Editorial note: The following is a guest post from our friend and Live Fix contributor Moira McCormick who recently sat down to chat with Michael Kiwanuka before his gig in New York.
“I’m just enjoying the roller coaster,” says Michael Kiwanuka, a few hours before the Sept. 18 opening concert of his current U.S. tour, at Webster Hall on New York City’s Lower East Side. And what a ride it’s been – the coaster seems to be in in perpetual ascent, heading up and up and up, with no sign of having reached the peak.
The 25-year old British-Ugandan singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who plays Park West tomorrow night, has been garnering heaps of positive attention in his native England ever since being discovered by the Bees’ Paul Butler. Butler, struck by Kiwanuka’s arresting amalgam of folk, soul, jazz, and blues – delivered in a husky, lived-in croon that belies his tender years – began producing Kiwanuka at his studio on the Isle of Wight.
The sessions resulted in two EPs on folk-rockers Mumford and Sons’ Communion label last year. Then, after being hand-picked by Brit soul sensation Adele as the opening act for her 2011 U.K. tour, Kiwanuka went on to earn the same high-profile honor that Adele had captured in ’08: he won the BBC Sound of 2012 poll this past spring. He then released, to wide-ranging acclaim, his first full-length album, “Home Again” – highlighted by its enrapturing leadoff track, the flute- and horn-adorned “Tell Me a Tale.” Much international touring ensued, including first-time jaunts to New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Germany, France, Scandinavia, and the U.S. – where Kiwanuka appeared at Lollapalooza in August.
“Chicago’s my second-favorite city, next to New York,” Kiwanuka remarks, surveying the homey East Village tearoom called Podunk where this interview’s taking place, and digging into a light but fortifying set of sandwiches and scones, washed down with a pot of Darjeeling.
While ensconced in Chicago in early August, Kiwanuka not only toughed out his midday Lolla set (“It was baking hot,” he remembers, “but a really fun gig”) and caught evening headliners the Black Keys (whose singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach had produced the “Home Again” track “Lasan”). He managed to spend three of his four days in the Windy City geeking out over antique guitars (purchasing one, too) at the Rock N Roll Vintage shop on Lincoln Avenue; when in town, he’s also a frequent customer of sprawling rarities store Chicago Music Exchange. “Other than playing guitar, just learning about and seeing guitars is something I can do all day. I can drive people crazy,” he laughs. “I love it.”
Kiwanuka was born in 1987, to a mother and father who’d escaped the despotic reign of Uganda’s Idi Amin in the ’70s and moved to England. While he recently discovered that cousins on his father’s side had played guitar in Ugandan bands, his parents “didn’t really listen to music when we [an older brother and he] were younger,” says Kiwanuka. “We had a record player, but that broke when we were really young. And it wasn’t on the list of priorities to fix; they thought maybe we could use the money in another way. So the music I started listening to was pure Western guitar music, in secondary school…That’s why there’s not really much out-and-out Ugandan influence in my music.” (Kiwanuka’s recordings are played on Ugandan radio, however and even though, according to the artist, there’s a scarcity of record stores in that East African nation, “My mum takes some over” on her regular visits to the homeland.)
Young Michael was raised in a musically significant area of London called Muswell Hill, renowned for having produced the Kinks. When it is suggested that Kiwanuka’s the second most-famous export of Muswell Hill, he’s delighted – and humble.
“Hopefully,” says Kiwanuka, “if I can keep going, if I can make a few more records, then maybe I can get near the Kinks. I mean,” he adds with a grin, “the Kinks will [always] be the godfathers of Muswell Hill.” Incidentally, Kinks frontman Ray Davies himself personally presented Kiwanuka with his music diploma when he graduated from secondary school at Fortismere, which was Davies’ own alma mater in its previous incarnation as the Creighton School. “He’s, like, the honorary Fortismere guy,” Kiwanuka remarks. “He hands out awards and stuff.”
Having taken up rock guitar himself at age 11, Kiwanuka says he began gigging around London in a series of cover bands when he was 16, “playing for 50 pounds a night, trying to get into the music scene that way.” Then he dug deeper, for a time, into his fascination with another quintessential American genre, studying jazz guitar for about half of the four-year course at London’s Royal Academy of Music. “There’s a lot of dedication to being a jazz musician, so I thought I wasn’t really gonna put all the time in it that was needed,” explains Kiwanuka. Plus, he says he loved Radiohead, Nirvana, and Pink Floyd as much as he did Wes Montgomery and Miles Davis, and the more narrowly circumscribed curriculum at RAM “didn’t really fit the road I wanted to take.”
Now 20, Kiwanuka went back to playing rock guitar around London – and he finally began to sing. For a musician whose soul-burnished pipes have been enthusiastically compared to those of long-gone greats like Otis Redding, and Chicagoans Curtis Mayfield and Terry Callier, Kiwanuka had what in retrospect is an inexplicably scant regard for his own vocal ability.
“I never really sang for anyone, or to anyone; I didn’t even know if I could,” he says, earning incredulous looks from the others at his table. “I mean, I was in a choir, but I went because my friend Johnny went. I couldn’t read a note – and when I had to sing, like, a solo, I’d just muck about. People thought I was this…joker, which I kind of was. But I just didn’t want it to sound like crap.”
At this point Kiwanuka had been expressing his rock-guitarist inner self with an acoustic instrument for several years, having come across an unplugged, alternate version of Otis Redding’s classic single “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” when he was 14. “It was on a covermount CD from Mojo magazine’s ‘Soul Riot’ issue,” he says, referring to the August 2001 edition of the esteemed U.K. music mag, which included a CD compilation of sociopolitical soul from the ‘60s and ‘70s. It included such tracks as “When Will We Be Paid (For the Work We’ve Done)” by Chicago’s Staple Singers, Sly and the Family Stone’s “Luv N’ Haight,” and Sam Dees’ “Why Must We Live in Chains.” Prior to hearing “Soul Riot,” Kiwanuka says, “I didn’t know music had anything to do with anything that was going on socially.”
The album offered another revelation: the aforementioned “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay (Take 2).” “And this song came on,” the artist recounts, “and it was like, whoa, what’s this? It had a guitar, an acoustic guitar. I’d been listening to, like, the Nirvana b-sides album, ‘Incesticide,’ so I was used to acoustic guitar; I knew that sound. But the singing was so kind of soulful – I’d never heard singing like that. And it had horns and a saxophone in it. It really lit my imagination, so that was pretty much the main thing as to what changed my route [from electric to acoustic]. For some reason I love the intimacy of acoustic guitar.”
Now writing and performing his own music, in addition to serving as sideman for drummer James Gadsen (who formerly played with Bill Withers, another acoustic-soul man to whom Kiwanuka’s likened) and Tinie Tempah producer Labrinth, the burgeoning artist saw the components of his career locking into place in seemingly preordained fashion. From the nigh-effortless way his five-piece band fell together, to “the first EP’s in the U.K. up to [the present], it’s been a gradual climb – which has been great. Doors kept opening at the right time; I was meeting people I needed to meet when I needed to meet them.” And said people have included a certain titan of hip-hop who hails from Chicago.
“There’ve been a few people now who’ve heard the album,” Kiwanuka relates, “and they’ll call and ask if I want to be on a track of theirs. Mostly I say no…but recently I said yes.
“I haven’t actually told anyone,” Kiwanuka confides. “I don’t know if it’s meant to be top-secret or not; I don’t know if I’ll get in trouble, but hey, that’s life.
“We were in Los Angeles,” he continues, “and we finished this gig, and our manager said, ‘Oh, Kanye West likes your album. He wants you to go to Hawaii in a few days and work on music’.” I was, like, ‘That’s mad – I want to go see what it’s like, and if it falls apart, it falls apart.’
“And I was terrified – and I went to Honolulu, for five or six days. I think I’m going back again; it was a good experience. He’s very natural, and in the end, the song that he seemed to like [the most among] what I worked on – which I have to finish – was the most natural to me as a musician.
“Kanye doesn’t [just] throw these beats,” Kiwanuka continues, “and say, ‘Hey, man, can you sound like John Legend, or Adam Levine?’ He’ll say, ‘I’m into your album; can you do what you do? It might work, or maybe it won’t.’
“It’s about building on something that’s natural, organic; once you can do that, if it is good, then it’ll be good forever. Someone like Kanye goes so far because he understands that.”
Following tea and this interview – and before his gig at Webster Hall – Kiwanuka’s off to tour Jimi Hendrix’s fabled Electric Lady Studios, not too far from the tearoom. “He’s just incredibly creative,” says Kiwanuka of the matchless guitarist, who died in 1970. “We listen to him a lot before gigs, in the dressing room – the live ‘Band of Gypsies’; I like Buddy Miles’ singing. “Electric Ladyland” – I love that album…
“It’s been a really cool year, man,” Kiwanuka reflects, adding, “My biggest dream is to have a career. My favorite artists had careers – Dylan, Hendrix, Marvin Gaye.
They made music, they changed and morphed, they grew as artists. Real artists.”
Watching Kiwanuka Evolve
It will be exciting to watch Kiwanuka grow and evolve as a live performer as he makes his way across the U.S. this Fall.
And as I think more about Kiwanuka’s story thus far, like his cover band gigging as a teenager and his preshow Hendrix rituals, I wonder how those experiences will influence future shows and how those shows will influence his next album.
That said, here’s a few previous Live Fix explorations to take us deeper to explore those questions:
Share Your Story
If you’ve seen Kiwanuka live before or looking forward to catching his show during we’d invite you too share your concert experiences and thoughts in the comments below and we’ll include them in a future episode of Live Fix Radio.