WORRIED ABOUT THE STATE OF THE MODERN WORLD? THE NORTH LONDON SOUL MAN HAS THE PERFECT SUCCOUR: BURGERS.
“Having a burger tripped my mind, like therapy. I could face the world again.”
Ilove burgers, it’s comfort,” beams Q Awards Best Solo Artist nominee Michael Kiwanuka, scanning the comprehensive burger menu at East London’s Meat Mission. “Hmm, classic cheeseburger and fries… the best!” The 29- year-old North Londoner also loves “to chat”, a man brimful of bonhomie, even as he describes the writer’s block and depression which scuppered his 2013, unable to follow-up 2012’ s sublime, retro-soul debut Home Again. “Creatively stuck,” he spent months sleeping in, scrapped a whole album, stopped writing and escaped to the pub. A jug of tap water arrives. “Amazing,” he levitates, “good times, man!” He can say this now, having survived the bad times in today’s hits-demanding industry. “If you don’t sell, you’ll be dropped,” he shudders. “Brutal.” In 2012 he’d been unstoppable, British soul’s most richly emotive new voice. By 2013 he was unravelling, even as Kanye West called him to Hawaii for contributions to Yeezus. Kiwanuka remained stuck, returning home after five days, back to bed and the pub. It took his own collaborations in 2014/15, with producers Inflo and Danger Mouse, to unstick him. Burgers also worked their magic. “We spent a lot of time in here,” he smiles, surveying the dark, neon-lit beanery. “Having a burger tripped my mind, like therapy. When I was feeling scared, if I had a burger I could face the world again.” This year, his second album Love & Hate finally emerged. Going to Number 1, and bagging a Mercury nomination, it’s a dramatically moving soul-blues opus, the single Black Man In A White World both a personal lament to his lifelong search for identity as the son of Ugandan immigrants who grew up in white, middle-class Muswell Hill and a rumination on global inequality. “What’s happening every day seeps into your psyche,” he says. “People in their 20s now are like, ‘What’s happening?’ It’s good, it’s what’s goin’ on, man! Like the ’ 60s again.” His burger arrives – “amazing!” – as he contemplates divisive human nature. “We separate ourselves from each other by trying to find people who are like us,” he decides, thoughtfully. “Being different, I noticed it, growing up. You mix with the same people, the same haircuts. We just buy a little flat, if we’re lucky, and shut the door. To me that’s what Brexit is. We know who we are, these people can sort themselves out. Sad, isn’t it?” He relishes his burger while moving on to America’s troubles; Trump, police shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement. “I feel confusion,” he muses. “It’s unbelievably backwards. The guns, I know it’s in their history but so was slavery, you know? It doesn’t mean you can’t get rid of it.” The States were hostile to Black Man In A White World – Kiwanuka was advised by his label to choose a different single. “Some stations blocked it,” he shrugs. “I find America strange and difficult, they seem trapped.” He worries also for his British contemporaries, citing London’s high rents, unaffordable homes and university fees debt. “Young people can’t start their lives,” he laments, “no wonder they’re disillusioned and just go off to uni and get pissed!” Kiwanuka is, though, optimistic about music and creativity: “At the Mercury’s I came away excited about British music.” He’s buoyant for another reason, too: four years ago, he’d never been in love, this September he married Charlotte, a songwriter. “The concept of coming back home has changed completely,” he grins. “Before I could tour all year long. Now, I get home and we’re like a little team, the TV shows we watch, making tea, a walk on the heath, basic little things.” Life in 2016 for the personable soul man is good, then. “But I’ve always had a great time, even when I was down.” He surveys his empty tray. “I love food, man!” he cackles. “A good meal and a chat, you relax and reboot. I’m just up for being happy, life’s too short…” He wanders off back to his wife, and his new life, buoyed by the burger, ready to face again our ever-confusing world.