Mikky Ekko’s fledgling career received a rocket boost when he was picked to duet with Rihanna on “Stay”, the remorseless Bajan’s 24th US top 10 hit, a tally taking her past Whitney Houston’s total.
The song, which was released in January, is a slow piano ballad about emotional ambivalence and a difficult relationship. “Not really sure how to feel about it,” Rihanna sings; then, sounding bereft – “I want you to sta-a-a-y.” As with so many of her songs, a disturbing spectre hovers in the background: Chris Brown, the on-off singer-boyfriend who beat her up four years ago.
Ekko plays a reassuring role in “Stay”, shadowing his patron with a sensitive high vocal. At XOYO in London, on his first overseas tour, the Louisianan, real name John Sudduth, cemented his good-guy persona with a brief but charming solo performance, backed by a four-piece band.
He opened with “Pull Me Down”, a slow-burning number produced by tyro hip-hop producer Clams Casino. The sound of wind chimes shimmered, then a slow drum beat kicked in. Ekko cradled the microphone stand and crooned romantic blandishments in a boyish voice, smooth but not too ingratiating. The excellently named Clams Casino’s signature style – woozy beat-making for rappers such as A$AP Rocky – was winningly transposed into dreamy pop-soul balladry.
Ekko’s debut album is due next year. Signed to a major label, RCA, he’s pitching for a mainstream audience, an aspiration detectable in the big drums that erupted in each song and seemed to hammer in anticipation of larger audiences. Yet the music wasn’t formulaic chart fodder. A track about a relationship clinging on to life was illustrated by a nagging electronic drone. Another one built up an impassioned momentum that stopped so suddenly it seemed to catch the singer by surprise. He was an unpolished performer, appearing to remember halfway through to look around the venue, not just stare ahead. The lack of slickness, allied to his vibrant vocals, added to the charm.
His version of “Stay” got the biggest cheers, but the most encouraging response, from his point of view, came elsewhere – an outbreak of whoops when he sang, “I don’t want to be alone.”