You might not know his name yet, but you are damn well going to; UK artist Michael Kiwanuka not only has a unique sound and turns out a tune on a guitar well, he is beautifully humble. Having been compared to one of his inspirations, Otis Redding, Michael says there is no risk of him getting a big head. ‘Because I love him, and he’s an icon, you never do feel like you compare,’ Michael laughs, ‘I pale in comparison. It’s cool because he is a big influence and probably one of the reasons I started to sing. What it has taught me is to have my own sound, because when you hear Otis sing it is undeniably him. That’s inspired me to realise, now that I have a couple of albums, that I should make an impact in my own way.’
Michael was signed in 2010 by record label Communion, one of the lead labels for singer-songwriters in the UK. ‘I was trying to get myself out there,’ Michael says, ‘I was playing a lot of gigs and open mic nights in London and it was the thing to do, to get a Communion deal. I approached them to see if they wanted to put out my EP and as soon as I met Communion I felt really comfortable with them.’ Michael seems like he would be comfortable in a lot of situations. Having flown in from playing a gig at a little jazz club called Billabong in Tokyo, Michael is glad to be in the Bluesfest festival atmosphere for his second time.
He is a truly appreciative person and explains that one of the things he values about his record label is their organic nature. Their support has allowed him to grow in the areas of promoting, performing and recording and he says, ‘Musically they let you do your thing, which is an artists dream.’ Our conversation wanders to the artists he has met and worked with, touching on his 2011 tour with Adele. ‘That was a crazy time,’ he says, ‘It feels like a while ago now! Communion for me were a big deal at the time, Mumford and Sons were big with them and there were a lot of singer-songwriters with Communion. You get to meet amazing people like Laura Marling and then all of a sudden you get offered the Adele opportunity, just after her 21 album, and we went around Europe. She had only just released 21 and we were touring theatres of around two thousand capacity, which is small for her, but they had booked the tour before the second album. It was amazing to see it, I felt like I had a view into the explosion – like a fly on the wall.’
Talking of what he learnt from that experience Michael says, ‘That experience was so positive for me, she carries herself really well, she’s down to earth and she’s got a good team. I looked at that and thought this works really well. Every country we got to she was number one; I’d never seen anything like that, so I figured she must be doing something that works. The main thing is she sings from the heart, her songs are from the heart and watching the gigs each night you see people really connecting with what she’s doing. I found that to be a huge lesson.’ Michael also sings from his heart and has gained quite a following, with the Mojo tent at Bluesfest filling up quickly – including an appearance by Game of Thrones and Aquaman actor Jason Mamoa, who sat in the photographers pit cheering wildly.
Having only released his second album Love & Hate in 2016 he’s not quite ready for another full album yet, however he is hoping to release some music this year. While his recent single Cold Little Heart has received acclaim after being chosen as the theme song for mini-series Big Little Lies he is considering another EP this year. While his love for the music industry hasn’t waned one thing has changed, his recording style. His writing style has grown to the point where he will plant the seeds of a song, usually accompanied by an acoustic guitar, at home. He then moves into the studio and blends the two atmospheres to create the finished product. Hopefully we will continue to hear his special blend of soul and folk rock in 2017 and maybe the magic of Bluesfest will produce a beautiful collaboration? When asked who his dream collaboration partner would be, his humble nature is once again apparent. ‘Nas would be incredible to collaborate with,’ he says, ‘Bonnie Raitt, there’s Patti Smith and Corinne Bailey Rae – she’s a beautiful lady! There’s such a great line up, I would love to collaborate with any of them.’ After seeing Michael completely own the Mojo stage at Bluesfest today, we can believe any of them would be proud to work with him.
Photo credit: Gina Martin