He's getting ready
He’s the BBC Sound of 2012, but with heroes who include Neil Young and Bill Withers, singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka is in music for the long haul, writes JIM CARROLL
THE BBC SOUND Of 2012 is sitting quietly in a busy Dublin hotel corridor. During our interview, dozens of people walk past the table, but Michael Kiwanuka doesn’t warrant a second glance from any of them. While he may well be the one chosen by the pundits, commentators and experts who tip musical next big things, Kiwanuka has a long way to go before the mainstream recognises him.
“I really underestimated it,” says Kiwanuka about topping that poll. “I got a call telling me I was on the longlist and I thought that was cool, but that it would stop there. After I won it, I didn’t really think too much about it.
“But it has definitely meant a step-up in terms of my profile, which I never thought would happen. More people have now heard the music, more people are curious about who I am and it has upped the ante. Plus, when I travel now, I get my own hotel room, which is great.”
That’s going to be handy as he’s set to be travelling a lot this year on the back of his debut album, Home Again. It’s chock-a-block with great, effortless tunes, with Kiwanuka’s fondness for folk, soul and country clear for all to see. While it might seem strange for an act influenced by Shuggie Otis, Bill Withers, Terry Callier and Townes Van Zandt to be the one tipped for greatness in 2012, Kiwanuka has the tender songs, rich voice and vintage poise to overcome all genre prejudices and make people go to the bother of remembering his name.
Behind the soft-spoken, polite demeanour, there’s plenty of steely determination. A while back, he toured with Adele and, every night, he watched from the wings as she went onstage and charmed another big room with her songs.
“Watching her made me want to give it my best shot to get there. You could see this performer coming into her own. My own songs are a bit like hers too in that there’s not too many fireworks around them so it was good to see how she put that across at a live gig. I didn’t have a record out, but it was interesting to see how people reacted to my shows.”
Kiwanuka sees himself being in this for the long run. When he talks about the acts he likes, he notes that most of them took a couple of albums to find their groove. That’s an old-fashioned concept in today’s record industry, but the Londoner hopes to buck the current “instant” trend.
It was on his home turf that he first began to perform in public. “I wrote a few songs way before I had any idea of being a proper singer or songwriter,” he says.
“I just liked writing songs and playing guitar so I did that. I did a few small gigs in pubs around Muswell Hill in north London, playing at nights my mates were putting on, but it wasn’t ever the main goal. I stopped and started concentrating on being a guitar player.”
He landed gigs as a session guitarist with Chipmunk, Daniel Merriweather and Bashy. “That’s how I earned money. It’s a different mindset. If I went back to doing session work now, I know I’d feel rusty. When you’re at the front, you really do approach playing in a different way.
“As a session musician, you are very attentive to your guitar playing. You make sure it’s solid and has a good rhythm and helps the songs. The main thing, though, is learning how to relate to the other members of the band. You get used to playing with lots of different people and really get the feel for what a good band is all about. It’s also really helpful when you see good artists directing their band and letting them know what they want.”
Kiwanuka knew exactly what he was after when he was putting his own band together. “A lot of the older records I love feature session musicians, but they usually stayed together for a long time and really bounced off one another. I mean, look at the musicians who played with Bill Withers on that Live at Carnegie Hall record. They were, by and large, session players, but listen to how they sound. You can always tell when you have a cooking band, that’s a totally different experience than just a bunch of good musicians.”
When Kiwanuka began taking songwriting seriously, he devoted lots of time to it. “I’d get up, pluck away on the guitar, write and listen to old records. It was a really fun time. My mum thought I was lazing around doing nothing, but I was soaking in music. Songwriting is a really cool thing and it’s nice to spend the time trying to write songs. All the songwriters I’m into did the same thing, except they didn’t go to YouTube to check out a band or song.”
He came across a ton of acts who inspired him to keep writing and singing. “I knew Bill Withers’ songs like Just the Two Of Us but I didn’t know he played acoustic guitar until I came across Live at Carnegie Hall. I listened to Shuggie Otis, started delving into Neil Young and went back into Bob Dylan, Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye. Then, I got into Ray LaMontagne because he was doing what I wanted to do, which was to sing really well and write great intimate, heartfelt tunes. Listening to him sent me to Townes Van Zandt and a lot of country records. That’s my thing, I want to sound as soulful and funky as Sly and Shuggie, but I also want to be a heartfelt troubadour like Ray LaMontagne.”
Most of all, Kiwanuka wants to be honest in his music because he knows that’s what people will respond to. “You have to be true to yourself. You can’t be thinking ‘is anyone going to listen to this?’ I want to listen to and perform music like this because I love it. I can’t help it. It’s like Messi. He likes playing football so he keeps playing. It’s not about getting caught up with fads.”
Does Kiwanuka see himself emulating his influences who had a strong social and political strand to their tunes? “Someone who interviewed me in France referred to Tell Me A Tale as a protest song, which I didn’t agree with at all.
“But when I thought about it, I reckoned it could be because it’s talking about how I wanted something. I want to keep writing tunes about what I believe. Marvin Gaye sang about Vietnam because he believed it was wrong. You have to write about what you believe in.
“The journalist was asking me about the London riots, but I wasn’t there and I think you have to be really inside something like that to write about it.
“I really respect people who can write a song that thousands of people can relate to and that also raises an issue. If I can do that, great. But I don’t want to do it in a way which seems contrived or forced. It has to be honest.”
With his debut album out and his live show moving to bigger venues (his Dublin audience has grown from a crowd that fits in the Grand Social to the Sugar Club to the Academy in about six months), Kiwanuka is already thinking about what comes next. We can expect something different.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with this but you have to think about what’s next and I’ve started thinking about where I can go naturally,” he says.
“I can either strip it all down and do a folk record or I can go more Shugie, more guitars, more experimentation, more improvisational, less emphasis on the song. You have to leave behind what you’ve done and move on”.
Home Again is out now on Polydor. Michael Kiwanuka plays Dublin’s Academy on May 19