Doing His Own Thing

23 May 2012 | 7:24 pm | Cyclone Wehner

“The Randy Newman [comparison]'s quite weird, ‘cause I don’t have one Randy Newman album. I just know his Toy Story songs."

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Michael Kiwanuka, bound for Splendour In The Grass, recently unveiled his debut, Home Again, with inflections of soul, folk, country, gospel, and R&B when it stood for 'rhythm and blues'. The singer/songwriter won the BBC Sound Of 2012 poll (he pipped Frank Ocean). But Kiwanuka has performed his acoustica on London's live circuit for a spell, aligning himself with the grassroots Communion Records, which is fronted by Mumford & Sons' Ben Lovett. Communion originated in 2006 as a live music night in Notting Hill, the record label launched later. Many a cred nu-folk act has an association, from Noah And The Whale to Laura Marling to The Vaccines' Justin Young (AKA Jay Jay Pistolet). Even Anna Calvi was down briefly. Today Communion is also home to Marcus Foster and Kiwanuka's Australian tour buddy Ben Howard. “There's a great sense of camaraderie,” the softly spoken Kiwanuka affirms. Admittedly, these days the Communion acts are “pretty busy” with their individual careers, none more so than Lovett. “But, when we're together, it's great. We love hanging out,” she says. During SXSW Kiwanuka and some Communion affiliates – including Lovett – recorded a cover of John Martyn's Over The Hill, which he's posted online. “We love making music together, too – when we can.”

Kiwanuka was born in London, the second son of refugees from Idi Amin's Uganda. Raised in the middle-class surrounds of Muswell Hill, he developed an interest in music – indie, grunge and Brit-pop – and learnt guitar, gigging in bands. Yet Kiwanuka had a real epiphany in his mid-teens, blown away by a raw version of Otis Redding's (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay on a 2001 Mojo magazine covermount CD, Soul Riot. He'd hanker after rootsy music – and discover Bob Dylan's back catalogue. It sounded “fresh”. Kiwanuka studied jazz but, feeling ill at ease, dropped out. He next enrolled in the Commercial Music Performance course at the University Of Westminster, only to skip classes. For one thing, Kiwanuka had to juggle day jobs – but he's also practical. “If you wanna get into being an artist or a musician, it's probably best just to go and do it,” he affirms.

Along the way, Kiwanuka worked as a session guitarist for grime playas, among them (reputedly) Labrinth. What tracks did he play on? “There's an artist in London called Bashy,” Kiwanuka responds. “He's got an album called Catch Me If You Can – I mean, it wasn't a big album. I think the song called Living My Dream was on there – there's a guitar on that.” Today Kiwanuka refers to his excursion into grime as “just a passing thing.” However, the D'Angelo fan wasn't necessarily antagonistic to the music, as is often implied in interviews. He has friends active in the scene. “It was a different style, and it wasn't something I knew I'd be doing for a long time at all, but at the time it wasn't like it was annoying or forced. Though it did highlight that it'd be good to start working on my own music.”

Kiwanuka, initially reluctant to sing due to shyness, presented his first EP, Tell Me A Tale, via Communion in mid-2011, The Bees' frontman Paul Butler offering to produce. The multi-instrumentalist similarly helmed Home Again. Kiwanuka settled into Butler's incense-filled studio in Ventnor on the Isle Of Wight. “It was great! I enjoyed every minute. The first few times we worked together I was pretty nervous and didn't really know what I was doing in the studio, so I had to pick up a lot of things. We got some stuff done but nothing, like, earth-shattering. But, once I found confidence in the studio – through Paul, really, he put me at ease – we really hit it off. He's a great musician as well. I just love the sound he gets in the studio. He's always got interesting ideas – kinda slightly left-of-centre to everything – which I got into. I liked the idea that he plays a few instruments, so I tried to challenge myself to play a few more, too. The rapport was great. I really loved working with him from the start, and I hope to do something more in the future.” Possibly Butler's biggest influence on the retro-nuevo Home Again lies in its lavish arrangements. The pair favoured exotic instrumentation, Kiwanuka curious to hear the sitar in his music. He even has synths. Indeed, Kiwanuka is no rigid old-schooler; he'll use a computer. Still, he was sometimes intrigued, if not perplexed, by Butler's suggestions. “There was no point where I was like, 'This is ridiculous.' But when I looked at the instruments at first, I was like, 'Oh, I don't know how that's gonna work.' But they all seemed to work!”

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Kiwanuka's music has been compared to everyone from Bill Withers to Van Morrison to, randomly, Randy Newman – and mention of the latter prompts a gentle laugh from the muso. “The Randy Newman one's quite weird, 'cause I don't have one Randy Newman album. I just know his Toy Story songs. But I know he's a good songwriter.” Kiwanuka is chuffed to be likened to Withers and Morrison, both true 'soul' singers. “A good voice and a good song always wins me over. That was what drew me to start writing my own songs.” The psy-jazz Tell... – which, ironically, appeared on Mojo's Communion: A New Generation Of Songwriters CD – is redolent of Morrison's Astral Weeks.

Kiwanuka confessed to Q that he's never “fully” been in love, and so Home Again has no 'relationship' songs. Instead, the introspective material deals more with the aftermath of diaspora – and the quest for identity. And, while the album is uplifting, there's a pervasive darkness towards the end with songs like Worry Walks Beside Me; something that Kiwanuka acknowledges, even if he can't explain it. Writing has always helped him express latent anxieties. “It's a way to maybe get rid of it or kind of heal it a bit – you write a song to get something out,” he says. “I think there will always be a hint of that in my music.”

Kiwanuka was introduced to Adele's audience long before Home Again. He toured with 2008's BBC Sound Of... winner last year. “It was great,” he enthuses, noting that Adele's fans appreciate “songs and singers”. Kiwanuka deemed the support “a good test” for his music. “It seemed to go down well when we were doing it, so I really enjoyed it.” Nevertheless, with his organic soul-folk, Kiwanuka is unsure where he belongs in contemporary music culture. “I don't really see myself in any place – other than on my own path,” he ponders. “It seems to be like maybe that's the best way. I'm not sure; I've only just started, I'll find out if that's good or bad. But it seems to be that's the way to end up keeping doing things that are interesting and fresh, 'cause you're not looking around at what's new, you're looking at what you're really influenced by and where you're going in your own mind. That keeps your music different and slightly left-of-centre, which I think is a good thing. So I don't see myself in any place in the industry – other than just [being] another singer and another songwriter. It helps being part of Communion – I definitely affiliate with them – but they're kinda doing their own thing, which is what I like.”