Master of soul

Commercial success has taken Michael Kiwanuka quite by surprise, Ed Power reports

MICHAEL Kiwanuka can’t believe it. “When I hear my songs on the radio it’s a strange feeling,” says the London singer-songwriter. “I don’t regard what I do as commercial music. I never guessed I’d end up on the BBC Radio 1 playlist. That is a strange feeling.”

It’s nearly five months since Kiwanuka topped Britain’s influential Sound Of poll. It has proved a passport to overnight fame. He has gone on to notch up several hit singles and a smash album. Backstage in Wolverhampton, he still seems to be taking it all in.

“I’ve been given a huge opportunity by having all this commercial exposure. I never expected it. The way people have responded to me is very different to how I thought it would be. That’s one of the reasons I’m enjoying the year so much. I’m thrilled that everything has gone so well. You never know, do you? I had a lot of attention. You want to follow that up with something concrete. It has been fantastic to see what I do embraced by people.”

What he does is sing old-school soul ballads apparently beamed here direct from the early 1970s. His debut album, Home Again, is a musical time machine that whisks you back to the days before punk, pop and auto-tune. It’s just Kiwanuka’s plaintive bluesy voice, some gentle guitar and buckets of ennui. If you are partial to Otis Redding and Bill Withers you’ll love every plaintive note.

“Do I feel like an old soul?” Kiwanuka muses. “I suppose I enjoy music from an older era. I can’t explain why. I’ve always been that way.”

As a teenager his obsession with the past made him a target for bullies. At school in a racially mixed part of north London he was a square peg.

He was black so the white kids kept a distance. But his black friends were all into hip-hop and r’n’b while he nursed a secret love of Dylan and Van Morrison. It was a confusing time, he remembers.

“With people like Dylan, I paid attention to the lyrics,” he says. “Whereas, to a lot of people I knew, that sort of music seemed old fashioned.

“The truth is there is no reason why I should have liked that music as much as I did,” he continues. “All I can say is that it spoke to me in a big way. I feel there’s something in me that responded to it. It really was a very deep reaction — a massive connection.”

By his 20s that sense of detachment had grown even more acute. A nimble guitarist, he was picking up session work in London. But the records he played on — gauche urban music by artists such as Bashy and Chipmunk — left him cold.

“I wanted to be a solo artist,” he says. “I started writing songs, keeping them to myself. At the time I never guessed anyone else would hear them. There wasn’t a scene for me to fit into. I wondered how I could reach an audience.”

He could have made a career for himself as a side-man. But he hated playing on shallow pop songs. He was also ripped off more than once by unscrupulous managers. He concluded that, if he was going to spend his life in the music industry, he needed to be the one in control. So he packed in his guitarist gig. This was good for his mental well being but had a pretty disastrous effect on his bank account.

“I didn’t know any folk musicians and there weren’t any opportunities,” he says. “That’s why I had worked in pop in the first place. It was just a job to me and I wanted to do something different.”

His big break arrived last year. Out of the blue Adele invited Kiwanuka to tour Europe with her as support. He didn’t have to think very long before saying yes. The more he saw of her, the more impressed he grew.

“She is incredibly down to earth, despite all her success,” he says. “She is proof that if you work hard and keep your feet on the ground you can get your music out there to people. That was a major moment for me.”

That led to a booking on the BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland. Kiwanuka is shy and was nervous about his first TV appearance. He’d grown up watching Jools Holland. That legends like Bjork, Noel Gallagher and Red Hot Chili Peppers were on the same episode heightened his anxiety.

The worst bit, he recalls, was having to sit through the other performances. There’s no proper backstage. Instead, you sit in the audience awaiting your turn. Kiwanuka recalls sweating buckets and fighting the urge to run for the wings.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” he says. “It was a strange experience, ’cos I’ve been watching Jools Holland since I was 14. However, as soon as I actually started to sing it got easier. That was the least intimidating part.”

He was recently in America, performing at the South By South West music festival. Thousands of artists flock to the Austin, Texas event. With a lot of media hype in his sails, Kiwanuka received more attention than most.

Given his love of American music, did it feel as if he was, in effect, selling coal to Newcastle.

“Maybe a little bit,” he laughs. “I love soul music. So to be able to go down there and play that music in America was an enormous privilege. I felt really good about it.”

Kiwanuka, it must be said, is a strange pop star. He is softly spoken and grounded, apparently without ego.

When he tells you he is doing all this because of his love of music rather than a desire for recognition, you are surprised to find yourself believing every word.

“With the sort of music I made I never expected it to be hugely successful,” he says. “I’m just happy it’s doing well. I never worried about what people were saying about me, good or bad. I just stay focused on the songs.”

* Michael Kiwanuka plays Academy, Dublin on Saturday. The album Home Again is out now


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