words/photos: Ani Yapundzhyan
I was immediately overtaken by a feeling of calm when entering Miguel Atwood Ferguson’s Hollywood home.
The big, sunny living room free of clutter harbors minimal furnishings, each a direct reflection of the man:
A couple of bookcases are filled with musical biographies, most of them jazz, along with some poetry books.
A little Buddhist temple stands in one corner of the living room, and two old school pianos sit in the other, one of them once belonging to Phil Ranelin (borrowed from a friend) and the other to Miguel’s father.
The first thing he does is offer me tea, and I already know there are probably 7 different kinds to chose from in his kitchen.
It’s easy to see how Miguel Atwood-Ferguson remains a calm, positive demeanor in this environment, but a few weeks later he keeps the same cool level-headed pace at The Record Plant studio as he records strings for will.i.am’s new single.
It’s maybe 12 or 13 hours into the session, and Miguel is still smiling, speaking politely to engineers and working. While remaining a perfectionist.
Even when he is explaining something that he doesn’t like in the music, or stating that the sound is not right, he never raises his voice or gets frustrated, he merely states his case in a kind manner while still being aware of 100% of the technicalities in the music.
It’s a rare sight to see in the music game.
Fusicology sat down with Miguel for what turned into an in-depth conversation.
Ani: You’ve said that your parents played tapes on repeat of Beethoven and Chopin when you were a baby. Your exact quote was “Those became the breeding ground for my connection to being a human.”
MAF: You can imagine, if you’re a kid you’re obviously hanging out with your family at times, but other times I was just in my room alone, and there’s these tapes going on, and you can imagine how they seriously affect you, especially if there’s so much heart and ingenuity and just passion that went into all that music, and the time and the construction of that beautiful music, and so many stories in that music, that has incredible depth and imagination so if you’re on a daily regimen for years, listening to that stuff, it’s gonna effect you greatly-it had such an effect on me.
We were in this really beautiful house in Topanga, and when [my parents] would be doing their thing, I’d be in my room-I guess I became a pretty socialized kid early on-but for those first couple of years they were playing all these beautiful tapes and it became like breathing to me, literally the soundtrack for my life.
I’m still reaping the benefits of that.
Ani: I guess there’s something to the idea of a child being smarter and more developed in certain senses if the mother listened to classical music while she was pregnant.
MAF: I think everything effects it. I think Love is the most important thing, you just wanna have an environment of love. Around anyone, regardless of their age, but especially kids.
Definitely with classical music, there’s a certain type of refreshing quality to it, where there’s a certain type of organization and complexity and discipline that is cool. It’s definitely awesome. I think it made me appreciate Jimi Hendrix all the more. Jimmi and Motown and everything else that I got into eventually.
Ani: You are a very positive person. And I guess being Buddhist goes hand-in-hand with that, so you’ve said before “I wanna come up with the healthiest music for people’s minds.” Did you find Buddhism from this mind-state, or did the mind-state come from Buddhism?
MAF: (sighs) I don’t like to be religious, I’m definitely more interested in being spiritual, and I’m proud of being Buddhist and I’ll be practicing Buddhism for the rest of my life. I like to study everything; it’s such a beautiful, infinitely diverse, awesome world. And there’s just so much out there, and you can just keep on growin’.
I think that’s the point: to keep grown’, expanding and empowering yourself and mutually empowering others.
Most of my family suffers from depression. That was the impetus for me in terms of engaging a spiritual life. I got into Buddhism when I was 18.
I’ve had a really good life and I had a really fun childhood, and it was awesome, but both of my parents are manic-depressive, they’re bipolar. And it’s serious to be around one person like that, but when both your parents are like that, and they don’t go out much-I didn’t realize how intense it was until I went off to college and left that environment.
They’re super-positive, loving people. Sensitive, awesome people in many ways, and I think because of their affliction or whatever you wanna refer to it as, they have a certain degree of compassion that wouldn’t have been there [otherwise].
I’ve always suffered myself with depression, and then when I went to USC, I was partying all the time, so I just relied on my talent- I stopped really studying in high school the last two years, and I was just smart, you know, so I could still get straight A’s, I was talented-I never really worked on my talent until like sophomore year of school. I wasn’t too arrogant, but I definitely had some arrogance.
So basically the shit hit the fan my first semester of my freshman year of college in 1998 and I was actually suicidal during this time.
I didn’t really wanna end my life, but I was just so overwhelmed with my emotions and my own connection to the world, I was very dark on society and I really wasn’t happy with how we were living as a whole, as humanity, and so at my most suicidal, I got to a place where I had this really amazing spiritual experience, it was almost like a fairy tale. It was a very real experience I had, I wasn’t on drugs, like hallucinating or something.
I’ve had a couple of really spiritual experiences [before] where everything is really luminescent, and things start to glow. And I was having an experience like that, and on one side I saw death and on one side I saw life-no exaggeration-and I was just right in the middle and that’s where I was in life.
I didn’t really wanna take my life, I just knew that there was something more that I could do with my life, there was this certain balance that I knew I could attain that I wasn’t striking, it was so frustrating and overwhelming and scary trying to get that balance, and I was just there, kind of just looking out the window, and death was just really dark, grey, white, cold and grotesque and life was just this abundant, glowing, colorful road.
I was conscious in the moment that I was having that experience, but I was letting it continue and up until that point, like I was telling you, I just kind of relied upon my talent, and I had arrogance and laziness, I never really gave my life my all, so in that moment, over the course of like an hour when I was having this experience, I made up my mind, I made up my heart that I wasn’t going to take my life, that I was going to live, and I was going to try to have some type of positive impact on the world and that I was going to give my life 100%, and those were like the key things that I came to.
Right around that time I encountered this practice-and I am very skeptical of anything organized close to religion, it’s such a dangerous thing, I mean you have to empower people, and its easy to do the opposite with people through religion-I like to think of Buddhism as more of a philosophy and a practice rather than a religion, so I dove into this particular practice of Buddhism.
I’m a humongous jazz fan, I’m a jazz fanatic-and Herbie and Wayne are two of my favorite musicians and they both practice [Nichiren Daishonin’s] Buddhism, that perked my interest. So when a jazz pianist in my combo told me about it I was like, “Sure, I’ll check it out” and I couldn’t believe how well it worked for me.
Ani: Yes, Buddhism is definitely more of a state of mind than a religion, there’s no “You’re going to hell!” just, “Live your life, be a good person”…
MAF: Yeah, and take responsibility for what’s in your heart.
So I dove into it and it just worked for me. Like, depression really isn’t an issue for me anymore, I take really good care of myself. I’m way more proactive. In terms of being positive, like how you mentioned earlier, that’s where that comes from, trying to break out of my old shit.
Ani: It helps?
MAF: Oh, hell yeah. Night and day.
Ani: You’ve said, “Music is a holy thing.” What other things in life are holy to you?
MAF: Honestly, it’s all equally holy.
MAF: Yeah. It’s all connected, there’s very seemingly real separations between people and things but it really is just One. Music in particular I think is holy because it allows us to get out of the realm of words-even when someone’s singing, they could be singing words, but people connect with the emotion behind it possibly more than the words themselves.
Sometimes the singer can not be the greatest musician or singer but the words they’re saying touch people. I think music is very powerful-and it’s to be respected and it is a holy thing- I’m not just interested in making music that’s tasty: that’s cool too, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m also interested in making music that in a very un-pretentious way is refreshing for people…
I’d rather them not be aware, actually. ‘Cause I’m not tryin’ to be preachy or be self-righteous or anything, but just very simple, kind of awaken something. Like you smell fresh flowers, like “AHH”.
Ani: You’ve said before too, that if you’re not feeling somebody’s music or not feeling a particular studio session, that you just won’t do it.
Ani: Does that happen often?
MAF: It happens quite often and people get really mad at me, LOL!
Ani: That’s a trip, what brings that forth?
MAF: It’s just about organic-ness. I don’t want anything to be contrived and everyone’s time is equally precious.
As I was saying, music is holy to me, and so I make my living with music, and I make music that is commercial at times, but I take it really seriously. And I’m incurring as much genuineness and earnestness when I’m making commercial music as when I’m making the most creative music of my own, my original music. To me, it’s all original.
Ani: You work with so many people; with all the different orchestras, musicians. What do you think others would find to be the most difficult thing about working with you?
MAF: Oh, plenty. I can be uncompromising, I can be really honest. And sometimes that’s the hardest thing to be around: honesty. Even though I think ultimately, it’s the most benevolent thing. And also obviously, it’s about how we share our truth.
The more I dig into my life, the less intimidated I am by my own faults and my own darkness. So I’m just taking that approach like I’m a work in progress and I’m just gonna lovingly, patiently, just plug away at polishing my character and actually making fundamental changes.
Ani: You seem to be an avid reader. What other books do you read besides music biographies?
MAF: I love poetry, so when I’m not reading musical biographies, which is 90% of the time, I’ll be reading the poetry of Haftiz, Neruda, Rumi, or Tagore. Those are my favorite cats.
Ani: Have you ever tried writing poetry?
Ani: You’ve mentioned that Carlos Niño was a mentor as far as breaking down the history of hip hop to you. Can you break him down for me?
MAF: Yeah, he’s a bit of an enigma…I can break it down. I’m probably the best person to break it down: Carlos is just a really brilliant, passionate dude. He’s had an amazing radio show for almost 15 years now on 90.7 fm, KPFK, and he’s one of the most passionate human beings I’ve ever met. And he’s really into music.
He kinda has the mentality of a classical musician and he does listen to a lot of classical music and he really enjoys it, but he has more of a background in hip hop and in modern, popular music.
When I say he has the mentality of a classical musician, I mean he’s into details. He’s into construction. He’s into clarity. And he’s into the bigger picture.
Carlos is an amazing record producer because he’s able to take a lot of elements and summarize those elements in a way that’s really clear to the listener. He’s really an artisan in how he sculpts an album.
Ani: You worked on “Suite For Ma Dukes” 16-20 hours a day the month of the show. How does this start to effect your life? Do you start dreaming of the music?
Ani: Does it become uncomfortable or suffocating?
MAF: I love that music so much, and I love Mochilla so much, I love Dilla’s family so much, I love the orchestra, that that was a very enjoyable thing. Even amidst the pain of working on something that consistently, for that long.
Some people seemingly appear like they don’t really need to sleep, I’m a person that likes to sleep, I need to sleep, so that was difficult, but I knew what a special opportunity that was, but not just for me, for everybody. It wasn’t about me. And it was an honor to be that person that got to suffer. So it was an enjoyable suffering.
[Dilla’s] mom is one of the coolest people I’ve probably ever met, she’s absolutely amazing. She’s so radiant, and her heart is just so huge and she’s so genuine and so present and really compassionate and really non-judgmental.
She’s a hero. She’s hero status for certain. So that fact that we knew that she was gonna be there was huge.
Think about all the suffering that she’s incurred taking care of Dilla and being there. And she has lupus herself, so it’s not like she has 1,000% robust health. But her spirit is so pristine that you don’t even know that she’s suffering. She’s amazing. It was a great experience.
Ani: What happens when the music makes its way into your sleep? In your dreams?
MAF: I work so hard and I do so much that usually when I actually get myself into bed I can go right to sleep. Sometimes I’ll be so wired because I’m so excited about things, but it’s beautiful, it’s something that I wish for people because there’s a certain genuiness to that degree of life, of living, where you’re so invested on that heart level that you’re living your life and there’s not an ounce of you that’s not present: you’re fully present. And it’s exciting. It’s an awesome adventure…and I feel that a lot. Like my everyday life is a dream.
Ani: A writer has said of you, “I’ve never seen him give the same performance twice.” How difficult is that to achieve?
MAF: Well, for someone like me, it’s actually easier to do that.
Ani: How so?
MAF: You know how some pop artists, that’s where they gain their strength, from doing the same show over and over again? And even in each show there might be variations but they got their 12 songs or however many songs…that’s cool, there’s nothing wrong with that…
I couldn’t do that.
I would go crazy…I’m dealing with so many different types of elements that if I tried to do the same show twice, it’d be really difficult. Like even if we’re playing the same material: because I’m dealing with improvisation, I’m dealing with how I feel that day and how my ensemble feels, and the music that I’m interested in is taking certain things that are prepared, written out, but then also taking things that are in the moment, and then fusing those two together, so I like to keep it fresh and…
MAF: Yeah, definitely. That’s healthy right there.
Ani: What new music are you working on?
MAF: There are so many projects. The main project as far as I’m concerned, I’m trying to do my first album. So I’ve been planning for some time with [Flying] Lotus to do it on Brainfeeder: I’m gonna take my favorite rhythm sections and jam on my compositions and then I’ll orchestrate on top. And it’s gonna be really dope. Those are the things that I’m most interested in.
I want it to be historic, like an album that people will remember for hundreds of years. So I’m down to pay the price.
Ani: It sounds like you would have to spend a lot of time working on an album like that. Have you started already? Or has this been something you’ve been working on for years?
MAF: I mean, my whole life.