Music to Kiwanuka's ears

Music to Kiwanuka's ears

Music to Kiwanuka's ears

First published in Music

Singer songwriter Michael Kiwanuka was named BBC's Sound Of 2012 last month, propelling his soulful sound to the masses. He tells Andy Welch how things have changed since the accolade, about his debut album, due out in March, and his February UK tour.

Just over a year ago, Michael Kiwanuka was an unknown entity.

The 24-year-old had been performing with various grime artists around the city for a few years, all the while quietly working away on his own music.

At the same time, he was studying music at college, with the hope he could turn his love of guitar playing into a full-time teaching job, or, if he was lucky, session work for other artists.

"I just didn't see how it could happen, me becoming a singer-songwriter," he begins. "I didn't know people, or meet the right people at gigs. Being an artist on my own wasn't something I knew about, and I thought it was too difficult for someone like me.

"I was OK with all the grime gigs I was playing, even though it wasn't the music I was into. I think being a young black guy from London, people just expected me to be involved with that music.

"But, you know, I loved the gigs and I had to make money," he concludes, giving a taste of his happy-go-lucky nature.

By 2012, however, things had drastically changed for Kiwanuka, the son of Ugandan parents, who grew up in a well-to-do area of north-west London.

Momentum gathered throughout 2011 - the likes of Lauren Laverne at BBC 6Music, XFM and Radio 2 getting behind his sepia-tinged, soul-inspired music - and came to a head in early January when Kiwanuka was announced winner of Sound Of 2012, the BBC's annual poll to find the new artists most likely to succeed in the coming 12 months.

Jessie J, Ellie Goulding, 50 Cent, Keane and Mika have all topped the list in the past, while a certain Adele won in 2008. Life didn't pan out so badly for her.

"Things have changed since that announcement," he says, smiling. "People at recording studios are a lot nicer to me, for a start. Some people have recognised me in the street and that's never happened before.

"And I used to have to argue to have more musicians with me and for choices I wanted to make, but I don't have to argue as much anymore."

He first noticed a shift in his career trajectory after appearing on Later... With Jools Holland last year, his gentle performance of I'm Getting Ready winning an army of new followers. But the biggest turning point came while supporting Adele on her UK and European tour last spring.

"I'd never done more than three gigs one after another before that tour," he explains. "I really had to dig in for people to notice me. I knew I had to get past the power of her songs for anyone to remember me even being on before her, let alone what I sounded like.

"When I got back and started playing my own solo shows again in London, I didn't notice the difference, but other people were saying how much more confident I was on stage.

"That must have come from simply performing again and again. Around that time I started enjoying playing live more, and things got better and better."

The spring in Kiwanuka's step didn't vanish once he returned to playing his own shows in much smaller venues, either.

"Small club gigs are still my favourite, even though I loved playing in big rooms to sold-out crowds. The small rooms are romantic, I think," he says, pondering for a moment.

"There's a romance surrounding being a working musician and playing tiny venues, just me and my guitar. Before people knew anything about me or had ever heard my music, the challenge was always trying to get people to listen to my songs."

Musically, it's easy to draw comparisons between Kiwanuka and Bill Withers, one of his heroes. The way the chords of I'll Get Along bounce along, for example, definitely call to mind the Ain't No Sunshine singer. Kiwanuka even covers Withers's I Don't Know in his live set, and it fits in seamlessly.

As he's fleshed out his sound, however, adding new musicians to his performances or lush arrangements to the studio versions of the songs, there are clear nods to Marvin Gaye, particularly his anti-Vietnam War masterpiece What's Going On.

"The first music I really heard will have been Abba and Neil Diamond, or whatever my mum was listening to on Radio 2," he says, laughing.

But there's no sign of such influence on Home Again, his forthcoming debut due for release in March.

Neither are there any nods to the first CD he owned himself, Jamiroquai's Travelling Without Moving.

"Don't Think Twice, It's All Right by Bob Dylan is the first song that made me want to be a musician," he says. "I might not sound like Dylan, but as soon as I heard that, I switched from electric to acoustic guitar, and really started thinking about the structure of my songs.

"(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay by Otis Redding was another big song for me, and Luv N' Haight by Sly & The Family Stone. I'd never heard soul singing like that before. It completely blew me away, so I was desperate to check out more."

Home Again is now finished, the result of many visits to Paul Butler of The Bees' studio on the Isle Of Wight ("I started to get sick of that ferry toward the end," says Kiwanuka) and the young singer is understandably happy with results.

"I wouldn't say I was nervous or apprehensive about the album being released, more conscious that I have to cover all bases," he explains.

"The live show has to be good, and the album is done now, so I just have to hope people love it as much as I do.

"I feel really lucky. I'm in a good place, happy with my new band and excited to keep on going. Winning the Sound Of 2012 hasn't added any pressure, really, although more people have definitely heard of me now.

"The biggest thing about the win was that I got to go on BBC Breakfast that morning and my name was trending on Twitter.

"That's easily the most surreal morning of my life."

Extra time - Michael Kiwanuka :: Michael Kiwanuka studied jazz guitar at the Royal College of Music for two years before deciding to embark on a singing career.

:: He's released two EPs, Tell Me A Tale and I'm Getting Ready, while his debut single Home Again is out now.

:: He was shortlisted for the Critics' Choice Brit award, but lost out to Emeli Sande.

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