the toughest song i wrote

The Toughest Song I Wrote: Miguel on Getting Vulnerable With ‘What’s Normal Anyway’

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Getty

Ahead of the 2016 Grammys, Vulture spoke with a handful of artists whose albums are nominated this year about the toughest song they wrote for them. Up next is Miguel. When it came to challenging himself on his third album, Wildheart, which earned the Los Angeles native two Grammy nominations this year (Best Urban Contemporary Album, and Best R&B Song for “Coffee”), Miguel didn’t grapple with the sonic palette of “What’s Normal Anyway,” a psych-lite cut touting a spindly electric guitar navigating through choppy, harmony-swollen waters. Instead, it was about digging deep. “I never feel like I belong,” he sings, grappling with the difficulties of misaligning with the expectations that can come from race, class, and intellect.

What was the toughest song to record on Wildheart?
“What’s Normal Anyway,” just because it’s one of the most introspective songs I’ve released. That’s a new zone for me. I can’t say that I’m completely comfortable, or was at the time, just putting myself out there. It’s weird because I do it every night onstage; I feel completely at home, but putting it into a song, making yourself vulnerable, was new territory. Not that it made me nervous at all, but it’s just that I never really spoke about it that clearly in my music. It was fun, but it was also a fun challenge. Just saying where I’ve been from, what I’ve experienced in the simplest terms. It’s the song that people connect to most on the album.

How exactly did you get into the mind-set to record it?
We had finished writing a couple other songs that day, and we were just kind of jamming towards the end of the night. I had already been in a good creative flow, and it was with Pop & Oak, Flip [Ronald “Flippa” Colson], and Steve Mostyn. We had done “Leaves” that day. I was already in a really good rhythm, creatively. It’s always really fun with those guys, because we’ve been working for a few years, so we’re really comfortable. They’re super flexible and knowledgeable, and have really strong instincts, and know how to follow and know when to jump in. That rapport really helped me. So when Steve started playing these chords for the song, the first thing that came out was to talk about black kids. I think the rest kind of wrote itself.

When it came to writing “What’s Normal Anyway,” what helped you ease up aside from the fact that you felt so comfortable with these musicians?
It’s interesting. My process changes with every project. It might be a subconscious intention, but when I wrote Kaleidoscope Dream, it was all hookahs and 40s. I was drinking 40s the entire time and smoking hookah in all the sessions. This time around, it was more greenery and green tea. [Laughs.]

Isn’t smoking hookah bad for your voice?
Yeah, it is. I don’t know how I made it through Kaleidoscope Dream. Ironically, on this tour, the first leg of Wildheart tour in the States, I damaged my voice from smoking hookah. Isn’t that crazy? I was smoking mad hookah all day.

Coming off of the critical success of Kaleidoscope Dream, what was weighing on your mind going into the recording of Wildheart?
I just wanted to write music that reflected where I was from and my experiences growing up in Los Angeles, things that I’ve seen and ways that I felt. And creating something that stood apart, which I don’t think is anything conscious, as long as you’re doing something that’s true to yourself. But always going through things that define you, making sure that it felt like Los Angeles, it felt like my experience growing up here. I just wanted things to translate on a live setting. So I wrote this album more for being on tour than how I did with writing any of my previous albums, which is really fun.

The live component of your shows really brings the music to life outside of the recorded setting. When you were going into Wildheart with that in mind, what sorts of obstacles did you face?
I don’t really look at them as obstacles. For me, I’m just like anyone else. I’m learning as I go. That means that, hopefully, if that’s what we’re doing as human beings, we’re evolving, too, right? I think if my music is any reflection of my life, that the music should evolve, too. In that way, I don’t really worry about comparing one project to the next. My next album is going to be completely different from Wildheart, just like Wildheart is completely different from Kaleidoscope Dream, which is different from All I Want Is You. It’s more the challenge of figuring out how to say something impactful in a way that is understandable, and for me, it’s simple. Simple and impactful is my favorite thing to do. What did Einstein say? If you can’t explain it to a child, you haven’t really got the grasp of it? That’s what I always keep in mind, wanting to make sure that everything is completely nice and makes sense.

Have you already thought about working on album No. 4?
This year I’m working on so much music, it’s not even funny. I think the point for me is to continue to put music out and keep fans abreast as to where my head is at. I’m sure a project will end up coming out of it, but I think what’s most important to me is that I’m consistently putting out content. I hate to say content, but consistently putting out music, you know? That’s what my fans want, and that’s what I’m going to give them.

The Toughest Song I Wrote: Miguel