“We’re at the brink of war. Literal war.”
Miguel, the R&B star best known for priapic boudoir anthems like Adorn, has had a rude awakening.
“Immigration, gun violence, terrorism. We are at the brink of war.
“And, at the same time, we’re the most advanced we’ve ever been, technologically.
“We have the ability to communicate in every single way, at any time, but that’s just causing more turmoil.”
He doesn’t say it outright, but the singer is talking about Donald Trump’s Twitter tirades.
We talk on 9 October, the day after the US president tweeted “only one thing will work” in dealing with North Korea. Speaking to The Guardian in the same round of interviews, Miguel was found fretting about the possibility of nuclear war.
The intrusion of reality into his otherwise comfortable life is a major theme of the star’s fourth record, War & Leisure.
In the spirit of Prince’s 1999, it’s a party record for the apocalypse; where Miguel’s acid-drop funk is tempered by anxiety.
He even pays homage to the His Royal Purpleness on Pineapple Skies, a nervy psych-soul jam featuring the lyric: “Can we look up, look up, baby / There’s pineapple purple skies / Promise everything’s goin’ be all right.”
“That’s the energy,” says Miguel. “Wanting to figure out how to stay positive and be creative, all while knowing there’s bigger things in the world than wanting to party and have sex and have a good time.”
‘We became lazy’
The star also addresses Trump – “CEO of the free world” – on the album’s closing track, Now.
“It’s plain to see a man’s integrity / By the way he treats those he does not need,” he sings, citing the response to humanitarian crises in Puerto Rico and Houston; the Black Lives matter movement; and the tainted water scandal in Flint, Michigan (which actually took place under President Obama’s watch).
It ends with a plea for regular people to put aside their political differences and help each other out.
“It’s pretty direct,” he says. “I’m very proud of the song. It’s actually very urgent.”
Explaining his political awakening, Miguel says: “My generation has been fortunate. We experienced a couple of decades of mostly peace. We were pretty far removed from anything that was a threat, except for 9/11.
“We had it pretty easy and we became lazy. But now we’re the adults, so we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and watching.”
Miguel was born Miguel Jontel Pimentel 32 years ago in San Pedro, California to a Mexican-American father and African-American mother.
They divorced when he was eight, and he was raised by his estate agent mother, in a strict, religious household.
The family attended church three times a week and, as a teenager, Miguel would go door-to-door preaching the gospel.
At school, his abstinence from drink and drugs combined with his mixed heritage made him an outsider.
He later poured those years into the song What’s Normal Anyway, where he sings about being: “Too proper for the black kids / Too black for the Mexicans / Too square to be a hood nigga / Too broke for the rich kids.”
Squirreled away at home, his passions were Star Wars and a “major” Lego habit.
Indeed, for all of his Grammy Awards, the star says one of his major goals is to attend a Star Wars convention in full costume as Lando Calrissian.
“Lando was always my guy,” he enthuses. “OK, he betrays Han Solo but, you know, he made the best decision in his position. He was trying to take care of his people. You’ve got to give that to him.”
(Incidentally, he isn’t bitter that fellow musician Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, gets to play Lando in the new Han Solo film. “He’s perfect for it,” says the star. “I can’t think of anyone better.”)
But amidst all those church services and Star Wars marathons, Miguel was devoted to music. He idolised soul singer Donny Hathaway, studying his intonation and pronunciation, and soon informed his mother he intended to become a performer.
“She said, ‘You can be whatever you want – just get good grades,'” he later recalled.
So the teenager “borrowed” his uncle’s four-track tape recorder and started building his own songs. It didn’t take long before he was signed to an indie label, Black Ice, but his debut album went unreleased.
The singer walked away from the project and signed to Jive Records, but Black Ice sued him for nearly a million dollars in expenses, leaving Miguel’s career in limbo for almost three years.
He occupied himself by writing for other artists, including Usher and Alicia Keys, before eventually releasing All I Want Is You in 2010.
A fairly conventional R&B album, it barely hinted at the polymorphic musical galaxies he’d create on the follow-ups, Kaleidoscope Dream and Wildheart.
Where modern R&B is a largely electronic domain, Miguel’s music is all rough edges and fluttering guitar licks, digging deep into the funk and soul of his father’s record collection.
His father’s Mexican heritage inspired the new album too, after Miguel took a trip to the family home in Michoacán, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast.
“I got to meet my family out there,” he says. “It was very moving. It felt like I’d known them forever.
“And I felt actually very compelled to go back. And I was like, ‘The only way I’m going to do that is if I create music in this language.'”
The result is Carmelo Duro, his first song sung predominantly in Spanish. The language lends itself to the come-hither curlicues of Miguel’s more sensual side; as he purrs, “regalame un poco de azucar” (give me some sugar).
He’s aware that his public image is rather, how shall we put it… Racy? Insatiable? Voracious?
“Always sexual,” he says. “Always that.
“It hasn’t, knock on wood, brought me any harm. But I want people to understand there’s way more to me.”
“It’s about these opposite forces pulling at us at all times,” he explains of the tension between the songs. “You can feel a push and pull between wanting to be conscious and wanting to stay positive.”
And, even though the album’s only just been released, Miguel is inspired to get back in the studio.
“Events are just moving so fast, and the way we consume music is so different now [that] in order to keep up, you have to keep recording.
“For anyone who wants to stay in the minds of their fans, and not get lost in the constant bombardment of information and new material, you have to be consistent.
“It’s important now.”
War & Leisure is out now on RCA Records.