South London’s MNEK has had a recent rise that has surely turned industry vets and bloodthirsty newcomers alike a robust emerald with envy. Grammy nods, BBC Sound Of tips, hit-encrusted production/writing credits including multiple number ones, and a burgeoning solo career. Not at all shabby for still being a teenager, is it? What have you done today?
If there’s one thing that sets Uzoechi Osisioma Emenike, aka MNEK, apart from other pop acts, it’s his once-in-a-generation voice. Elvis had it. MJ had it. Now we’re not saying that MNEK is of that calibre – yet – but he’s got the voice to give legends a reason to quake in their graves. On top of that natural gift, he’s one of the most accomplished British songwriters in years, and is penetrating the charts at every level, from blockbuster bubblegum to bass-heavy dance to underground heroes. If you’ve loved a pop track in the past year, chances are MNEK has had his mitts in that pie.
“Every Little Word” is his current lone-wolf gambit. With thumping, thunderbolt synths zapping life into ‘80s hooks, and skulking dance beats sending your nerves into a rhythmic spasm, not to mention an astoundingly catchy vocal line, it’s a resounding, bona fide T-U-N-E.
During our brief conversation with the masterful beatsmith, we discussed his hugely-anticipated debut LP, musical beginnings and his opinions on producing vs. being a singer.
Hi! Could you briefly introduce yourself for us?
Well I’m MNEK, I’m 19. I sing, I write and produce, and I’m from Catford, South East London.
What’s your musical background?
My parents weren’t necessarily musical, but I grew up listening to a lot of their music in the house. It was things like Whitney, Mariah, Bob Marley, and lots of old school R&B. I started writing my own songs when I was 8, and producing when I was 9, and singing when I was 11.
Who do you admire? Why?
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They produced some of the ‘80s and ‘90s biggest hits. Their musicality and general consideration for a song is admirable by itself. I was so grateful to meet them and play them stuff from my album. They’re a huge inspiration in my work.
Can you tell us the moment you knew you wanted to create music as a career? Or was it more gradual?
I was 5. I forced my dad to get this music making software called eJay for Christmas. Basically, this thing where you make sequences with pre-made loops and stuff. I would play on those after school and make things out of it. At first it was a hobby, but then it became an obsession and then something I realised I wanted to pursue.
When did you realise you had an incredible voice?
Ah thanks! Well, I don’t know… the first time I ever sang in public was when I was 11, Year 6. I sang “Blue Moon” by Frank Sinatra and then everyone was like, “wow you’re not bad!” My mum always brings that up, she’s never forgotten it.
How’s the album coming along? How have you been writing and recording it?
We’ve mixed pretty much half of it; everything else is just finishing touches. I’ve been working on it from my studio in Shoreditch. It’s been really great being able to work on it and put my all into it. Every song is different from each other but still represents what I wanna say.
What about “Every Little Word” in particular? Could you explain the story behind it?
The song is about finding solace in someone and them being a positive force in your life. It’s that positive concept behind this real tough beat; I’m so pleased with it.
How would you sum up your sound in three words?
Fresh. Soulful. Unashamed.
What should we expect from the album?
There’s some New Jack references. It’s very ‘90s soul. There’s hip hop, there’s a power ballad, there’s an a cappella song. But, at its core, it’s a pop album. I love and appreciate pop music, and I’ve never shied away from it.
So you’ve done a lot of writing and producing for other artists – is that a separate entity to your solo work, or was it a kind of stepping stone, a way to get your name out?
Both. I always wanted to do writing and production with and for others to start with, and go into my album that way. My own album is definitely different to what I’ve done on my production and writing trip.
What drives you to create your own music as opposed to writing/producing for others? What does it give you?
When I produce and write for others, it’s to help them express themselves. So through working on my own stuff, I get to express just myself – which is nice for a change!
Do you find yourself more in demand for that aspect of your career now that your name is out there a lot more? Are you working with anyone at the moment?
Definitely. After “Need U (100%)” in particular, I got a lot more work and people started to trust me a bit more. A*M*E and I were 18 when that song blew up, so I imagine people were umm-ing and ahh-ing until it became what it was.
I’m working on very few projects on the side right now. I’ve done some stuff for Becky Hill’s album. I was in with Joel Compass a few weeks back. So mainly just working with my friends! But right now, the main focus right is my project!
Who would be your dream collaboration?
What’s a MNEK show like?
I looooove performing. I’d done PAs with Rudimental and Duke and Gorgon City, but now I’ve got my own set and my own band who are pretty awesome. We’ve got a fierce pair of backing singers in Jay Bay and Kersha. We’ve got Junior Kirton on drums, Yasmin Baker on keys and Vic Jaimeson on guitar. They’re dressed in all white, so they look really hot. And the vibe is just so great, ‘cause we’re all young and we love the songs we’re doing so it just makes it even better.
Where’s been your favourite place to play? Why?
Brighton, The Great Escape was so much fun. I just felt like I was in my element. That was our 3rd show.
What have you got planned for the summer? Any festivals you can tell us about?
Parklife. Glastonbury. Lovebox. Supporting Sam Smith at Somerset House in July! Wakestock. T In The Park. So yeah, I’m a busy bee!
The Every Little Word EP is out now via Digital Teddy Ltd, under exclusive license to Virgin EMI Records - buy it here.