Interview :: Michael Kiwanuka
Words: John Balfe
Michael Kiwanuka's debut album Home Again has been delighting critics since its release in March of this year. The 24 year old Londoner, signed to Ben Lovett's (Mumford & Sons) Communion Records, was the recipient of the BBC Sound of 2012 award at the start of the year and that has given him the platform to expand his base outside of London to the rest of Europe and the United States. John Balfe caught with with Michael for a quick chat about this, touring with Adele and working with Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys.
Michael Kiwanuka plays The Academy on Saturday 19th May. Tickets are priced at €16.
I recall reading somewhere that when you were younger you were interested in a more primal rock and jazz sounds. Can you walk me through the timeline of your tastes in music and how you arrived at the sound you have now?
When I was about 12 years old, in the first year of secondary school, I was into rock music and even some modern American punk and then some British guitar music. That was the first music I started buying and taking an interest in. After that I discovered more jazz-based music, and then soul and folk at about 14 or 15 years old. That really caught my attention and I preferred that music because it spoke to me a little more. From that point I began listening to less rock and more soul-based stuff. I love the rhythm of soul music and jazz music.
When did you start to take music seriously as a performer and think of it as a potential career?
Quite early on. About 15 or 16 I knew that it was something I wanted to do as a job. I didn't know in what guise, but I knew that music was something that was very important.
The album has a very authentically vintage feel to it. Was it a deliberate choice to infuse the album with that kind of atmosphere, or is that just how the songs sound?
To be honest, it was a bit of both. My main goal was to be as 'myself' as possible, for the songs to come out as purely as they could and never try and shoehorn it to a certain sound or to mimic anything - just to let them be what they are - but so many of my influences are in my music too, a lot of stuff from the early 70's, and that that's going to come out too. I did want to have that sound but I didn't want to go down the wrong road.
What was the extent of [producer] Paul Butler's influence on the record?
A really big impressive one! I grew quite a bit in the studio and he guided quite a bit of that. There were some songs that I didn't necessarily think I'd be able to do but he was there to guide me through them.
Some of the songs on Home Again are very ambitious in sound. It's incredibly composed for a debut album.
Paul definitely brought that out by allowing me to let that out. He was definitely a big influence to the sound and to me as a musician now.
You won the BBC Sound of 2012 accolade earlier this year. What did that mean for you on a professional and personal level?
For a professional level it was a great way to get the music out there. That can be the hardest thing. So many singers, bands and artists struggle to get heard and this was a really massive way of doing that. It allowed me to get a start and if people didn't like it, that was fine - but they could hear it. Personally, it was a great thing, a confidence booster. I was always going to make this kind of music but I didn't always know if there would be ears to listen to it.
How did it come to be that you worked with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys?
I'm actually still working that one out myself. Dan had heard the first EP out in America when KGRW played it a bit out in LA and my management found out that he liked it and asked if he'd like to do something. Lucky for me he said yeah. I had a tune and brought it down to the studio. He brought some musicians that were on the road with him and we did it. I had to go to Belfast after, so it was a three-hour session all-in-all and that's how it worked. I hope I can work with him again soon.
You're playing in Dublin on Saturday 18th in The Academy, having played in The Sugar Club already earlier this year...
Yeah, in February, one the first tour I did this year. It was great, I loved it. It was a fun day, we did Belfast the day before that.
What's been going on in between then and now?
We've just started the UK tour yesterday. We've done a European tour which was amazing, one of the best times of my life. We did SXSW and some promo around various radio stations. Some one-off gigs around Europe too.
You've also previously played support to Adele. What is it like playing the larger crowds that she has, compared to smaller shows like The Sugar Club?
I'm still getting used to them. I used to and like the intimate gigs because there's a lot of intimacy in my gigs and sometimes it difficult to make the come across in a larger venue but I still love it. I like it, I like all of it.
Story by EI Team | 09:00 | Friday 18th May 2012 | Music
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