ABOVE: MICHAEL KIWANUKA
Michael Kiwanuka is torn. The 24-year-old Londoner, whose debut album, Home Again, is released today, is honored to even be in the same breath as legends like Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye—both to whom his wistfully weathered-croon has been compared. But the up-and-coming talent admits he'll get annoyed if the incessant comparisons persist, "I think people will find out more about me when there's more albums and more music," he concedes. Despite possessing only a handful of tender tunes—many of which form a bond between workingman's soul, rustic roots, and wind-battered blues—Kiwanuka was recently named the winner of the BBC's prestigious "Sound Of 2012" poll, expanding his fanbase from shameless critics at open-mic nights to adoring fans in countries across the globe.
Interview rang up Kiwanuka on a recent afternoon (afternoon in the US, we mean) after Kiwanuka had just touched down in New Zealand to discuss the singer's rapid ascent.
DAN HYMAN: Well, hello. Michael. It's morning in New Zealand, no?
MICHAEL KIWANUKA: Yah. It's Wednesday. It's about 10:30 in the morning.
HYMAN: You're a long ways from London.
KIWANUKA: We left on Monday evening in London. It's pretty hectic. The longest travel day I've ever had. But we made it. So I'm in a good mood because I'm not on a plane anymore.
HYMAN: Your debut album, Home Again, is finally making its Stateside landing. But it's been out in the UK for months. It's bizarre, no? You wrote these songs a while ago, time goes by, and yet you must talk about them as if they were brand-new creations.
KIWANUKA: I guess it is weird. I just see it as people talking about your music as a whole: songs that you've written for this album or where you're going to go musically or your live shows. So it's past and present. The only thing I've got as a collection to document all that is this album.
HYMAN: In a recent interview you said that your songs have achieved something of their own livelihood via your live shows. Yet you've only been playing live gigs for a few years now. Do you see your songs—and performing skills—constantly evolving?
KIWANUKA: I think so. It's not always for the better. I'm always picking stuff up and then forgetting things and then you have to start again. I had to pick up a lot of things the last two, three years through making an album and performing. I didn't really know what I was doing, you go along for the ride. I guess that's a good thing. If you feel like you've learned everything it gets a bit stale.
HYMAN: You recorded Home Again at producer Paul Butler (the Bees)'s Steam Room studio on the Isle of Wight. Was it essential to isolate yourself?
KIWANUKA: It's annoying when you've got a guitar and you're working on music and then you have to go and do the shopping or someone calls your mobile and you get distracted or you have to go out and do something. So it's nice to just concentrate on it one hundred percent and give your all to it. I had an opportunity to make an album—that was a dream come true. I had to make sure that I could do it the best way I could, and at least at the end of it be very pleased with it and not regret anything. So that took a lot of concentration. So being isolated really helps with that.
HYMAN: Many musicians—especially young artists—are their own biggest critics. Is this the case for you?
KIWANUKA: It's quite hard not to cringe at your own music; you're always a bit annoyed at some parts of it. But most of the time I was really pleased with it. It's the best I could have done at the time. I was very happy with the sound and the songs and how Paul produced it and the playing and all that stuff. It was the first thing I really finished.
HYMAN: The average listener certainly can't pick up many of the faults you cringe over.
KIWANUKA: That's how I judge if it's worth showing someone. If I don't cringe that much than maybe it's worth showing someone the music.
HYMAN: You recorded "Lasan" with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys at Ray Davies' Konk Studios in London. Were you a fan?
KIWANUKA: I knew about The Black Keys for a little while. And then when Brothers came out they were everywhere. That's when I really became a fan and I started checking out most of their records from before, too. I really liked the sound of it, what they did with that album. When my manager said Dan would be interested in working with me I was very happy about that. Of course by that point they were huge. I was excited to work with Dan but I was kind of nervous as well. I was like, "Your band has done so much. Ours is just getting started."
HYMAN: Describe the session with him.
KIWANUKA: It was quite nerve-wracking. But I was very happy and flattered. We went and did the track and I loved what he did. It was such a brief time, [but] That short time that we had was really cool. I loved the sound, that's kind of important to me —how sonically the instruments sound. He gets such a cool sound. It was a good day.
HYMAN: You're constantly compared to Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Bill Withers. It's obviously a compliment. But is there ever a feeling of "I'm my own musician.'"
KIWANUKA: If that lags on [for] records to come, it starts to get annoying. But the way I see it is every artist that I've been influenced by is influenced by someone else. At the beginning your influences are more on your sleeve than when you develop, so for me it seems quite natural and quite normal. What makes it alright for me is it's true; if they were saying there are these artists that I sounded like or was influenced by and I wasn't really, then I think it would piss me off a bit more. But I can't really deny it. I think people will find out more about me when there's more albums and more music.
HYMAN: I know The Band was also a huge influence on you. The world lost a major talent a few months back in Levon Helm.
KIWANUKA: His voice and the rhythm of his drumming and his songs—for some reason even though I didn't spend a lot of time there—that Southern soulful sound that links soul music and rock n' roll that bridges that gap, that was such a big thing for me as a teenager. When he passed away it was sad. I was happy a lot of people can remember his music. A lot of these guys are going. I've never seen him play so I was a bit upset.
HYMAN: You started off playing open-mic nights. You've said that they were helpful but also dangerous.
KIWANUKA: I didn't know how to gauge or measure my songs. I loved singing them at home, I loved writing them and I loved any chance I could go into a sound studio and record them with my guitar. But other than that, I didn't quite know where to go. The response and the feedback I got was important to give me a gauge to how people were affected by the songs and whether to continue. I could have tried to just play guitar for other people and finished uni(versity), and get a job teaching music in schools; I didn't quite know all my eggs. Feedback was important, but I kind of relied a bit too much on it. It became a bit of a hindrance. I was playing for someone else's ear. It's not a good place to be.
HYMAN: You briefly attended music school. How important in the songwriting process is having such training?
KIWANUKA: The main thing in making your own music is that it's an expression of someone's personality and being. That's what people want to hear, and you can't really teach that—that's just something that comes out. Teaching just hones that. In terms of the actual creation of music, and the thing that people get excited by when they hear an artist or an album, that stuff isn't necessarily taught in a music college or school. You just have to find that in your own bones.
HYMAN: Since you received the BBC's "Sound of 2012" award your notoriety has skyrocketed.
KIWANUKA: Definitely. More so initially, as well. During that month of January and then February it was like a little boom in people knowing the music. Hardly anyone knew it before that, really. It was only played on English radio and elsewhere on late-night radio shows. When that came it widened the audience quite a bit, and I think that's the reason why I can go and be out here in New Zealand or tour around Europe. And obviously being out in the US as well. It's really opened a lot of doors.
HYMAN: Did Adele, a former winner and someone with whom you've toured, call and congratulate you?
KIWANUKA: She hasn't called. She's a very busy lady. But awhile back I bumped into a close friend of hers and they said, "Well done for all the stuff that's happening." But I haven't spoken to her since the tour. She was very helpful for allowing me to play before her on that tour so I'm forever indebted.
HYMAN: Will you be writing songs on your current trip?
KIWANUKA: I've just arrived in my hotel room and we have a day to get over jet lag before touring starts. So we'll see if I can get a guitar out and write a song. I love making music so it's important for me to keep doing that even if the schedule is busy.
HYMAN: No one will blame you if you want to sleep today.
KIWANUKA: I probably will. But the worst thing for a singer/songwriter is to run out of songs.