Michael Kiwanuka Is About to Take Over
It’s hard to imagine Michael Kiwanuka losing. The British acoustic-soul singer had an insane January: He beat Frank Ocean and Azealia Banks to top the prestigious BBC Sound of 2012 list, made MTV U.K.’s Brand New for 2012 short list and sold out his late-winter tour.
But that wasn’t always the case. On the day the interview took place in mid-December, Kiwanuka heard some different news. He found out he placed third for the 2012 Brits Critics’ Choice Award. The top spot is considered a stepping-stone to pop stardom; past winners include Florence and the Machine, Jessie J and Adele. “Yeah, someone else won,” says Kiwanuka, that someone being Scottish soul singer Emeli Sandé. “But she’s amazing.” And the charming Kiwanuka really means it.
The 24-year-old Londoner describes his music as “folk-soul” and has been compared to Bill Withers, the Temptations and Otis Redding. Yes, the same Otis of the Watch the Throne track. But judging from his lilting, throwback voice, Kiwanuka’s connection to the ’60s R&B star runs that much deeper.
Kiwanuka got a guitar when he was 12 and started his first band at 13. The “not very good” group, as he puts it, played covers of the Offspring and the Cure. But four years ago, he started to get serious about music, writing songs and testing out his work with friends. Influenced by artists ranging from Miles Davis to Nirvana and Radiohead, Kiwanuka says, “I kept going and exploring more music and trying to get better.” And boy has he gotten better. Example: last year’s sweetly nostalgic video for “Tell Me a Tale.” With views of the open ocean, fields of flowers and bell-bottom pants in the backdrop, Kiwanuka belts lines like “Paint me a picture that I can see / Give me a touch that I can feel” over a breezy two-chord vamp. It’s no accident that he looks and sounds like a man who has only known music. “I’ve never really had a proper job,” he admits.
With Home Again, his full-length debut, slated to drop in March, Kiwanuka has plenty of accolades coming his way. Still, we had to ask again: You sure you’re not salty about that Brits award? “I was a bit sad, but third is still great,” he says with unmistakable grace.
He gets our vote.
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of ANTENNA.)