Earlier this year Michael Kiwanuka was announced as number one in the prestigious BBC Sound Poll of 2012. The previous winners since its inception in 2003 have been 50 Cent, Keane, The Bravery, Corrine Bailey Rae, Mika, Adele, Little Boots, Ellie Goulding and Jessie J. So, as a guide for future success, the poll has been a good barometer. But will the man dubbed ‘A Bill Withers for 2012′ come through? In this fickle and fragmented musical environment, nothing is certain. But what is certain is that Kiwanuka has been winning plaudits and praise from critics and fans alike, for his mesmerising, gentle and soulful vocals and mellow demeanour – he’s a young man who seems at ease in the fast developing career that he is carving out.
Born and bred in London but of Uganda parentage (“I still have lots of aunties and cousins there”), Kiwanaku has quickly migrated from being an accomplished session guitarist to supporting act on tours with both Adele and Laura Marling last year, and of course number one in the BBC Sound poll. “I was playing a lot of music (as a session player) which was good but it wasn’t representing who I was,” says Michael. “So, I started writing songs in my spare time and doing open mics, and I started putting more emphasis on singer songwriting and things rolled from there…”
Citing influences as diverse as Nirvana, Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder, Kiwanuka’s sound is very retro in feel and in style. “Folk, rock’n'roll and jazz are my big influences,” he says. I like Hendrix too – he had a softer side to him (songs such as ‘Little Wing, ‘Angel’) which I was really into. Often compared to Bill Withers and Terry Callier, Kiwanuka has developed a unique, if obviously retro sound, thanks largely to the production work of Paul Butler, a member of The Bees, and whose studio is used by that band in capturing their heavily reverb, analogue-drenched sound. This can be heard on his first two EPs, The Isle of Wight Sessions (Tell A Tale Now) and I’m Getting Ready, with a debut album, Home Again, being released in March, Kiwanuka is concentrating on playing live this year. “Yeah, it’s all about being on the road in 2012.. I love being a musician and playing, and I’ve really only just put together a band, so I’m progressing and developing that.” He seems to have hit upon a soul-folk hybrid, although he readily admits that his songs aren’t topical. “I couldn’t sit down and write about the riots (of last summer) or topical things, but I can write about what I’m going through – my songs are autobiographical. It’s not nice to feel that naked sometimes, but I think music needs to be like that.
Michael Kiwanaku, Wednesday 15 February, Komedia, Brighton 7pm, £8 (and on tour in the UK)