Saturday 24 March 2018

How Michael Kiwanuka got his soul

IT was a free CD that kick-started his career. Or, at least, that's what the press release says. Then again, young Michael Kiwanuka remembers what it was like to stumble across an outtake of (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding.

The recording came attached to a British music monthly. And it really was a life-changing moment.

"Amazing," says the 24-year-old Londoner, as he takes a seat backstage at Dublin's Sugar Club. "I just kept pressing repeat. I'd never heard music in that way, and that raw," he smiles. "I loved what it made me feel like. I've still got the CD!"

So began Kiwanuka's love affair with soul music. While he's currently in the midst of a lengthy honeymoon period (one commentator has gone so far as to suggest that the lad is "Bill Withers, reborn"), it hasn't always been a steady relationship. In his late teens, the aspiring guitarist got himself mixed up in the wrong crowd.

First, there were the rock bands. Then came the grime troopers and hip-hoppers.

"I wasn't really that comfortable," says Kiwanuka of the brief time he spent as a session guitarist for Tottenham rapper Chipmunk. "I just had to do it.

"As a session guy, you wait for a gig and if it comes, you just kind of take it, and I wasn't as prolific or successful enough to be able to pick my own gigs. But it was a million miles away from what I wanted to do. I just tried to get the job done."


That was the day job. By night, Kiwanuka - who twice dropped out of music college - would concentrate on his real passion.

The songwriting began, which was just as well seeing as how the session gigs didn't always pay ("that frustrated me").

Eventually, people began to take notice of his voice. People such as Paul Butler of British rock outfit The Bees, who invited Kiwanuka to the band's Isle of Wight studio to record his first EP.

Yet, for Kiwanuka, music was always something he had to seek out for himself. He recalls his Ugandan parents listening to Abba and Neil Diamond tapes at home. But it was through friends that he began to experience the sounds that would later shape his own.

Back then, Michael wasn't aware that it was perfectly normal for a young black kid to play guitar. "It was more in my own head," he explains. "It's like, I have this thing of wanting to fit -- in my head I might have like, too big a picture of something and I'll think 'how do I fit that picture?' It was quite strange. I always wanted to see someone else do something that I could relate to before I could do it because then it made me feel that I fitted or it made sense.


"And that's what happened with the guitar," he adds. "There wasn't that many people where I grew up that played guitar. That's the only reason why I got those [hip-hop] gigs ... no-one young or black really played guitar, so it fitted in with the visual scene.

"But really, I was nowhere near that kind of music at all. So that used to play around in my head and that's why the guitar thing used to bug me.

"Then, when I started to discover music for myself, I realised that loads of people were doing it."

In 2011, Kiwanuka's rich, folk-laden soul grooves landed him a support slot on Adele's tour. Earlier this year, he was announced as the winner of BBC's Sound of 2012 poll. I wonder if it ever crossed his mind that one day, Michael Kiwanuka would be the 'artist to watch'.

"No way," he laughs, "I remember enjoying writing songs and singing, and thinking 'I'd like to do this for a little while', but I didn't think I would be travelling around the place, touring in other countries, or even coming to Dublin!"


As for the future, Kiwanuka hopes that people see past the hype and appreciate the music for what it is.

"It's good to start off on a platform," he nods, "but not too much so that it's just the hype that people listen to. I'd like for people to still be discovering it, like someone showing them the CD, similar to how I got shown that Otis Redding CD. That would be an honour."

Home Again is out now. Michael Kiwanuka plays at Dublin's Academy, on May 19

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