be a title on the new album that's as Prince-blunt as Kaleidoscope Dream’s “Pussy Is Mine,” but that’s likely due to his sexual maturation. “Where’s the Fun in Forever” always seemed like a thing someone trying to duck a long-term relationship would say. Now, faceless fucking has given way to exploring the deep freakiness that comes only from a long-term relationship. Like Prince in “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” Miguel conveys the full expression of love with one partner, from the steaminess of “the valley” to the Lenny Kravitz-featuring “face the sun.”
Musically, there’s a much stronger rock guitar presence here than his earlier records, which works especially well when combined with the swirling psychadelia of “DEAL” or the pounding heart of a bass drum and Miguel's funked-up phrasing and touch of falsetto in “NWA” (the leering verse from L.A. OG Kurupt is a nice nod and Miguel's Spanish outro is panty-dropping). With his head-thrown-back howls and the breathy “o’s” on the fade, “FLESH" picks up where “The Beautiful Ones” left off. If he isn’t quite as raw as Prince or have quite his gift for melody, give it another album.
Besides, he makes up for it by turning pretty little poetic snatches into gorgeous songs. Take “Coffee”’s “I wish I could paint our love.” Or “the valley”’s infamous “I wanna fuck you like we’re filming in the Valley.” How does he come up stuff like that?
The San Pedro native laughs. “I don’t know where ‘I wanna fuck you like we’re filming in the Valley’ came from,” he says. He laughs again. “I know that I love porn.”
Tell me more, Miguel.
Noisey: Wildheart feels equally weighted between “be your freaky, unique selves” and “let me be my freaky, sexual self.” Then there’s a heavy guitar presence on the album, plus a sort of free love and cult leader vibe to you. Were you influenced by the 60s and 70s?
Miguel: I think that’s a great point of reference, but I think it’s a little bit of an awakening for me. I realize I have an audience. A real audience that pays attention. So I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to inspire what has made this journey real to me. The things I have wanted and hoped for and believed in real to me. Tangible. It started with Kaleidoscope Dream. That was saying, “You’re painting your own reality. This is my reality, you paint yours. Curate it carefully. You can paint the beauty or the chaos.” This album is “Be who you are, know who you are, know what you want, know what you love, know what you’re willing to sacrifice. Stand for something. And live that.” This is what I stand for, this is my reality, this is who I am. But I don’t want you to be me. I want you to be you. Do, think, act, the way you want to.
I interviewed you a long time ago, in 2011, and you said, “You have to find and live your passion.” Which is a difficult thing to do, right? Yet you seem born with this drive. Does it feel that clear cut for you?
Somehow along the way my vision wasn’t muted. Somehow that part missed me. I think part of it was that I was sheltered a bit, and part of it was my father believing in me and telling me I could be anything I wanted. “You wanna be an astronaut? You can do it, you really can.” Not in a patronizing way, but in a “No, it’s gonna take work, but you can.” I think he instilled that in me early and it never went away. So even when the shit doesn’t look good or it’s not happening at the rate I want it to or the trajectory isn’t as steep in a positive direction as I’d hoped for or I’m in the middle of some unforeseen adversity—I think there’s a much deeper belief that helps me transcend. That’s what being wild-hearted is about. Knowing and believing so deep you can mute the bullshit. And I suppose it’s in the desperation you prove to yourself what you stand for.
That loneliness and isolation is the thing we all run from, but that’s where you start to get deep with yourself.
Mmm-hmmm, mmm-hmmm. I think it’s because we’re so accustomed to—I can guess when you go to sleep your phone’s not further than arm’s distance. I think that’s true for 98 percent of the population at this point. Everywhere we turn—even driving, billboards, radio, we’re being marketed to all the time. Not only from companies, but from people marketing themselves! The way they want people to see and perceive them. All want to project a certain thing, a certain lifestyle. It’s easy to live in the noise. It is scary to find solitude and quiet yourself, your memory and fears and worry about tomorrow. But the real figuring out who you are really does come out of solitude. And I’m not saying I do it all the time, but I’ve discovered how valuable that can be. In fact the album is an advertisement. It’s an advertisement for people to come see me live so I can say, “I believe in you and the possibility. I believe you can transcend.” But first you have to know who you are. In those decisions you care less about what everyone thinks. Do what you fuckin’ want.
That gets a lot easier the older you get, you know.
Absolutely. But I think the sooner we have this conversation—I’m thinking more of younger kids—the earlier we can deprogram, the more likely we are to break the cycle for their children. I would love every parent to be like my father.
What’s a concrete example of something your dad did?
My father is a living example. He dealt with adversity in life from his own family. Coming to the United States, learning a new language—I can’t really go into detail of what he withstood, but let’s just say he got the brunt of a lot of trust issues in the family. It wasn’t warranted and it wasn’t fair. Despite being told he was stupid and would never amount to anything by his family, he was the best athlete in his family, he went to college and became a teacher. He just overcame that stuff. And I think that has a lot to do with why he was so positive with me. He wanted to break that cycle.
You allude to your outsider status in “What’s Normal Anyway,” but what were you like as a kid? What toys did you play with?
Oh, man! Legos! Legos all day. Video games, but not crazy video games because my mom was super strict with what we played not being too violent or gory. I think every kid thinks they’re the best Lego builder, but I was like, “Maybe I’ll be an engineer.” I could imagine these amazing things and then build them. I grew up playing sports like my father. I played everything, but I really played soccer. Up until about high school, when I started to pursue music as a career.
What do you daydream about? Not just as a kid, but I guess especially as an artist, you have to keep your mind stretchy. Where does your mind go when you let it go?
Traveling. Meeting extraordinary people in extraordinary places. I’ll give you an example. We just played this GQ event in Milan. Part of it was that I got to meet some of my favorite designers, and they’re telling me about my music and I’m like, “What the fuck, you know about my music?!” It’s blowing my mind, but we’re also in this chateau where da Vinci used to live, and across the street is where he painted The Last Supper. I’m in a place where one of the most brilliant thinkers of our time handplanted the vineyard in the back. This is the stuff I dream about at twilight. When I let my mind wander, I wonder where else I’ll go, who I’ll meet.
My father’s closest brother in age, he was the coolest guy to me. Growing up, I remember he always had a beautiful woman, he had the illest car, super smooth and suave, his name is Raphael. I always think the youngest one is the coolest one.
Are you the youngest one?
Nooo, my brother is, and trust me, he’s the coolest you’ll ever meet. He’s like the ocean.
But so I looked up to [Raphael] and he always had a GQ magazine. That was a part of my upbringing. So here I am going to shows for fashion week with the editor of GQ. It’s just crazy to me that I’m living this shit. There’s no mistake—it all has to be dreamt first. What else has to be dreamt, hoped for, believed in? How is it going to manifest itself?
It’s cool you’re still excited about stuff like that. Everybody gets so disenchanted. Let me ask you about your writing process. You have these pretty little snatches that are so poetic or clever—“I wish I could paint our love,” “I wanna fuck like we’re filming in the Valley”—the way I try to write. The album process seems daunting. How do these come to you? Do you still write in your bedroom?
It starts from a different place every time. I would describe it as being in the ocean—you swim out, or if you surf, swim out on your board, and you just wait. You sit on your board and watch the wave set itself up and if you feel like it’s the one, you gotta ride the wave. It’s gonna come form a different direction every time, at a different pace, different height, speed. But the best thing we can do as creative people is fuckin’ paddle out and wait. And also, I think creative people are just hoarders in general. Things we see that inspire us, we hold on to it. All the hoarding I do kicks in when it’s time. I don’t know where “I wanna fuck you like we’re filming in the Valley” came from. I know that I love porn. I know my energy. That’s very much my personality. It’s a very “me” thing to say. That’s who I am. Not who I always am, but it’s a very real part of my personality. So is “I wish I could paint our love.” That’s a very big part of my personality too. It’s really just trying to give as much of yourself as possible.
Do you ever freak the fuck out, though? Waiting for the waves—I’m just thinking about myself, when I have a deadline and my hands are sweating and nothing’s happening…
If it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come. Sometimes it is a little discouraging. I mostly don’t have deadlines, but there was a time when I was trying to write for other people, and I was dealing with that. I wouldn’t say freaked out. I’d say discouraged. I’ve found ways to be with it. It’s figuring out what works for you in those moments when the words aren’t writing themselves.
OK, you’ve been in this game for years. What ten, 12 years? You’ve seen the music industry’s changing landscape. I was just thinking about the Taylor Swift-Apple thing—
Man. So amazing. So incredible.
How has the shift affected you?
I think it’s really inspiring. We live in such an informed age, it’s given us the freedom as artists to make decisions that benefit us in a business way. I think it’s a necessity now. We’re realizing the way things have been structured isn’t really in our favor when it comes to how we make money from the music that we make. At least not selling records with major companies. That whole structure forces you to pay attention to your business. So it’s awesome that an artist with Taylor Swift’s pull—I mean, if I would’ve wrote that letter, they would’ve been like, “So?” She made a statement for the community and it really changed it. I owe her a tremendous thank you. Funny, I’ve been meaning to send her a Tweet. That’s the only way I can get in contact with her.
She’s probably listening to Wildheart right now.
Rebecca Haithcoat is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.