Let There Be (Soulful) Rock

19 March 2013 | 6:45 am | Cyclone Wehner

“They’re getting quite popular in England. Some churches have become venues as well now. There’s a popular one in London called Union Chapel and most people play there..."

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"It was good,” Kiwanuka, typically unassuming, recalls of last winter's Splendour In The Grass jaunt. “Splendour was really fun – that's a great festival... I loved it.”

The 24-year-ols cardigan-wearing singer/songwriter is playing the Byron Bay Bluesfest this time around, as well as its west coast equivalent and Heavenly Sounds' blooming church and cathedral circuit. Kiwanuka has performed in consecrated venues before. “They're getting quite popular in England. Some churches have become venues as well now. There's a popular one in London called Union Chapel and most people play there... They're fun to play – I mean, it depends on what music you play but, if it fits, it's good.”

His parents, refugees from Idi Amin's Uganda, Kiwanuka grew up in London's Muswell Hill. He embraced contemporary rock, including grunge, learning the guitar and joining bands. But then the teen discovered a demo version of Otis Redding's (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay on a Mojo magazine cover-mount CD that blew him away, leading him to discover the worlds of ol' skool soul, R&B and folk. Kiwanuka studied music at uni but eventually quit, earning a crust as a session guitarist for grime acts like Labrinth – although urban wasn't his thing. Performing his acoustica around London, Kiwanuka connected with the Communion fold, Mumford & Sons' Ben Lovett at its helm. He'd tour with Adele. Kiwanuka's first EP, Tell Me A Tale, appeared on Communion Records in 2011.

Initially, Kiwanuka recorded with feted producer Ethan Johns (Kings Of Leon, Laura Marling). “He's a hero of mine, Ethan, so that was a dream, really, to work with him.” However, he cut Home Again with Paul Butler, the lead singer from The Bees, Isle Of Wight's psy-rockers. For reasons unknown, the Johns songs were redone. There was no drama, Kiwanuka explains. He simply wanted to ensure that the album had “a continuous sound” with only one producer.

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Prior to Home Again's release last March, Kiwanuka won the BBC Sound Of 2012 poll. The album reached the UK top five. Kiwanuka has been buoyed by the reception. No wonder he sounds more assured in interviews. “I felt really lucky and pleased with the response to the album and stuff. It's nice to have something you work on listened to and acknowledged – it's encouraging. It reminds me that it's good to just focus on what you do and be yourself and it can be all right. It's not like a big secret or anything – you just have to work hard and enjoy what you do and there's a chance that people might listen to it and some doors might be opened.” Kiwanuka has been compared to Redding, Bill Withers, Van Morrison and, perplexingly, Randy Newman, the sardonic American soft rocker who these days mostly composes for films such as Toy Story. “Everyone still says that!” Kiwanuka laughs. “But that's okay. People wanna compare stuff 'cause it's easier to digest, so you just let people do it. I don't mind.”

Home Again was a learning curve. Kiwanuka is now “more comfortable in the studio” and “a bit clearer” about what he hopes to achieve and how to realise his ideas – something once “difficult”. “You get a bit more daring, just because you're not as nervous to see how things might sound – you're getting used to the sound of your own voice, your own guitar-playing...”

Kiwanuka has gigged solidly – he's about to tour the US with Alabama Shakes. But, as the muso speaks, he's back in the studio. “I've had some time off, so I've been in the studio as much as I can, working on music.” While the fruits of these sessions may surface on his next LP, Kiwanuka plans to issue EPs in the interim. “I think it's good to release quite regularly.” Besides, he understands the challenges of juggling tour dates with studio time – and how artists can find themselves suddenly pressured for new music they don't have. “The trick is when you've got a holiday, not to go on holiday,” Kiwanuka quips.

Ironically, Kiwanuka laid down Home Again at Butler's pad in Ventnor, a popular holiday destination. He'd “definitely” team with The Bees man again, describing their rapport as “easy”. Butler, a multi-instrumentalist, influenced the sumptuous arrangements on Home Again. Nevertheless, Kiwanuka cautions, it's too early to say if he'll produce his follow-up. Kiwanuka is even contemplating self-producing. “The more I do it and work with producers, the more I like doing things myself as well. They just kind of teach me how to do it.”

Kiwanuka is “sad” that the album format is in decline. Yet the shortlist for 2012's Mercury Prize was impressive, Kiwanuka up against acts as diverse as Richard Hawley, Plan B and Jessie Ware, not to mention label-mate Ben Howard. Coincidentally, he knew many of his fellow nominees from London's traps or the road. Kiwanuka has heard the soul-folk of Lianne la Havas (possibly his female counterpart) and checked out Mercury winners Alt-J. Indeed, retro artist or not, he isn't averse to contemporary fare. Kiwanuka's top current band? Australia's Tame Impala.

Howard opened for Kiwanuka on his last Australian tour, indicating the strong camaraderie at Communion. “Now I'm at home in London, I was at Communion last night. They have a night every month at this club and I always go when I'm around – and everyone goes when they're around. There's a band called The Staves that are also on Communion [and] that are great – in fact, Ethan Johns did their album – [and] they were down at the night.” Lovett has moved to New York, but Kiwanuka hangs out with him when in town. “It is like a family vibe,” he says of the stable. “I love it – I feel lucky to be a part of it. It's nice. It feels good.”

Kiwanuka is keen to collaborate with other musicians, but not necessarily “famous” ones. Ultimately, his desire is to have “a varied, prolific output” and “be an artist that you can't really box in.” And Kiwanuka believes that in the internet-era, artists are more readily able to devise side-projects than in the '90s. He loves that Neil Young, while a solo star, has long been involved in bands.

Kiwanuka feels that acts should be boldly controversial. “It's more exciting. It means that they're not resting on their laurels – they're kinda asking questions. It's good.” Kiwanuka is also desperate to rock out. “The reason why I play guitar is because I always wanted to be in a band,” he admits. “I'd love to do an album in a band – like have another band where I'm not the main singer.” It's not impossible to imagine the Jimi Hendrix buff, who also plays jazz guitar and bass, doing heavy, fuzzed-out psych-rock. “Yeah, exactly, yeah – my favourite bands are like that!” Kiwanuka enthuses. “I'm jealous that I'm not more rock'n'roll than I am. So one day I'd love to get that out of my system!”

Michael Kiwanuka will be playing the following dates:

Sunday 24 March - West Coast Blues 'n' Roots Festival, Fremantle Park WA
Tuesday 26 March - St Michael's Church, Melbourne VIC
Wednesday 27 March - St Stephen's Uniting Church, Sydney NSW
Friday 29 and Saturday 30 March - Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
Tuesday 2 April - St John's Cathedral, Brisbane QLD