The Popdose Interview: Michael Kiwanuka

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

A chat with one of the year’s most exciting new artists

It’s the voice that gets your attention first — a warm, smoky thing that reminds you of a time when pop singers still sounded like they were breathing. And while you’re still settling into the comforts of the voice, you realize it isn’t alone: It’s working in service of a song, but not just any song; a song that sounds like it was wrung from decades of miles traveled and lessons learned. That’s the experience of listening to Michael Kiwanuka, the UK artist whose impossible youth — he’s somehow only 24 — belies a powerful grasp of songcraft.

His full-length debut, Home Again, has already earned countless Bill Withers comparisons, and while they’re indisputably part of the same musical axis, Kiwanuka is more than a Withers clone; these songs prove you don’t have to settle for pastiche if you want to embrace a classic soul sound. The album has struck a chord overseas, where Kiwanuka topped the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll, and he’s earned the respect of peers like his former tourmate Adele. Now it’s time for American audiences to meet Michael Kiwanuka, and Popdose was lucky enough to grab a few minutes with one of the year’s most exciting new artists in the midst of the whirlwind.

I’m curious about your songwriting approach. Some artists are purely confessional, while others are storytellers; you seem to be a pretty even hybrid.

Yeah. I do like those storytelling songs, but I’m not very good at writing songs that aren’t subjective, so I guess that’s why you hear that blend. And they do tell stories, but they aren’t all about me, if that makes sense. [Laughs] I hadn’t really considered it so much in terms of which style of writing I want to do.

And how often do you write? Is it a daily thing for you, or do you wait for the songs to come to you?

A bit of both, but mainly waiting. And when it does come, it tends to last for three or four weeks at a time, where I’ll be sitting down with my guitar and my laptop to record ideas. That tends to happen after a buildup where I’m waiting for inspiration to arrive. I don’t just get up and do it when I don’t feel like it, you know? Nothing really comes out. Although sometimes there will be a riff, or a component of an eventual song. That always helps in the end.

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This burst of success you’re enjoying — has it impacted your ability to write or be creative?

I don’t know — I guess at first, we were just getting ready to release this first record over here in England, and getting all that together. Building up new material wasn’t really in the forefront of my mind. As things have developed a bit, I’ve started to think about that, but it hasn’t really affected me too much in terms of fear, or a block. It’s the same, really — it’s more a case of me trying to come up with new things. Music that carries me someplace else. Success hasn’t affected that in a bad or negative way.

I know personally, as a writer, I’m very much a creature of habit, and any changes to my routine tend to throw me pretty far out of whack. If I had to travel as much as you do, it’d be hard to adjust my creative patterns.

For me, it’s the opposite. I get stuck if I’m in the same place — that monotony kind of distracts from my creativity. But when I’m out and about, grabbing pockets of time in different places, it kind of shakes up my brain a bit. It keeps me fresh, I guess. I like to be moving around. Obviously not when it comes to recording — then it’s nice to be in one place and get things done. But in terms of coming up with new ideas, and initial parts of a song, I like to keep moving.

People are obviously responding to the songs on the album, but they’re also responding to the sound of the album — the way it evokes records they love from a long time ago. Do you feel any added responsibility because of this? It seems like it might make it more difficult for you to evolve your sound as you continue your career.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I think in terms of trying to progress my sound and continue making records or have a career…as long as you’re yourself, I think elements of what people respond to in the beginning will always remain. There will always be those mannerisms you have as an individual. So far, I’ve been very relaxed about it.

And sonically, you know, I like that sound. That’s always been very much a part of me and my tastes, and that will always be there. I think — I don’t know. We’ll see what happens with the second one, but I’m quite excited about seeing where I can go, and what I can change. That’s interesting.

The next record will probably have more guitar on it. I’ve been listening to a lot of heavy guitar bands, and getting into the work of guitarists like Link Wray. I’ve been playing it more live — more electric — so the new music might go that way. But there will always be an acoustic element, too.

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How has your relationship with the songs from the album changed? We’re just starting to catch up with them over here, but it’s been out for awhile overseas, and of course, you were finished recording them for some time even before that.

Yeah, and you develop approaches to keep them fresh and put them in different settings when you play them live. Different arrangements with the band — sometimes I’m not playing them with all the instruments they had on the record. They keep the songs developing, in a way. Some songs you can stretch out live, some you can’t — they all sort of grow. You change some rhythms, some grooves, and they develop as you go along.

It can create a certain amount of impatience, and yeah, you are always thinking ahead to what’s next, to your new stuff. And sometimes it makes sense to try out a new tune on the road, or in a soundcheck. But yeah, I guess I’m learning all these things as I go along — it’s my first time out. I just feel lucky, really.