It’s undeniable that Brian McKnight has a knack for writing love songs. Before he met his wife, Leilani Malia Mendoza, eight years ago, however, the R&B balladeer had never known love.
“All the songs before her, they were never about anyone,” he said.
“I’ve never written about anyone before. Nobody ever did it for me. Having a muse now, for the last eight years, I don’t have to think about writing. The words just materialize. She is my heart.”
Released June 26, his latest album “Exodus” is an ode to his love of Mendoza, most notably the song “Nobody.” The video features footage of their wedding three years ago.
The couple met at a fitness convention in Los Angeles in 2012. McKnight invested in a fitness product and she was a Hawaiian Tropic model signing autographs.
“We met and it was love at first sight,” said McKnight, best known for the song “Back at One” “She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life—the most beautiful woman anyone’s seen in anyone’s life.
“To make her want to like me or talk to me…I must have done something right.”
McKnight will bring those songs to town when he plays two drive-in shows at WestWorld of Scottsdale Polo Fields on Friday, September 18.
“I’m absolutely looking forward to it,” he said. “Six months is the longest time in my career I’ve gone without doing a show. I have new music that I haven’t been able to play since this all happened. It will be amazing.”
The show will feature only McKnight on keyboards and guitar. (The multi-instrumentalist also plays bass, drums, percussion, trombone, tuba, flugelhorn and trumpet.)
“The cool thing is it’s just me,” he said. “It’s a solo show—no band, no real pomp and circumstance. It’s very in your face and personal. It’ll be interesting. We’ll see how far away the cars are going to be. It’s just going to be great to play these songs and sing for this audience. None of us could have foreseen how this would all play out.”
Born in Buffalo, McKnight began his musical career in childhood when he became a member of his church choir and a band leader for his high school, Sweet Home High School.
By the age of 19, he signed his first recording deal with Mercury Records. In 1992, his self-titled album was released followed by “I Remember You” (1995) and “Anytime” (1997). “Anytime” sold more than 2 million copies and was nominated for a Grammy. In 1999, McKnight released “Back at One” on Motown Records, which sold over 3 million copies. Along with several Grammy nominations, McKnight has been the recipient of American Music Awards, Soul Train Awards, NAACP Image and Blockbuster Awards, and Billboard Songwriter of The Year.
“Exodus” just may follow suit. Eleven of its songs are about Mendoza. The 12th song, “Can’t Say Goodbye,” was written for Kobe Bryant, while song 13, a cover of Sting’s “Fragile,” is an ode to social injustice.
“Historically, when people are being oppressed, great civilizations fall,” he said. “Everything is so fragile right now. I have hope for America. It has been resilient in the past. This is a reminder about as far as we’ve gone, we have quite a way to go. It took these events to remind us of that.”
“Exodus” is McKnight’s final album, but that doesn’t mean it’s the final chapter in his music career, as has been frequently published.
“In this day and age, when everything is singles driven, it’s not even a thing to put out an entire record. There are other ways—EPs and singles. As for putting out an entire album of new material, I’m not doing it again. In no way am I retiring, though.”
If You Go
When: 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sept. 18
Where: WestWorld of Scottsdale Polo Fields, 16601 N. Pima Road, Scottsdale
Tickets: $160 to $300 per carload