Michael Kirby personifies tenderness. The Connecticut-born, East Harlem-based singer lightly patters over our heartstrings with sprigs of blues for good measure. His 2018 album, Spying on Heaven, is a quiet triumph of rhythm and soul. Selections range from simmering love songs to honest portraits of Kirby’s trials as an aspiring artist and altruistic man.
Kirby’s work exists at the intersection of thoughtfulness and emotiveness. For all its honesty, Spying on Heaven does not lead with sentimentalism. At its heart is Kirby’s springing vocal tone. He skips over guitar plucks and the gentle rap of drums. He makes us lean into his words and leaves us feeling fulfilled. Spying on Heaven is a welcome and comely affair.
“The whole process of making the music and blending in the title Spying on Heaven was feeling like good things are coming, my heaven is coming, but I ain’t there yet. The music speaks to that, especially through relationships,” Kirby, age 23, tells me.
Relationships are at the forefront of Spying, and Kirby’s light touch carries us between love songs and tracks dealing with cruel heartbreak. In 38 seconds, “Honeymoon” captures the importance of loving yourself for your flaws and being loved by your partner for those same imperfections. “I Like It” deals with temptation and risk in love with a series of popping high notes. Surprisingly enough, Kirby reveals he used to be an aggressive “rapper’s rapper,” that is until he heard D’Angelo and realized lightness was the sound and style for him.
“When I first dove into D’Angelo, he just lightened me up,” Kirby explains. “My music was angry and his was soft. It makes you feel good. I love listening back to my old stuff because I’m usually spilling something out of my soul. It’s like I can understand myself better when I’m hearing something that I’ve created.”
Michael Kirby’s soul is stunning. His music is consistently linked to philanthropic efforts; he spends his days as a teacher. He wants fans to hear the fullness of his work and realize that his mission is to pursue things bigger than himself. There’s a hint of altruism to his approach and the music is better for it. Kirby’s freestyling over the guitar, quick notes, and candor make Spying on Heaven one of the most tender projects of 2018.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you first realize the power of music?
Michael Kirby: Middle school… MTV Jams. My sister got me into music. I think Talib Kweli and Mos Def are the first artists I fell in love with and got an emotional reaction out of hearing music for the first time.
How did that lead to you doing your own work?
Middle school, a lot was going on. I lost a friend, a basketball teammate who had died on the court. My parents had gotten divorced when I was in middle school, too. I looked to writing. I first started writing poetry, just writing rhymes and trying to emulate what the hip-hop artists I listened to were doing. It graduated to different forms of creativity: playing guitar, doing more with my voice, rapping and singing on the mic.
Who influenced your early sound?
Mos Def, Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, and when I hit high school and started picking up the guitar more and expanding what I wanted to do musically, a lot of the drivers changed. It was more R&B, soul, neo-soul type artists: Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Frank Ocean. That steered my sound and I stayed into more singing since then.
How did you go about defining Michael Kirby in the present day?
It feels good. It’s positive. It’s warm. There’s not a lot going on. There’s an emptiness to it I feel is calming.
You blend your musical efforts with philanthropic efforts like Music Makes Meals. Can you tell me about them?
I’m also a teacher, so I have dedicated my life to shedding light for others. It’s always something I’ve been interested in; doing things that are bigger than myself. Making music and trying to grow a social platform can become a little vain. It takes away from what made me go to music in the first place. So as much as I can, when I release or make something, I want the cause to be bigger than just making my platform bigger. I knew when I was making [Spying on Heaven], that I wanted it to contribute to something. My friend Alex [Siber] was the one that helped me realize which effort would be the best one and we centered on food banks.
In 2018, you dropped Spying on Heaven, which is intimate from the title to the cover. Can you talk me through this process?
When I was in college, I was going through a lot. It was my first time away from my family. I was in New York and I went through waves of depressive episodes. I was low sometimes. The whole process of making the music and blending in the title Spying on Heaven was feeling like good things are coming, my heaven is coming, but I ain’t there yet. The music speaks to that, primarily through relationships.
I love the tenderness of your music. How did you acquire such a light touch with your work?
D’Angelo. D’Angelo was the first artist I listened to that made me think about making my music feel a different way than it felt when I was first coming up. When I was in middle school and early in high school, I was rapping. I got influence from everywhere to be more aggressive, rap even harder. When I first dove into D’Angelo, he just lightened me up. My music was aggressive and angry, and his was soft. It makes you feel good. I love listening back to my old stuff because I’m usually spilling something out of my soul. It’s like I can understand myself better when I’m hearing something that I’ve created. I like how this feels better. I like where I’m at emotionally and mentally. Listening to D’Angelo made me find a sound and style I feel good about.
Which song on Spying was most important for fans to hear to get a sense of who you are?
I really like “Stay Awhile” or “Smother.” I put more effort into both of those than any other song on the project, from a production standpoint. In “Stay Awhile,” I’m doing a little bit of light rapping but also singing. There’s a bridge in there. I showcase a lot of things I can do. It’s one of the few songs on the project that are full. A lot of the songs I make are concise.
Why do you make short songs?
I don’t like to force shit. Whenever I start saying something over and over, that’s the hook. That’s what needs to come out right now. Sometimes, all that needs to come out is 30 seconds. I’m not gonna sit here and try to make a verse-hook-verse-hook-bridge-hook song because that’s not how songs should work. I don’t believe in that. Whatever it feels like it should be, that’s how I’mma leave it.
We have a clear portrait of who you are, but who do you want Michael Kirby to become?
I wanna get better at every single thing I’m doing in my life right now. I wanna be a better boyfriend; I wanna be a better teacher. A better, more honest artist. A better producer. A better singer. I wanna be better at karate. I have my life spread out and I’m happy with everything I’m involved in right now. It’s about staying in all those different fields, committing to them. I feel good about where my life is at and how I’ve positioned myself. It’s just about continuing to live in it.