In many ways, Mikky Ekko couldn’t have chosen a better title for his debut album than Time.
Set for release on RCA this fall, Time will arrive nearly two years to the date after he first shot to mainstream fame as the co-writer and featured vocalist on Rihanna’s emotive hit “Stay,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100 in April 2013. Though the song’s runaway success earned Ekko a slot on the 2013 Grammy Awards performing alongside Rihanna (and a subsequent nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at this year’s ceremony), the 29-year-old singer-songwriter will be the first to admit he wasn’t ready to properly follow up his first smash.
“I told the label from the very beginning what we wanted, and they said they believed in this project and they were down to get it right,” Ekko said in a recent interview from his penthouse suite at the Hilton Times Square. He was about to perform the first concert to be live-streamed from a hotel brand via YouTube later that night, having debuted many songs from Time for the first time the night before in a showcase at Joe’s Pub.
“After [‘Stay’] came out, there was a lot of pressure to capitalize on that momentum,” Ekko continues. “From the label, people on Rihanna’s side. I think we speculated a little bit about going out on the tour with Rih, and I ultimately felt like the songs weren’t there. And I said I’m not gonna go out to promote an album that could be better. And I know the sort of the endless tweaking that can happen, but I feel like we took the time to put together a really, really strong album full of songs that at least for me represents exactly where I am.”
And where Ekko is now is a little left of the pop-R&B realm that Rihanna dominates and a bit further into the soul-baring, vocal-driven soul of singer-songwriters like Sia, Adele and Bruno Mars, many of whose frequent collaborators also appear on Time. Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio), Jeff Bhasker (Mars, P!nk), Stargate (Rihanna, Katy Perry), Dennis Herring (The Hives, Modest Mouse), Clams Casino (A$AP Rocky, Mac Miller), Ryan Tedder (Adele, OneRepublic) and Benny Blanco (Maroon 5, Rihanna) are among the heavyweights who contribute their production and/or songwriting talents, while lead single “Smile” was produced by “Stay” co-writer Elof Loelv (Icona Pop) and co-written by Ekko with Jim Eliot (Ellie Goulding, Kylie Minogue).
If that lineup sounds cosmopolitan, so was the recording process — Ekko wrote and recorded the album in Nashville, Los Angeles, London, Stockholm and other cities between European and North American tours with the likes of Jessie Ware, Justin Timberlake and OneRepublic. The latter inspired a particularly time-sensitive story for the song “Love Me Crazy,” which Ekko finished with the band’s frontman Ryan Tedder mere minutes before going onstage for his opening set at London’s Roundhouse.
“We were in a studio across town, probably five minutes away from the venue, and I’m throwing on my outfit for the stage as I finish cutting the vocals,” Ekko recalls. “So I finish the vocal and I say to Ryan, ‘You think we got it?’ We jump in the cab, I’m putting my in-ear monitors on, I’m getting texts like, ‘Hey, just want to make sure you guys are on the way. And I literally walk into the venue, go up on stage, and my musical director’s like, ‘Literally we have 45 seconds ’til we go on.’ But it was fun – if you wanna keep busy and grow it’s all about your time.”
Ekko previewed several tracks from Time during his 28-minute set for Hilton (curated and produced by Spin Media) — including the title track, a stirring, Sia-worthy ballad Ekko performed in acoustic form that proved to be the album’s centerpiece. “‘Time,’ for me, being the last song I finished, really represents a lot of what I went through to get this album done,” Ekko says. “And time is money. It’s so valuable to not waste a second doing something that I don’t love. That for me is just priceless.”
Nancy Deck, VP of portfolio and full-service brands for Hilton Worldwide, says Ekko (along with R&B singer Bridget Kelly, who performed at a similar event in May) was an ideal way to personify the hotel brand’s “Our Stage. Your Story” campaign, which has hosted many guests’ milestones in its 95-year history. “It’s the place that people use as a personal stage,” Deck says. “When you tell somebody you work for Hilton, it’, ‘Oh, I got married there,’ ‘My anniversary was there,’ ‘We took our kids to swim with the dolphins there.'”
As for Ekko, time was also a crucial factor in confirming his big break — and declining its prime-time debut. “I found out ‘Stay’ was on Rihanna’s record three days before she played ‘SNL,'” Ekko says, noting that the information came with an invitation to perform alongside Rihanna during the telecast. “I was in London, and my management called and said, ‘Do you wanna do this?’ And I said, ‘When?’ And they said, ‘Three days.’ ‘Absolutely not.’ And I think that was the right call. I don’t regret that at all, seeing as things worked out in the end. It’s just one of those things where, you know you wait for the timing, but if you’ve been diligent you know to say no, too. It’s about being prepared and making sure you’re ready for when that time comes.”