Once a young session guitarist.
Now a confident singer-songwriter playing shows and festivals across the world.
A humble individual who has really come into his own with latest album Love & Hate, a deeper look into the internal conflict within us all.
29-year-old British soul-stirrer Michael Kiwanuka is set to play Splendour In The Grass in just under two months time. He sat down with us to reflect on visually capturing the joy of personal acceptance with Japanese director Hiro Murai, the story being told on the new record, and his very first gig.
So you’ll be playing at Splendour, which is exciting! How are you feeling about that?
I’m really excited. I’ve played there once before and remember it being a brilliant time and a bit of a whirlwind, seeing loads of famous artists walking around. [Preparing for it…], festival sets are a bit different to indoor gigs, but I think with Love & Hate people will like it and it’ll translate well. We’ll play mainly the new album.
Speaking of Love & Hate, you got to work with powerhouse Danger Mouse and Inflo, a young producer from Britain. How did those two characters add their respective layers?
It was really good and a new experience for me making music like that, with more than one person involved. It helps being challenged and having back-and-forths, and they’re both really different. Brian [Burton, Danger Mouse]’s probably more methodical, he just has all that experience in making record after record. He’s really quick in the studio, whereas Inflo’s closer to my age, so it’s more like going to a blank canvas and seeing what hits. He’s more spiritual about it lyrically and what you want to say on your record, more emotionally-led.
So it was good having those two sides, and I just needed to reach people who were amazing to really get close to what I wanted to do.
What story are you telling on the new record? Where does it take you?
For me it’s human, everyday internal conflict. We all have stuff going on inside that shows us which way to go, right or wrong, what makes things hard or good. All that tussle, the opposites inside us, inspired the music and the lyrics.
That’s the kind of album I wanted to make, one about human emotion.
You’ve also played some of those new songs live, including ‘Cold New Heart’ in London and at Brighton’s ‘The Great Escape’ fest. How’s it been so far?
They seem to be going down really well. ‘Cold New Heart’’s just a long piece of music that people appear interested in. But my favourite’s ‘Love & Hate’, it just has a euphoric feel to it. I love it and usually end the set with that.
I love your new clip for the single ‘Black Man In a White World’. There are all these different shots, from the dancer being in the thick of it to looking down at it all. How did working with Hiro Murai enhance the process?
At the end of last year when we were thinking about the first video, I just felt like there was a new breed of music video makers that inspired me. There’s a way that people make classic records that sound so up-to-date, and that’s why Danger Mouse was someone I wanted to work with. Hiro was one of them and he’s done some really beautiful pieces… He did some Childish Gambino ones that I love and ‘Never Catch Me’ featuring Kendrick Lamar, and I thought ‘That’s the kind of sound and feel I want for my music’.
So we approached him and he loved the track. We came back almost immediately with the brief that you see in the video of a guy dancing to the music and levitating up, escaping everything. There’s just this joy of acceptance of who he is, and that’s what the song’s about.
Real credit goes out to Hiro for being an amazing filmmaker. He just took it, ran with it and came back with something incredible.
Definitely agree! Now your debut album Home Again was nominated for a Mercury Prize, which is amazing. How did making that first one grow your strengths as a person and musician?
Making both records was really interesting. The first one had a lot less people involved and was much more colloquial. It’s like staring at yourself in the mirror for the first time and you’re like ‘Whoa, this is what I am, and I’m going to put it out to people’. So it was pretty daunting, you toss with yourself a bit. Getting over the first record and it doing quite well was a real encouragement for the second one.
Something that really helped you grow and find your footing was opening for Adele on her European tour in 2011. What was it like seeing her sing every night?
That was really good. During that time, it was just after 21 was released and as Adele was catapulted into this phenomenal, record-breaking artist. So you could see it happening in real life. Seeing her every night and people’s reactions to it was an absolute treat. It was incredibly inspiring for me because first hand, you’re seeing how music really affects people through honest, emotional lyrics and singing. That’s what I wanted to do, even if it was just a quarter of what Adele’s achieved.
It was a perfect start for me and kept me inspired to try and make good music.
Absolutely incredible. Now Communion Records was really the first label to take you on as a solo artist, releasing your first two EPs. How do you reflect on that?
Working with Communion was amazing, because they’re incredibly artist-friendly and you feel free to be yourself creatively. On top of that, it is really a community of musicians and organisers. You find a little home away from home. All around the place in London, you can go down and meet people doing the same thing as you, and who have the same issues.
So it was perfect for me because it had people I could align myself with to go through the album-making journey.
Now something that was really nerve-wracking for you was appearing on TV for the first time on Jools Holland’s BBC Two show and playing ‘I’M GETTING READY’ LIVE. What was it like?
That was terrifying in a good way. I’ve been watching Jools Holland since I was twelve or thirteen years old, and the lineup was pretty epic. That night it was Red Hot Chili Peppers, Noel Gallagher… so I was scared but it went down well. I remember it fondly.
Finally, let’s go back to your first proper gig as a solo artist at The Oxford in Kentish Town. How did that actually come about and what was it like in those early years trying to find your footing?
I was playing with some friends with my first batch of songs, and I decided I wanted to try doing gigs as a singer-songwriter because beforehand I was just a guitar player. So we put on these little nights, and the first one was at The Oxford. You could book it out for free as long as you sold enough drinks at the bar, so we just invited our family and friends, got a PA and some mics we had.
I was scared for that, but it went well so I was like ‘I definitely want to keep pursuing this’.