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BBC Sound Of 2012 Winner Michael Kiwanuka Interviewed

by Tom Armstrong
6 January 2012 5 Comments

After being hotly tipped, and winning the BBC Sound Of 2012 list, North London soul singer Michael Kiwanuka talks about his musical roots and about feeling the pressures to conform to a certain style of 'Urban' music.

A few months ago I read an article on Sabotage Times about Michael Kiwanuka, the North London soul singer who has been getting the ever excitable music press even more animated since the release of his debut EP, the organic and soulful Tell Me a Tale. I read sweeping comparisons, as is a common habit with music journalists of which admittedly I have been guilty myself, to Marvin Gaye, Terry Callier and most notably, Bill Withers. I then made a comment, probably an unfairly dismissive one, about Kiwanuka not being “in the same class” or even “in the same school” as Bill Withers. Unfair? Possibly. But it sparked an interest in the young Londoner, and I decided to speak to the man himself to find out his take on the music he creates, and how he got to where he is today.

Our conversation begins in the back of a North London cab. The first surprise comes as soon as Michael begins to speak. The robust, bellowing voice I’d heard on record is soft and attentively polite when speaking, inflected with a sincere estuary accent. Born to Ugandan parents in Muswell Hill, I’m eager to dig into his musical roots. “I was influenced musically by friends from school” he starts, before coming in with the second surprise of the conversation, “people were listening to Nirvana, Radiohead, even some punk.” Not what I was expecting from a man who’s being compared to some of the great soul men, although he says “I stopped listening to the guitar based bands when I was about 14 or 15; they’re what got me into guitar music but a couple of years later I got into Dylan and soul, people like Otis Redding – that’s when I started to take music seriously”. So no great musical household? No uncle who once sat in on drums for Hendrix? “No, not at all” he laughs, “my brother played clarinet but he gave that up pretty quickly!” It’s clear from the outset that Michael Kiwanuka’s story is one of a grassroots musician, whose career is based on talent and hard work rather than fuelled by the hype machine, and his friendly unassuming demeanour goes a long way in agreeing.

“I got into Dylan and soul, people like Otis Redding – that’s when I started to take music seriously”.
Soul music, at least real soul music doesn’t seem to have prominence on the radar of modern day record companies, and those mainstream acts considered soul singers are usually unadventurous and for the most part, white.  I ask him if there was pressure, being a young black artist, to be making a certain style of ‘urban’ music, he replies almost instantly with an affirming “definitely” – obviously it’s a point that has warranted much thought so far in his career. “I didn’t know if people would take me seriously” he explains almost with an air of relief, “I like a lot of soul but I also put a lot of folk into what I do, and with modern music the way it is I used to think people would just expect me to be a modern RnB singer, because I just can’t do that”. So what gave him the drive to carry on? “When I started going back and listening to older music and discovering artists again, seeing that people like Al Green played guitar, Curtis Mayfield played guitar, it made me think, you know, this can be done. It really encouraged me to keep pursuing it.”

I started going back and listening to older music and discovering artists again, seeing that people like Al Green played guitar, Curtis Mayfield played guitar, it made me think, you know, this can be done.

Kiwanuka’s debut single ‘Tell Me a Tale’ was the perfect vehicle for his powerful voice to break into the public consciousness, with attention grabbing horns and organic instrumentation setting him apart from the over-polished production of modern day pop. “I actually wrote that song while I was in the Isle of Wight” he explains, “I was staying at Paul’s [Butler – The Bees lead singer and producer on Tell Me a Tale] and that song just naturally came out.” It’s clear the singer’s input went much further than just singing, he also “played the bass, the keys and guitar” and made the inspired decision to introduce a flute player. “We just needed something to tie it together, and I was listening to a lot of David Axlerod at the time who uses a lot of flute, so you know, that developed from there” he says. Of his relationship with producer Butler, he adds “Paul really brought those things out in me. I was quite worried, it was getting more and more intense and I was like ‘oh man, can I really pull this off?’, but Paul encouraged me and kept me going, so he was imperative in that” His voice lifts when I ask what the future holds musically. “When I get back in the studio I want to start exploring” he says with obvious enthusiasm “I want to explore more leftfield soul, more instrumental sections, and who knows where that’ll lead”.

His parting story brings me back to my original Bill Withers remark, as he tells me how Withers’ ex-drummer James Gadson recently made a surprise appearance in the studio, saying “I was working on a few songs in London, and the producer at the time managed to get James to come along and play on a few tunes. He said he said he really liked the single that’s out at the moment. He was really complimentary”. Who am I to argue with that? As charming and humble a man he is, Michael Kiwanuka’s music speaks for itself. His attitude towards his music and his career are refreshing, and while the comparisons may be unfair at this point, even the greats had to start somewhere. Britain could be about to embrace another truly great soul man yet.

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Tom Madrid 7:24 pm, 28-Oct-2011

Dude has talent. If I were forced to make a comparison, I wouldn't go for Withers. I hear Richie Havens and, yeah, a bit of Terry Callier. I hope that he strives to make great, adventurous music rather than big money. 'Cause I think that, from time to time, we all need reminding that music these days can still mean more than just chat shows, tv ads and filler summer festivals.

Helen Sheridan 8:43 pm, 6-Jan-2012

Great that a real urban talent won.. Cant wait to hear more of his music.. I will be watching with interest and will buy his albums. P.s. Has Michael released any tunes yet ?

Neil Ruston 11:13 am, 20-Jan-2012

Will be long forgotten by this time next year.

Tom Armstrong 2:51 pm, 20-Jan-2012

Cheers Neil. Can you give us Saturday's lottery numbers too while you're there.

Tom Armstrong 12:14 am, 21-Jan-2013

Neil, don't know if you saw this last week? Still going strong a year later

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