It’s unusual for new acts to appear with a Billboard Number One and 2.5 billion streams already under their belts — but when you hear MYKL’s fresh, idiosyncratic take on pop you’ll know Anthony and Michael Hannides like to do things differently.
The brothers have been performing together since their teens but, having topped the charts as songwriters and producers for the likes of Zayn Malik, Rita Ora and Craig David the award-winning singers, songwriters, producers and multi-instrumentalists are ready to put their exciting new twist on emotional R&B pop front and center. Their music’s roots lie in the music that echoed around the Southampton house the brothers once called home — everything from Michael Jackson, Elton John and Tracy Chapman to Boyz II Men, Dru Hill and Az Yet — and in the duo’s early forays into performance that saw Michael playing piano from age two, Anthony performing at his uncle’s wedding at age five, and the pair writing their first song together when they were 11 and 8 respectively.
But it was a few years later, with the brothers still in their mid-teens, that the band they’d formed with a cousin and a friend caught the eye of a manager who wangled them into a session with British-born, Sweden-based tunesmith Herbie Crichlow, who’d delivered hits for some of the planet’s biggest artists. “I was 13 years old,” Anthony remembers, “and I thought: this is it. This is 100% going to be it. I came back home after a fortnight in Sweden and I knew we were going to make it.”
He was right, ultimately, but there was a decade’s worth of hurdles and dead ends to negotiate first. The sessions in Sweden hit a dead end. Then there was the period in which their band, 4-Tune, found themselves on the first ever series of The X Factor, but got booted out at judges’ houses. And the time not long after when they were courted over a period of several months by Matthew Knowles, who was looking for a boyband to sit alongside Destiny’s Child in his roster. That too came to nothing.
When school finished the brothers put together a business plan and secured funding from the Prince’s Trust, which their bank agreed to match — the whole lot went on studio time and promotion, topped up by whatever they could make from gigging. Then 4-Tune were invited to take part in season two of The X Factor, this time making the live finals at the time when the show’s impact meant the band could subsequently secure live bookings. Arena dates, “all the Butlins”, Club 18-30 nights, that sort of thing. Anthony reckons they did a gig every three days for two years, with their dad acting as tour manager. It was not exactly glamorous. “We used to drive up to Newcastle for £350 a time to get ashtrays thrown at us, basically,” Anthony laughs. “We’d turn up, they’d go ‘we haven’t got any mics’, and we’d end up miming into walkie talkies.”
When 4-Tune reached its natural end Michael and Anthony continued making music together, funded by a succession of part time jobs and family support. It’s not hard to pinpoint the origin of their determination: they grew up seeing their father work from eight until eight each day to advance his career. His own father had arrived in the UK from Cyprus with nothing: when he picked up labouring work he was known as Barefoot Boy, because he couldn’t afford shoes, but years of hard work led him to eventually build and run his own restaurant. Anthony and Michael’s mum, meanwhile, was a refugee — she’d been held in a camp at age 11 during 1970’s war in Cyprus before eventually managing to escape to the UK. Not a family, then, in which anything is expected on a plate, and when they were growing up, sharing a room together with their beds separated by a drum kit, Michael and Anthony clearly absorbed their family’s strong work ethic. “Our dad definitely didn’t spoon-feed us, but he did inspire us,” Anthony adds. “He said: ‘if you need money, get a job at Tesco. I’ll support you, but I’m not going to pay for everything.’”
With the last of the money from those 4-Tune gigs Michael and Anthony started to invest in a basic home studio. The vocal booth was a cupboard with old curtains hanging inside it. “We weren’t earning any money for three years,” Anthony remembers. “The money from the gigs had been tiding us over, but that ran out. We were working, eating, sleeping, working out in the same place.” But then, out of the blue, came a breakthrough, when they co-wrote and produced their first Top 10 hit: Maclean’s My Name.
Work with artists like Jay Sean, Alesha Dixon and Conor Maynard followed and eventually the pair could afford their own studio. It was a fortuitous move. One day in the studio carpark Michael, who’d been to the gym and was without his glasses, spotted someone he thought he knew. They started chatting; it turned out Michael was chatting with a member of the world’s biggest boyband. And when Zayn Malik asked what Michael did, and Michael explained that he and his brother made pop R&B, Zayn’s eyes lit up. A few days later MYKL were in the studio when there was a knock on the door. It was Zayn, and after hearing some of the duo’s music, he said: “This is exactly what I want to do for my album.” As Anthony remembers: “He hadn’t left One Direction at that point, but we knew it was a sick opportunity, especially because we connected so strongly with him. We thought: ‘This could really work.’”
In addition to writing Zayn’s debut single Pillowtalk, MYKL worked on a significant proportion of Zayn’s debut album, and it’s a relationship that’s continued into 2018 with their names also appearing on his recent single Let Me. And after years of hard graft, the success with Zayn was the affirmation the brothers needed. “People would tell us our songs wouldn’t get released, and they were songs Zayn ended up cutting,” Michael remembers. “We’d believed so strongly in what we were doing. All our mates were buying houses and moving on with their lives, and we were stuck in a bedroom writing songs. All we had was pride in our music, and a belief that we were right.”
For Anthony and Michael, getting to know Zayn must have been a little like gazing through the looking glass: if 4-Tune’s own X Factor dreams had come to fruition they, too, would a few years later have been considering solo careers. They could also see, in Zayn, that the fame and fortune they at one point had pinned their hopes on wouldn’t necessarily have led to happiness. “I was a year younger than Zayn when I was on the show,” Anthony adds, “so it did feel like we’d had a similar experience, just that his had gone the way we hoped ours would. But you could see that his real happiness came from making music he wanted to make.”
When you have an international Number One your inbox blows up, and having waited so long for success Anthony and Michael did what you’re supposed to do in that situation: they took all the meetings, and they went to LA, where they went into endless rooms writing endless hooks with endless collaborators. “It was a strange time,” Michael remembers. “We were sitting there thinking, ‘what can we write that’s cool?’. And through doing that we realised we work best when we instead ask ourselves, ‘what can we write that’s emotional, and really means something to us?’” Luckily, the duo realised all this before it was too late. They put on the brakes, cancelled their sessions and came back to the UK. “For us it had stopped being a creative process,” Anthony remembers. “We knew we had to go back to the two of us and write for ourselves. We went back to what really matters.”
So MYKL — it stands for Make You Know Love — was born. “The thing is, we just missed performing,” Anthony admits. Michael adds: “We were also finding that sometimes we’d get an artist in and their version of our song wouldn’t sound as good as our own demo. So we thought: ‘Maybe we should release them ourselves? If we don’t do this now, we’ll regret it forever.’”
MYKL’s sound is all about diverse sounds from a well-defined sonic palette, and the band have plenty of reference points in common with artists like Frank Ocean and The 1975 — Prince and Michael Jackson are both in there, for instance. But there’s more too: the sound Michael and Anthony are calling electrosoul, bolstered by their trusty OB-6 synthesizer combined with two lifetimes’ worth of love, life, heartbreak and experience dripping from the lyrics. And when Anthony thinks back to those mid-teen sessions with Herbie Crichlow, and the songs he wrote back then, he’s relieved success did not come instantly. “At that age I was writing about love having never experienced it,” he laughs. “You need to get older to know what you’re saying. I didn’t know what love even was back then; my lyrics got deeper as I grew up, and darker as I experienced more heartbreaks.”
This experience makes itself felt in Vitamin, which Anthony describes as “a fantasy — a song about envisaging your future with someone and how your new love will build, and the simultaneous feeling of nervousness that what you’re dreaming of hasn’t even begun yet”. There’s some harsh reality, too, in songs like Safe House. It’s a song Zayn wanted for his second album but, as Michael explains, “it was our little baby, so we held onto it. It was important we kept it. It was too personal”. Anthony says that the song is based on real events: “I was going through a breakup — in fact Michael and I both were, which seemed to happen quite a lot. We each felt that we needed to get away from the madness of everyday life, calm the situations down and fix our relationships before they died.” (There was a happy ending for Anthony — he got married and had a kid.)
Outside MYKL’s music the pair are constantly plotting. Their brains won’t turn off, is how Anthony describes it. There’s the app idea they’re currently developing, for instance, as well as an animated film about spiders. But ultimately their thoughts always snap back to their first, last and forever love: music. And when asked how the band celebrated when their Zayn song hit Number One in America, Michael’s answer is incredibly revealing. “When you have a Billboard Number One… Well, you can’t get bigger than that as a songwriter,” he says. “But we didn’t celebrate. I couldn’t figure out why, but a day or two later we were in the studio and that’s when the feeling hit me: I realised for the first time that a song’s success isn’t what makes us happy. Writing the song itself: that’s the happiness.”