On a mild August evening in London, I make a Skype call to Los Angeles. A video call, or any call for that matter, can be an awkward encounter for someone you have never exchanged words with. However, as the connection is established, and the video activated, R&B up and comer Marco McKinnis appears on the screen reclined back on a couch, completely at ease. Within thirty seconds we develop a relaxed rapport that lasts the length of our conversation. He has an air of affability, which unsurprisingly is reflected in his music, smooth and velvety in the vocals, calm in the instrumentation. It carries a maturity and sophistication normally associated with a seasoned R&B artist, not a twenty one year old who is yet to release a full length album.
It becomes quickly apparent as we talk that Marco is ahead of his years, something he attributes to the realization that sacrifices were necessary in pursuit of his purpose. “I had to grow up pretty quick…. it needed to happen for my purpose. I had to skip certain things that kids get to do in order to be where I’m at now.” Armed with an assuredness and confidence in his demeanour, Marco accumulated invaluable experience in a short space of time. It was his proactive approach that led him to taking control of his business matters from an early age, the knowledge he gained from these life lessons serves him to this day. “I was into coordinating business before I caught any eyes, because I was trying to make it work. So I was doing emails and all those types of things. For a moment, I kind of lost that as I started working with more people. When an artist gets to a point where they feel they don’t have to do anything, it can get kind of sketchy because you just want to be up on what’s going on. As of late, I’ve just been on everything. Whether it’s the music, videos, connecting with brands, I’ve been involved in all those things.”
Growing up in Virginia, Marco, in his words, had a “solid upbringing”. His father served in the military and his mother looked after him and his siblings at home. “I had a good household… things were going on outside, but it didn’t affect the family too much. We were careful how we manoeuvred. People be crazy, but it didn’t affect the family directly. Anyone could be in the wrong place at the wrong time but we were always protected (by God).”
Being raised a Christian, Marco has always been a spiritual being. Fittingly his first encounters with music were from the Gospel genre. “My family were heavily into church and Gospel music, so I came up listening to a lot of that. I had to find other music through my older sister. I would also discover music from movie soundtracks, that’s actually how I got into Anthony Hamilton. One of his songs was in a movie, and I thought his voice sounded crazy. My dad played some old school R&B, but it was really my sister who got me into modern music. Once she opened that door, I ventured out.”
Creativity coursing through his veins, Marco was not limited to just venturing out with his singing, he tried his hand at dancing, poetry and even rapping.“I started doing YouTube covers of me singing, but I actually felt a little bit shy, so I said to myself, ‘let me try this Rap thing’”. Cognizant of his bountiful ability, his shyness didn’t last long, Marco went from singing down the phone to girls on request, to building a Tumblr following that motivated him to finally post ‘love?’ onto SoundCloud in 2015. It’s a song that is mysterious in the background nature of his vocals, but it shows the untapped talent he possesses. Soon after a buzz began to circulate, and he started releasing more music to appease his growing fanbase, eventually catching the eyes of the industry. It led to him releasing his debut EP, ‘Underground’, followed by his most recent project, ‘E’Merse’, both with Universal’s Republic Records.
“Before I released ‘Underground’, I was performing demos of the songs from the EP in New York, before I had even made the project. It really was about me being underground, and I felt it helped me learn a lot about myself, music, the industry and working with other people. It was a nice project to get my feet wet with, and see how to put out a body of work. After I finished ‘Underground’, I started working on ‘E’Merse’, but at this point I was much more mature musically, mentally, spiritually and within my writing. I found love as well which added to the story.”
Silence… silence could be the greatest conversation.
It is different to the love seemingly expressed on ‘Underground’. His first EP is tinged with sadness and lament, a melancholy arising from his distorted view given what he had experienced previously. Although it features tracks like ‘CPR’, about love being “unmeted, like a perfect breath of fresh air”, it also consisted of cathartic songs such as ‘Another Love’, and the poignant ‘Silence’, a song he vividly recollects creating. “I was in the studio and I had writer’s block. We were working on a couple of songs, but nothing was coming together. We stopped working, and it was silent in the room. One of the producers, was playing a couple of chords, and I looked over and just started freestyling, “Silence… silence could be the greatest conversation”. I was sick that day, and you could hear it in my voice, but I had to record it, as I was flowing.”
Falling in, what he views as, true love, has definitely impacted the mood of ‘E’Merse’. The upbeat, ‘Give It Up’, which he performed on ‘COLORS’ in Berlin, has a bounce equated to the spring in his step from his new found feels. The McLenney/Samtrax produced ‘Forever’ could be a euphemism for lust, along with ‘Learn’, although ‘On The Market’ and ‘Energy’ do revisit the elements of pain experienced on ‘Underground’. Each track is excellent, none more so than the soulful, sunny ‘Deep’, which he unsurprisingly decided to release a visual for.
The aesthetic of the music video is polished, and the styling is a salient reminder of Marco’s wider artistic potential, his silent acting conveying the romance of the song. When I ask him if he expected ‘Deep’ to be the stand out on ‘E’Merse’, his response shows his intent in execution. “I didn’t make it to be, but I had the intention of it being one of those records that stands out. I think that was the first or second record I made where I said ‘this is going to be on the project’. I was very involved with the production and arrangement, I actually made the drum pattern with my mouth. I recorded it and got the producer to remake it and add his touch. In terms of creating it, it’s like my baby…. I’m very vocal about things I have in my music. I’m very particular and very specific. I like hearing things in certain ways, so I’m very in the mix with the production.”
Although he knows exactly what he wants, Marco welcomes working with others to help him grow. His quality of relinquishing absolute control in the collaborative process, is what has allowed him to evolve as an artist and enhance his own learning. He tells me that it’s his open minded approach that enables him to develop chemistry with collaborators. “When we get in the room, off top, I can tell from the energy if I can mend with that person well. I need to hear what your music is like, I don’t want to waste your time, I don’t want you to waste mine. When I hear things beforehand, I can be like, “ok, this could work”. However the creative process plays out, that’s what lets me know the chemistry. I’m open to ideas, but I also know how I want it to be.”
It’s difficult to imagine someone not being able to build a chemistry with Marco given his geniality. Having noticed Snoh Aalegra’s support for him on Instagram, I ask about their friendship. “Yeah we’re cool! I’ve got a relationship with a lot of established artists, I’ve been cool with a lot of established people since I was fifteen and sixteen. Being on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr, I’ve been able to connect with people of a certain calibre even though my star is not as high as theirs. But they see the quality in me.”
Once people hear me, they’ll flood into the music I’ve already dropped
Features on tracks with innovative artists such as DJDS and Rex Orange County attest to his statements above. Marco’s abundant quality is evident however it is frustratingly not reflected in his sales numbers. It is music deserving of a higher recognition, but in this moment in time, it doesn’t seem that the numbers of streams or views bother him. “I understand those plays and statistics will come. Once people hear me, they’ll flood into the music I’ve already dropped, it’s just a thing of exposure. Every time I’m exposed to a certain group of people they’re like, ‘what the heck?’… they’re confused, so I’ve understood it’s just a matter of exposure. I know it will all play out the way it needs to so I don’t really be tripping over it.” It’s almost a knowing response to what will inevitably unfold for him.
When I question how he developed such high standards for himself he responds with characteristic gratitude; “I just think… I don’t know man! I’m just like ‘dang’. I’m very thankful for it, I just want the best for me. I want everything to be how I like it. If it’s not how I like it, I’m not going to want to listen to it. If I don’t fully connect to it, I’ll probably forget about it. I’m very sensitive about what’s going on in the music, how it’s being heard, visually translated, especially the newer stuff. I’m very, very sensitive about how things are being executed, because before, I wasn’t as expressive as I knew I could be, only because of outside opinions. But you can be as expressive as you want to be…”
It can only be a good thing that a positive light like Marco wants to be more expressive. He knows that the greatest gain from his music, won’t be the financial reward, but reaching people through his message. “Honestly bro, when I see people are catching on to what I’m truly about, I’ll feel like I’ve made it. When I have a certain platform, and say something that a lot of people will be picking up on, then I think that’s going to be the time when it’s like, ‘ok, I’m here’. When what I say can affect lives… thousands of lives, that’s when the responsibility is going to be at play …”
It is a meaningful response and leads me to close our conversation by asking what Marco really wants people to get out of his music. “The presence of God. I want to bring his spirit, because he uses me as a vessel. All of this is directly from God. I want them to feel honesty, true love, respect, authenticity. All those things. But most importantly, the presence of God.”