An Interview with Michael Kiwanuka: From folk to electric soul, and what it means to make “human music”

Michael Kiwanuka

On New Album Love & Hate, Michael Kiwanuka Taps Into Darker Soulful Side and Explores the Meaning of “Human Music”

Interview Feature by Anne-Marie Schiefer

This year crooner Michael Kiwanuka released his highly anticipated sophomore album, Love & Hate. After scratching several iterations of the album Kiwanuka, working with Danger Mouse, landed on a sound that is subtly bold, sonically layered and lyrically vulnerable. He’s the rare type of musician that creates the type of music that is timeless. He’s ditched the acoustic guitar for the electric, and has tapped into his darker soulful side where he explores the themes of the outsider, heartbreak and hope. We caught up with him while on tour in France and talked about his attic (not garage) band, how working with Kanye West influenced the way he approaches music and what it means to make “human music.”

Grimy Goods: You’ve mentioned in several interviews how you felt like an outsider a lot of the time growing up and music was that place you found comfort and connection. What was it that pulled you from passive listener into the driver seat of deciding to create music?

Michael Kiwanuka: My first experiences of playing in my first band, playing with people and writing my first few tunes or piece of music was so fun that as soon as I experienced that I knew it was something I wanted to pursue and take seriously. Getting into the driver seat really came from making music with friends. There were a lot of bands above me in school and people were always trying to record a demo or get a gig so I was inspired by that to get a band going. We used to play in my friend’s attic and so it was definitely like a “let’s start a band kind of thing.”

GG: It’s interesting as I share your music with people the common theme I find is that every single person is universally struck with an emotional reaction where they are identify with what they are hearing. What do you think has been the biggest factor in forming that kind of sound?

MK: That’s amazing to hear that. The biggest factor is probably in how I relate to music that I wanted to re-create. When I listened to bands or singers I was into at any age I always connected with it really emotionally. Whether it was a Nirvana album or Miles Davis, it didn’t matter what style, I was always into something if I connected with it. Like, I got goose bumps or was so emotionally really into it. Because that was so addictive, when I make music I want to create the same feeling that I got off those records. So when I’m in the studio that’s what I’m looking for. That being 12 or 14 years old and getting moved by a piece of music.

GG: You seem like the kind of musician that puts as much effort into both writing sonically and lyrically. Does one come easier to you when you’re writing a new song?

MK: Lyrics I find take me longer than the music, definitely. Coming up with melodies, chords or sounds I can do relatively quickly. Sometimes it’s slow as well, but mentally it seems easier for me to come up with something interesting musically or melodically than it does with lyrics. Lyrics I tend to take a little longer and a little bit more thought. But the initial idea of a song or what something will be about comes out straight away. I usually have 2-3 lines or ideas that direct the concept of the song. And then I’ll sit with that for a while and keep trimming the fat. That’s how I do the lyrics, really. So the chords and the first idea come together and then I’ll finish the cords and finish the melody and the lyrics will be last. But lyrics are really the hardest. I remember an early interview with Frank Ocean and remember him saying that. It made me feel a bit better that I take so long because I think he’s a great lyricist. Melodies are often the first instinct you have, the visceral idea. You can always over think a melody but you can never over think a lyric. That’s why it can take a bit longer.

GG: After the release of your debut album you were labeled a folk singer/songwriter and now on your sophomore release, Love & Hate, you’re turning that categorization on its head in a sense as you bring in more layered and soulful sounds to the front. How would you describe your music? Or is it even fair to categorize it?

MK: I don’t think it’s unfair to categorize things. Even I do that. I might hate to categorize myself but I do it with loads of things. I would say that it’s song music. To me my idea of song music is maybe, not different, but a slightly broader idea of what it is. I feel like all the music that I was into growing up and what influences me now is kind of song music. My music does have the genre of soul in there and with my style of singing and the strings. If I listen to a Nirvana record or a Kurt Cobain song to me that is really soulful and that is song music. So I would categorize it as song music but in that sense that is really emotionally there and is human music.

GG: You’ve brushed shoulders with some big mainstream commercial artists like Adele and Kanye West. How have those experiences affected your development as a musician and shaping you into the kind or artist you want to be?

MK: In fact, all the experiences have really impacted me. With the sound of this album and this record was influenced by that experience in Hawaii with Kanye and Paris as well. Just seeing how he makes music. I think what it was, was that idea of music connecting with people. Music being true to yourself but also at the same time connecting with people I found interesting. I realized there’s a line you can tred past. Sometimes music is about being really commercial and being heard and everyone knowing it. And then some music is just about being found by people and it feels like their own artist that they just discovered. But some people walk that line between the two. And, I think for what everyone says about him now, Kanye West has done that throughout his whole career. And, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with someone like Danger Mouse because I feel like he does that. So the choices you make in the studio, the sounds you go for, even lyrically what you decide to put out as a singer and how vulnerable you are lyrically is trying to connect with people as well as being true to yourself.

Then people like Adele and seeing loads of people coming to the show and see songs that really meant something in their lives. That was pretty cool. In a way that influenced me. Really, quite a lot of these mainstream things. I’m interested when you write a song, what is it about the song, or what you’re saying, or a piece of music that might make another human being listen or feel like it relates to them. That’s what I care about. I care about relating to people some way or another.

GG: Is that part of what the shift was on this album that brought the more soulful side of you to the forefront on Love & Hate and what you discovered in the studio working with Danger Mouse?

MK: Definitely. Everyone has different sides and shades to their personality and you choose to focus or develop one or the other. And then musically that’s what I considered. I thought what part of me is there that I can show people that might make someone interested or raise an eyebrow? You can do that sonically or musically. So the length of songs was one of those, bringing out my guitar playing another, lyrically I was way more vulnerable on this album than on the first album. That was inspired by that way of thinking. It definitely informed this album, but never at the expense of making a decision of wanting this one to be more popular. It was more about how do I react to it as a human being.

GG: Let’s talk about “Black Man in a White World.” How was that song born? And has there been a shift in how your fans are experiencing it as opposed to your personal experience with it?

MK: That song came out through a little frustration about fitting in. Essentially feeling like an outsider. Even though being an outsider I actually see as an advantage. But, innately as humans we want to feel a part of something. That song came out of and was born out of me feeling separate from everything; growing up, musically, my family roots (Kiwanuka’s parents are Ugandan, though he was born and raised in England), not knowing the language, all the stuff I’ve spoken about. I was on my guitar and that idea of “black man in a white world” came out to me and that someone doesn’t fit wherever they’re in. Try to turn it into a positive. The beginning of the tune and the more we play it on tour and everyone singing it, it feels good. Most of the audience that comes in Europe and England, and will probably be the same in America, are mainly white. They’re singing and dancing along to it, which is amazing. I’m really happy about it because I was worried about it because I thought they might be upset with it. So the meaning of the song has changed a bit and I feel like in a good way. It’s a song about positivity.

Michael Kiwanuka’s new album Love & Hate is out now via Interscope Records. Stream and / or purchase it here. As part of this North American tour, Kiwanuka was slated to perform at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood on December 12. Unfortunately, Kiwanuka had to cancel his remaining tour dates due to vocal damage. Kiwanuka is now slated to perform in Los Angeles on May 18 at the Fonda!

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