Michael Kiwanuka: 'I don't want to have any barriers'

A singer-songwriter and one to watch in 2012

Chris Swindells on 04 January 2012

Ever the consummate professional, Michael Kiwanuka rounds off his solo acoustic set to the applause of a ragtag huddle of pausing suits and musical chancers in the main hall of St Pancras International Station.

It’s quite cool. It’s just good to play to strange faces sometimes,” he remarks following his Station Sessions set, from a more secluded corner of the champagne bar upstairs in the station.

The only other weird thing was a black cab.” He sits mulling over the bizarre shows that bookend his live show history. “That was odd, but was still fun, it was very pleasant.

Unreservedly humble and softly spoken, Michael Kiwanuka is primed, he’s tipped to be one of the biggest musical success stories of 2012. Unlike most stars touted for such success, his modest demeanour and easy chat doesn’t give much clue to the pure soul and blues infused musical talent that the man possesses. 2011 has already been the biggest career opening year for the North London born singer-songwriter: tours with Adele, big festival shows and two EPs on Communion Records. “It’s been non-stop until pretty much today,” he says, deep into December.

It’s been like a dream. I’ve never wanted to do anything else than be a musician,” Michael says, a book open to rife through the pages.

With years plying his trade as a session musician, for hip hop producer Labrinth amongst others, Michael only began writing his own material four years ago: “I didn’t know I’d ever sing them, or anyone would ever hear them. I just liked the feeling of writing a song.

The BBC Sound of 2012 recognition that came just days before we speak with him wouldn’t come as a shock to many close to the industry. Not least to Michael’s long term supporters, part time label and full time support group, Communion which is home to a roster of nu-folk artists: “It’s just like a really good, cool support trust for likeminded musicians who want to make music a certain way.” Michael admits, but when it comes to standing shoulder to shoulder with Mumford & Sons and the other Communion bodies, does he ever feel a musical outsider? “I’m a massive folk fan and roots fan so I definitely identify to them in that sense, but I definitely don’t feel part of their scene,” he says. “Not in a negative way just because I seem to want to go everywhere and see what happens.

I don’t want to have any barriers.

For the greater part of the last year breaking down barriers has taken Michael all over the festival scene. Hard Rock Calling was a shock, just for the stage size alone: “You walk on there and it’s like a hundred metre trek.” Others were just intimidating. “I’m always quite nervous at festivals, just because I’ve got this thing in my head where you have to be the Kaiser Chiefs to pull off festivals and I don’t quite have a set like that,” he says, “Green Man was a really pleasant surprise, it was in the Green Man Pub so it had its own little section, and it got really quiet and really full, people just sat down and listened, and you could hear the wind blowing, and other stages playing.

For a man of such modest sentiments Michael’s aspirations for the new year certainly feel grounded in something bigger. Beyond the usual desire to break America he expresses a need to explore more unchartered regions, like Africa: “Places like Uganda, Kenya and Tazania,” he explains. “I don’t know if they have concerts or festivals like we have.

Michael’s parents were born in Uganda and he visited the country through his childhood: “When my mum was younger she used to get everything that America and the UK used to get but four years late. So The Beatles would come out, she’d get it but four years later.

Working on his debut ‘Home Again’, with The Bees’ frontman and producer, Paul Butler, on the Isle of Wight this year, Michael can only hope it doesn’t take four years for anyone to hear it. “If people are expecting something huge then of course you’re going to worry that maybe it’s not going to be huge, but then in a weird way a bit of pressure is good.”

If pressure from end of year polls and press hype for his forthcoming debut are not visible then it’s a huge wonder where his new years resolution comes from: ”Just to be positive about everything,” he remarks. Adding, with no sense of irony, “Because I’m quite negative sometimes.

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