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MICHAEL KIWANUKA

The self-titled record usually marks a definable phase of a musician’s career; an embrace of personal mythology, perhaps, or merely a shift to ‘take me as I am’ straightforwardness. But “Kiwanuka”, the single eponymous word that heralds Michael Kiwanuka’s third album, holds a resonant, complex significance. It signals, for one thing, a swift, pointed rejection of the stage personas that artists have historically donned as both a freeing creative mask and a protective shield. It is an act of cultural affirmation and self-acceptance: a young British-African, contemplating the continued struggle for racial equality, and proudly celebrating the Ugandan name his old teachers in Muswell Hill would struggle to pronounce. It is a nod to a suite of arresting, ambitious soul songs that – while they deftly recall the funkified epics of artists as varied as Gil Scot-Heron, Fela Kuti, Bobby Womack and Kendrick Lamar – cement the singular, supremely confident sound that made 2016’s Love & Hate such an undeniable step up.

Now, following ‘Money’ – the lauded summer single collaboration with Tom Misch – and a sunset Park Stage set that was the talk of Glastonbury 2019, the long-awaited follow-up to that record can be announced. And “Kiwanuka”, like its creator, contains multitudes; it offers both the triumphal, grin-widening empowerment of opener ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ and the ruminative, candlelit intimacy of ‘Solid Ground’. It looks inward and out, across widescreen sonic landscapes constructed in recording studios in London, Los Angeles and New York, and provides a sumptuous showcase for the honey-poured mahogany of Kiwanuka’s voice. It skilfully crosses the streams of the personal and the political. No other name would really have done.

“I remember when I first signed a record deal, people would ask me, ‘So what are you going to be called?’” laughs the man himself, considering the thought process that inspired the title. “And I never thought of that; calling myself Johnny Thunders or whatever, like singers from the past. But I have thought previously, would I sell more records if my name had an easier ring to it? So [on this album] it’s kind of a defiant thing; finally I’m engaging with who I am and I’m not going to have an alter ego, or become Sasha Fierce or Ziggy Stardust, even though everyone's telling me I need to be this, that or the other. I can just be Michael Kiwanuka.”

In many ways this self-possession is a direct consequence of Love & Hate. That record added an unexpected Mayfieldian groove and scope to to the scuffed, ‘70s-infused mellowness of Home Again, Kiwanuka’s Mercury-nominated 2012 debut. Album number two, of course, got its own place on the Mercury shortlist (not to mention a No 1 chart position, a Brit Award-nomination and the wide cultural blast radius afforded by songs that featured on shows like The Get Down, When They See Us and, most notably, HBO’s Emmy-winning Big Little Lies).

“Kiwanuka” marks a reunion of the team that conjured ’s acclaimed, pulsing soulscape – namely Gnarls Barkley hit whisperer Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton and British hip hop producer Inflo – and it actually began life not long after the 32-year-old had finished touring its predecessor. Early Los Angeles sessions – in May, 2017 – proved wildly productive. Maybe, in fact, too productive. The trio had sketched out around eight songs – including lyricless, early versions of ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ and the spine-tingling, wintry ballad ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)’ – at such a breathless gallop that Kiwanuka felt some of his old doubts and insecurities creep back. “It was all so fast,” he reasons. “I remember having a conversation with Danger Mouse where I even asked, ‘Is this my album?’” He chuckles at the memory. “That was the lack of self-belief and me beating myself up.”

An extended recess was called and, when the team fully reconvened in New York in November 2018, Kiwanuka returned to the project with a new vigour, confidence and a clear sense of this new record’s themes and immersive, sonic textures. It was here that he actualised the lyrically knotty, comforting message of ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ (“It almost made me feel like being a rapper,” he grins); where he turned ‘Hero’ into a shape-shifting, thunderously percussive mini-movie, partly inspired by slain civil rights activist Fred Hampton; here that he crafted the hazy refrain – “” – that allied with Danger Mouse’s rhythm guitar playing to give psych-gospel highlight ‘I’ve Been Dazed’ its eerie, hypnotic power.

“We had three weeks and every day I would just do this half hour walk from my hotel by the Brooklyn Bridge to the studio in Red Hook, listening to backing tracks and scribbling lyrics on hotel paper or in my little scrapbook,” he says, more than a little wistfully. “It felt like being 15. And that excitement and childish imagination really helped me forget that it was a scary process.” This youthful sense of play also led to the invocation of some, possibly surprising, tonal influences from Kiwanuka’s childhood as a skater kid who loved Nirvana and Green Day as much as Outkast and Lauryn Hill. Using the cinematic skits and interludes of a record like by The Fugees as a springboard, Kiwanuka wondered if the horn-drenched grandeur of previous lengthy songs like ‘Love & Hate’ and ‘Father’s Child’ could be intensified and transformed into something even more atmospheric, more immersive.

The result is the unhurried, auterish poise that may be one of “Kiwanuka”’s most striking features. ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love) Intro’ sets the scene with windblown harmonies and a rumbling, canyon-deep baritone to rival Isaac Hayes (it’s actually Kiwanuka, detuned). ‘Another Human Being’ features a jolting gun shot and a quote taken from a participant in the Civil Rights ‘sit-in’ protests that swept through North Carolina in 1960 (‘Interlude (Living All the People)’ also features the voice of congressman and activist John Lewis). ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ is a dawnlit, 7 minute opus that Kiwanuka garnished with the sampled sound of twittering birds. “I was really influenced by the vividness of something like ,” he explains, about the desire to create such a rich, inhabitable world.

And he even allowed himself to be coaxed towards stretches of musical terrain that he would never have ordinarily explored. When Danger Mouse first started working towards the skipping, almost ‘80s rhythm of ‘Final Days’ – about as far from “Home Again”’s retro soul as this new record gets – Kiwanuka was hesitant. “It’s kind of spacey so I took a lot of convincing,” he admits. “But we went the whole hog with it and it’s one of my favourite songs now.”

It tells its own story that Kiwanuka – who came up in the pub rooms of London’s acoustic scene before winning the BBC’s Sound Of 2012 poll – is now so happily embracing musical touchstones and styles that may have once seemed contradictory. The revelatory, confessional core of ‘Black Man in a White World’ (which grappled with identity and Kiwanuka’s status in communities where he was conspicuously the only ethnic minority) has evolved into something a little more certain. Now, Kiwanuka’s reengagement with his Ugandan heritage (he hopes, he notes, to play some shows there soon) manifests in skittering Afrobeat drums and guitar lines that he hopes possess “the feeling of a Fela track”. Now, the wide-lapelled, shimmering doo-wop of ‘Living In Denial’ implores you to . Now, and here we return to that album title, ‘Hero’ opens with the proud, chest-puffed line: .

“The last album came from an introspective place and felt like therapy, I guess,” he reasons, surveying it all. “This one was a bit more about feeling comfortable in who I am and asking what I wanted to say. Like, how could I be bold and challenge myself and the listener? It is about self-acceptance in a bit more of a triumphant rather than a melancholy way.”

“Kiwanuka” solidifies one of British music’s more remarkable career progressions. The man behind it has put his immense natural gifts to work in an album that wields difficult subjects – black identity, violence, self-doubt – with a light touch and a dramatist’s sense of mood, space and atmosphere. “The things that end up being enjoyed are often things you want to hide,” he says, quietly. “But obviously that’s the stuff that makes us connect.” Telling people who you are – truly, unabashedly showing yourself – has never sounded more thrilling.

By Jimi Famurewa, July 2019.


FORMAT INFORMATION

2xColoured LP Info: Yellow double heavyweight vinyl with a gatefold sleeve.

Deluxe CD Info: Hardcover book deluxe edition.

Karen O Featuring Michael Kiwanuka

Yo! My Saint

    This is a great brooding, bluesy rocker. Despite them both having very distinctive vocals, they work really well together, to create a kind of off kilter haunting ballad that you could well imagine on the soundtrack to a David Lynch film. It's actually from a short film presented by fashion house Kenzo - a full on music/film/fashion colab.



    STAFF COMMENTS

    Laura says:

    FORMAT INFORMATION

    Ltd 7" Info: Just found a couple of copies of this!

    Soulful and raw, Londoner Michael Kiwanuka’s critically-acclaimed debut album ‘Home Again’ (April 2012) staked his claim on the list of great British singer-songwriters. Having taken a deep breath and relaxed into his musical approach, Kiwanuka is back, and has delivered his eagerly anticipated second album - and it packs a powerful punch. 'Love & Hate', produced by Danger Mouse, Inflo and Paul Butler, is an outward-looking, drenched with emotional density and rich, soulful production at the helm. Two years in the making, the British Ugandan Londoner has worked with new talent and created a canvas which sees his vulnerability take centre stage. Honest, unabashed, and ambitious, this is Kiwanuka proving that he is ready to secure his position as one of our most exciting homegrown talents. It’s a new world since his debut, and it seems that it’s his for the taking.

    Michael Kiwanuka

    Home Again

      Few records make such an instant impression as 'Home Again', the debut album by Michael Kiwanuka. Immersing the listener in a sound that is both modern and at the same time as familiar as the classics, it manages to strike the balance between being contemporary and somehow utterly timeless.

      “I just wanted to make a record that, when someone puts it on, it takes them to a certain place,” says the 25-year-old north Londoner. “I wanted it to have the lush-sounding instrumentation and feel of older records, to be warm and peaceful and put the listener in this little world, which is rich with vibes and sounds and colours.”

      For Kiwanuka, key musical touchstones include Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Shuggie Otis, Roberta Flack’s 'First Take', Bill Withers’ 'Live At Carnegie Hall' and D’Angelo’s modern soul landmark 'Voodoo'. Citing the latter album in particular as Exhibit A in refuting suggestions that his listening tastes are rooted exclusively in the 1970s, Kiwanuka calmly shrugs off any “retro” accusations that might be levelled at his music.

      “The truth is there was no intention behind any of it,” he states. “There was no intention for my voice to sound old. The songs come out like they do because I like the sound of stuff like that. I didn’t start writing songs to get a record deal. I wrote songs to express myself and they ended up sounding old.”

      Moreover, given the fact that he was born in 1986, to Kiwanuka’s impressionable young ears, even the music of the past was fresh to him. “To me, those records sounded new,” he says. “Growing up, I didn’t have records at home. I didn’t even know any Beatles albums. For me, it was all completely brand new music, even though it was recorded decades ago.”

      Born in Muswell Hill to Ugandan émigré parents, Michael Kiwanuka was brought up in a home from which music was largely absent, with his first introduction to rock (Nirvana, Radiohead) arriving at the same time as he began to hang with the skater kids in the north London suburb during his early teenage years. Later coming across a soul compilation album given away with a music monthly, he was enthralled by the sound of Otis Redding’s studio talkback discussions with his engineer while recording an outtake version of '(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay'. From this point on, he resolved to make music that sounded raw and authentic.

      As a guitarist, however, the session work that Kiwanuka managed to find in his early career as a musician was entirely in the urban genre, notably with Bashy and Chipmunk. While he says he learned much from these experiences, it chiefly taught him that his musical passions lay elsewhere. “My head was in other music,” he admits, “so this was just a means to get there. It forced me to try and write my own songs because I didn’t feel this other stuff in my heart.”

      Though deeply into soul and jazz, he found real inspiration in the cross-pollination of the two styles with folk in the music of Bill Withers. “Bill Withers was very rootsy and earthy,” he points out, “but people branded him as a soul singer. To me, he was a folk artist. So that encouraged me to keep going, ‘cause I didn’t know where I would fit in as a black guy with an acoustic guitar.”

      In beginning to perform on the acoustic circuit around London, Kiwanuka quickly attracted interest and made connections, not least with his current manager who in turn garnered the attention of Communion Records, the label that in 2011 released the singer’s first two acclaimed EPs, 'Tell Me A Tale' and 'I’m Getting Ready'.

      Both of these EPs - as with 'Home Again' - were produced by Paul Butler (The Bees) in his vintage equipment-stuffed basement studio at his house in Ventnor on the Isle Of Wight. Together the pair played almost every instrument to be heard on the album, with Butler’s remarkably intimate, detailed productions - adorned with everything from flute to brass to sitar to aching strings - perfectly matching Kiwanuka’s visions for his songs. “The way we made the record was very modern,” the singer points out. “There was loads of editing. We manipulated it to get exactly what we wanted.”

      From the opening bars of the stirring 'Tell Me A Tale', it is instantly clear that 'Home Again' is a very special album. While its more upbeat characteristics are embodied in the Prince Buster-like loping of the lovelorn but irresistibly catchy 'Bones' and the rolling soul groove of 'I’ll Get Along', elsewhere it proves itself to be a record of real stripped-down beauty. In 'I Won’t Lie', with its gospel-infused echoes of The Staples Singers, Kiwanuka offers something akin to a modern spiritual, while in 'Rest' he turns in a tender “love lullaby” and in 'Always Waiting', he blends classical elements with the confessional intimacy of Roberta Flack.

      It is with the title track of 'Home Again', however, that Michael Kiwanuka feels the record’s sounds and themes are ultimately encapsulated. “That’s the song that really for me ties everything together,” he says. “It’s one of the earliest songs I wrote for the album and even though I progressed and changed stuff in the studio, it was the one I could never throw away. Like a lot of them, it’s a hopeful song. I use home as the metaphor for contentment and peace within.”

      Other parts of the record, on the other hand, find Kiwanuka struggling for peace of mind and using his songs as a form of self-empowerment, not least in the soulful 'I’m Getting Ready', the darker, unburdening 'Any Day Will Do Fine' and the self-explanatory 'Worry Walks Beside Me'. “It can really paralyse you, if you worry too much,” the singer admits. “I do tend to overthink things. All of these songs are me talking to myself, really. Trying to encourage myself to believe.”


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