Feature taken from the February Issue of Dazed & Confused:
It takes a big talent to take on the enveloping beats and sonic worlds of Clams Casino, but Nashville-based songwriter Mikky Ekko is stepping up to the bar set by A$AP Rocky and Lil B with poise and soul. Ekko, who guests on Rihanna’s current single, “Stay”, has for the past eight months been quietly labouring with the producer in labs from London to LA on his forthcoming debut album.
Our first glimpse of their work was Ekko’s recent “Pull Me Down”, a track as layered and complex as Clams Casino’s Instrumentals mixtapes but finessed so that Ekko’s tender croon stands flush with the radiant aural terrain. This is a uniquely hands-on collaboration, and marks the first time, Clams Casino says, that he has “really got digging deep into starting something new with somebody, from the beginning.” Early one winter morning, the pair took a break from recording in Paul Epworth’s west-London studio to give us the lowdown on their creative partnership, their favourite 90s MOR, and how together they’re “painting” with a brand new palette.
Mikky Ekko: Where was that place we first went for lunch in New York?
Clams Casino: Quality Meats. But I had fish, actually. (laughs)
ME: There were these ‘introductory people’ there, which was kind of a buzzkill. I remember thinking, ‘I just wanna hang out with him in the studio alone.’
CC: And then a month or so later we met up in LA and got a couple of days in the studio, alone and working.
ME: That’s where I like to live in my free time. I wanted to see if we could be buddies first, ‘cause when I’m friends with someone whose work I respect, the creative synergy is simpler. I’d heard ‘I’m God’ and some of your mixtapes, and they felt really brave. When I heard the sound I was like, ‘I’d really love to experiment with these kinds of textures.’
CC: (laughs) But I had no intention of going to the studio to write that day.
ME: We were just going to hang out and play each other stuff that we listened to. I’d just got back from London and I was vibing pretty hard on Niki & the Dove, and their tune ‘The Fox’ in particular. UHHH!!! It’s all over the place, it’s crazy.
CC: Yeah, I hadn’t heard it before.
ME: I think I played some Marnie Stern too. I love the way that she paints. There’s a lot of power in her, so when she begins to sing she makes the space her voice too. There’s still an access point, but it’s always pushing the boundary of falling apart, and it could go terribly wrong at any moment. That’s when I feel most enlightened by a piece of work.
CC: It was really good to bounce ideas off each other. You’ve helped me develop my music in a different way. I’ve never really worked with anybody on anything while making it. The A$AP Rocky stuff that’s been released was done over email. You know, I sent him an instrumental, and then he sent it right back: ‘done’. And I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ I really liked it. Since then I’ve worked in the studio with him on his new album, but the stuff we’re doing sounds different to what I give to Rocky. You have a different process for different people.
ME: ‘Pull Me Down’ was the first time I’d ever really worked with anybody on that level. I really wanted to see where my vocal would land in your space.
CC: You could say I’m bringing your voice in, like how my instrumental tapes are made with samples of vocals. A lot of your background vocals are really a part of the music, you know? But I try not to get too carried away! I would usually pile everything on and butter it up, but I try to leave enough room so everything is built around your voice. That’s what I like to hear most. It feels a bit more interactive, rather than just a pop vocalist singing on...
ME: I don’t want to be a pop star! I don’t really want ‘pop’ tied to my name, but it inevitably will be because I’m trying to write songs that are accessible. Initially I had a lot of fear when I found out Rihanna wanted ‘Stay’ for her album. I was trying to be precious about it at first, but then I thought, ‘There’s a girl who’s been through some things that’s connecting with it.’ It was intense that she wanted that.
CC: I definitely respect pop music. I like to do remixes and any different kind of thing I can. It feels like practice for me, and I like to do anything just to make my music better. But I’m not gonna put something out that I don’t like. I’ve done a lot of remixes, and even production, and I’ll be done with it and be like, ‘Well, that sucks! I’m not putting it out.’ Most of the Tri Angle EP (Rainforest) was just rap beats that were never used. I sent ‘Natural’ and ‘Gorilla’ to Soulja Boy, and I made ‘Treetop’ for Main Attrakionz. They didn’t use them! It’s gotta be tough for a rapper, ’cos a lot of my instrumentals are not just regular easy-to-rap-on beats.
ME: I think I can be a part of bringing this to life for everyone, not just people who want to dig and find the underground stuff. I want to make places that people have never heard. Like, I’ve eaten shit, I’ve lived in garages full of roaches and basements under someone’s house for $100 a month in Nashville. Really stupid situations, that if I was better with money, then I probably...
CC: (laughs) ...could have avoided?
ME: Yeah! But ultimately it informed my process I think. I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, but I grew up in Mississippi. I’m a redneck at heart, really. The first record I ever bought was ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by Coolio. I wasn’t really allowed to listen to it, so I went to buy it in secret.
CC: I got into rap when I was 12, when a friend brought Busta Rhymes’s When Disaster Strikes... over to my house. But when I was real little I was listening to a lot of alternative stuff, like Green Day and Bush.
ME: Bush was a big one. And The Cranberries!
CC: What did they do?
ME: (sings) ‘Zombay-ay-ay’
CC: Oh, I know that. I can see the influence now on your voice! I’ve heard a lil’ bit of that!
ME: Women who sing powerfully always stood out to me more than guys that sung aggressively. Santigold and Lykke Li do it really well, and obviously Björk.
CC: I sample Björk a lot, but I don’t really listen to her music. I remember telling you once that there’s just certain parts of her songs that I feel I can really do something with.
ME: I frequently hear you say, ‘I just love her voice.’
CC: Yeah. One of these real old beats I made was of this Björk track where she just really screams and stuff, and I was like, ‘Fuck, I have to use it.’
ME: The first time I heard her sing ‘Declare Independence’, when it’s like, (screams) ‘DECLAARE INDEPEEENDEENNCE YEEEEAAHHHH!’ – I listened to it like, 100 times that night. I fell asleep with it on repeat, drunk on gin.
CC: I think escapism in music is probably how me and you connect. Every time you describe my music, you’re describing somewhere – not a song, but a world. I feel the same way too, and that’s why I will put so many little detailed things into building an atmosphere in a song, to actually make it feel like somewhere you can go and escape to.
ME: I’d love to soundtrack Solaris.
CC: What’s that?
ME: It’s a Russian film about a space mission to Solaris, and his dead wife shows up in the ship.
CC: Oh... (laughs)
ME: She starts appearing in his room at night. Eventually she becomes real, so then he has to kill her, but she comes back the next night. It’s really intense! It sort of stays in that state of, ‘What is real? What is the dream? Where do we start and stop?’ That’s a world I understand.
Photography Jack Symes