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”.
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.
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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