Cktrl Wants to Reimagine What We Know as Classical Music

Cktrl, real name Bradley Miller, is reinventing what the world knows as classical music. The producer and instrumentalist has constructed a musical world centered on strong artistic principles, and his new EP, zero, is a testament to those values. Serene, tranquil, and transformative, the album is a genre-bending mix that features a collaboration with Grammy-nominated artist Mereba and stands as a delightful sequel to Miller’s soul-baring 2020 EP, Robyn.

Miller sits down with BAZAAR.com to chat about creating zero, demystifying and diversifying the world of classic music, and getting Beyoncé’s stamp of approval.

What was the creative process behind the conception of your new EP, zero? How did you approach making it?

Robyn, which was my first EP, was a very personal project. It’s the first thing I put out that was actually about my life. The majority of it was classical music and jazz. So with the next EP, I thought, How can I still put my instruments forward and show more without alienating people that are just getting into it? It’s very different from my last EP, but it does feel like a natural progression. I’m always dealing with emotions and stories about love, because I’m a very open, loving person, and that always come through in the music and the storytelling.

Everyone can relate to having that one person you considered the perfect person, but it didn’t work. But at the same time in your heart, you still wish them well. Robyn was a story about my heartbreak and how I leaned on a lot of friends. A lot of times in my life when things have gone right, it’s always been a woman that’s sorted me out and been in my corner.

What story would you say your last EP tells, compared to the story zero tells?

Definitely confidence. When I put Robyn out, I wasn’t necessarily confident. It was more me saying, “This is my truth.” I’ve been trying to do music actively for a long time, maybe 10-plus years. It’s given me a quiet confidence to be like, “Okay, I can tell my story the way that I want and not just necessarily in music, but also visually as well.”

My main thing as an artist is that where I’m based has an impact on decisions that I make. I think just in the U.K., in general, as a Black artist, there’s a ceiling for how big you can get. If you’re a Black actor in the U.K., they’re not gonna give you the lead or let you play James Bond. But the difference with music is that you can be big here, but as soon as you get bigger, your integrity is less and less, and I know that’s not something that I need to do.

Robyn gave me purpose. Robyn was my honest truth and had a rawness to it. With zero, I went into the process with intention. It’s very different to what was on Robyn; it’s classical music, it’s piano.

How did your hometown and upbringing influence your sound today?

My dad’s from Jamaica, and my mom’s from Montserrat. That definitely influences my production and how I approach my music. Also, the part of South London where I grew up, there’s so many of us [musicians] from here. I used to record so many people in my house, like J Warner, D-Block Europe, and so many others. There was this guy named Prodigy, when I was younger—he had a studio. I learned loads just from watching people from my area that were older and doing their thing in music, who have gone on to do great things now. There’s a lot of talent in the area just feeding off each other.

You’ve been very vocal in the past about the art scene making money off the gentrification of Black art. Could you expand upon your thoughts about the race gap within the music and art worlds?

The way you will see a big corporation in the fashion world steal from a designer, rip off their designs, and mass replicate it on Fashion Nova is the exact same thing that keeps happening to our [Black] culture time and time again. But if we have a collective mind of our own economies and our own worth, that would happen less. The resources are us; the currency is us. So, if we’re together, then we can negotiate and do better business.

You have some people who want to be the only one, but me personally, I never really want to be known as the first Black anything. It’s cool, but we need to change it up. I feel like now it’s better vibes in terms of those kinds of collaborations and people coming together collectively to do things. I’ve got a really nice community here that I can lean on and be creative and other things. Especially when things get poppin’, I’d rather be there with my people.

When it comes to the representation of Black artists within the classical music sphere, there is so much talent, passion, and interest, but very little in the way of opportunities or resources available. How do you think we can push back against the gatekeepers?

It’s definitely an access thing, and for the people who do have the access, it’s important to think about what’s going to make me practice and see it through. I don’t even think it’s a thing of pushing back or visibility—you just have to do. Sometimes, people look for validation from white establishment. I don’t want that. Validation is obviously something that people see, but that’s what cripples visibility, because as Black artists, we are always gonna get labeled as the Black version of what we do. For example, right now if you go online and look at the reviews of Robyn, it will probably say it’s all jazz, and I’m like, “It’s not actually much jazz happening, but okay.”

Most of the time, if you voice something, people are initially in opposition to it. But if you just go out there and be the thing you want, then it’s forever. So for me, it’s not necessarily about pushing back and making Black classical music more known. It’s more that I would rather make it accessible to young, Black people that want to get into it.

People like to say there’s a London jazz scene, and there is, but I’m definitely not in it. Growing up how I grew up, I know my purpose is different. There are always going to be people who want to learn instruments or want to read loads of music at the beginning in life. But there are also other kids who maybe that’s not their story. They might not be that academic, or they might not necessarily hone in on their craft when they start learning so they can see someone of their likeness. With Robyn, what I hope to do is get a lot of the music in the school curriculum and get it into the syllabus. So if you are Black and learning clarinet, you can learn a piece about someone that looks like you, that you can follow on Instagram, because then you’re probably going to practice.

What was it like being part of Beyoncé’s Black Is King film?

Jenn Nkiru is the director, and she is the best. She is a friend of mine, and she told me, “I’m doing this thing. I want you to be in it.” I was like, “Cool,” because I’ve always wanted to be in one of Jenn’s things. And then, we get there, I look at the NDA, and it says Parkwood [Beyoncé’s production company] at the bottom, and I was like “What’s this?” So that was an incredible experience. The whole process was really cool, and I met some really nice people. Hopefully, Beyoncé might see me one day, so I can say, “It’s me from the film! Remember?” [Laughs.]

What lies next on the horizon for you? What new ventures can we look forward to seeing?

In terms of music, I’m working on putting out another EP; it’s called Yield. Also, I want to work on getting the classic music that I’ve been making in the curriculum in music to study—like, the same way you would study Beethoven, you would study cktrl music. Outside of music, I might have a go at acting.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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