Michael Kiwanuka's first trip this week to SXSW in Austin marks one of the higher-profile debut appearances at the festival. The soft-spoken Londoner, who cannily channels soulful influences like Otis Redding and Bill Withers, has had a startling career trajectory over the last year, seguing swiftly from an unknown session musician to the top pick of the BBC's Sound of 2012. His first tour ever gave him the not-so-simple task of opening for Adele.
Kiwanuka, who unleashed his first single "Tell Me A Tale" as an EP last April, released his debut album, Home Again, today, March 12, in the UK via Polydor Records, but the record won't drop in the States until July 31 on Cherrytree/Interscope Records to allow Kiwanuka the time to focus on his European and sold-out UK tours this spring. He launches that string of shows on April 18 in Paris.
Earlier this winter, Kiwanuka dropped by WFUV and The Alternate Side, joined by bassist Peter Randall, to play a tender set of songs from his upcoming debut and even, by request, slipped in a cover of Bill Withers' "I Don't Know." Below, watch the live performance, read highlights and listen to to the entire session, which first aired earlier this winter, via the WFUV archives here.
Kara Manning: You’re actually someone who is grateful for MySpace because that’s where you first posted your songs?
Michael Kiwanuka: Yeah. That’s where I found my first gigs and started getting gig practice. I’d just email venues and they could hear the songs on MySpace. It really opened some doors for me and that’s where I found other musicians to getting recording sessions. It’s definitely been a kind friend.
Kara: I think your former tourmate Adele had equally as fast of a trajectory as you have had over the last [year].
Michael: Yeah, that was around March that we started that tour and it’s been a rollercoaster. You don’t really stop to think, so that’s quite nice. You just keep going and as long as there’s a guitar involved, I’m happy.
Kara: “Tell Me a Tale,” the first first EP that you released, will that song end up on the album?
Michael: All of the singles, the lead tracks for the EPs, will be on the record and there will be other tracks that people haven’t heard yet. The [third] EP and the album are called Home Again.
Kara: There’s a timeless quality to your music. You’ve fooled many people who think you are some long-lost artist from the 70s. Names like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers have been bandied about. How do you hear that and remain true to your own voice. You just began songwriting about three years ago?
Michael: Yes, just three years ago. I think it’s because I’ve been listening to that kind of music longer than I’ve been making it. If I were ever in my auntie’s car or at home or someone else’s house and a song from that era came on, I’d always be really interested in the sound, the singing and the style of the music. I never knew what it was, but because it was so different from what everyone else was listening to, and what I was listening to at school, it was fresh and exciting to me. This was new music, even though it was old music.
Kara: At the time you were growing up, [there were artists] like Dizzee Rascal, Klaxons and Arctic Monkeys.
Michael: [They were] massive. I remember The Strokes boom and we all learned Strokes songs. You’d have older bands like Nirvana and [Jimi] Hendrix and current ones too. The Arctic Monkeys were pretty big and Kings of Leon too. I was listening to loads of their music and going to those gigs and loving it; that’s why I started playing guitar. But then this [older] music was “new,” even though it wasn’t. Every party I’d go to I’d hear an Arctic Monkeys or Oasis song, but I wouldn’t hear a Curtis Mayfield song. No one was playing that music. It was great. When I started to want to make music, I just wanted to make music that made me feel good. And that music would make me feel the best. I think that’s maybe why it came out soundlng like that. In terms of what influenced me as a singer, I liked the phrasing of those older guys as well, so that kind of seeped in. Even though I’ve only been writing and singing for a short time, because I’ve been listening to that [kind of music] for a while, that had something to do with it. I don’t try to put on an older sound; i just like making music. Hopefully it will just keep sounding fresh to people and not contrived. I just like songs and it comes out like that.
Kara: I find it funny that you also toured with Laura Marling because she’s a very similar soul in that she’s a young person [who stretches] to another generation.
Michael: With Laura Marling’s music, it just comes out like that for her. It’s quite natural. I think people are able to believe it because that’s just how she sounds. Looking back, even bands like the Strokes and things, when I started finding out about other bands I could see why I liked that band. It reminded me of 70s rock ‘n’ roll. I like the sound of music then. It was was really ripe.
Kara: When did you make the leap to writing your own music? You didn’t think you’d be singing [any of these songs]?
Michael: Yes. It was basically because I loved playing guitar and hanging out with my friends and other musicians, but I couldn’t exercise the stuff I wanted, like the music we were talking about earlier. I got more and more into playing music, but the guitar gigs weren’t reflecting what I wanted to do. I thought, well, at home I can write these kind of songs and listen to this kind of music and have fun with that and when I go out the door to try and get work, I can do the other stuff and I’ll be less frustrated. But then, I loved doing [my own music] so much more, so that’s why I decided to go my own way with the singing and writing. After showing people some early demos, the response seemed to be good.
Kara: How terrified were you at your first gig?
Michael: I was pretty scared! It was a pretty terrifying, weird experience, but I did like the feeling of playing the music. It was the nice encouragement that comes after gigs that encouraged me to keep going, keep practicing and take it serious. I met Paul [Butler of The Bees] after that and then he helped with the growth as well.
Kara: Being on the BBC Sound of 2012, doing shows like Jools Holland, yet not having a debut album, how do you keep balanced?
Michael: It’s a mixture too. It’s exciting; any kind of recognition from anywhere, even someone saying, “I like that song,” is great for any musician and songwriter. That makes me want to keep going as a musician. But ultimately the way I try not to get freaked out, worried and nervous — obviously [there is] expectation and [a] weight put on my shoulders — is to keep playing music and guitar and listening to music that I love. It reminds me why I’m doing it. It’s a lot more fun to be able to travel to New York and do gigs, support amazing singers like Laura Marling and Adele, but I would do it every day in my bedroom anyway. It’s the same feeling. You get nervous, but as soon as I play an E chord, I feel okay.
Kara: Do you shift into another plane when you sing?
Michael: Pretty much. It’s quite nice. It’s therapeutic. I started writing songs for that reason, so I actually feel really comfortable, sometimes more than anywhere else.
Kara: Your very first tour was opening for Adele. How did that happen?
Michael: I hadn’t actually released anything yet! It was pretty exciting and that was the beginning of this crazy, whirlwind year. Her manager had heard some early demos and [my management then] thought, let’s start with a tour to get myself out there. We just sent stuff over, as loads of people do, and I reckon that [Adele’s manager] heard the music and must have liked it. I think he must have shown Adele the music and I maybe got a leg in that way. I managed to jump over a few of the more qualified artists that could do it. Luckily, she liked [my music] and I went out on the road. It was pretty scary, but I learned loads. I don’t know her that well, but I do know that she just likes singing. She’s a huge star now, and she was on that tour, but there wasn’t even an inkling; she’s very down-to-earth, she’s just a singer who likes singing songs from her heart.
I just like music and you don’t need to be this superstar celebrity; you can just sing. That focuses you more on the music and you can get better as well. Watching her sing each night and how she gave everything each night, [taught me] that I have to go in and give everything. It helped me to practice, gig after gig after gig. I had to try to get better. You just dig in and learn how to get the audience to listen a bit more. That’s not just by getting louder; you have to get more zoned into what you’re doing and I found that the gigs started to get better on that tour. They are pretty personal songs, but that’s how I can get through that.
Kara: I understand that [Bob] Dylan has been a big influence too.
Michael: I’m a huge Dylan fan. Lyrically, I can’t do what he does. He’s a genius lyricist. I have hardly any [lyrics in a song] and he can have 15 verses. But it was the feeling that came out of all of his songs that I like. He could create quite a lot of power and presence with just a guitar. I was drawn [to] his guitar, his words and his stories. It’s never really cryptic, but even though you have to listen to [his songs] a few times just to figure out what he’s singng about, it’s still very clear and honest. That’s what influenced me. The feeling of the guitar-picking; a lot of my songs are guitar-picked and I always use my thumb and he was always picking. It’s a mix of the sound of the records, the feeling that I got from his music and, lyrically, to try to do the best that I can. I’m nowhere near that poetry that he has; I just do it in my own way.
Kara: There’s a sophisticated simplicity to your music and I read that you cited Bill Withers as someone else who writes in that manner, deceptively simple. I sense, for you, in finding the cadence of your voice, he was a big influence [and you do a beautiful cover of “I Don’t Know”].
Michael: Yeah, completely. Very honest again, didn’t hide any of his emotion. He let’s it all hang out. A song like “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a very obvious song of his, but it’s nice to hear someone sing like that, saying things that you probably wouldn’t say to a friend if you were hanging out, having a beer, watching a football game. You wouldn’t say that you’re really sad because your girl’s gone off. It comes out clearer in songs. That was a main influence for me with him [as well as] the style, the grooves and his voice.