TORONTO – At the Grammy Awards last month, newly crowned first-time winner Miguel strolled through the aisle delivering a gilded take on his buoyant come-on “Adorn” with typically effortless panache. At least one person was impressed: Kelly Clarkson.
Later in the show, the former “American Idol” champ breathlessly (and slightly tactlessly) praised his performance, enthusing: “Miguel, I don’t know who the hell you are, but we need to sing together. I mean, good God, that was the sexiest damn thing I’ve ever seen.”
Others might have felt the same, and Miguel certainly recognized the importance of the performance.
“It may have been a breakthrough moment,” the upbeat crooner said in a telephone interview this week.
“It felt like it began a lot of momentum…. (But) I think we’ve got a bit more breaking through to do.”
Indeed, the cashmere-voiced R&B songwriter is nothing if not ambitious.
How else to explain the 27-year-old L.A. native’s audacious sophomore album, “Kaleidoscope Dream?” Channelling a range of high-end R&B influences (those most often cited are Prince and Marvin Gaye), Miguel crafted a new, genre-melting sound all his own, where his lithe vocals flex overtop a narcotic din that indicates the diversity of his influences: rock, pop, soul, dance.
He’s often included among a movement of bold R&B innovators that also includes Frank Ocean and Toronto’s the Weeknd. But there’s a crucial difference: where those singers are primarily songwriters who have only begun learning the craft of performing live in the past couple years, Miguel has been honing his performance chops for years.
And it shows.
“There’s no substitute for experience, I guess,” says Miguel, who will open for Alicia Keys in Vancouver on Friday with dates in Toronto and Montreal to follow on April 2 and 3.
“Being on the road for so long was just tremendously comforting, and made me very sure of myself. It really helped with my confidence.”
On the eve of the Grammys, he rehearsed his performance in a mostly empty Staples Center wearing a look of cheerful serenity. Wearing a white Miguel T-shirt and leather pants, he hammed it up for the small assembly of press and privileged onlookers before doing the rounds to chat idly. At the time, he claimed he wasn’t nervous for his first Grammys performance. Just excited.
Later that night, he performed at Clive Davis’s annual star-studded Grammys bash in Beverly Hills — an event that features, Miguel himself notes, what “arguably could be one of the most difficult audiences to impress.”
He thought he would be anxious — or “a little more weary of the weight of not performing well” — but once he got onstage, he said he felt at home. A similar feeling overtook him the next night for his Grammy debut, when he performed alongside rapper Wiz Khalifa hours after claiming his first trophy for best R&B song.
“Looking around in this sea of musicians and people that you grew up listening to — I mean, I could see Sting from where I was spitting! — and remembering that the rest of the world would be watching, it was a little daunting at first,” said the singer, whose last name is Pimentel.
“But then the love of everything kind of kicks in, the confidence of knowing, man, we’ve played so many shows. This can’t be much different. Then it was all about having a good time and having fun.”
Miguel is refreshingly candid about his ambition, with an unapologetic confidence that stops just short of brashness. Asked about his commercial hopes, he laughs: “If it were up to me, it would be everyone paying attention, everyone knowing my music and everyone loving it.”
He’s similarly lofty in his goals for his music.
“Hopefully we can kind of transcend the implied constraints that come along with the term R&B,” he says, noting that he listens to a broad range of music.
He’s a rare R&B artist who stands at the intersection of near-universal critical adulation and promising commercial returns — “Adorn” is the only song in the history of Billboard’s Hot R&B chart to spend 20 or more weeks at No. 1.
The success is somewhat surprising because while “Kaleidoscope Dream” is accessible, it also swims against the current in a number of ways. It’s a mostly guest-free affair, for one, and it’s unusually cohesive in its smoke-shrouded grooves.
Even Miguel admits he wasn’t sure how it would sell.
“Before turning in the record, I was really nervous because I knew it was different. And the question I asked myself was whether I’d be proud putting this album out regardless of whether or not it was successful commercially,” he recalled.
“I knew the answer was yes, in my heart of hearts. It was a resounding yes and there was no doubt about it.”
Things have changed in his life since the record’s release, though he seems to be navigating success with aplomb.
Nowadays, his idea of a “break” is opening for Keys, a gig he says comes with a lot less pressure than a headlining tour. He plans to use the downtime on the road to keep writing new material.
Meantime, more fans will be introduced to his sultry style. He’s certainly an animated presence live, stalking and stripping across the stage, falling to the floor and hopping back to his feet with a spry verve.
His performances are provocative and his songs are simultaneously overtly sexual and vulnerable. He acknowledges that his breakthrough has been accompanied by increased interest from the opposite sex — “there’s new attention, and sometimes a lot more forward attention and bold attention,” he reports.
But despite his on-wax Casanova status, he’s in a long-term relationship with model and actress Nazanin Mandi.
So like nearly element of his budding fame, Miguel seems prepared to handle the attention without losing his way.
“Keeping it in context helps making the right decisions a lot easier,” he says. “It would be easy to get carried away and believe that people really, really want you for you and whatnot.
“But knowing the nature of people, how fame works, just looking at history, you’ve gotta keep everything in perspective and know what’s real — when it’s love, and when it’s just infatuation.”