According to my ears, Michael Kiwanuka is not from 2011, but straight out of the past. The slow and mellow strains of his music have a strangely calm quality to them, a quality that I can only compare to the likes of Billy Joel, Paul Simon and Nick Drake. Perhaps what draws to mind names like Joel and Simon is the ease and grace with which Kiwanuka delivers his lines, giving elegance to the most ordinary of phrases with his comfortable vocals and perfectly balanced backing band. Within the more current range of artists, Kiwanuka draws to mind the lullaby-like ballads of Amos Lee and the thought-provoking crooning’s of Ray LaMontagne.
Not stuck inside of one sound, some of Kiwanuka’s tracks feature the kind of fingerpicking that mesmerizes the ear, the kind of piano-playing that seems to transcend any one time or generation. Some people write songs that feel at home in any decade, Kiwanuka is one of those songwriters. Though his sound brings to mind a far off and distant past, they still seem singularly appropriate in 2011, a year sadly lacking in piano infused tunes, and a year that saw dubstep reach its zenith for many music critics.
Kiwanuka himself cites influences such as Bob Dylan, Otis Redding and Bill Withers, and perhaps a modern audience feels so compelled to compare him to his folksy ancestors based on the wisdom and wit that his songs contain. It is hard to believe that at a mere 23 he sings “Worry walks beside me every day/ They say I should run / But its coming my way” in ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’ or “Show me some strength that I can use/ Give me a song that I won’t refuse” on the soul and funk infused ‘Tell Me A Tale’.
As Paul Butler of The Bees noticed, Kiwanuka’s knack for translating the simplicity and complexity of life into a raw melodic tale pegs him as one of 2012’s big shots in the UK music scene. It was his first EP “Tell Me A Tale” that sparked Butler’s interest in Kiwanuka. Bringing him to the Isle of Wight to record with a wide variety of musicians there, Butler helped produce Kiwanuka’s latest EP “I’m Getting Ready”. If this record is any indication, Michael Kiwanuka is far past getting ready, and well on his way to a lengthy and brilliant career as an earnest songwriter who really knows his own heart, and isn’t afraid to put it fully into the honeyed, jazzy, funky, soul music that he creates.
Editors note: Since this was originally published, Kiwanuka has gone on to release a full-length album called “Home Again” that you should probably buy here or here because it is stunning.