Kiwanuka has eyes wide open

ALWAYS WAITING: "I didn't know if I could sing. But then I gave it a go," says British singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka.
ALWAYS WAITING: "I didn't know if I could sing. But then I gave it a go," says British singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka.

New stars often get compared to their music industry forebears and British singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka, who plays two shows in New Zealand next month, is no exception.

At just 24 he's garnered comparisons to Otis Reading, Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers – whom Kiwanuka got to meet last year. The funny thing is that London-born Kiwanuka – his parents emigrated from Uganda – doesn't fit neatly in the soul and funk box with Reading, Gaye or Withers.

There's also a strong folk and rock side to Kiwanuka's sound, tipping its hat to, or echoing, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon as well as Roberta Flack and Shuggie Otis.

"It's a little bit annoying," Kiwanuka says about the comparisons. "But it happens so much – and it is true. The first time round your influences are strong. But after a while [the comparisons] get kind of frustrating. But it's down to me I guess. The more music I make, it will disappear."

Kiwanuka says this without a trace of braggadocio – even though he'd be justified. He won the prestigious BBC Sound of 2012 and was a Mercury Prize nominee for his debut album Home Again last year. Instead, for a singer-songwriter thrust into the spotlight, he is surprisingly humble and pokes fun at himself.

It includes him opening several times for the mega-selling Adele. "There was no pressure for me. No-one knew who the hell I was. I was the guy with the strange surname."

But Kiwanuka says he learned a lot – not only from having to perform to big crowds, but watching how Adele and her audience connected, and the scale of how her tour was put together. "It was so exciting. It was like, 'Wow man, I can do this'."

Kiwanuka appreciates that it could have been so different. He says when he was about 13 he had vague aspirations to be a musician. "But to be an artist or a singer – that seemed, like, impossible. I liked buying CDs at the time – when I could afford them – because they were expensive in England. I used to wake up a bit earlier [at home], not because I wanted to go to school, but so I could listen to music a bit more before I went to school. I still do. It's my biggest passion."

Kiwanuka first focused on playing guitar "and being in other people's bands or the guitar playing behind the singer". The shift to centre stage was gradual. "I didn't know if I could sing. But then I gave it a go when I was 21 years old and people liked it and I thought 'I'm going to do that'."

Kiwanuka says he was also open to listening to all kinds of music – Nirvana was an early favourite – and continues to do so. "It seems strange now though that I do do that. You didn't care about anything.

"It didn't matter if it was old, new, rock, blues, jazz. It's just music and it seems that the more I get into it, as a professional and an artist, the more it becomes profound and important for me. It's like a first night craving.


Michael Kiwanuka plays Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland on April 4, and Old St Paul's, Wellington, on April 5


The Dominion Post