“I grew up listening to guitar bands — Nirvana to the Verve,” Michael Kiwanuka remembers. “Then one guy at school had a soul CD, really old-school, from a magazine, and I borrowed that. I’d never heard that kind of music before ever, and it blew my mind.” Those useless free CDs stuck to the front of magazines? Not so useless, after all: That one eventually led to the 24-year-old English singer/songwriter’s debut, Home Again, and to the coveted BBC Sound of 2012 title.
Before last year Kiwanuka never even had a headlining show. “I’d been doing small acoustic gigs around London, but not releasing any music or anything,” he explains. He’s since made up for lost time: After Adele picked him to open the Adele Live tour in the UK (his manager knows hers, and passed his debut three-song EP to the singer), he signed to Polydor Records, recorded a full-length album, played the iTunes Live festival in the UK, collaborated on a single with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, and won praise of the Sound of 2012 award from the BBC.
While he may be the sound of this year he’s clearly influenced by the sounds of the ’70s. With a style that recalls vintage soul and folk (Bill Withers is a common comparison), Kiwanuka is aware that demand for soul music has grown. “I feel lucky that, for some reason, this is starting to get some love from people,” he says. Still, he’s not chasing trends. Home Again (released in the UK in mid-March, and out in the U.S. in July) is a contemplative, mostly-acoustic debut that features Kiwanuka’s guitar, as well as a variety of other instruments — flutes, strings, horns, whatever brings out the richness of his voice. But it’s not the production on Home Again that sells the record; Kiwanuka’s unique voice — both as a singer and a songwriter — lends a unique power to his album.
The U.S. will just have to catch up to him. “I’m already turning around ideas and songs for the next album, even though the first CD just went out. I’ve been getting back into the guitar music that I was into when I was younger,” he says. “I’m up for experimenting with that. I’d like to go more psychedelic on some times, but always keep it rooted in the acoustic guitar.” He’s also got an idea of who else he might like to work with, if the opportunities come up: “At the top of the list,” he says, is someone he couldn’t stop gushing about after both acts had big SXSW appearances: “Britney from Alabama Shakes would be amazing.” And Kiwanuka has that Auerbach duet already, but one of the Black Keys’ other collaborators appeals to him, too: “Danger Mouse. That would be a dream,” he says. “He’s one of my heroes.” If Kiwanuka’s 2012 is half as big as expected, Danger Mouse might be knocking on his door.
Home Again is out July 17 in the U.S. via Interscope. Kiwanuka is now on tour in the U.S.