Ben Johns sits down with MNEK to discuss new album Language, working with Madonna, and black British pop stars in the industry

Written by Ben Johns

Congratulations on releasing Language! How are you feeling about it?

I’m feeling really positive about it! The feedback online has been great, and I’m really proud of the album I’ve created.

Creative highlight of making the album? The interludes are a big throwback, so what were you listening to when making the album what inspired the whole sound?

Throughout my whole career I’ve been inspired by nineties and early noughties pop, with producers like Timbaland and Jermaine Dupri, and my two favourite divas Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson sticking out as some points of call. Janet’s album The Velvet Rope was a huge inspiration for me and affirmed to me what an album should sound like. It really helped me know what I wanted the sonic journey of Language to be.

I noticed on Twitter that you’d posted about Mariah Carey’s new single ‘GTFO’ and that Mistajam mentioned you in an interview to Janet Jackson. Have you heard anything about working with them?

Unfortunately, I’ve not heard anything … yet. Those two are the last I want to tick off my ‘worked with’ list, so if the opportunity came along then I definitely wouldn’t say no.

Since the album is so cohesive, were singles like ‘Tongue’ written first, with the album shaped around it?

‘Tongue’ was actually the last song I recorded for the album! I just wanted the album to sound like an album, so it was a gradual process of fitting the music I’ve loved writing together rather than making singles.

Language feels like a very honest reflection on modern day relationships. How much of it is autobiographical?

I’ve always wanted my music to reflect my experiences, and one of the reasons why Language was such a long time in the making is because I didn’t necessarily feel like I had experienced enough. Now that I’ve gone through more in my life, I felt like I was ready and able to share it and I think that’s reflected in the album. The only song which isn’t autobiographical is ‘Girlfriend’. I’ve never been ‘The Other Man’, but I was listening to ‘My Little Secret’ by Xscape and the fact the song is about proudly and unashamedly stealing someone’s man really made me want to write a song from this perspective. Although it’s never happened to me, lots of guys have got in touch with me on Twitter and said that it’s summed up situations that they’ve been in. I just wanted to have a bop like this on my album!

You’ve been in the industry for nearly a decade. What was your first break?

I always knew that I wanted to make music, and I used to write songs when I was younger and posted them on MySpace. From there, people would listen to my material and then I signed a publishing deal when I was 15. Then it’s just been a process of writing and producing and it’s come to the now with my album being out.

Do you think it’s easier for burgeoning musicians to break through now?

If you think back to the nineties, there was so much quantity control. You had to be signed by a record label in order to just even release a song, whereas now unsigned acts have been able to make the top ten. I think social media has allowed artists to have a platform to release their music and to connect with their fans, it just means there are so many more acts and so much more music battling to be heard.

One of the reasons why Language was such a long time in the making is because I didn’t necessarily feel like I had experienced enough. Now that I’ve gone through more in my life, I felt like I was ready and able to share it

You’ve worked on music for some of the world’s biggest recording artists including Madonna and Beyoncé. What was the writing process like?

With the Madonna music, I wrote the songs, she said she liked them, and then I ad-libbed over the end of them and that was it. I wish I could tell you something more exciting! I could tell you so much more about how I made ‘Overdrive’ with Becky Hill and Oliver Heldens, and even ‘Never Forget You’ with Zara Larsson as it was time spent with working with my friends. I’ve always found working in those types of environments to be the most enjoyable and memorable.

I saw a tweet recently about black British pop stars not getting enough support from the industry and the public. Have you found that to be the case?

There’s no denying that pop music is extremely white, that’s just the way that it is. I think black British pop stars do have some major difficulties as pop music isn’t what black people necessarily listen to and therefore they don’t have as much of an incentive to listen to our music and support us. By no means am I saying that white people are racist, but I think that when they see black British pop stars, it can be quite confusing and they’re not as ready to support us as if it were a white British artist. It just means we have to keep on making good pop music so that it can really connect with an audience!

2018 has been dubbed 20-gay teen, but from my perspective it’s been more about white queer people. From your perspective, do you think that 2018 has been a watershed moment for all LGBTQ+ artists?

I can only ever speak from my experiences, but I’m more than happy to be a person of colour waving the 20-gay teen flag. There are loads more POC LGBTQ+ people like Mykki Blanco, Kaytranada, and Frank Ocean out here making music. It would just be nice if there were more of us visible.

Next week you’ll be embarking on a tour, including a date at the O2 Institute in Birmingham. What atmosphere are you hoping to achieve?

I really want the tour to be a celebration of Language, and I want to be able to play the album in full to an audience that also love the album. I’m going to try and fit the old material like ‘Ready For Your Love’ and ‘Never Forget You’ in to the setlist, but I think it’s important to me to put most of the focus on my album which I’ve worked so hard to make and have out there so I want it to feel like and be the Language experience.

The success that you’ve had in the music industry is quite something, so if you flash forward ten years, where do you want to be and what do you want to be doing?

Netflix have just released a documentary about Quincy Jones which I watched recently. I never realised that as well as making music, that he was involved with so many other things. It’s made me think that I’d love to be in an executive position to help make careers. But, I’m only 23, so there is still so much time ahead of me to decide!

MNEK’s debut studio album Language is out now.