At home on a London summer’s day, Michael Kiwanuka spoke to us ahead of the release of his highly-anticipated second album, Love & Hate. We wanted Kiwanuka to tell us who he was, setting the tone for what was to come as we dove further into the expressive universe of Kiwanuka. “I’m Michael Kiwanuka, from London,” he says. “I’m a singer, songwriter and musician and I guess I create music, and it’s soul music, just music for the heart.” But when Kiwanuka was exploring his musical identity, he didn’t think anyone was calling him anything. “They didn’t know who I was. When I was around doing stuff, I was playing open mics, little acoustic nights, so I guess people didn’t know about me. In the early days I was an acoustic singer/songwriter. I think now it’s the same, but with this new album it’s changed to soul singer…a troubadour singer/songwriter.”
Of Ugandan descent, Kiwanuka was born and raised on North London’s Muswell Hill. While the former has possibly subconsciously impacted his work, the latter is the main source of his inspiration and influence. “On the first album there were some songs that had a feeling… rhythm. Uganda is slightly in there but really my main influences were growing up in Muswell Hill and it was like guitar music, soul music, American soul music, English music, and rock and roll. That was what got me into music. So it was interesting, my heritage came through subtly,” he says.
When he was younger, his parent’s record player broke and access to music at home was somewhat diminished. Rather, Kiwanuka explains, it was through school and his friends that his infatuation with music developed and flourished. “Because I didn’t have any music before that, I was like a blank canvas. I was just like a sponge,” he says. “I wasn’t concerned with what genres of new music were like. One day it was rock music and the next day it was old school soul. I’d just hear loads of new music, so it was cool, and I was lucky that I had friends that were just into buying music and buying albums and going to gigs. One week it would be Kings of Leon and the next it would be Gnarls Barkly, it was a really cool time,” he added.
These formative years were pivotal for Kiwanuka. His noted guitar obsession is very much a result from his exposure to it through his peers. A lot of people played guitar, explained Kiwanuka. That was the way to join a band. He started to play, jamming in the music room and from the age of 13 he was playing in bands, and the essential connections were made. “That’s where the main exposure came from, connecting with people and making friends, playing in basements and learning with them. That’s how it happened. The more and more I got into music, the more I got in to playing guitar,” he says rather modestly, as he admits to also playing keyboard in the studio. “But I always play guitar and sing.”
In 2012, Kiwanuka released his debut album Home Again to great acclaim. It went gold, and he won the prestigious BBC Sound of 2012 prize, and went on to support Adele. Tracks like I’ll Get Along and Bones introduced listeners to the beautiful union of folk and soul. His forthcoming album is set for release on Friday 15 July, and the four years in-between his debut and follow up, were filled with a lot explained Kiwanuka. “It was a fun time, there was loads of touring, up until 2014 and from then on it was just hanging out and I’d made new friends around the place,” he says. He continued to be inspired by his contemporaries, seeing bands he admired live at festivals in America, Europe and Australia. He began to re-group, and get a new lease on his music, which was a determining factor for why his new album sounds so different from his debut. “Seeing cool bands play I was like wow. It’s different types of music, but that music began to inspire me and I wanted my music to have some of that energy,” he says. “That really influenced me when I started to make the Love & Hate record and it was one of the reasons that I started to sound different. I was just trying to develop and find new sounds, new inspiration, that would fit me so that I could comeback with a fresh perspective, almost start with a first album again.”
Those four years could be seen as Kiwanuka’s evolutionary years, where he started to grow more and more comfortable with who he was as a musician. “I’d say I’ve gained more confidence and that helps your songwriting, your singing and that helps your guitar playing, so the thing that changed is that I just have more strength to work with. Like I didn’t realise I could use heavier electric guitars. The process of making the second album I found I could do that, and I’d just use my voice in different ways. I just pushed myself more, and found new ranges and new parts of my voice. That all came with confidence.” His writing style has also evolved to more collaborative, out in the open studio. “I usually just write on my acoustic at home, but this time round I was writing in the studio with other people. I’ve opened up and that just came through being more confident.”
Despite releasing an album that won him a prestigious music prize, touring with high-profiled musicians like Adele, and garnering an invitation to work with and collaboration with Kanye West (meeting up with West, but walking away having decided he wasn’t ready to do anything at that time), his confidence wasn’t were it could have been. He credits a lot of his newfound confidence to his producers, Danger Mouse and Inflo. “We used to just talk a lot so we’d go to the studio and sometimes I just wouldn’t have any ideas or I’d be struggling or just down about music, or in a rut, and we’d just talk about what I wanted to say, what kind of artist I wanted to be, we’d put on records…” he says. “Also Danger Mouse has so much knowledge. He’d made so much music and is so talented and had all that experience, and he also gave me confidence. So gaining more confidence, was really a mixture of being around people who’d help build you up and reading books about my favourite artists. When you see them being vulnerable, like Patti Smith is really vulnerable in the book Just Kids, so you could really connect,” he says.
Enter Love & Hate. Kiwanuka has worked with new talent and created a canvas that sees his vulnerability take centre stage, with a new found confidence. While previous comparisons have been made to the sensual jazzy folk-soul of Terry Callier or Otis Redding, in reality, this simmering, blues-inflected pop-soul offering takes the foundation of those artists and ignites the genre with new energy and thrill. “I wanted to make an album that sounded good when you’d turn it up and the lyrics are heavier,” he says. He talks about the raw and emotional lyrics of soul icons like Marvin Gaye who would sing about real human emotion. “I wanted to make songs like that,” he says, “I’m obsessed with the guitar and also long stretches of music … I wanted to make a soul record. Everything that’s on this record, I’ve always wanted to do. I don’t know why, it’s just the music that has made me get into it.” Love & Hate is a confident expression of Kiwanuka taking things at his own pace, which at times brings you to a standstill. Take the album opener Cold Little Heart, a ten-minute sublime journey of soul and confessional lyricism where Kiwanuka sings with his soul-stirring tone. “It’s just a statement,” he says. “I thought it would be a statement of intent to kind of show people that actually I’m going in from the first album … I just thought that I want this album to be a strong record, and I wanted quite a tense statement, a strong clear statement, so I thought a ten minute track would be pretty clear, and it would be a good way to start.
Love & Hate is very much an exploration of our duality, of the two conflicting sides that we all possess, but there is an element of choice as to which side will prevail at any given time. “We all have a darker side to us, if we choose to let that shine, or we choose to hide that and focus on the good stuff, which I try and do. It came to my attention that you shouldn’t ignore it, it’s there for a reason, and I kind of investigated more of the dark side, as a way of getting rid of it. It’s more about being human and how we have those conflicts inside us: we feel jealous sometimes, we have anger, we have fear, we feel down, we feel like we’re not in love with anyone…we also have the good times, I just chose to encompass it in one.”
The cover art for Love & Hate, a heart divided, one side dripping, the other intact, represents this duality, the ying and yang, two core human elements that make the whole person. But what concerns Kiwanuka is how to sustain the good, although he admits that it’s worth addressing the bad sometimes. “Often for me that’s where the downside is because you can’t sustain it, it’s a choice for me, and I just thought I’m going to choose the good stuff, but I’m going to sing about the bad stuff, too. So that’s definitely ying and yang, like the two sides of us.”
Black Man in a White World, perhaps one of Kiwanuka’s most remarkable moments, deals with issues of race, diasporic identity and anxiety, and is a captivating moment of sonic vulnerability and power. The clipped bass claps punctuate each word and as he sings, “I’m a black man in a white world / I’m in love but I’m still sad / I found peace but I’m not glad” and with that, we get a sense of his duality. But Kiwanuka doesn’t dwell, instead, Black Man in a White World is a kind of ode to being different, and accepting of who you are. The video, directed by Hiro Murai, who’s was featured across fluoro earlier this year, is an eerie but ultimately uplifting visual representation of the song. “He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever come across,” says Kiwanuka of Murai. Kiwanuka liked the work that Murai did for Childish Gambino and Flying Lotus. “I just was blown away by his videos and I was like I want my music to fit those images.” Kiwanuka sent Murai the track and he liked it. Two days later, Murai sent Kiwanuka a brief for the Black Man in a White World video. “I thought this sounds amazing,” said Kiwanuka. A week later, Murai sent over the first edit. “I was like whoah this is incredible, so literally it was his vision. He saw everything and interpreted it, and I didn’t have to say anything and it was perfect straight away in the first edit I was like I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Kiwanuka.
The video is simplistic, but expressive. The young boy dances in the middle of the street, a car crash occurs, but he still moves. The young boy represents joy. “The best thing about the song is really the title, so when people first see it maybe scares them with what it’s about, and so the movement is important because it’s an acceptance of your identity and just being happy about standing out and being an individual,” says Kiwanuka. “The feel of his movement and the movement of the kid really is what excited me why I knew that Murai understood the song,” he says. It’s because movement can affect music, think of the times you’ve listened to a song while looking out a window, or in the car looking out while a song plays in the background. “If it feels better with movement then I feel like I’m on the right track musically as well,” says Kiwanuka.
As the release date for Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate looms ever closer, so do his tours and shows. He’ll have a bit of downtime in September, but it’s non-stop until the end of next year. But it doesn’t phase him. “I love it, I wouldn’t change it for the world. You get tired sometimes, but it’s the best job in the world, man. Just playing my music, it’s a dream come true.” As he sings on Love & Hate, You can’t take me down / You can’t break me down, and it can be hard to, when he is Michael from London, who writes music for the heart.
Love & Hate is set for release on Friday 15 July 2016 through Communion.
Interview: Audrey Bugeja, Managing Editor, fluoro.
featured image: Anna Hanks, Michael Kiwanuka/FlickrCC
post first appeared on fluoro. © HM Group (Aus) Pty Ltd 2016