“I started off as a theatre kid with a love for art and performance,” says creative polymath Mykki Blanco. “I never expected to be a musician, or be in the limelight with my music.”
It must be a surprise for Mykki then that they have evolved into a musical artist known for pushing the envelope of queer experimentalism. The past decade has seen numerous solo releases – and collaborations with Kanye West, Charli XCX, Blood Orange and more – that have flirted with mainstream success from the fringes. Their tracks bring together disparate traces of punk, hip-hop and riot grrrl, driven by a magpie-like approach to sound with a casual disregard for genre conventions.
With producer Drew Lustman, better known as Falty DL, Mykki’s recent discography includes 2022’s acclaimed Stay Close to Music and 2021’s Broken Hearts and Beauty Sleep albums and has now evolved into a new EP, Postcards from Italia. Described as their ‘Italian cowboy era’, the six tracks veer between acid house and classic rock.
“There are just some creatives who understand each other,” says Mykki. “Drew pushes me to try ideas that I would never do on my own, to go further in the studio than anyone else.”
Uniting creative lives
Identifying as non-binary with a huge array of influences propelling them, it was back in 2012 when Mykki almost accidentally fell into music. Enjoying other creative lives in performance art and poetry, they were discovered by a manager attracted by the way they ricocheted between these different worlds.
“My first manager came to a few performances and asked for a meeting,” Mykki recalls. “He told me he felt like I was making amazing music and I didn’t really know it – [that] started the whole process.”
The eponymous Mykki album landed a few years later in 2016, winning a brace of glowing reviews including Pitchfork describing the release as “high-concept hip-hop, a swerve from the brusque heterosexualization of nearly all mainstream rap”. The release established them as an uncompromising music maker, yet it was through relentlessly touring that helped Mykki to survive.
“I’ve never been with a major label so I’ve always had to hit the road to stay afloat,” says Mykki. “Now touring has changed so much; it’s so costly. But back then it was one the main reasons my career grew, perhaps at the expense of my own creativity.”
Mykki describes how the sudden halt to live music caused by COVID-19 led to a “sobering moment” where they were forced to invest more energy into their songwriting. Working with French producer Woodkid made them consider live instrumentation, while a stint with Kanye West in 2018 opened them up to the importance of editing.
“I would spend five hours in the studio making music, perhaps having a drink and smoking weed, then I’d see the song as done,” says Mykki.
“I wouldn’t go back to it but, with Kanye, I realised the importance of giving your music time to ferment; of making multiple versions and collaborating. It was pivotal for me.”
Connecting with Falty DL
Following the release of their debut album, Mykki spent time trying to decipher what the next creative statement should sound like. It was in the year after that they met Drew via a chance email.
“We met because I decided to email a tune to Mykki back in 2017. The stars must have aligned because it was the jumping-off point to well over 30 songs written together at this point” — Drew aka Falty DL
“It’s hard to describe the most important collaborative relationship I’ve ever had,” says Drew on their partnership. “It’s been highly transformative both professionally and personally.
“We met because I decided to email a tune to Mykki in 2017. The stars must have aligned because it was the jumping-off point to over 30 songs [we’ve] now written together. I sometimes go a few months without talking to Mykki and I just really miss them. Our friendship scratches a certain itch.”
Drew’s email arrived when Mykki was striving to develop their sound, to blend hip-hop and vocal rhymes with the ethereal guitars of bands like My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins.
“I was working my way through all these messages and came across this email,” remembers Mykki. “It featured one of Drew’s instrumentals and sounded exactly like what I was trying to find but just couldn’t articulate on my own.”
The pair agreed to join forces with the ambition to create original samples as their music’s basis. Mykki began pursuing this approach when making their debut album but had never sat in on the sessions. This time, players and vocalists were invited to their studio, and then briefed by Mykki.
“I’d say, take 10 seconds of Fly like an Eagle by the Steve Miller Band, 15 seconds of a Missy Elliott outro I love, 12 seconds of a transition from a Crosby Stills Nash and Young album,” says Mykki. “Don’t try to produce a carbon copy but this is the energy I’m trying to create,” he’d tell the musicians.
Once a session was completed, Drew and Mykki would move beyond their roles as musical directors to pore over the recordings as editors. They would carefully listen to the performances, and then select their favourite moments.
“We found the different sections we loved that sounded completely different from any kind of original reference,” says Mykki. “We’d pick them, then use these for our own compositions. It would create a totally new synergy.”
The collaborative relationship between Drew and Mykki has taken on myriad forms. Often, songs begin with Drew sharing instrumental ideas, then Mykki would respond before they’d head to the studio.
“Drew has a way of EQing my voice. It’s not layered in effects, but there is some filtering on my vocals that I love. I call it giving it the Britney Spears treatment” — Mykki
“When we’d meet, we’d completely collapse the instrumental,” says Mykki. “I’d write to a certain BPM and we’d always like to develop the track to avoid it sounding stale. So we’d strip it back, then start to build the lyrics and melodies.”
On other occasions, the pair will exchange roles with Mykki sending Drew voice notes. These will often be accompanied by a YouTube link or some musical references.
“I’ll take the audio and play around with it over an original composition inspired by the references,” states Drew. “Or other times, we will be chilling in my studio and I’ll start to explore things I’m really curious about.”
Mykki’s approach to crafting lyrics comes through what they describe as a “blah blah blah method”. Singing this refrain over the top of an instrumental will reveal inflections, tones, cadences and melodic hooks. Once established, Mykki will set about crafting lyrics to fit.
“For a song, like Tequila Casino Royale, there’s no way I would have written a cadence like that on my own,” they say. “Also, Drew has a way of EQing my voice too. It’s not layered in effects, but there is some filtering that I love. I call it the Britney Spears treatment and it makes me feel much more comfortable in the studio.”
A major move for Mykki has been in freeing their voice from years of rapping. Surprisingly, they credit artists Tom Petty and Lou Reed as inspiring them to progress.
“I feel like more of a songwriter than a rapper,” says Mykki. “Although I have a lot of rap songs I love, I wanted to take on a new form. I’m having so much more fun not feeling boxed in.”
Drew employs a range of music gear in the studio to provide Mykki with a platform to stretch themselves into bold musical shapes.
“I use a Gibson GK55 guitar and Fender Jazz Bass,” says Drew of his preferences. “Most things are in the box; the computer reigns supreme. But we get freaky with guitars and piano. The Neumann mic is probably the most important piece of equipment for the Mykki material.”
There are also some surprising pieces in Drew’s studio. Based in Brooklyn, Mykki dubs it ‘Little Oslo’ as it “has the aesthetic of a Finnish sauna” with a swelling arsenal of gear.
“Children’s instruments, glockenspiels and small harps are all there,” says Drew. “Cheap under-$50 things I research online when stoned at night and, when they arrive, I forget I even ordered them!”
Unsurprisingly, Drew’s open-minded when it comes to finding gear and equipment. He sees any addition to his setup as a way to mine fresh inspiration.
“A new instrument can shake the cobwebs so I am always searching for exciting things to make noise,” he states. “I’m pondering pulling the trigger on a Yamaha DX7 and a drum kit right now. The kit will finally be the one-stop shop I need to create what’s in my head.”
With the Postcards from Italia EP out, Mykki is heading to Switzerland to study and contemplate new music – although how this may sound is to be confirmed.
“I’m going to really think about where I want to go next,” says Mykki. “I’m interested in field recordings of natural sounds. I’m so curious about how to take these tropes of new age music and turn this into upbeat dance music.”
With ideas bubbling, Mykki seems content to keep their music fluid. Rather than be informed by what is happening in the world around them, much of the music comes from within.
“My creative process explores the dimension of my interior world,” they say. “So I can be anywhere to make it … as long as I can get coffee.”
Visit mykkiblan.co for more information.
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