Mikky Ekko enjoyed a jump-start on mainstream-pop exposure when he sang a duet with Rihanna on her video-driven 2012 single “Stay,” a song that Ekko cowrote with Lana Del Rey associate Justin Parker. Rihanna even performed the hit at the 2013 Grammys, where Ekko emerged from the shadows to join in. Then he practically returned to the shadows to complete his debut album.
“It was an incredible opportunity to collaborate,” Ekko says of Rihanna recording his song and sharing a Grammy moment. But the Nashville-based singer wasn’t in any rush to finish his major-label debut, despite industry advisers who urged him to jump on that interest and momentum. He finally released Time in January.
“I don’t give a shit about fame, but I do give a shit about my art and reaching people,” Ekko, 30, says from an LA tour stop. “I’m excitable, but I’m also really stubborn… It made things a little confusing for a while, and I had to question whether people were there to help me continue to grow as an artist or to make sure they don’t lose their jobs for [not] capitalizing on a particular moment.”
Ekko didn’t include “Stay” on his own album, though he’s likely to sing the song on Oct. 22 when he hits Brighton Music Hall. “That was such a massive song that I needed time for it to simmer down, because it’s not the kind of song that defines the album I made,” he says. “You want people to have a clear picture.”
For Ekko, that picture’s more like a kaleidoscope, given his slick, eclectic mix of pop, R&B and hip-hop. For Time, he enlisted coproducers from OneRepublic’s kindred singer Ryan Tedder to hip-hop maverick Clams Casino to TV on the Radio programmer David Sitek. The album’s polished hodgepodge spans the bubbly pop pulse of “Smile,” the slinky R&B throb of “U,” the slashing rock of “Riot” and the acoustic, string-sweetened buildup of the title track before Ekko drops closer to “Stay” terrain in hip-hop piano ballads “Mourning Doves” and “Comatose.”
The thread that ties it all together is his highly dramatic, melismatic voice, which suggests Jeff Buckley in more of an R&B context. “It never gets any Auto-Tune, and I’m very particular how it’s treated,” Ekko says. In addition to Buckley, the singer cites other rock influences like Radiohead, Nirvana, Björk and Animal Collective as well as R&B/soul greats Stevie Wonder and Brian McKnight. Born John Stephen Sudduth in Louisiana, Mikky Ekko (a name he adopted for its phonetic simplicity) also grew up singing in church, since his father was a preacher. “In a lot of my songs,” he says, “there’s a reverence and a desire for connection.”
There’s also an underlying darkness to both his music and his lyrics about romantic struggle. “I’m desperate to find places I’ve never been,” he says, “whether that means finding places sonically or aesthetically that other people have created—and learning about those—or pushing myself to the brink of an emotional state to get to that place.”
One thing he hasn’t discovered: How Rihanna actually heard his big song. “I was in London working on a production and got a phone call saying, ‘Hey, Rihanna wants “Stay” for her album,’ and I was so surprised that I hung up and just went back to sleep because I thought it was a joke at first,” he says. “It was a pretty intense time in general, knowing that magic can happen.”
And if magic now happens on a smaller scale, that’s OK with Ekko. “What’s most exciting to me now is a lot of the people who are coming to the shows are really people who support the album and where I’m headed as an artist,” says the lanky, curly-coiffed singer, who’s fronting a live band that features electric guitar, a keyboard and synthesizer and electro-acoustic drums. “I stuck to my guns.”