Music Meter Monday: Michael Kiwanuka

Posted May 7

It’s Monday, folks, which means the end of the weekend, the beginning of the work week and — on a much more positive note (pun intended) — another edition of Music Meter Monday, a weekly feature in which we highlight bands who are climbing the MTV Music Meter. This week, we caught up with singer Michael Kiwanuka, a British soul musician who — despite boasting a voice to rival the revered icons of his genre — didn’t think he could sing until roughly five years ago.

Kiwanuka’s first LP, Home Again, dropped at the beginning of this month in the U.S. — a hotly anticipated release given the polish and uniqueness of previous singles. Like Cults, Ben Howard and musicians of that ilk, Kiwanuka’s sound is not of this era — his voice has garnered him comparisons to the likes of Bill Withers and Otis Redding.

Despite his impressive pipes, the soft-spoken 25-year-old wasn’t comfortable with his unique voice until five years ago, when he started adding vocals to his already honed guitar skills. The O Music Blog caught up with Kiwanuka to discuss getting over vocal insecurities, his songwriting process and his brand new album. Check out our Q&A below:

So you must be pretty excited that your album is finally out.

Yeah, really excited. Obviously, I’ve never released an album before, so it’s all pretty exciting. I can’t imagine it getting old, but it’s definitely nice to release something that you’ve been working on and see the artwork and stuff. It’s been a roller coaster — it came out over here [in the UK] in March, and now it’s coming out over there in the U.S. It’s a dream come true.

So you’ve released a few EPs before. Was it different to release an LP? I know people were really looking forward to it.

I’ve never really known what it was like to put music out — obviously my music is pretty personal, so it’s quite scary as well as exciting. People are asking questions about the songs. It’s kind of a bit crazy. But it’s always such a nice experience to be able to express [myself] — I can only express myself through music, really. To be able to have an outlet is really nice.

I heard you were in a couple of bands growing up. Did you ever release albums then? Like the kind that you put out in high school?

No, no. We recorded gigs and stuff and we tried to do recordings and CDs, but nothing really happened. It was quite hard…. It was quite hard to get everyone putting in one hundred percent.

So what was your earliest musical memory? I know you’ve been into music for a long time.

I was at school and there were loads of guitar bands in school, so that’s why I play guitar. We had an assembly, a music assembly, where we had talks for a half an hour. Instead, this time, there was this cool band that played just the guitar, bass and drums. I remember thinking that that was amazing and going home and asking to play guitar after that. That was certainly my earliest memory of connecting with music.

So you started playing guitar first? When did you realize that you have the voice that you do?

Around 20 years old. I used to sing a little in secondary school, and people would give nice comments about my singing. I never really took it seriously and had the confidence to come out and be a singer until I was about 20 years old.

20 years old? And you’re in your early 20s!

Yeah, it was my birthday [recently], so I’m 25. I was quite late, I guess.

So what was stopping you from singing? I talked to Chris Owens from Girls once and he said that he didn’t think he had a good voice for a long time — that when he sang, he kind of made fun of himself. What made you change your mind?

When I was singing, the sound of it just kind of shocked me a bit. That wasn’t what I expected to hear through speaking. I’d record school concerts and I might be singing with my guitar, and I just kind of like cringe at the sound of it. You kind of know quite early that [my singing voices] comes out quite different than my talking voice. I just kind of hated it. What came me around to it was I love writing songs, and no one else would sing my songs — they’re quite personal songs and no one else would be able to sing them. So I thought I better get over it.

So when did you decide on your sound?

I think my first gig…. I was like 22 years old and me and my friends got a gig at this pub. I just sang for 45 minutes, the songs I had. I was nervous, but I really enjoyed it. That really left a mark.

So what’s your songwriting process like? You say it’s really personal to you?

I start with a guitar and and write chords and a rhythm — that usually inspires a melody. Then the words kind of come through what’s happening in my head at the time. Usually what I’m feeling inspires me to sit down and write a song.

And had you done any other kind of writing before that? Poetry or anything?

Not really. I mean, I remember my mom saying my grammar was really bad and stuff. But I used to have good ideas. So people would say, ‘He had a good imagination.’ I tried to write stories, but my grammar is really bad.

So your sound — it seems like there’s so many bands nowadays that are becoming popular for having a kind of throwback-y sound. Was it a conscious decision on your part to have this kind of sound? Why do you think it’s so popular now?

For me it wasn’t really a conscious thing — I kind of always fell into that. When I discovered that kind of music when I was 14 years old I pretty much always knew I wanted to make music like that. I’ve always loved this music. I think in terms of the popularity, it’s just like a cycle. For me, I think it’s lucky that I put out an album around the time that [this kind of music is popular].

Image courtesy of Facebook, Michael Kiwanuka