Published Aug 19, 2016Growing up, UK singer-songwriter and guitarist Michael Kiwanuka was a product of his North London environment, soaking in the diverse musical sounds — Britpop, American soul and folk, including Oasis, Wham!, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Joni Mitchell. His 2012 debut Home Again — co-signed by Adele no less — was solid. The sophomore effort Love & Hate (out now on Universal) is sublime, talking his classic rock, funk and soul music approach to new heights. The 10-track project mixes acoustic guitar with an orchestral and psychedelic vibe; there's a quiet yet passionate feel to his music, with songs that tap into an emotional vein.
"It can be a bit draining," the soft-spoken 29-year-old tells Exclaim! "Because it's deep stuff, you know. But that's the way I can come up with anything." Kiwanuka carries a quiet confidence, and has stated that he's never shied away from how his acoustic rock sensibilities define and inform a unique soul sound.
While a lot of artists can imagine characters and find inspiration in constructing scenarios, drawing from his own experience is the driving force. With the reflective, racially conscious hymn "Black Man in a White World" delving into the themes of frustration, injustice and hope was extremely personal, yet with the aim of doing more than just preaching to the choir.
"I came up with the chorus and lyric and worked around that. And the verse came quickly," he says. "I can only do it when it's my own experiences and so I delve in deeper. So I kind of have to do it. It can become draining, but that's the way I can make authentic lyrics."
The album, he notes, was recorded in Los Angeles and London and took around two-and-a-half years to create. "The mindset going in for this one was that I wanted to do something different from the first without losing my identity. I wanted to do something that people would notice and that would provoke emotion," he says.
"You just write it and sing it as best as you can. After that you hope that people relate to it and understand what you are trying to say. I find that if you are honest and transparent as possible, it will probably be okay," he says. This time around, he tapped the expertise of Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse). Creating such a personal form of music in a collaborative setting with the producer was both freeing and a challenge.
"It was collaborative and it was a positive experience," Kiwanuka says. "It's definitely freeing, because you can trust Brian's taste. So in a way you can just record anything and you know the stuff that comes out of it is going to be good, and the stuff that isn't will be thrown away before you even get a chance to say anything. Which is nice in that way.
"But the challenging part is probably keeping our own view and idea of what music is to you — and allow someone who is so good, but also has his own personality — can be tricky sometimes. Not that people are stopping you, but just the nature of making music."
The album recently garnered a 2016 Mercury Prize nomination in the UK, a fact that Kiwanuka says is "definitely" encouraging. And his profile is expanding as well — his music was tapped by director Baz Luhrmann for inclusion in the Netflix series The Get Down, something that "is really exciting," Kiwanuka says.
"I love it. It's a dream come true. I've always wanted to reach out to other genres, because I'm into other stuff. I want to capitalize on that in a way with more compilations and be more adventurous in the studio with artists. Just to grow," he says. "You can obviously get validation elsewhere but it's encouraging if you get nominations and things like that for sure."
In terms of musical influences, Kiwanuka notes he's into a lot of hip-hop lately, along with artists like Tame Impala and Alabama Shakes. There's an intensity and rawness in the lyrics and instrumentation that is appreciated.
At the moment, defining success comes down to the fact that "people are relating to the music in any shape and form."
And with the album out, the reception strong, and a couple new singles/videos in the works, he's already thinking about the next project. "I'm looking to get back into the studio as soon as possible. That's the main thing right now."
Watch the video for "Black Man in a White World" below.