One night last November, Mikky Ekko was sitting on the riverbank near the London home of one of his songwriting collaborators, Fraser T. Smith. The two were drinking tequila and playing around with some chords when the lyrics to a special song began pouring out: "Time," which is now the title track to Ekko's upcoming debut album. "There's an honesty and a simplicity to it that I'm really proud of," Ekko says of the ballad, which features just acoustic guitar, strings, and Ekko's soaring vocal. "I was trying to find a way to say, 'No matter what happens I'll be there for you, even if you only want me for tonight.'"
The song is especially significant to Ekko, coming as it does after the multi-platinum success of "Stay," a stark piano ballad he had co-written during a particularly vulnerable time in his life. "'Stay' is beautiful, but I didn't know what was happening when I wrote it," he says. "It happened through me. I was just a vessel for it. But 'Time' I manifested into being." Of course "Stay" was recorded by Rihanna (featuring and co-produced by Ekko) and went on to become one of the biggest hits of 2013. It sold over ten million tracks worldwide, peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Pop Songs chart, and earned Ekko a Grammy Award nomination for Best Pop Duo/Collaboration. He also delivered a memorable live performance of the song with Rihanna at the 2013 Grammy Awards.
"'Stay' really informed the way I view myself as an artist and what I was capable of doing," Ekko says. "It made me go back to the drawing board with the desire to write the best songs I possibly could. I feel like my songwriting, my style, and my perspective are more focused than they've ever been." This is clearly evident on Time - a diverse collection of top-shelf R&B-influenced alternative-pop, with Ekko's emotionally resonant voice taking center stage. The music retains the independent spirit that drives his early songs "Pull Me Down," "Kids," and "Disappear," without extinguishing Ekko's desire to write songs that are truly accessible. "I don't really consider myself of the pop world," he says. "I've worked really hard to make sure the music doesn't sound like anyone else's. But having a pop sensibility, for lack of a better word, allows me to create something that's relatable to people, yet still maintain what's precious to me."
The songs on Time include Ekko's collaborations with Ryan Tedder, Benny Blanco, Jeff Bhasker, Stargate, Boots Ottestad, and Dennis Herring, as well as Ekko's previous collaborators Clams Casino, Dave Sitek, Elof Loelv, Nick Ruth, and "my Brits" Parker, Eliot, and Smith. "Those three guys are great at finding chords that tug at me as an artist," Ekko says. "As soon as I start feeling that yearning and heaving, that's when I know I can get something out. They are basically like shrinks. I go in and talk about my problems. They make sure the melody is good. We try really hard to find creative ways to push ourselves past what most people consider to be the boundaries of modern songwriting."
First single "Smile" captures the moment "when you're a teenager and you lose somebody for the first time and you don't know what to do about it," Ekko says. "Usually I'm just trying to write songs to comfort myself." Ekko wrote "Comatose" around the period he found out that Rihanna wanted to record "Stay." "I was hoping to give her another song instead and Justin and I came up with this," he says. "It's about trying to find your way back to a moment. Where 'Stay' was very much in the moment, 'Comatose' is about chasing the reflection, chasing the memory, being in the dream of the coma and trying to find your way back to the light." On the other end of the spectrum is "Watch Me Rise," which Ekko wrote with Stargate and Benny Blanco. "I just wanted to let people know, 'I'm going to do whatever the fuck I want and I don't care what you think,'" he says. "It's a bold song. I don't usually like songs that bold, because there's a braggadocio about them, which is not my thing. But when I work with those guys, I go for it. I feel like the song is a cool representation of me beginning to find my footing in a world where I don't necessarily feel like I belong. But I need to go there to make sure I know. It's kind of like, 'Know your enemy,' right?"
Now the release of Time is finally on the horizon. "The album is pretty eclectic sonically, but lyrically there are moments of love and angst and things that many people deal with on a daily basis," he says. "I'm just trying to be honest about all of that stuff. I think I've become more honest because after 'Stay,' I realized how important it is. Just be genuine. People just want to feel something real."