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Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka

Interviewed by
Natalie Finnigan
Monday 18th March, 2013 9:34AM

In 2010, after several years of playing as a session musician, Michael Kiwanuka made the bold move to start playing his own songs in public. Two years later, his critically acclaimed debut album ‘Home Again’ was topping the charts in Europe, and BBC listeners dubbed him the ‘Sound of 2012’ by voting him to the top of the prestigious annual poll.

Kiwanuka is constantly compared to a range of other artists, from Otis Redding to Van Morrison. This is more likely a result of his music retaining the character and raw sound of recordings made during that era, rather than the result of any overwhelming similarities between himself and these musicians. Kiwanuka’s music possesses a kind of integrity not often found in the offerings of young musicians attempting to emulate the sound created by their legendary forebears.

Ahead of his NZ shows in April, Michael Kiwanuka chatted to Under the Radar about touring, recording and how he hopes to develop his abilities as a musician and a storyteller.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me tonight - I hear I’m one in a long line of interviewers you’ll be chatting with - are you sick of talking to people about your music yet?

It depends what the questions are! But I haven’t actually had that many interviews this year yet which is good – I think this is the third today which is pretty good going compared to last year. I’ve had a nice break really and work has been pretty relaxed the last few weeks.

So you’re at home in London now?

Yeah, I had Christmas and most of December off, so I’ve been at home. I’ve done a bit of travelling over that period, but not much.

Your debut album, Home Again, probably couldn’t have had a better reception, and given you’ve been so busy touring it, have you had the chance to work on new material?

Yes, I’ve actually been recording some new music this month while I’ve had some down time in London. I don’t know whether it will necessarily be for a new album though - I might release it in the form of an EP or a special edition release - but I’m definitely recording new stuff, which is really fun.

Where have you been recording?

I’m recording in a small place in north London that most people don’t know about – it’s similar to where I recorded the album, not the place, but the type of studio – it’s a small basement-like space with a good atmosphere and it has all the stuff I like to record with (vintage electronic recording equipment) so it’s perfect.

You worked really closely with Paul Butler at his studio, The Steam Rooms, on the Isle of Wight – do you think you’ll work with him again?

I love working with Paul Butler and would love to work with him again, plus loads of other people.

You both played a number of instruments and created a really rich, full sound on Home Again – how did you know he was the right person to make your album with?

I know what kind of sound I like to hear, which is why I wanted to record at his place, and it was also collaborative, musically, for that reason. I knew he would ‘get’ the sound I wanted. We played most of the instruments on the album because there weren’t that many musicians around.

That’s a lot of instruments!

I played a minimal amount of keyboards, the bass, a few string instruments plus the guitars - Paul played most of the drums and percussion.

What about the horns?

We did have a few other musicians come and collaborate, but there were probably only four others. It was pretty much just me and Paul.

Your sound is very unique - did your record company just say ‘go for it’? and give you complete creative control, or did they have some input into the process?

No, I think they heard my sound and just said ‘go for it’. I like music the way I like it and they knew that when they signed me, so I’ve just pursued that sound and they’ve been supportive.

Home Again's sound has been compared to the work of so many other legendary artists who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s – does your new stuff have the same sound?

Well the new material sounds like me, but it’s different too, in that I’ve worked hard to develop the ability to tell stories as a songwriter. I’ve tried to focus less on my own feelings, and probably write less in first person and more in third…

Is there a songwriter in particular you think is a gifted storyteller?

Well, there are loads, but Paul Simon is one. Songs like Duncan and the The Boxer are really brilliant. In terms of modern music, I think Frank Ocean is a brilliant storyteller.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t impressed by Frank Ocean, regardless of what sort of music they listen to…

I think anyone who really likes music can appreciate what he does, and it’s great that he is getting the recognition he deserves.

Is there anything else you’re focusing on?

I’ve always been a guitar player first, so I’ve been putting effort into developing my sound, but I guess my new stuff is a little more stripped back – less horns and other instruments – but at the same time I’m trying to incorporate more instrumental breaks into my songs.

There is plenty of buzz about your upcoming NZ shows in April, which are going to be held in beautiful churches – did you have much to do with the choice of venue?

No, that was really the tour manager’s call, but I’ve heard they’re great so I’m looking forward to it. I’m playing a more stripped back show than what I did last time, and I like intimate shows, so the churches will be great. It will only be me and a few other musicians on stage, so the atmosphere will be really personal. I’m hoping that will result in a reflective, quiet audience.

Before you head down under, you’re going on tour with Alabama Shakes, who have also had an amazing couple of years – we just saw them here in NZ and they were amazing!

I’m a big fan of Alabama Shakes so I can’t wait. This tour will be different from my last US tour because it’s not a headline tour. I played smaller venues when I was headlining, but these will be bigger crowds.

Is there anywhere in particular you would really like to play?

Yeah, I’d love to play Glastonbury this year, so hopefully that will happen. I couldn’t last year, and although I got to play a lot of other great festivals and venues, Glastonbury has always been a dream of mine.


Michael Kiwanuka with support from Iva Lankum

Thursday 4th April, Holy Trinity Church, Auckland
Friday 5th April, Old St Paul's, Wellington


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