Article by: Jamie McCormick | Photos courtesy of Michael Kiwanuka | Posted: 08/08/2012
Standing underneath the blazing lights, Michael Kiwanuka checks the tuning of his guitar while the ghosts flicker around him, performing their shimmering dance of history and heart. Somewhere between low E and high E, a lull passes over the crowd beyond the stage, as if the eye of a hurricane were passing right at that moment, obscuring the true nature of the raging and the powerful and the enthused. They are waiting – poised, expectanat – for the first strains of a new soul, plucked from the annals of history and remixed with a little bit of rock and a little bit of something fresh and unnamed. They are ready. And Kiwanuka simply soaks in the stillness, lingering in the hush.
Unassuming and soft-spoken, Londoner Kiwanuka will fit right in among the greats who have blessed the stage of Los Angeles' iconic Troubadour when he opens his set there on August 13. And the scene is sure to be a similar one, something equally powerful and moving, as Kiwanuka's soul-infused fingerpicking and emotion-driven lyrics spread to the corners of the room. “So many balladeers have played there,” he acknowledges. “I've always wanted to play there, just to be up there.” A Mecca of the musically inclined, The Troubadour represents a certain je ne sais quoi, recording the history of a genre and allowing the young to steep in the influence of their antecedents. And Kiwanuka is no stranger to the beauty that comes from soaking in the charms of the old and the great.
Basking in the emotive musicality and lyricism of folk, yet savoring the saltiness of jazz, blues, and soul, Kiwanuka creates a neo-ballad -- part perfectly aligned with yesteryear and part completely and undefinably new. Everything that touches him, or has ever touched him, jumbles together inside of his brain, collecting little bits and parts unique to him in the process. “It crowds in my head,” he explains. But with just the right touch of rasp to his vocals layered on top of fingerpicking that is soulful and nearly impeccable, he smoothes out the edges and brings every single facet into crisp focus. Kiwanuka creates an atmosphere both haunting and comforting in waves, but always resonant. And he saunters on with a rhythm that only comes from being completely at home as long as his fingers are on the strings. After all, he recalls his first foray into the music world – a stint as a studio musician – saying, “I just played guitar. I just wanted to be a musician.” What could be more simple than that?
And a musician he was, in its simplest form, doing what he wanted (and deeply needed) to do, and paying the bills in the process. Beginning in his late teens, Kiwanuka found his footing as a studio musician, gracing countless tracks at minor league studios outside of London and learning the invaluable skills that have built his daunting repertoire. And yet, something did not fit quite right. Something was missing. “I would just stand there and play a few chords,” he recalls. “It didn't speak to me like music used to.” The exercise became static, stale. And he needed more.
Seeking a creative outlet, Kiwanuka began writing his own songs and demoing them, mostly to keep for himself and for the act of the release. But finally, he learned one of the most valuable lessons of his life when one piece of advice radically altered his course: “Just trust yourself, and don't stray from that,” he remembers learning. “Don't know what you want, then do something else.” So taking the initiative, he finally began sharing those demos with a small circle, primarily for others to play, but he was blown away by their response. Supportive and enthusiastic, they encouraged him to start playing small shows around town, and the rest is history. Just as a dripping rivulet somewhere in the mountains eventually becomes the mighty Mississippi, those first shows created a current that would, in time, lead to a world tour with Adele, sets at Lollapalooza and South by Southwest, and a spot on stage at The Troubadour.
Fresh off the release of his first full-length album, Home Again, Kiwanuka is simply rolling on as before, laying his emotions out on the table every time he picks up a guitar. “Music and emotion, those two go hand in hand for me,” he says. Palpable and uplifting, his soulfulness radiates into every lick and line. Like folk, he tells a story, but not one with a plot. He tells the story of what it feels like to be human. And it is a story we all share. Despite the huge venues and major acclaim, Kiwanuka will simply keep flowing, carrying his home with him in a guitar case and explaining the journey to anyone who will listen. This might be the best leg of the journey. After all, even Kiwanuka acknowledges, “Releasing the album is the hard part.”
Michael Kiwanuka - "I'll Get Along"