Who Is…Michael Kiwanuka

Christina Lee

By Christina Lee

on 08.01.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Plaintive songs of wandering and searching wrapped in the sound of '70s soul

For fans of: Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, and Van Morrison

From: London

Home Again

Michael Kiwanuka

Before Michael Kiwanuka topped BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll and earned himself a thousand comparisons to Bill Withers, the singer-songwriter wanted to sound like Jimi Hendrix or The Band. He pined for a Fender Stratocaster, instrument of choice for both Hendrix and Robbie Robertson. However, things don’t always work out the way you plan them, and Kiwanuka ended up reaping the lion’s share of attention for an instrument he already had: his rounded, worn voice, which the BBC showcased beautifully via stripped-down, acoustic title track “Home Again.”

Kiwanuka has since outgrown the smaller clubs where he began, performing at major festivals like Bonnaroo and in front of U.S. crowds for the first time. He’s found that songs like “Home Again” do not always translate quite as well in open spaces. (“It can get kinda lost if you’re not careful,” he says.) However, he remains humbled and level-headed about these opportunities to perform as he’s come. “I always felt like slightly left of center from anything else that’s really going on,” he says. “I never thought my music would fit into something that’s mainstream, you know?”

eMusic’s Christina Lee spoke with Kiwanuka after a slew of festival gigs, about Home Again, the frequent comparisons to Bill Withers and the hazards of drinking beer with dinner.

On subtle influences that pops up in Home Again:

Roberta Flack’s first one — I really like that album. First Take really influenced me, at least in making this album. There’s a song on the album called “Always Waiting,” and the sound of that is kind of influenced by her first album. That’s one that’s not easy to get. The rest of the songs sound like some country songs, but the recording of it was largely influenced by Shuggie Otis and stuff like that.

A lot of what I like about [Flack's] albums is the sound. Her voice sounds amazing — this really, really lovely voice. And her songs are kind of this mixture of folk songs — I love how well those kind of songs are written — and soul music, hearing her voice with the band. You hear a little bit of jazz as well. Those are all the kinds of things that really influenced me as a teenager. Her album of kind of tied together all of those things that I really enjoy in music.

On earning the top slot on BBC’s Sound of 2012 list:

It’s encouraging. If you’re making music, you know you like the music. When people hear and like it, it encourages you to do it more. So it keeps you going. Like a pat on the back, it feels quite nice. Because you like the music yourself, but you never quite know if you’re doing the right thing until people hear it. That was definitely a great indicator. It was also encouraging because I always felt like slightly left of center from anything else that was really going on. So I thought to get on a list like that was quite encouraging. I never thought that my music would fit into something that’s mainstream, you know?

You know, as an artist as well, you always get pressured to sound like everyone else. So this kind allowed me to sort of, just, sound like myself. Because it was picked by the BBC, I guess that gave me a bit of breathing space. All’s well.

On his first guitar:

I remember it really well. It was called a Peavey Raptor. It was like a cheap version of the Fender Stratocaster, so we got it with a small amp called a Peavey 158 or something like that. So I could practice with that, too. Altogether, it was about £150, and my mom bought it for me at a small guitar shop called Rock Around the Clock, which is just down the road. I’ve actually had that for about two years. It was cool; I played it quite a bit. I was listening to the Band at the time, so I wanted a Fender guitar, but I couldn’t really afford that; it was too expensive. [My mom and I] went to the shop together, and so I just told her that this kind of guitar would be good.

On covering Bill Withers’s “I Don’t Know” at New York’s Highland Ballroom:

I’ve only ever covered that song when I played there; I’ve never covered any other Bill Withers songs. I remember that I was just listening to one of his albums and really liking that song. It kind of worked, and it was fun to sing. The Bill Withers [comparison] is kind of weird, because I don’t really listen to him that much. I love his music and the songs, but it’s kind of weird. I’m inspired by loads of other stuff, and I guess it’s my fault for covering one of his songs too, but I don’t think there’s that much on the album that sounds like Bill Withers. But, maybe it does, and I’m just not the best judge.

On the first time he heard the Band:

I was around 15. Basically age 14, 15 was a pretty cool year in terms of listening to music. So I had a friend who was just listening to all kinds of music, from new music to ’80s — and every style as well, everything from Prodigy to Bob Dylan. And I remember, I think we were going camping with his parents, and the song “The Weight” came on in the car. I think he was playing his CD, and I loved that song. I just really love the sound of “The Weight” — the way it feels, the way everyone was singing. It was kind of a rough recording as well, so you can tell it was, like, a band. I was trying to be in a band at that point, and that’s when I started listening to them as well.

On his ideal day off:

I’ll be off in August, so I’m trying to go to my friend’s house in Devon, which is in England. We’ll just kind of settle at his mom’s house, sit and listen to music, go for walks and play football, go to a pub — pretty chilled-out stuff. I love performing music and playing it, but I also just love hanging out when I’ve got time off. I just like conversation, and I like pubs.

On what he drinks:

I love beer, but it depends on what time, because it kind of bloats you. So if you have beer with dinner, you’ll feel about 10 pounds fatter than before because it just sits there. Usually I drink ales now, or some single-malt whiskey — drinks that are flat so you don’t feel bloated.