Michael Kiwanuka Is Alive And Well

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Michael Kiwanuka isn’t dead.

In this era of fake Internet news, singer-songwriter and guitarist Michael Kiwanuka is a prominent UK victim of it. Internet posts claiming his death, his retirement, and other personal matters fire up the British rumor mills. But most, if not all of the “news,” is absolutely false and seemingly written without any reason or basis. Anyone who recently saw him on tour in the U.S. with Gary Clark, Jr. in support of his new album KIWANUKA can attest to the fact that he’s alive, well, and in good voice.

Kiwanuka is a soulful, one-of-a-kind artist who isn’t part of current trends, whether that means Americana, urban or even bro-country. As usual, he wears his influences on his sleeve on KIWANUKA, recorded with groundbreaking producers Danger Mouse and Inflo. A Londoner born to Ugandan parents who had fled the brutal regime of the ruthless despot Idi Amin, Kiwanuka began his music career as a studio guitarist. But it wasn’t long before people also began to sit up and take notice of his singing and songwriting, comparing him to everyone from Otis Redding to Bobby Womack to Isaac Hayes to, well, far too many to list. 

Musically, echoes of the glory days of American FM rock radio and Stax and Motown are front and center on the new album, and lyrically his work holds up against the introspective, soul-searching songs of the greats of past generations, whose deep examinations of their hearts and relationships made them legends. Even though he wasn’t raised in the U.S., almost everyone he gets likened to is an American. While some artists get annoyed at being compared to someone else, Kiwanuka says he’s fine with it.

“I really don’t mind being compared to a lot of great songwriters and artists,” he says. “It’s great when I’m considered like that, or my name is spoken in the same sentence. It’s just such an honor to be compared to some of the people that other people compare me to. It’s all good to me.”

When asked how he was so attracted in his youth to older music made by American artists, he says, “It was the music I related to somehow. I don’t know why. To be honest, music was so new to me then, and people’s expectations of what you did in life then, to me, seemed a bit more open. So, like, if you’re the Isley Brothers, you can cover James Taylor [the Isleys cut Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain’ in 1971], and if you’re Jimi Hendrix you can play rock ‘n’ roll, or if you’re Bill Withers you play acoustic guitar, or if you’re Sly [Stone] … it’s all mixed.”

As strictly a songwriter, Kiwanuka is gaining respect on both sides of the pond from other artists, and even finding his material on other peoples’ albums. Country singer Julie Roberts cut “Bones,” a ballad of love and longing from Kiwanuka’s 2012 album Home Again, on her album Good Wine And Bad Decisions. He names several artist/writers, some of them somewhat surprising and all of them American, who had an impact on him as he was forming his own writing style. “Clearly Marvin Gaye impacted me emotionally,” he says. “Bob Dylan. Neil Young, his music was so emotional, it wasn’t technical but it had so much feeling to it, so much emotion in it. Joni Mitchell, how intricate she is with her songwriting and guitar playing.”

Kiwanuka first came onto the scene as a working session player, and he frequently cites Jimi Hendrix as a guitar influence, though Hendrix’s revolutionary work isn’t readily suggested in Kiwanuka’s own playing. “As a black guitar player I was never sought out all that much,” he says, “but that’s what got me into music. But then I spent so much time learning to write songs and make albums that, well … my guitar playing’s okay but you can find a better guitar player. But the thing that got me in straight away was the guitar. And when it comes to writing songs the guitar will find me strumming straight away. The first thing I’ll do in the morning, I’ll be strumming straight away.”

Kiwanuka’s first two EPs were released on Communion Records, a division of Communion Music in London. The company was co-founded by Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett and others to provide a platform for struggling and innovative young artists. The strength of those EPs secured Kiwanuka an opening slot on tour with Adele in 2011, helping the new artist gain insight, experience and momentum. “It was great,” he says. “She was an inspiration, that’s for sure. The main thing I learned from her is how people can really connect to a song, from watching how the audience connected to what she was saying, and her voice, and how beautifully she sang. She just inspired me to keep writing when I saw how much impact a song can have, what a song idea can do in Norway and Berlin and just everywhere. It was inspiring to see what pop music can do firsthand and in real time.”

But what really propelled Kiwanuka’s career to another level completely, in the U.S. and elsewhere, was when his song “Cold Little Heart” was selected as the theme song for the Nicole Kidman HBO series Big Little Lies. “That was crazy,” he says, his headshake almost audible over the phone from overseas to this writer in Las Vegas. “I think the publisher may have had it in a workshop; I don’t really know specifically how it happened. At first it was going to be in a scene from an episode of the show, then I found out it was going to be the main title song. It pretty much changed everything for me, especially in the U.S. People wanted to find out who I was and check out my albums, and I got way more fans for sure.”

Many artists and songwriters in today’s controversial times write about the issues of the day, and Kiwanuka lives in a country where political unrest is as headline-grabbing as it is anywhere. But unlike some of the people who are his inspirations, Kiwanuka doesn’t spend much time ruminating and writing about these issues and the personalities at the center of them, instead choosing to focus on the human condition in general. “I agree, I’m definitely not political,” he says when this is pointed out. “It’s part of your life, part of your experience, especially now, and you can’t ignore some things. But maybe it’s stuff that’s more of a general feeling about people, of what’s happening with people of your generation really, that I’m into instead.” As far as artists of his own generation, Kiwanuka is these days enamored with the work of English folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling, and California folk artist (though she reportedly disdains labels) Jessica Pratt. 

Kiwanuka plans to stay the course, to keep singing, writing, playing and expanding his popularity around the globe, especially in the U.S. “I’ve been to the States quite a few times, this tour was my fifth or sixth trip over. America is a big old place, but it’s pretty cool to try to make it over there.” 

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