INTERVIEW: Brian McKnight, king of love songs, is now truly in love

Brian McKnight, R&B legend, will perform with a full band at Mable House Amphitheatre July 17, 2022. PUBLICITY PHOTO

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Brian McKnight, R&B legend, will perform with a full band at Mable House Amphitheatre July 17, 2022. PUBLICITY PHOTO

‘I was an imposter,’ he said of writing loves songs back in the 1990s.

For nearly three decades, Brian McKnight has been serenading swooning women with lush ballads and an impeccable falsetto.

But he was well into his 40s before he said he truly fell in love for the first time. In 2017, he married Leilani Mendoza, a pediatric neurophysiologist he raves about frequently on social media and on concert stages.

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Brian McKnight sings at AARP's 16th Annual Movies for Grownups Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.(Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision/AP)

Credit: Vince Bucci/Invision/AP

Brian McKnight sings at AARP's 16th Annual Movies for Grownups Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.(Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision/AP)

Credit: Vince Bucci/Invision/AP

Combined ShapeCaption
Brian McKnight sings at AARP's 16th Annual Movies for Grownups Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.(Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision/AP)

Credit: Vince Bucci/Invision/AP

Credit: Vince Bucci/Invision/AP

“As a songwriter, I was an imposter” in the 1990s, said McKnight, who spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in advance of his concert appearance at Mable House Amphitheatre in Mableton July 16. (Tickets are available from $49 to $80 at Ticketmaster.)

McKnight, now 53, said he was a “product of every piece of music I had ever heard. I learned to write music based on other music. I watched a lot of movies and listened to everything. I was able to put together a good rhyme and good chords. When I listen to those songs, they aren’t very deep.”

Not to say he doesn’t love his big R&B hits like “Anytime” or “One Last Cry.” He happily sings them at every concert.

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Brian McKnight speaks during an interview with the Associated Press during Essence Fest in New Orleans, Thursday, July 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Credit: AP

Brian McKnight speaks during an interview with the Associated Press during Essence Fest in New Orleans, Thursday, July 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Credit: AP

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Brian McKnight speaks during an interview with the Associated Press during Essence Fest in New Orleans, Thursday, July 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

But he said the music he has written since he met his wife explores love in a more meaningful way. (He was previously married to his college sweetheart for 13 years.) “The new music talks about love being forever,” he said. “I couldn’t have done that earlier in my career. I had no idea what that felt like.”

His motives today for writing music are different from what they were when he was building his career. He said after writing and recording a series of R&B hits in the early 1990s such as “The Way Love Goes” and his Vanessa Williams duet “Love Is,” he felt the pressure to chase more radio hits.

“There’s a difference between writing something for monetary gain and writing from the heart,” he said. “Once you have one hit, all you want is more hits. That’s how I did things the first 10 years.”

Then again, he knows getting another big radio hit at his age (53) is not likely, noting that age discrimination remains alive and well when it comes to new music.

“If you try to do the music the kids are doing now, they’ll call you out on it,” he said. “They’ll tell you you’re too old, you’re a has-been.”

So McKnight’s most recent single from 2021, the ballad “Faithfully,” has some modern elements but remains very much in McKnight’s wheelhouse. “It’s as close as I could go without crossing that line production wise,” he said. “It kind of sounds today but it’s still my melodies.”

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FILE - This June 5, 2015 file photo shows singer Brian McKnight performing at the Wal-Mart shareholder meeting in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

Credit: AP

FILE - This June 5, 2015 file photo shows singer Brian McKnight performing at the Wal-Mart shareholder meeting in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

Credit: AP

Combined ShapeCaption
FILE - This June 5, 2015 file photo shows singer Brian McKnight performing at the Wal-Mart shareholder meeting in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The pandemic did shift his viewpoint on touring, which involves some solo work at places like City Winery, where he can take requests, and a full-band affair like what he’s doing at Mable House. “I realize I don’t have to work as much,” he said. “We used to do 150 shows a year. Now after 18 months off, I think we can be more selective. My wife and I want to do more things we want to do as opposed to things we have to do.”

Leilani does accompany McKnight to all his concerts. “We’re together every second of the day,” he said. “It’s taken pressure off my life and my career.”

Back during his peak hit-making days in the 1990s, he generated one song that has become his signature tune: 1999′s “Back to One.” It spent a whopping eight weeks ironically peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, kept out of the top spot by “Smooth,” another future classic by Santana featuring Rob Thomas.

“The song actually did go No. 1 in radio airplay,” McKnight noted, but his label Motown at the time chose not to release a single because it wanted to drive CD sales back when that was a big deal. Since the Hot 100 was a combination of radio airplay and single sales at the time, this kept his song from hitting that magical top spot.

He was aware at the time that occasionally, a song could be recorded by two different artists and both can chart in different places. A key example from earlier that decade: “I Swear,” a No. 1 country ballad in 1993 for John Michael Montgomery that also went No. 1 on the pop chart in 1994 for the R&B group All-For-One. McKnight also cited the Diane Warren ballad “How Do I Live,’ which went No. 2 on the pop chart in 1997 for LeAnn Rimes and No. 2 on the country chart for Trisha Yearwood.

“I wanted to be like Diane Warren!” McKnight said. Warren is one of the most successful songwriters in pop history with nine No. 1 pop hits and 32 top 10 songs.

So after “Back at One” became a huge pop and R&B hit, an executive at McKnight’s former label Mercury suggested up-and-coming north Georgia country singer Mark Wills record it. Wills’ version ended up going to No. 2 on the country chart in March, 2000, behind Tim McGraw’s “My Best Friend.”

“I wasn’t a huge country aficionado,” McKnight said. “But I thought his version was awesome. Mark is super talented.”

McKnight doesn’t mind reality competition shows. In 2004, he competed on “Celebrity Apprentice.” Last year, he showed up on Fox’s “The Masked Dancer” dressed up in a cricket outfit. This was really outside his comfort zone.

“I do ballads,” he said. “I don’t dance around.”

He said he avoided “The Masked Singer,” thinking his voice would be too distinctive. Then he saw Toni Braxton perform on “The Masked Singer” and trick the judges despite a comparably unique voice.

He also thought the clues on “The Masked Dancer” gave out about him were too easy. Judge Paula Abdul figured out who he was, based on a “knight” reference and the literal phrase “Back at One” in the script.

“They had one’s flying all around the stage,” McKnight said. “Really?”


CONCERT PREVIEW

Brian McKnight

8 p.m. July 16. $49-$80, Mable House Amphitheatre, 5239 Floyd Road SW, Mableton. ticketmaster.com