I’ve seen Michael Kiwanuka perform exactly twice – once in Dublin last October and again a few months later at the South by Southwest music festival in Texas – and each time he had the same look on his face when he finished his set.
The British singer-songwriter could not have appeared more awestruck by the rapturous reception both audiences gave him. For such a low-key guy, whose new debut album unfurls like one long acoustic soul session from the 1970s, the attention has been overwhelming.
“When you make music, you’ve got to do your thing, but you never know if people are going to take to it,” Kiwanuka says recently from the road ahead of Monday’s show at Brighton Music Hall. “I hoped that this new album could travel as far as it could, but I didn’t know how it would be received. It’s quite humbling.”
Buzz was already building last fall, to the point that it took Kiwanuka and his team by surprise. After his Dublin club date, new converts approached his manager to buy CDs. “We haven’t got any yet,” he told them. Then Kiwanuka got a crucial boost in January when he won the BBC’s Sound of 2012, an annual industry poll that forecasts who will break out in the new year. Previous winners include Adele, Keane, and Ellie Goulding.
Kiwanuka, whose world-weary voice belies the fact that he’s 24, stands out so much partly because he doesn’t try to. His songs are rooted in organic soul music pioneered in the early ’70s by singer-songwriters like Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, and Joan Armatrading. It’s a style that has remained evergreen over the years. We still hear it in everyone from Maxwell and Jill Scott through India.Arie and now Kiwanuka.
Born to Ugandan parents, Kiwanuka grew up in North London and worked as a session player for other musicians and rappers and even taught guitar in schools. He credits Jimi Hendrix with making him realize that a black kid could pick up a guitar. From there, his heroes included Bob Dylan and Otis Redding.
“Home Again,” Kiwanuka’s debut, which is now available digitally before its physical release in July, is a warm listen. In its best moments, it comes across as a flipside to Sade’s “Lovers Rock” from 2000. (In other words, it’s a strong contender for Grammy recognition next year.)
Mellow orchestral strings wash over acoustic guitar and the sporadic blast of horns. From start to stop, the album is nearly flawless, if occasionally in need of some edge. Adele, for whom Kiwanuka opened on a series of tour dates last year, is a close contemporary, but even her songs have some attitude that’s largely missing in Kiwanuka’s work.
His focus is more on internal conflict. “Home Again” leads with a song that was pivotal in shaping the rest of the album. “Tell Me a Tale” is time-warped, evoking the visionary songwriting of Gil Scott-Heron. “Tell me a tale that always was/ Sing me a song that I’ll always be in/ Tell me a story that I can read/ Tell me a story that I believe,” Kiwanuka sings as if addressing a higher power.
The album came together piecemeal, culling from three previously released EPs in addition to new songs. Together, they make a bold collective statement.
“Even before I had all of the songs or an idea of what the album would be, it was important to me that it all be cohesive,” Kiwanuka says. “My favorite albums do that. Especially when I was younger, I listened to albums as a whole, like they were a complete jam.”
It’s refreshing to learn Kiwanuka does not deny his influences; if anything, he lifts them up. In concert, Kiwanuka frequently covers Withers, to whom he’s most often compared. On his blog, he champions the masters he’s been inspired by lately, from Sly Stone to Link Wray.
“You can feel boxed in by your influences if you let yourself, but if you listen to what’s in your head, you can see beyond people’s expectations of your music,” he says. “For a while, I put my own interests as a musician on the back burner. It somehow happened that I got my music out there. It’s better to be yourself.”