Speaks Louder Than Words: Michael Kiwanuka
BBC’s Sound Of 2012 winner shares his thoughts on music, how he crafts songs and his debut album ‘Home Again’
Warner/Chappell in an American publishing giant with over one million songs on its roster, including Happy Birthday To You, so they should know a good songwriter when they hear one. North London’s Michael Kiwanuka is one of those songwriters who they signed and recently featured on their fortnightly songwriting podcast, Speaks Louder Than Words, which, thanks to its host Dave Reed, became the basis of this interview feature.
Originally, Kiwanuka cut his teeth in the music industry as a session guitarist, working with the likes of Labrinth, Chipmunk and Bashy, before building a reputation for his retro-soul voice. He won the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll, supported Adele and also played at Hyde Park’s Hard Rock Calling last year. During the same period, the singer/songwriter’s first album Home Again was released to critical acclaim and has clocked up over 70,000 sales to date. Not a bad start!
Dave caught up with Michael to discuss his taste in music, his approach to songwriting and how that stunning debut long-player was created. There’s also talk of a second album in the pipeline…
What did you listen to growing up?
“My first interest in music, aged 12 to 14, was through the guitar, so it was a lot of American grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam (which isn’t really grunge, to me, but a lot of people said it was), and some English guitar bands like The Verve and Blur. And then when I got more seriously into music, it was singer-songwriters like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and soul singers like Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. And then I got into jazz too, so I listened to a lot of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, so it was pretty wide really.
“Basically I just like music that’s either got an amazing rhythm or groove to it, or that’s really moving. If it’s got a rhythm, a groove, it moves me in a different way, it makes me want to get up and dance, and then a song can be… what I love about songs is the words can really move you to think about stuff, or feel better, or whatever. And if those two can be combined, then you’ve got genius.
“Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Neil Young… I’m in the middle of writing a load of tunes for the new album so I’ll listen to the people I think are the best songwriters. They remind me of why I started to do this.”
Do you try to listen to new music?
“Yes, I listen to new music, and that can influence me as well – lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Tame Impala. I liked Mind Mischief a lot, and Feels Like It’s Going To Go Backwards. I loved the Black Keys’ album Brothers and I love Blunderbuss by Jack White.”
What grabs you most in a song?
“A couple of things. Usually the voice, the way it’s sung. Obviously, the lyrics are important but it’s also the way it’s sung. And I love beautiful melodies that marry with the words.”
Do you prefer to be writing, in the studio or on tour?
“I like all of them. But basically what happens is you end up doing one thing for ages so you want to do something else. You could be in the studio for ages making an album, and by the end, you just want to finish and get out on the road. And then when you’ve been on the road for a year, 18 months, you can’t wait to get back into the studio!”
What was it like touring with Adele in 2011?
“It was cool, it was my first real tour and I was lucky because the audience seemed to be into my tunes, even though no-one had any idea who I was, I was just some guy with a weird surname who came on and sang some tunes. I hadn’t even released the album then, but people seemed to be in to it. And it was inspiring watching Adele, seeing what it’s like if you have some kind of success and get to play your own gigs and see people affected by your songs. That kind of gave me a fire in my belly.”
Is that why you do this, to pass those feelings on like that?
“I don’t know, initially I just wrote songs to make me feel better, because you can put things in a song you can’t really say. I didn’t write songs for other people really, but then once you’ve written a song you kind of have to sing it, and then if other people seem to enjoy it, that’s a buzz… and that gets kind of addictive.”
When did you start writing Home Again? Was it a long process?
“No… well, some of those songs were just songs I’d written, they weren’t written for the album, because I’ve been writing songs since I was about 20. But actually, in terms of putting an album together, it was about two years of writing. Before you start work on an album you don’t really know what it involves: songs are just songs you write. Once you start trying to make a product, it becomes a bit different: you want a song that’s you and that’s honest, but that can also have some appeal to people and, I hate to say this, but make some money! That was the hardest part for me, to get over that, because for me music’s a pure thing, it shouldn’t be tainted, so finding that balance of having a career but not losing those values… it’s a hard thing, that’s why a lot of singer-songwriters give up.”
Do you feel your first album achieved that balance?
“Yeah, I think it did. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, I still don’t really, but luckily for me it did. Ultimately all you can do is write songs the best you can, then put them out and see if people like them. It’s not really any more complicated than that. And luckily for me people did like it, but that’s not really through any cleverness on my part. I don’t know how you get a song on the radio or what radio want from a song, I just know what I like in a song and I think I can write good ones.”
Is there a theme running through Home Again?
“A loose one… I think a lot of the songs are about feeling comfortable with who you are. Trying to be all right, I guess.
Is there one song that stands out for you?
“I love the song Rest, the way it sounds sonically. When we were mastering the album that really stood out, because you’re always trying to capture the sounds in my head, and I’m not there yet but that was the closest so far. And then I’m Getting Ready, I never get bored of singing that song.”
What’s your actual songwriting process?
“Well if we take a song that’s actually come out, Tell Me Tales… I was at the studio, we needed another song and I’d been listening to a lot of soul music with vamps in it, so I just liked those two minor chords that came up. It’s a bit like John Coltrane, those two-chord jazz vamps. So I wanted a song like that, and then for the song I wanted something mournful like Marvin Gaye would do. So I came up with those two chords and then the melody. And then the chorus was completely different, but I took it downstairs to Paul and everyone was like, the song’s good but the chorus doesn’t work. So we took it into the studio and he played the drums along with me playing guitar and singing, and then I went and played bass and some keyboards, and then we brought some other musicians in. I was listening to David Axelrod a lot at the time, and he uses a lot of flute for melody lines, so when I thought the verse needed something I thought why don’t we have a flute line? And then still the chorus didn’t work, but then I thought what if we have a violin player come in, scale up, scale down, that’ll connect it. And it did. And I took it home and people liked it, and I was like thank God for that!”
Is that a typical process?
“Yeah, you just take from all the things you’re influenced by… but the melody’s got to come from you. The bit where I don’t collaborate is the actual song, because I have to perform that – you don’t want to rely on just production because then it’s not a song. So it always starts with just me and an acoustic guitar, singing the song.”
Have you done anything different, in terms of technique, for the second album?
“Ultimately it’s the same, again just me and the guitar. But there’s a song I love that hopefully will be on the second album, it’s called If You Dare, and the difference with that song is part of it is a guitar riff. The guitar riff is part of the song, like Hendrix would do. So that’s different, because I’ve never started a song with a riff before.
“And there’s a song called Woody which has a load of slide guitar in it, and that’s more like a story… I’d been listening to country & western and I thought I want to do a song like that, a song that tells a story, because on the first album all the songs are in the first person. So that’s different musically, and it’s a bit different lyrically as well.”
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
“I always forget things that are highlights, because there’s been a lot of cool stuff. I loved touring round America, we’ve had some nice gigs and seen some nice guitar shops, met some cool musicians, seen some cool bands, done some funny TV shows. There was this thing in Holland where I played with the Metropole Orchestra, and they re-released the album with a second CD of me playing live with the orchestra. To play with a 40-piece orchestra in a beautiful venue, that was pretty amazing. And just getting an album out is still up there, to be honest!”
Interview: Dave Reed