Sound of 2012 Michael Kiwanuka PLUS: Your sad­dest songs – ever,

He’s the BBC Sound of 2012, but with he­roes who in­clude Neil Young and Bill Withers, singer-song­writer Michael Kiwanuka is in mu­sic for the long haul, writes Jim Car­roll

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

THE BBC SOUND Of 2012 is sit­ting qui­etly in a busy Dublin ho­tel cor­ri­dor. Dur­ing our in­ter­view, dozens of peo­ple walk past the ta­ble, but Michael Kiwanuka doesn’t war­rant a sec­ond glance from any of them. While he may well be the one cho­sen by the pun­dits, com­men­ta­tors and ex­perts who tip mu­si­cal next big things, Kiwanuka has a long way to go be­fore the main­stream recog­nises him.

“I re­ally un­der­es­ti­mated it,” says Kiwanuka about top­ping that poll. “I got a call telling me I was on the longlist and I thought that was cool, but that it would stop there. Af­ter I won it, I didn’t re­ally think too much about it.

“But it has def­i­nitely meant a step-up in terms of my pro­file, which I never thought would hap­pen. More peo­ple have now heard the mu­sic, more peo­ple are cu­ri­ous about who I am and it has upped the ante. Plus, when I travel now, I get my own ho­tel room, which is great.”

That’s go­ing to be handy as he’s set to be trav­el­ling a lot this year on the back of his de­but al­bum, Home Again. It’s chock-a-block with great, ef­fort­less tunes, with Kiwanuka’s fond­ness for folk, soul and coun­try clear for all to see. While it might seem strange for an act in­flu­enced by Shug­gie Otis, Bill Withers, Terry Cal­lier and Townes Van Zandt to be the one tipped for great­ness in 2012, Kiwanuka has the ten­der songs, rich voice and vin­tage poise to over­come all genre prej­u­dices and make peo­ple go to the bother of re­mem­ber­ing his name.

Be­hind the soft-spo­ken, po­lite de­meanour, there’s plenty of steely de­ter­mi­na­tion. A while back, he toured with Adele and, ev­ery night, he watched from the wings as she went on­stage and charmed an­other big room with her songs.

“Watch­ing her made me want to give it my best shot to get there. You could see this per­former com­ing into her own. My own songs are a bit like hers too in that there’s not too many fire­works around them so it was good to see how she put that across at a live gig. I didn’t have a record out, but it was in­ter­est­ing to see how peo­ple re­acted to my shows.”

Kiwanuka sees him­self be­ing in this for the long run. When he talks about the acts he likes, he notes that most of them took a cou­ple of al­bums to find their groove. That’s an old-fash­ioned con­cept in to­day’s record in­dus­try, but the Lon­doner hopes to buck the cur­rent “in­stant” trend.

It was on his home turf that he first be­gan to per­form in public. “I wrote a few songs way be­fore I had any idea of be­ing a proper singer or song­writer,” he says.

“I just liked writ­ing songs and play­ing gui­tar so I did that. I did a few small gigs in pubs around Muswell Hill in north London, play­ing at nights my mates were putting on, but it wasn’t ever the main goal. I stopped and started con­cen­trat­ing on be­ing a gui­tar player.”

He landed gigs as a ses­sion gui­tarist with Chip­munk, Daniel Mer­ri­weather and Bashy. “That’s how I earned money. It’s a dif­fer­ent mind­set. If I went back to do­ing ses­sion work now, I know I’d feel rusty. When you’re at the front, you re­ally do ap­proach play­ing in a dif­fer­ent way.

“As a ses­sion mu­si­cian, you are very at­ten­tive to your gui­tar play­ing. You make sure it’s solid and has a good rhythm and helps the songs. The main thing, though, is learn­ing how to re­late to the other mem­bers of the band. You get used to play­ing with lots of dif­fer­ent peo­ple and re­ally get the feel for what a good band is all about. It’s also re­ally help­ful when you see good artists di­rect­ing their band and let­ting them know what they want.”

Kiwanuka knew ex­actly what he was af­ter when he was putting his own band to­gether. “A lot of the older records I love fea­ture ses­sion mu­si­cians, but they usu­ally stayed to­gether for a long time and re­ally bounced off one an­other. I mean, look at the mu­si­cians who played with Bill Withers on that Live at Carnegie Hall record. They were, by and large, ses­sion play­ers, but lis­ten to how they sound. You can al­ways tell when you have a cook­ing band, that’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence than just a bunch of good mu­si­cians.”

When Kiwanuka be­gan tak­ing song­writ­ing se­ri­ously, he de­voted lots of time to it. “I’d get up, pluck away on the gui­tar, write and lis­ten to old records. It was a re­ally fun time. My mum thought I was laz­ing around do­ing

“I want to lis­ten to and per­form mu­sic like this be­cause I love it. I can’t help it. It’s not about get­ting caught up with fads”

noth­ing, but I was soak­ing in mu­sic. Song­writ­ing is a re­ally cool thing and it’s nice to spend the time try­ing to write songs. All the song­writ­ers I’m into did the same thing, ex­cept they didn’t go to Youtube to check out a band or song.”

He came across a ton of acts who in­spired him to keep writ­ing and singing. “I knew Bill Withers’ songs like Just the Two Of Us but I didn’t know he played acous­tic gui­tar un­til I came across Live at Carnegie Hall. I lis­tened to Shug­gie Otis, started delv­ing into Neil Young and went back into Bob Dy­lan, Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye. Then, I got into Ray Lamon­tagne be­cause he was do­ing what I

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