Singer-songwriter Mikky Ekko – best known as the male voice on Rihanna's 2012 song "Stay" – hoped to capture some of what he calls the "raw emotion" of that Top 10 hit on his debut album, Time, which came out earlier this year. Featuring collaborators ranging from Kesha producer Benny Blanco to TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, Time combines big, dramatic melodies and intimate, specific lyrics. Ekko, (who was born John Stephen Sudduth, and hails from Louisiana) recently visited Rolling Stone's studio for our Sperry Sessions series to play three of the record's stand-out tracks – "Time," "Riot" and "Love You Crazy" – and discuss the stories behind them.
How have you evolved since your first EP, 2009's Strange Fruit?
Well I'm definitely a better writer now – or I hope I'm a better writer! I think the biggest thing is that I feel like I've gotten better at connecting with people. I know how to write from a hidden place, but I also feel comfortable stepping out of my comfort zone and writing something that's more vulnerable and more accessible to people.
Did creating the Mikky Ekko character help you write from that vulnerable place?
For me, it's a filter. It keeps me safe, and it keeps the listener safe too because I think there are some things I'm able to express. I feel comfortable being angry or more sensual or more intimate in an environment where I'm able to express things without holding back. I do that in person too, but I think for me it feels like a natural extension of a place I can go to capture that emotion in an extreme way.
The success that accompanied "Stay" must have been really exciting. How long did that last before you felt like yourself again?
It lasted close to a year, and then things kind of calmed down. I think a lot of people expected me to hit the road with Rihanna or to start doing more collaborations with other pop people. My main focus was trying not to let that get to my head because success is a fickle lover.
Did the reception of "Stay" influence how you went about creating Time?
Definitely. I was nearly done with the album, which was supposed to come out in the fall of 2013, but I told my label I felt like I needed to write one more song because when "Stay" came out I realized how powerful a song can be and how many people it can touch.
Were there frustrating moments making this album?
Yeah, there were a lot of shitty songs. I think I just tried to push myself over the edge every time I went in to write, and that was a frustrating thing because it challenged me to really see what I was made of and to see what I was capable of doing as an artist. When you're trying to write something vulnerable or something that feels instant naturally or something that rounds out who I am as an artist, it's difficult to pinpoint because you have to be so present in that emotion and in that character. You can always tell when it's not genuine. I feel I've grown tremendously as a human being over the last two and a half years and that, for me, is also where my musical growth happens. I grow the most musically when I grow as a human.
Time seems to have a narrative of sorts, a series of ups and downs. Is there a certain message you're trying to relay?
I don't want to give too much away because I think for each person what I was trying to create was that feeling of being on a journey with me. The narrative has been my life over the last two and a half years and it was mainly trying to find a point of access to people. A point where people can learn to trust me with lyrics and vulnerability and diversity – and that feeling of being right at the edge and not knowing quite what the future holds and being willing to embrace that journey.