Six years on from first conquering the charts with Ryan Lewis and their hit single Thrift Shop, Macklemore is riding high in 2018. This week, the Seattle rap star is not only currently on top of the singles chart with These Days - his collaboration with Rudimental, Jess Glynne and Dan Caplen - he’s also midway through a triumphant UK tour. Music Week caught up with the multiplatinum star in Manchester where he was about to bring songs from his latest album Gemini – the first without long-time collaborator Ryan Lewis – to life.
“It’s been a really fun process,” said Macklemore. “You work so long in the studio for countless hours to create something and then you finally put it out into the world and take it around the globe in front of the fans who come out and support you. It’s been an amazing journey.”
Here Macklemore sheds more light on the UK’s latest chart topper, how the Gemini campaign is unfolding and what he has learned from his time in the biz…
You’re currently No.1 in the singles chart with These Days with Rudimental, Jess Glynne and Dan Caplen. How did that song come about?
“Rudimental reached out [to me] and at the time that he did the song was really just Dan Caplen on piano, with his hook and the verses. I loved Dan’s voice, I loved the vibe, so I recorded a couple verses. And this was back a couple years ago. I actually did that before I even started Gemini.”
So you’ve been sitting on a huge hit all this time?
“Yeah, it slowly turned into that. It was just piano, and then the producers did what they did, and they eventually got Jess on the hook and kept Dan’s verses in there. It’s been great to see it ascend the charts in the UK. I’m bringing Dan out for a portion of the tour here, so we'll get to play that song and see how the fans react. But the fact that it was a No.1 is a gift.”
And how do you feel about Gemini now that it’s been out in the world for a few months?
“It’s completely exceeded my expectations. I started the project with just a couple close friends, and the whole idea was just to make a song a day…”
A song a day is lot of pressure...
“It was actually no pressure, because it wasn’t like we were making an album, it was just like, ‘Let’s make a song a day and see what happens.’ After the month that we were doing that, we had a good chunk of songs that we wanted to put out, and we were like, ‘Let’s turn it into an album!’ That’s the place that we created the album from, and there were very low expectations. It just takes away the burden of, ‘What is this for?’ ‘How is this going to be released?’ Looking back on the months since Gemini’s been out, it has completely exceeded my expectations. Not only in numbers - which it has - but just the general way the music has connected with people and the way people are coming out to these shows from Europe to Australia to the US. Having that type of support's been absolutely incredible.”
This is your first album without Ryan Lewis. In your Rolling Stone interview you said you felt you needed to find yourself with this record – in hindsight, do you feel you achieved that?
“I think the process of finding oneself is a lifelong process. After Ryan and I decided to take a break, I don’t know if I needed to find myself as much as rediscover my love for the process. You know, rediscover my love for music and why I create it. It was difficult at times and we lost sight of that at times in the process of creating the last album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.”
What was getting in the way of you enjoying the creative process on Unruly Mess?
“I think it was a lot of things, for one there was pressure to follow up The Heist. Just how commercially successful The Heist was. We took a long break in between [albums], there was a lot to process. When The Heist came out we were an underground rap group, but by the time we were done with that cycle, we were worldwide, internationally-famous musicians. Grammys and awards and millions of records sold. It changes things. It changes things in the studio, and your own process of writing… That was a component of it. I think in general it’s always a balance to work with somebody else. Whether that’s one producer or one rapper or anything. There’s an element of compromise in the studio. Ryan and I, we’d see eye to eye on most things, but when you’re in that place and you’re trying to create, and there is that pressure and you’re butting heads on how this hook should sound, and what this should be, and these verses, there’s just a lot [of pressure] in the studio. That’s not anything against Ryan or me, it’s just a process that comes with any field. We’d been working together for almost 10 years. I think for both of us it was like, ‘Let’s refresh, let’s do something else – if the timing is right in the future, let’s do another project, but for now let’s take a break.’ And that’s what we ended up doing.”
So what did you learn about yourself in the process of making Gemini by yourself?
“You know, I felt a lot freer in the process of making it. I want to feel that freedom, I don’t want to feel parameters, I don’t want to feel constriction. I want to feel that I’m doing this for a reason, and the ultimate reason is the process, not the outcome. It’s not numbers, it’s not critical attention. It’s not any of those things. It comes back down to, ‘What do I want to say?’, ‘How do I want to say it?’ and ‘Can I have fun during the process of the project?’ I remembered how to accomplish those things.”
So what does success constitute to you now?
“Success has completely changed. To me, success changes all the time. I think success for me is prioritising my relationship with a power that is greater than myself, it is staying sober, it’s prioritising family, it’s showing up for other people, carrying out my music as far as it’s supposed to go, realising that I am powerless over the outcome. To me, those are the things that I find successful today. At the peak of my success when we were playing arenas with millions and millions of records sold, and all of those things, I still didn’t feel content, I still didn’t feel fulfilled. The things that I just mentioned, those are the things that create fulfilment, that’s lasting longevity. That doesn’t go away. That’s not fleeting, that’s not dependent on me or anything else but me and my relationship with a higher power.”
At the peak of my success when we were playing arenas with millions and millions of records sold, and all of those things, I still didn’t feel content, I still didn’t feel fulfilled
Do you think the music industry is still too focussed on numbers and not longevity?
“Yeah, the music business is a business, first and foremost, of selling records, of capitalising monetarily. You have all of these different platforms that people listen to music on, those are businesses as well. I think that we, as artists, need to be the ones at the forefront - how do we cultivate experience? How do we capture the soul? Those are the things that are going to be a testament to our success at the end of the day. The business is going to do what it does, it’s up to us to tap out of that, it’s up to us as musicians to not pay attention to the numbers. What’s going to resonate? How is it going to work at radio? How is it going to be package? What’s the branding? All of those things are business tactics. For me, as a musician, I want to get back to the root of where this comes from. Oral tradition, passing it onto the next generation, that's what I want to put my emphasis on and prioritise over numbers.”
The good news is you seem to be doing numbers and finding peace of mind, too…
“Yeah, I’m not gonna lie, the numbers are nice, yeah. But again, if my happiness is contingent on numbers I will never be happy. If my happiness is contingent upon other people’s perspective of me and my art I will never be satisfied. That’s a never-ending process that never stops, it can never be enough. Nothing is ever enough. For me, it’s letting go of all of those things. You need to let go entirely in order to really live and breathe the art.”
But how do you train yourself to let go after so many years spent trying to 'make it'?
“For me, it’s a spiritual process. It’s a process of prayer, meditation, 12-step recovery work, maintaining my sobriety, maintaining my recovery. Those are the same things that I define as success. When I’m doing those actions then I’m letting go in the process. I’m letting go of the external. I’m focusing on a world that is much bigger than my own selfish desires and my needs, and trying to become a better human being in the process.”
So where do go from here?
“I am always creating. It’s not necessarily always music. I have a desire to write. Maybe that isn’t another album, maybe that’s a movie, maybe that’s a television show, maybe that’s taking a step back from even putting any sort of art out into the universe. I’m not quite there in terms of knowing what the next move is. I’m constantly in a place of creativity if I chose to be. I’ve been making music since I was 15 years old. That’s a really long time to write raps. I don’t know. I still love it, I still enjoy it. More than anything I still enjoy getting out in front of people and performing. I know there’s more records, it’s just a matter of when I feel compelled to get out and write them.”
You can watch the video for Macklemore's single Good Old Days [Feat. Kesha] below: