Mykki Blanco is loquacious talking down the phone from Los Angeles. Their new mini album ‘Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep’ is coming out mid June and the anticipation seems to bubble out of them. They narrate its conception like a Greek epic, charting their progress from the album’s germination in 2018 to working on it throughout the pandemic. That sounds like a trite comparison, but it shouldn’t; this will be the first proper Mykki Blanco album in five years since the release of their 2016 debut full-length project ‘Mykki’.
After touring ‘Mykki’ for two years, Blanco made the decision to elevate their art. “I realised that there was a certain level of musicianship and production that I had neglected,” they say. “I used to show up to a producer’s house or studio and the beat would either be pre-made, or we would maybe have an idea and smoke a bunch of weed or drink, and then in about four or five hours, the song was done. That worked then. But I really wanted my music to be my own. Three years ago, I felt like I was an artist that had some really good singles. But I had to take myself out of my own self, and I was like, if I was someone who was just discovering Mykki Blanco, could I listen to a Mykki Blanco mixtape or even the first album from front to back and feel like the whole entire record is amazing? Maybe someone out there would disagree, but I didn’t feel that way.”
The first step that they took to getting back into making music after two years on the road was to sift through the beats that they had been sent over the years that had sat gathering dust in their iTunes. While doing so, they had a very specific sound in their head that was difficult to pin down until they came upon a track by FaltyDL. “I swear to god, sonically, this file just sounded like what was in my head. It was strange and serendipitous.” Mykki reached out and from there, a working partnership was formed that is the crux of ‘Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep’.
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A process of sending voice notes and “these photo booth videos of me doing harmonies or melodies over the music” back and forth ensued before the pair could get together in person. One of the ways that Mykki began to take back control of their musical process was to move away from sampling to create their own samples. Influenced by yacht rock and artists like Luther Vandross, Michael McDonald and Fleetwood Mac, they put together a group of vocalists—primarily Big Data’s L1ZY, GRAMMY-nominated Mykal Kilgore, Leah King and AKUA—to create “our own little mini group”. Mykki remembers, “I was super intimidated at first. We have found a vocal chain that I feel comfortable singing in but I’m not a singer. I was like, ‘am I going to be able to communicate these melodies or these octave changes to the vocalists?’ But what I found is that for people who are singers, they can usually pick up what you’re trying to get at.” The result is the joyousness of ‘Free Ride’, the frantic pacing towards the end of ‘Fuck Your Choices’, the laconic refusal to be bothered in ‘Patriarchy Ain’t The End Of Me’. “When I look back at that period, it really planted the seed not only for a whole entire new way of making music for me, but it really feels like—” Mykki pauses to consider: “I hate to say ‘formula’, because then it makes it feel like it’s this static, tried and true way of getting great music made. But I needed a new roadmap to create a new kind of alchemy of how I was going to make music. Through this process of a musical focus group, I was able to do that.”
Lyrically, the music on ‘Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep’ draws strength through vulnerability. Mykki wears their heart on their sleeve; they break their flow of speech at one point in our interview to rap the opening bars from ‘Trust A Little Bit’: “what do you see when you look at me/What do you think when you blink and you cannot breathe?/I cannot leave, the feeling is inconclusive, so elusive, borderline damn abusive”. “Sometimes when you’re working on music, it doesn’t hit you until midway, then all of a sudden you feel this sonic unity. One day I was like, Falty, I don’t remember all of these being love songs!” They reflect, “my relationship did end in 2019, maybe it was some subconscious stuff at work. I didn’t clock it until the very end of the process that we had made this turbulent relationship/break-up/love record.”
When the pandemic hit, they were in the middle of shopping for a label to release their new material. “I was basically a nervous wreck for the first four months of 2020 because we had hoped that I was going to get a record deal sooner,” Mykki says. Believe it or not, ‘Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep’ will be the first of their records to have a proper label release. They started out with UNO before creating their own imprint Dog Food Records with label services provided by !K7. After leaving !K7, Mykki had conversations with various labels throughout 2020 but nothing stuck. “I had all these romantic ideas that somehow a major label was going to transform everything I’d ever done.” In the end, Mykki signed a deal with Transgressive Records in November 2020, drawn to them more and more for their work with other trans and gender non-conforming artists like SOPHIE and singer songwriter Beverly Glenn-Copeland.
Support—both financial and structural—from a record label hasn’t given Mykki more confidence in this project but rather it has been an affirmation of their practice. “It’s an affirmation that following my heart and doing things my own way actually ended up working out. It’s an affirmation of the fact that in the first part of my career—from 2012 up until 2015—there were really no mistakes. Maybe as I matured there were some mistakes, but it’s this affirmation of like, you didn’t start making music until you were 25; you were allowed to be weird and underground and not think about whether a song was a hit, and you were allowed to have songs with bad production; you were allowed to experiment and try new things, make feminist grunge rap songs. You were allowed to do all of the things that maybe nobody understood but enhanced your life and your journey. I was able to reflect on everything that I had done thus far and make the changes that I needed to become a mature artist.”
For Mykki, this has been inextricable from their continued discovery of themselves as a trans genderqueer person. The persona of Mykki Blanco began as a video art project with Mykki performing a femme character. This then ignited burning questions in themselves; they first came out as gay at 15, then began to think that “I am maybe not just gay.” “I went through a period where I was going to medically transition,” they say, “and I had a lot of fear and insecurity around that that I had to work through. It’s been this situation where the politics of my identity have been so intertwined with having this very public platform.” With their career taking off through social media, Mykki has always had a tension in how they use social media as a way to connect. “In the beginning, it was me making these posts on Facebook, talking about certain things I was feeling or going through, and then having other trans and genderqueer people reach out and affirm for me so many things. It was close friends and my fans, basically people online, who were telling me for the first time, Mykki, not medically transitioning doesn’t make you not trans and there’s not this one singular trans narrative. For cis hetero people, there’s this narrative that you were born in the wrong body and then it means that you had to switch from one binary to another; all of us are fed this trans myth and it really took a few years for me to really free myself from that, but that happened through the help of so many of my genderqueer peers through this digital diaspora.”
The flipside of that is with their heightened visibility, they have become more prone to trolls. “The other side of it is that I’ve always not really acknowledged just how big my platform’s gotten, and still to this day I don’t really understand it. I’m no huge celebrity but when I do say something, it’s going to get seen and shared on a level that I definitely don’t really process. I’ve realised that I need to be a little bit more careful going forward so that I don’t open my own self up to a level of vulnerability. I’m just another queer person looking for affirmation and to connect in a society that still very much makes us feel weird and in which a lot of fucked up, not cool shit happens to us.”
As someone who has been so open about their identity, both online and in professional music spaces, Mykki has often been classed as a pioneer without receiving the same amount of commercial success of some of their peers who had a coming out moment. “I don’t really have that trajectory, like a Frank Ocean or a Lil Nas X, where everybody at first believed they were straight and they were able to garner this initial support from cis hetero society, then have the big reveal. I always operated in a space that a majority of society found taboo, and I have to accept it for what it is now. It’s easy for someone now, ten years later, to say, oh it was trailblazing! We need to give Mykki Blanco their roses! Well, honey, unfortunately, life usually doesn’t work that way!”
Operating on the fringes for ten years and only just receiving more widespread commercial acclaim means that they now have more wiggle room to do as they please. “I haven’t peaked yet,” Mykki says. “I have definitely not reached the climax of my own musical journey. I’m one of those artists that people historicise a lot. But what’s exciting about this next chapter is that I get to do something that I’ve always idolised Bowie and Madonna and Prince, these icons, for—I get to reinvent myself, not out of an inauthentic place, but because I’ve earned it.”
With ‘Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep’ as the first step in this process, Mykki feels finally, fully, at home in the music. “How can I put this—” they muse, “I don’t feel like I could really call myself a musician until right now. I feel like for the first time, this is my music. Not only am I just so in touch with it, up from the bottom to the top, it’s all organically mine. This is what my sound is.”
Mykki Blanco's 'Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep' comes out on June 18, pre-order it here
Jemima Skala is Mixmag’s Weekend Editor and freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter