Swedish-Ethiopian singer Sebastian Mikael's latest work is reflective of not only his own return to music but also the renewed emphasis contemporary artists are placing on R&B's soulful roots. After a four-year hiatus from recording and releasing songs, the Slip-n-Slide Records artist is ready to take the reins of his comeback.
Set to open for Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds at the Miramar Cultural Center this Friday, February 7, Mikael is on a mission to recapture the soul of R&B.
“When you tap into organic music that’s just honest from the heart, the main ingredient is soul; everything else is just what I’m feeling. It’s having that creative freedom to go against the grain,” Mikael says. “It’s important for people to see that, and I think people will come to me for that.”
It took a while for the singer to relay such reliable honesty. It came in his two-part funk, soul, and jazz-infused EP series, I C U U C Me. Both projects — named for a clothing brand Mikael planned to launch with his best friend before that friend was fatally shot — deviate from his earlier releases by mirroring the long and winding journey he has undertaken as an artist.
Born in Gothenburg, Sweden, Mikael was introduced to a variety of musical genres by his parents. Whether it was Nina Simone and gospel from his mother or Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Carlos Santana from his father, the sonic diversity formed the foundation for his musical passions.
“I got into a lot of different things from people putting me on as a kid,” Mikael says. “I always had an interest, but I really didn’t get into music until right after high school. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do, but I was trying to figure out how to get my start.”
When he was 17, his mom suggested he move to Boston for better opportunities. Although he made the switch, he wound up enrolling at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles just a few years later. After graduating, Mikael returned to Boston in 2010 to study at Berklee College of Music and began uploading music to YouTube. In 2011, when a video capturing a street performance of Mikael's song "Beautiful Life" began to circulate online, he caught the attention of an A&R executive from Slip-n-Slide Records.
“They flew us down," he recounts. "We had a meeting, and [Slip-n-Slide CEO] Ted Lucas told us his vision for me after I had auditioned for him."
After dropping out of Berklee, Mikael inked a deal with Slip-n-Slide months later and immediately got to work.
He collaborated with Wale in 2013 to release the sensual R&B and hip-hop track "Last Night," which garnered buzz and earned a spot on the Billboard 200. In 2014, Mikael's debut album, Speechless, arrived punctuated by prominent features from artists such as Rick Ross and Teyana Taylor. But what seemed to be an up-and-comer’s dream was a harsh reality for Mikael.
“The song with Teyana was the only organic song on that project. Everything else wasn’t written by me,” Mikael confesses.
When the attention from that album waned, he decided to take a break and reconsider just who it was he wanted to be as an artist. But with no money to pour into his next project, he took to the streets of Boston to make ends meet. “That’s what inspired the EP — just going through regular life and a tough relationship that was on-and-off. It was through a lot of those times I felt like that EP became my therapy,” he explains.
Losing his best friend the same day he recorded the first installment of I C U U C Me was not only a wakeup call but also a confirmation that he needed to continue harnessing his creativity. He immersed himself in the discographies of the foremost figures of funk — George Clinton, Roy Ayers, the Ohio Players, and Bootsy Collins — to come up with a sound that was as experimental as the '70s jam sessions from which he derived inspiration. Partnering with a collective of friends and producer Frankie Leroux to blend his neo-soul sound with funky instrumentals, I C U U C Me takes after the experimentation of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, accented by hazy, psychedelic vocals.
“It was just me being in tune with something else and not paying attention to what other R&B artists are putting out," Mikael says. "I wanted to detach myself from everything that’s coming out today. When I started working with Frankie, he had a similar blend of beats and a more analog-type music. So we just gelled.”
Mikael’s appreciation for vintage styles is also prevalent in the visuals that accompanied the project. The music video for "Rain" uses claymation to depict the pitfalls of depression, and his notable video for "Time" — which has garnered 2.6 million views on YouTube so far — was recorded on film to capture a sensual, throwback romance.
The once-20-something, clean-cut R&B heartthrob is now a 30-year-old auteur who's unafraid of sharing his innermost emotions and struggles. He’s now signed to a new partnership between Slip-n-Slide and Atlantic Records and plans to continue experimenting with his sound.
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“Not everyone is going to understand your vision, your music, and what you’re trying to do, so you have to be confident and comfortable in being yourself,” he says.
Based in New York City, the "Mission" singer describes his new sound as alternative soul and Afro-futuristic. Closing the chapter on the I C U U C Me series, Mikael is ready to pivot again with fresh concepts. He’s recording new singles before he launches another project and is looking forward to continuing to connect with fans through his personal narrative and distinctive approach to R&B.
“That’s the most important thing when it comes to being an innovator and creating a brand that’s going to stand the test of time,” he says.
Sebastian Mikael. With Babyface. 8 p.m. Friday, February 7, at Miramar Cultural Center, 2400 Civic Center Pl., Miramar; 954-602-4500; miramarculturalcenter.org. Tickets cost $65 to $100 via ticketmaster.com.