Hubert Burda Media

Brian McKnight on touring with the Hitman

The man with the smooth-as-silk vocals talks about his love for music and performing with David Foster.

I’ve got Brian McKnight on the phone, but it turns out there’s not much point asking him about his setlist for the upcoming Hitman David Foster & Friends Asia tour, in which he’ll take the stage on April 2 in Singapore. He’s just confessed it’s still up in the air. “I have no idea. The way David works, because we work together so much, is that once we get there, he’ll let me know what we’re going to do. I’ll probably do ‘Back at One’ and a few of my songs and some of his,” he explains in that charismatic tone of his. Even a continent away, you can hear the smile in his voice.

It all just goes to show how seasoned a performer McKnight is. “I’ve been singing in front of people since I was about six-years-old,” he reminds me. Indeed, in an industry known for its ever-revolving door, the 47-year-old from Buffalo, New York, has sold 30 million records since the early 1990s. In the last year alone, he has released Better, the R&B-fuelled album with live instrumentation that seemed to reflect how happy and in love he is, as well as An Evening with Brian McKnight, a live recording of greatest hits and new tracks including the piano-laden ballad “Everything”. He’s now following that up with a new album, Genesis, that should be released this autumn.

You’ve performed with David Foster quite a few times. Why do you keep saying yes to joining his Hitman David Foster & Friends tour?

He’s David Foster! (Laughs) How are you going to say no? The only times I’ve ever done it was when I wasn’t available. And we’ve been really good friends for probably 20 years. So when he calls, if I’m available, I’ll help out as much as I can.

What’s it like performing and touring together?

It’s really great, at least for me. David was one of my heroes. The fact that I can call him whenever to talk to him is pretty wild. And when we get together to perform, it always feels spontaneous. He’s so talented and is such a great showman, I get to learn so much. And then afterwards when we hang out, it’s really cool. He’s been doing it for so long — and has been so good at it for so long — that it all sort of rubs off on you.

Has there ever been any hijinks or mishaps onstage?

What’s interesting is that there’s usually a teleprompter that’s feeding me the words. But I find it difficult to read and perform at the same time. So there has been a couple of times when I have forgotten to look at the monitor and forgotten the words. He and I will share a glance, and he’ll be like: What are you doing, can you just keep on going like we didn’t mess up? You know the show must go on and we’ll share a chuckle. As he always says [later]: If you don’t know the words, why don’t you look at the prompter?

Any backstage rituals?

No, not really. I just kind of warm up and make sure I’m ready to go. We usually do that at sound check. I always felt like if I had something I needed to do before I sang, what happens on the days that I can’t? Does that mean that I don’t sing?

You’ve collaborated across all genres, with Diddy, Rascal Flatts, Kenny G, Justin Timberlake etc. Music-wise, have you ever felt out of your comfort zone?

When I grew up, there really wasn’t this compartmentalisation of music. Everybody played everything. So I’ve always felt, at least for myself, that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed to a category. So I always wanted to learn; to play something new that people wouldn’t necessarily think I would. It served me well because you can’t really pinpoint who Brian McKnight is. I’ve had pop hits, I’ve had country hits, jazz and R&B hits. That’s the way I’ve always liked it. You never know where I might show up. 

You also play something like nine instruments. How did you pick them all up?

I had a lot of time on my hands as a teenager, as well as access to all these musical instruments. There was no Nintendo or PlayStation or Internet when I was in high school, so I learned to play instruments. I’m really glad there wasn’t any of those things so I could focus. 

Which instrument do you prefer to compose with?

Usually the guitar, but I don’t have to play to compose. I can do it all in my head. 

I’ve heard of people seeing music as waves of colours. Do you experience music in this kind of visceral way as well?

Sometimes. Music means so much to me on so many different levels. Sometimes it’s mathematics for me. Sometimes it’s a road map of how to get from here to there. I think it’s one of the only entertainment mediums that is ever present in everyone’s lives and we need it. It’s a comfort to know it’s always there. 

This year’s the 25th anniversary of your first album, the self-titled Brian McKnight. How do you feel about this milestone?

Old! (laughs) It feels just like yesterday that I was working on my first album. It’s one of the strange things that you can’t really characterise, but I’m glad I’m still here, still working and still viable in the business after 25 years.

Brian McKnight performs alongside David Foster in Hitman David Foster & Friends on April 2, 2017 as part of the Singapore International Jazz Festival;