Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream is an album that splits time between rebellious youth and reverence for a classic feeling. We spoke to Miguel and some of his collaborators about the album, which recently turned 10.
“Kaleidoscope Dream is a metaphor for our life; everyone has their own Kaleidoscope Dream, it is the life that they project and it is the life that they are solidifying with their conscious decisions and their subconscious feelings.” — Miguel for Contactmusic in 2012.
R&B singer Miguel’s second album title sounds like a hallucinogenic experience. When you look into a kaleidoscope you see different colors and shifting patterns; to do so in a dreamlike state would seem like a separation from reality. Yet, when asked about this quote — given around the album’s release 10 years ago — Miguel clarified even further that the root of the title’s origin was much more grounded.
“I had just started reading and really familiarizing myself with The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy,” Miguel told Okayplayer. “Music for me was a way to experience life the way that I chose. It was my way of using my imagination to create situations and emotions that I wanted to feel. I was raised very religiously. Music was really the only place that I could go to express my emotions. In real life, I kept everything to myself. I held everything in, in order to not add any stress to my parents. That whole quote was me in real time, manifesting things that reminded me to keep going.”
Some of this clarity Miguel now credits to therapy. However, the book at the time of Kaleidoscope Dream‘s creation provided a jolt of musical inspiration and direction. The resulting album, a tight 11 tracks that explored themes of toxic arousal, adornment, and existentialism over everything from soulful R&B to ethereal bass-led funk, became a true opus of the singer’s career. While it had songs that reached back and felt plucked out of the atmosphere that made The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23,” it also pushed the R&B genre forward. Among peers like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, Miguel was at the front and center of the rising alternative R&B sound of the early 2010s. Kaleidoscope Dream, which released on September 25, 2012, is his purest representation of a music-moving mission statement — a progressive sonic world.
Embracing alternative R&B
But Miguel’s path to enlightenment wasn’t the only source of inspiration in creating that world. Brian Warfield, one of Miguel’s now career-long collaborators and a part of production duo Fisticuffs, acknowledged how the guitar became an important part of Miguel’s songwriting process going into Kaleidoscope Dream. Unlike his debut album, All I Want Is You, KD found the artist using the guitar more to build out and explore his musical ideas.
“He always wanted to play guitar because, on the first album, he would have ideas. But most ideas he started acapella and we’d just work around,” Warfield said. “Album two, you can hear where it’s more guitar-driven with rock-ish vibes. With the guitar being the focus, that’s kind of where we sonically went.”
For Miguel, the guitar became a vessel to express what he was grappling with mentally and emotionally.
“I leaned into the way I write when I play guitar,” he said. “It’s so much less about the lyrics than it is about the emotion. That’s where some of the freedom in my voice comes from. The guitar, for whatever reason, made me emote. I think that guitar, even in a symbolic way, always represents rebellion. That sort of energy really drove the album.”
Although Miguel and his collaborators admit he is “not great” at playing guitar, it’s those alluring imperfections — paired with various assortments of reverb and distortion — that makes KD an atmospheric assortment of radiant textures. For example, Miguel recalled people always commenting on the “unique tone” of “The Thrill,” which he credited to capturing the “clunky sort of, clinking of the strings,” as he played his filterless guitar with no pick. Warfield took this filterless guitar on many tracks, and assisted Miguel in finding the emotional center he was going for, a bigger recording budget allowing them to go into studios with gear that helped define KD’s sound.
“There’s certain ones that I remember like Space Echo that’s not necessarily a pedal, but actual outboard gear that has a crazy reverb echo,” Warfield said. “Having a guitar dry and going through a bunch of effects processors helped mold the sound. First album, we were still trying to make it different, but it was essentially R&B. Then, once he picked up the guitar and ran it through effects, that’s where you got a lot of the ethereal sounds.”
These sounds would not only help Kaleidoscope cut through the noise but influence R&B moving forward. Engineer Lance Powell, who helped craft much of the last two-thirds of the album, revealed the one specific pedal that became the musical throughline of Kaleidoscope — a “shitty waves plugin” called Spring Reverb.
Powell’s life as an engineer was completely changed by the album. He was an immigrant from New Zealand working at his first professional American studio when the head engineer needed shift coverage one day. That’s when he first tapped in with Miguel during the recording process.
“Because I got Grammy-nominated and went so far up on the charts, it pretty much automatically qualified me for a work visa for the next few years,” Powell said. “I’ve kind of managed to make a career and a life in America since then. So, if it hadn’t been for that record, maybe I’d just be sitting in a little room in New Zealand right now.”
Powell was mostly a facilitator to Miguel’s core vision throughout the process. One standout memory for him was during the making of the album’s title song. Salaam Remi (the track’s producer) and his engineer sent over standard MP3 files instead of WAV ones, so Miguel could work off them to create a bridge. Ultimately, the artist ended up rearranging the whole song over the course of a day, resulting in Powell having to send back files that Remi’s engineer had to re-edit over 100 times into the original WAV files. While this made Powell feel a bit guilty, the end result could be viewed as the centerpiece of the album in terms of precision and layering, the level of detail in the track a testament to what makes KD so enticing.
Powell also recalled intense detail being paid to “Adorn,” the album’s lead single and Miguel’s most popular song to date. Initially released on his first Art Dealer Chic EP as a two-minute bridgeless track, “Adorn” became a fully fleshed-out song for KD — even if it took more time than expected to do so.
“I remember the bridge for ‘Adorn,’ he did that over and over,” Powell said. “He was like, ‘I’m gonna create a bridge — take 20 minutes and it’s gonna be done.’ Then, like three or four hours later, he was just punching this one word. It was like the ‘yeah’ or ‘baby’ at the end.”
As opposed to his back-end diligence, Miguel’s initial songwriting process was much more spur of the moment. This was the case for “Adorn,” which came about when the artist was living between New York and Los Angeles, having to deal with the overwhelming feeling of yearning that came from being away from his girlfriend. On one of many flights back to the West Coast, inspiration hit Miguel in the form of a word he couldn’t get out of his mind: “adorn.” After landing back in LA, the songwriting just flowed.
“The craziest part about that was coming home, blanking out for like two hours, and then having a song,” Miguel said. “I woke up the next morning and was like, ‘Did that fucking happen?’ [My girlfriend] woke up to a fucking song. In the truck [when I played it], she was like, ‘I fucking love this,’ and I was like, ‘Word, OK, cool.’ I didn’t really think much of it.”
Blanking out into brilliance was a regular occurrence in the studio while recording Kaleidoscope Dream, with Warfield, Powell, and Miguel vibing on an idea, and then giving the artist space to explore it in the booth while they went to shoot pool or get food. By the time they’d return, Miguel would have something made. Nowhere on the album is this process more represented than on the unforgettable, stripped-down guitar ballad “Pussy is Mine,” which was inspired by a conversation Miguel had with Warfield and Mac Robinson (Warfield’s Fisticuffs partner).
“It was just ‘guy talk’ like, ‘Look, I just want to feel like it’s fine, and you don’t have to be mine because I know I’m gonna leave. And it may not be the same but I’m gonna give it to you like it is, and I’m going to be in that moment like it is, so…Can you make it that way for me?’” he said about writing the cheeky but lustful track about asking a sexual partner to lie to him about their exclusivity. “I think the real human part is that we all in some way have felt that fear and that desire to be able to be intimate with no reservation.”
What Powell remembered most about “Pussy Is Mine” was how it showed Miguel’s consistency as a vocalist. Up until that point, he had recorded all the vocals on a $99 SM 57 Mic, but for this track he used a $20,000 Vintage Telefunken Mic. Surprisingly, Miguel’s voice sounded exactly the same on both. Warfield credited Miguel’s vocal ability not only to him being a generally superior singer, but the way he uses it as an instrument to fill the empty spaces of songs. Once he would sing over the instrumental and layer background vocals, very little else needed to be added.
“He’d start singing and just turn it into an actual ‘song song,’” Warfield said. “The songs could have different feels, but he’d always bring them together with what he was doing vocally. He also wrote everything, so it was always going to sound like Miguel.”
Although most of the songs for KD were made specifically for the album, there was at least one that was initially supposed to be for another artist — “Where’s The Fun In Forever?” A song Miguel made for Alicia Keys after she flew him out to Jamaica to write for her, “Where’s The Fun In Forever?” was too personal for the artist to let go.
“That song was so personal and genuine like, ‘Fuck it, life is short, but that might be the best part about it is that we don’t have forever to do it all,’” he said. “It was one of the last additions and I begged her to let me use the song, because I knew that my album needed a little more of my outlook on life.”
When asked if that outlook included a form of escapism — which seemed to be a prevalent theme on the album — Miguel pushed back and clarified.
“It was more inviting, it was more, ‘let’s ride,’” he said. “Not so much to get away from anything, but to hopefully see things there that we just didn’t notice…it’s more of an invitation. An invitation to shift perspective as opposed to escaping a situation or a time or place.”
This idea was explored directly on “Do You?” — or “Drugs,” as Miguel called it — a standout toxic seduction anthem. The artist recalled the hilarious moment when he uttered the song’s first words, Powell’s response to them letting him know he was on to something promising.
“I’ll never forget kicking everyone out of the room and just singing the first thing that came out — ‘Do you like drugs?’” he said. “The look on this engineer’s face was like, ‘What the fuck are you…Did you just say that?’ And I knew that that was it. It was dope.”
From there, a discussion between Miguel and an anonymous interest takes place, their affirming “yes” leading into his first verse: “Yeah, well me, too. Do you like love? Yeah, well me too. It’s what we’re gonna do.” While some type of escape could be the result of the conversation, the initial questioning is centered on inviting the object of his affection into his sphere.
With Miguel writing all of the lyrics for KD, it was rare that any of the people working with him on the album also contributed to the lyrical content. But this ended up being the case for Powell, who helped Miguel craft the line, “I put my tongue on your lips,” on “Use Me,” which is still the only writer credit he’s received on an album thus far. Powell recalled how recording the song came to a halt as they tried to figure out the best word for the line, going from explicit to something more subdued but still sensual.
“At first we had this big discussion about what word that would be,” he said. “Originally, it was gonna be ‘I put my tongue on your tits’ or something. He was like, ‘Is it a bit too on the nose? A bit too much?’ Then someone said ‘I put my tongue on your clit’ or something. And eventually I said, ‘I think, on your lips.’”
Powell also made a really key decision in getting a recording of the album’s necessary closing track, “Candles In The Sun,” an emotionally raw and slightly politically-charged track driven by waning synths and pulsing drums. He recalled how Miguel hadn’t loved the studio version of the track, but liked how his touring band had been practicing it. So one night when his band was coming to the studio to rehearse the song — and some others for a potential late night TV gig — Powell mic’d up everything in the room through the console, set up a Pro Tools session, and recorded them.
“We recorded two takes of that song and one of them became the version that was on the album,” Powell said “It was never meant to be on a live version of the album or anything like that.”
Making something timeless
That feel of live instrumentation also played an important part in how Warfield co-produced “Arch & Point.” With Miguel’s sharp guitar leading the way, rather than let it go too far into trap-sounding terrain, Warfield used percussion to evoke a different feel.
“The thing with trap is, aside from the 808, the hi-hat is the most prevalent part of it because it makes everything move,” he said. “We were like, ‘How do we make things move but not necessarily use a hi-hat?’ With ‘Arch & Point,’ the drums are real spacey, with a lot of echoes with claps to fill in spaces.”
This move was essential to highlight the album’s live instrumentation core, which Warfield said is a part of what makes KD timeless.
“We’re still listening to Marvin Gaye and these old bands where it’s just bass, guitar, and drums,” Warfield said. “You can do something with certain sounds, but when you’re sticking with the basics it’s kind of like, ‘How is this gonna sound dated when these are elements that are still being played from the ‘60s and ‘70s?’ I think a lot of the timelessness stems from the live instrumentation — guitars, basses, and then the touches of synthesizers.”
The synths used from the new studio spaces they were able to enter were, for the most part, vintage such as Moogs, Junos, and Jupiters according to Warfield. This is what he thinks helps the listener tap into feelings of nostalgia when they play KD. Kaleidoscope Dream is a project that splits equal time between rebellious youth and reverence for a classic feeling. The end result is an album that pushed listeners to reimagine what R&B could sound like, and foreshadowed the ways that the genre has continued to change.
It makes sense then that Miguel wasn’t listening to anything else for inspiration while recording this album. He was trying to let the artistry flow from within rather than outside sources.
“I was definitely wanting to make overt references to music that I wanted to hear,” Miguel said. “I think I was also letting people in on the artist that I am, and wanting to give people a little more insight on my taste. I do think that it’s important to pay homage. We literally are all standing on the shoulders of giants, so the ideas and the executions that came to fruition before us are what give us the stepping stones to build on. But I do crave music that is both nostalgic and at the same time unfamiliar.”
Miki Hellerbach is a freelance music and culture journalist from Baltimore, whose work can also be found on CentralSauce, Euphoria Magazine, Notion Magazine, GUAP Magazine, and Complex. He also regularly co-hosts the In Search of Sauce music journalism podcast highlighting the top tier work of other writers.
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer