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FILTER 48: Getting to Know: Michael Kiwanuka

By Loren Auda Poin on June 19, 2012


FILTER 48: Getting to Know: Michael Kiwanuka

In a perfect world, Michael Kiwanuka’s debut album would be available only on vinyl. That way, when you wanted to listen to the record—comfortingly titled Home Again—you’d be forced to drop the needle down onto the disc and hear a nice, healthy crackle preceding a voice strong and clear as running water, backed by a band of grooving studio rats worthy of Van Morrison, Otis Redding or any other soulful maven of yore.

Vinyl or no, the rawness and sincerity of Kiwanuka’s voice readily provides the effect of reverse time transit, and that’s exactly what he’s going for. Not that the throwback qualities of Kiwanuka’s music should be overemphasized at the cost of the verve and power of his songs (which, for the record, were written well after the new millennium)—far from it. Rather, his goal is to tap into the timeless torrent of imagination that has inspired his heroes. That’s a motley crew, ranging the classics from Beatles and Stones to James Brown, Shuggie Otis, Sly Stone and Neil Young, with some jazz greats and possibly a little Blur thrown in for good English measure.

Born to Ugandan parents in a middle-class North London neighborhood, Kiwanuka delved into the gleaming stacks of rock, soul and folk to be excavated in the record shops of that grand city. At the impressionable age of 15, he discovered those previously mentioned classic artists and immediately recognized something familiar yet startlingly different from the guitar-based pop bands with which he’d been obsessed. At the same time, the aspiring guitarist found that being well rounded and having both feet on the ground was a good thing, although that stance is sometimes eschewed by many a hard-charging hedonist musician. In fact, he is nothing if not even-keeled, a trait indicated by his long steep in the great and time-tested musical giants of decades past. “All those artists really opened my eyes to how far and wide music could go, which made me take it a lot more seriously,” Kiwanuka says, in an exceedingly polite, gentlemanly tone.

So seriously that, through dint of hard work and an unflagging, almost religiously positive attitude, he was able to land a job as a session guitarist, a job he enjoyed...well, as much as one can enjoy any job. Kiwanuka explains: “That’s when I started to take playing really far and take being a musician really seriously. Just how it felt, how it made me feel and maybe being able to do that every day, that was really appealing. I mean, I was getting paid to play guitar. It was a lot nicer than any other way to make a living. And when I say ‘making a living,’ I mean earning a very small amount of money, but it was enough not to have to get a proper job and for my parents to be happy.”

In the evenings, after bringing the musical dreams of others to life, he focused on his own, teasing out ideas for songs and testing the limits of his steady, powerful voice. Soon, he couldn’t stop. “I just really like expressing myself in song,” he says. “That’s something I really enjoy. Without trying to sound dramatic, I really like doing it and that helps me get over the nervousness of going out on my own and being on stage and things like that. It’s extremely nerve-wracking; it feels like there’s a lot more to lose because you’re so invested in the music, but at the same time you’ve got more to gain, I guess—a lot more.”

Having just made his first record, Kiwanuka is just now finding out how much more gratifying creative freedom can be. Recorded on the Isle of Wight at the house of producer Paul Butler, Home Again features a cast of friendly folks Butler gathered together from the island’s ranks of professional musicians, and the casual vibe mirrors the highly skilled yet loose sound achieved by many of the great pop records of the ’60s and ’70s.

For Kiwanuka, this whole enterprise is not just a retro obsession; it’s more about capturing the same indelible magic that these past artists were so adept at conjuring, and plugging into the tradition of a storied and noble art. “When I listen to these artists, having been a professional musician creating records in the studio, I definitely feel like I understand the process, that I’m a part of that same journey,” he says. “So I feel like I’m part of a lineage, of writing a song and conveying it in a way that’s unique to me but part of something bigger. Basically it just makes me feel like I’m a part of something, which is kind of why I do it.”

Perhaps more than being yet another tick on the timeline of great artists, Kiwanuka’s main impetus for creating music comes from within. A thoughtful, perpetual self-examiner, the young artist is insightful enough to note that this allegiance to himself is also shared by the brightest examples of his fellow songsmiths. “Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye—the thing that they all have in common to me is that they’re always singing about something that matters to them. They’re always consistent with who they are, and that’s really what influences me. It’s not just a certain style of music—the feeling is what’s really important, and that’s why I make music, too.”   F

3 albums that influenced Michael Kiwanuka to make music

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
I just like this album for the amazing songs, every one is totally unique and brilliant. I love Dylan, but to me these songs were the most pure; he is just expressing himself so clearly.



What’s Going On
Marvin Gaye has the best voice ever. That’s what it comes down to for me...and this is the record  where he really hit it on the head.



Inspiration Information
He is such a genius, so different, but has so much soul. This is just a genius record. 

This article is from FILTER Issue 48