No one has ruled the UK charts like MNEK this year. Following his critically-acclaimed number one collaboration with Joel Corry on Head & Heart – which recently became the first 2020 single to top a million sales – the star went on to score two more major hits as a songwriter slash producer.
KSI, Craig David and Digital Farm Animals’ Really Love was the first, peaking at number three, with Little Mix’s pop anthem Sweet Melody reaching the same position shortly after – becoming one of their most beloved songs in the process. For MNEK, being classified as a ‘pop star’ isn’t enough.
“I look up to people like Timbaland and Pharrell, all these people that are so much more than just a pop star or a producer,” MNEK tells GAY TIMES over Zoom. “I aspire to be the gay equivalent to a Timbaland or Pharrell, where I’m just omnipresent in music, and it’s not about me just being a pop star.”
He continues: “I’m going to work on a second album, but I’m not in a rush to do it right now because I think being an artist, frankly, is so stressful. I see through my own eyes how stressful it is, just the mental gymnastics you have to go through in order to just survive in this industry.”
We caught up with the star to discuss the well-deserved success of Head & Heart, his various collaborations with Little Mix and his brand new campaign with Absolut, It’s In Our Spirit, which celebrates “the importance of real-life connections” amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
What does lockdown look like for a pop star slash songwriter slash producer?
[Laughs] Well I pop star, I write and produce in some type of way! I’ve done a couple video shoots that have involved a lot of masks and a lot of PPE. As far as writing and production, I’ve been doing that over Zoom as well. I’ve been trying to get everything done – with varying results! I think I’ve done well, professionally, and that’s been cool. I think there’s been some wobbles, personally, because you get into little bouts of loneliness and sadness. That’s what this campaign with Absolut is primarily about, helping to push a very happy perspective and a really positive outlook on everything that we’re going through; keeping the faith that, once we’re together in real life, it will be something we can properly cherish.
Your avatar in the campaign is so fun – did you have any input into what that looks like?
I did have input into what it looked like, but it was more that they were asking for certain pictures of me and they were snooping my Instagram. Then they made one that was based on the buns and then I had to adapt that in real life. They made the outfit in real life for me to do some of the scenes! This has all been a massive production and it’s been really cool to be a part of it. There’s been stunt doubles as well, it’s lunacy! It was very, very fun to be a part of.
You know you’ve made it when have your own avatar, right?
I mean, this is what I’m saying. Where do I go from here?
What was your avatar like on MSN back in the day?
God… I was always a fugly little queen back then, I gotta say. I don’t know what I was giving the girlies but I think it was definitely an overexposed selfie that was taken on a little handycam. You know how it goes with MSN and MySpace. Look, we’re glad that there’s good photography now! We don’t have to do a lot, and we have Absolut making me an avatar. I do like the iPhone one now though, but I haven’t been able to match it properly because I’ve got pink hair and I haven’t gotten it to match my actual shade of pink, or rose gold or whatever. I’ve gotta stop changing my hair. That’s what it’s basically saying.
You’ve had some incredible achievements this year, especially with Head & Heart, which topped the charts for six consecutive weeks – did you expect this level of success?
I actually just got news that it sold a million copies this year, and it’s the first song to do so in 2020. I mean, I didn’t think it was gonna be… I knew that was gonna be a big hit. The second I heard it, I was really excited to be a part of it. But, this has just surpassed everything. It’s easily one of my biggest hits, period, so I’m happy to be singing on it, and that people are enjoying it during this time.
What was the first ever physical CD that you bought?
Ooh, the first ever single I bought was Move Ya Body by Nina Sky. We love that one.
I miss going to Woolworths and picking up a single on release day.
I miss Woolworths! I remember going to Woolworths. Oh, to be fair, was it Nina Sky? Or was it Kelly Rowland, Can’t Nobody? Either way, we would go into Woolworths and we were getting them singles. I miss it.
Back to Head & Heart. Why do you think the song resonated with so many people?
I think it’s because the song is so simple. The main thing is that, I obviously write, produce and perform, and in a rare instance, this was something that was sent to me to sing. I’d heard it and I objectively was like, ‘This is an incredible song and I can’t wait to be on it.’ I added an extra section in the writing with my flatmate, Leo Kaylan, who is an amazing singer-songwriter and producer himself – everyone check him out. We worked on the pre-chorus, and it was great to be a part of this puzzle, which I already believed in. I already thought it was an amazing song, they’d written an incredible hook and verse. It was really just about me helping make it complete. I’m glad that my contribution was seen as enough!
You’ve also got another major hit on your hands with Little Mix’s Sweet Melody – how did the song come to be?
I wrote Sweet Melody with Tayla Parx, Peoples and Rissi. Funnily enough, we wrote it about three years ago and it was for this Demi Lovato writing camp that we went to. We were told that she was going to be there, and she wasn’t, whatever. We wrote a bunch of songs in a few days and Sweet Melody was one of them. After a while, it was doing the rounds. We sent it to Selena Gomez, Jojo and Hailee Steinfeld. Then, Taylor was in with with the girls, with Jade and Leigh-Anne, and they’d written Not a Pop Song from Confetti and Tayla also played them Sweet Melody. They loved Sweet Melody and they were like, ‘Oh, this sounds like something MNEK would do!’ I liked Sweet Melody, but I wasn’t crazy about it, and the same goes with Wasbai as well. I think that when they were given visuals or a proper layout, that’s when I got them. I’ve been in the room with the girls, and when I play them music, they’re already thinking about the video. They see all the potential of the song before we do. I love the girls and I love all the stuff that I have in common with them, and just continuing to make parts of their musical history and the journey.
When we recently spoke to them, Jesy said you were their unofficial fifth member.
Oh Jesy, I’m sure they say that to everybody! Just one extra member, it’s fine. I really love the time I spend with them and I think they’re hilarious people and whenever they apply themselves, whenever they’re in good spirits and ready to do the ting, we have great time in the studio. I love Jade and I love that she’s a total faghag. We totally have the best time in the studio just obsessing over ad-libs and stuff. They’re all so talented.
To be a fly on the wall… It’d be so here for a behind-the-scenes documentary.
Well hey, I mean it’s people like me, TMS and Camille. These are all people who are considered an extension of the Little Mix bubble, and I’ve been a part of really important songs for them. So me, it’s been Touch, Wasabi and Sweet Melody, but then Camille she’s got the maim ones. She’s got Black Magic, Shout Out To My Ex and Break Up Song. Camille gets busy. Camille gets busy. We love her.
Right, time for *the* question: can we expect solo material from you in the future?
Oh, that old chestnut! I’m going to work on a second album, but I’m not in a rush to do it right now because I think being an artist, frankly, is so stressful. I’ve been working a lot with Mabel and the Little Mix girls. I see through my own eyes how stressful it is, just the mental gymnastics you have to go through in order to just survive in this industry. I’m here, I’m making music, if I feature on the record, if I’m making a Little Mix, record here, or whoever, I’m content. As long as the girls know I’m here to make music, that’s actually all I care about. I look up to people like Timbaland and Pharrell, all these people that are so much more than just a pop star or a producer. Their scene is just sources of music. I aspire to be the gay equivalent to a Timbaland or Pharrell, where I’m just omnipresent in music, and it’s not about me just being a pop star.
Watch MNEK and his avatar slay Absolut’s new campaign, It’s In Our Spirit, below.