Interview by J. Hill/Story by Ciara Lilly
With a family internationally known for their musical talents, it’s no surprise that Michael Winans is continuing their legacy. As a Bad Boy writer, Winans has written successful tracks for various artists, such as New Edition and Chris Brown. Yet, now he’s ready to reveal another layer of who he is to the world.
I want to take my career, and I want to inspire people. That’s probably what I’m best at doing, aside from music. And then, a voice of encouragement, I love to speak and go out and motivate people. I love to read, I probably read more than I spend time in the studio. I want to go out and motivate people and show the good side of human beings. – Mike Winans
CPM: Talk about why you decided to release a Christmas CD as your first solo project?
Winans: Well, it’s interesting, I was prepping to do just a regular solo project; and the idea came from Julius Garcia, over at Jive. And he said, “Man, you should do a Christmas project, because you know a lot of people don’t think about Christmas projects until it’s Christmas time, and it’s too late. You should do one, and just put it together. Outside of music, I have a heart to just really give to the community, and Christmas is the giving holiday. And I was like, “Man, it would be great to break into the market as a solo artist by doing a Christmas project.” It’s the first time people get a chance to see me, when everyone’s just in a good mood, and I’ll create some great melody to feel good, and have love in the air. And if I can bring that to market first, and people get a chance to know me in the Christmas spirit, they’ll really be able to receive me when it’s time for me to do my solo project. So that was the thought from a business standpoint, from a musical standpoint, I like to think of myself as very melodic. And I think the most melodic music comes during Christmas. And I said, “Man, people will love it, they’ll love it.” So that’s what brought about the Christmas project, I had never thought about doing it ever in the past, but when it came to this year, Julius telling me “that you should definitely do it,” I thought, “Man, that would be great.” Then the thought came in, “What if I created some songs that people could sing years down the road, like we sing the same every year.” So that was the thought even when sitting down penning the song, “Let me create some songs that could be sung even when you and I are no longer here.”
CPM: It doesn’t sound like a traditional Christmas album, did you intentionally do that? Or is that just your flavor that just came out in the music?
Winans: It was a little bit of both. I wanted it to be an album that was put out during Christmas, more than a Christmas album. That is my flavor, definitely. I didn’t want it to be just seen as “oh man, that’s just a Christmas album.” I want people to feel that they can play it after the New Year. I like to go into a full orchestra, and that’s appreciated more during Christmas. And so, I felt like I could really, really bring out the flavor, and then throw some Christmas lyrics on top of my flavor.
CPM: What’s your favorite song on the Christmas CD?
Winans: Oh man, you’re going to do that to me? I like “You for Christmas” and “Honor the King”. “Honor the King” was the first Christmas song that I did. I don’t know if you remember the movie “Home Alone” but I was in that mindset, and I was thinking about Macaulay Culkin when he was in that church, and he was listening to the choir sing. So the song was created with a movie soundtrack in mind. That one, and “You for Christmas”, because that’s more of an R&B feel. If I had to pick my favorites, it would be those.
CPM: Earlier on in your life you did not want to pursue a music career, talk about your thought process at that time?
Winans: My whole thing was I wanted to do something outside of music initially. So I went to school for Business Administration, but then I got into music songwriting, and I started to understand the publishing aspect. And I started working with my cousin, Marvin Jr., with his company M2 Entertainment, and he wanted to produce and write songs, as well; this is after “Winans Phase 2” took place. Winans Phase 2 was nice, but I wasn’t necessarily trying to be an artist at that time. And so it all kind of hit me really quick because I was in high school at the time. It made my high school years very busy, and not as normal as the average high school student. And so the taste that got in my mouth was, “Man, this is a lot. And I’m young, and there’s so many things that I want to do, and I’m not able to do.” So I said if I’m going to do something in music, let me be behind the scenes. My mom and my dad had talked to me about the publishing aspect, because that’s where the real money is made. So Marvin Jr. and I got together, and he formed a company called M2 Entertainment, we started songwriting and sending songs out to gospel labels to see if it could be placed on artist’s albums.
And then I started my own production company, and I had to build from there. I didn’t have as much success early on, because I guess they just weren’t taking, you know much listening music. One day I’m driving down 8 mile road and I’m just like, “I don’t know if I want to continue this songwriting thing, man let me just get me a real job.” So I’m like, “Man, let me get out of this piece, let me stop doing this music thing, because I don’t know how this is going to work out. And it’s not like my family is giving me a hand out.” Which I really appreciated, they just kind of told us what the business was about, and if that was something we wanted to do, we would have to create our own ways. Right when I was at my wits end, I get a call from a guy named Shannon Lawrence; and Shannon Lawrence said that he worked as an A&R for Bad Boy, he dialed from a 303 area code, which is a Detroit number, so I’m thinking, “Man, somebody’s playing on my phone, saying that they work at Bad Boy and that Puff wants to talk to me. Low and behold, he did work as an A&R, he was just from Detroit. He said that Puff heard some songs, and he wants you to come out to New York and discuss business with him.
So I’m telling all of my buddies. And I end up packing up my car with all of my buddies that I worked with, and we drive to New York; because this is our opportunity, it’s about to happen. So we get there, our meeting is at 4 o’clock with Puff and he doesn’t come out to meet me until like 8:30; so he comes out and grabs me, and the guy Shannon Lawrence, who called me initially, is going to be in the meeting, as well. Puff asked, “Who are all these guys?” And I’m like, “This is my production team.” And he’s like, “I don’t want to talk to them, I just want to talk to you.” So they had to leave the building, and they were kind of salty. And I’m like, “Just chill out, let me find out what’s going on.” So we go into the meeting, it’s very quick only about 15 minutes. He plays two songs from a CD that he had of me that I had referenced 21 songs on. And he says, “I want these two songs for New Edition, I just signed these guys. We’re going to record in Miami in four months, if everything goes well, we can talk about potentially putting together a deal. His terminology was this is your ‘trial period’. If it all works out, I’ll entertain giving you a deal and potentially putting these songs on the album.” And so the rest is history.
CPM: So you waited 4 hours for a 15 minute meeting Puffy?
Winans: Yes, I waited 4 hours for a 15 minute meeting. And it was a great meeting, man. It was like one of those surreal moments. And especially since my cousin Mario has been signed with Puff since 2000 or 1999. I just didn’t feel comfortable asking him to have Puff listen to my stuff, that’s just not my style. Most people thought that was how it went down; but once I got down to Miami, Mario was down there, he said “What are you doing here?” And I said, “He told me to come out, he heard some of my stuff.” And he’s like, “Oh man, this is straight. I’m so excited.” And here’s a side mark, the reason why he was excited, because you know in my family, they just don’t do gospel music, they actually live the gospel/Christian lifestyle. So Mario doing Pop or Hip/Hop music kind of rubbed my family the wrong way, so he received a lot of heat from that; and was considered the black horse for that. And I don’t know how extensive your education is about my family, but Mario is actually Vicki’s son from a previous marriage. He was adopted by my uncle Marvin when he was three years old; that’s how he becomes a Winans, he’s one of us and that’s all he really knows. That’s my cousin, so he really felt like, “Oh man, it’s not just me out here.” And so, we got a chance to really build a strong relationship, and we just developed a very good chemistry, even musically, and after I signed my deal with Puff, he and I did a lot of work together. And so, we’ve been able to capture nice sounds for other artists, and you know that’s kind of like how that whole thing went down.
CPM: Talk about at that moment, what kind of projects you worked on? You did New Edition, and then what happened after that?
Winans: After I did New Edition’s project, which was very interesting, man. I love to tell this story, I was supposed to get a certain front-end when it came to the production of New Edition’s songs that I did for them. And I mean the sessions were long, 18 and 19 hour sessions, because there were so many distractions going on; this group member was leaving when he needed to sing this part, this person was coming to see this, and it just wasn’t a free flowing atmosphere. I’m this 20-year-old kid, and they’re like veterans in the game, and so I had to really skip to their beat. So I do the work, and it was agreed between Puff and I, that he would give me my front-end money once I was done producing the songs; well it didn’t happen that way. And so I get back home, and my buddies were already a little upset, because they couldn’t be a part of the meeting, they’re like, “Oh man, he didn’t take care of you?” They’re all in my ear, and they’re like, “You need to call him, and tell him…” And I’m like, “Man, I cannot do that. That’s not what this is about.” So I end up calling Puff and asking him about it, and it didn’t necessarily go as well I thought it should, and it seemed like the songs were in jeopardy of even making the album; because he wasn’t happy about me just calling him up and asking him about a business situation. But anyways, thank God the songs did make it on the album. And after that, he offered me a deal. But the deal wasn’t the great deal, it was one of the deals you really don’t want to talk about, so I didn’t sign it. I ended up working with the guy, Shannon Lawrence, who really took a liking to the music, and he started sending my stuff around, and I landed on Chris Brown’s first album. I was actually the first producer that Chris worked with on his first album; he was coming from school and recording. And I think Bryan Michael Cox was the second producer. But anyways, I produced on that album, and it went double platinum in the states, 3.5 to 4 million worldwide. And that got the attention of Bad Boy Publishing, and then he said, “Okay, we’ll offer him a better deal.”
CPM: What would be your advice for someone who wants to pursue a career as a writer in the music business?
Winans:. There are so many writers and producers that you can meet, and there are so many people who get in from so many different ways. I can really only talk about my experience. You know I had a love for business, because I went to school for it. And so music was just something that I knew I had to do. I didn’t know the music business; I just created music and put it out to different labels, and just tried to build relationships. Because there are people who only want to promote their business, so you find the people who are passionate in their lanes; and you seize that, and try not to be everybody. So I took the position of, “Look I’m only going to concentrate on my craft. And even though I love the business, let me find somebody who understands the music business.” And what actually happened is that person found me, which was Shannon Lawrence. So I’m just going to say, you concentrate on what you’re great at. And if you’re great at songwriting, or whatever, just concentrate on that. Meanwhile, find the people who are great at music business, because the music industry is about the music business, it’s not just about talent; because if it were, there would be a different talent pool in the business. There are a lot talented people who will never get their shot, not because they don’t have the skills, but they just don’t have the [business] component.
CPM: What’s your ultimate goal for your solo career?
Winans: I really want to inspire other people. Music again is something that I had to do, because I was in a family where music was almost most important. It was God, then music. It’s kind of difficult growing up in this family, and not know how to do something musically. We sit around in a room, and they’re people that have performed in every continent, they’re people who have awards galore, and so I come in as a third generation, and this is what I see. This is the bar, the bar is 40 Grammys. I learned to do music through my family; God blessed them with that ability. Now, that’s not how I sum up my career. I want to take my career, and I want to inspire people. That’s probably what I’m best at doing, aside from music.
But to answer your question, I think the sky is the limit. And I know that’s kind of a cliché, but any medium that allows me to express myself that can help other people. Even in my music, I want you to be able to walk away and say, “Man, this is a real song. This is a real Christmas album like how Christmas really is.” I want people to be able to say, “Yo, that happened to me, too”; as opposed to just creating fantasy.
To listen to snippets of the entire “A Mike Winans Christmas: Timeless Noel” CD visit www.MikeWinans.com (Doc Roc Entertainment, LLC.)