Getting ready for fame
Michael Kiwanuka’s spiritual songs have found surprising success. He talked to Madeleine Davies
HE TOPPED the BBC’s “Sound of 2012” poll. His first album, Home Again, went gold, selling more than 100,000 copies. He has toured with Mumford and Sons, and Adele. Three months ago, in a friend’s living-room, I saw him performing the backing vocals on “Old MacDonald had a farm” while my friend’s daughter took centre-stage.
A week later, when I met Michael Kiwanuka in a café in Kentish Town, he was just as gracious, and happy to answer anything I put to him — including my questions about his faith, which I thought he might avoid for fear of being branded a “Christian singer” rather than a singer who is also a Christian.
He loved growing up in church — at St James’s, Muswell Hill — and says that it has had a huge influence on his writing; but he was surprised when his record company decided to release “I’m Getting Ready”, with its refrain “Oh Lord, I’m getting ready to believe,” as a single.
MICHAEL KIWANUKA was born in 1987, and grew up in Muswell Hill, north London.
Kiwanuka is a Ugandan name, meaning “God of lightning and thunder”. The living-room gig mentioned earlier was in aid of Kids Club Kampala, a Christian charity that runs 17 centres in urban slums and rural villages in Uganda. Kiwanuka’s parents came to the UK in the 1970s, fleeing the Idi Amin regime.
I ask him if he feels closely tied to the country, and he equivocates. “That’s a really interesting one. Of course I do, because my parents are Ugandan. But I grew up in Muswell Hill; so it was hard to feel like we were Ugandan. I used to go to Uganda on holiday, and we couldn’t understand the language they were speaking. And then, over here, people see your surname so they are like ‘Oh, you are Ugandan.’ So I always felt like I wasn’t from anywhere. I always felt as if I was just a bit wild and free, I guess.”
He “always wanted to be a musician”, he says, and was in his first band by the age of 13, “playing loads, doing a lot of session-playing, and travelling around with my guitar.
“I used to think that it would be cool to release my own music, or people to know your songs, or your music. But I didn’t think that that was a realistic thing, and I never really sang that much when I was younger. So, really, being a session guitar-player was the dream. I never thought I would have a record deal.”
He studied jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, and started to study commercial music performance at the University of Westminster, but did not complete either course, focusing instead on playing gigs.
From being heard at one such gig to being signed was, by the sound of it, practically an overnight business. Two EPs were released in 2011 on Communion Records, founded by a group of musicians that includes Ben Lovett, of Mumford and Sons.
The album Home Again was released by Polydor Records in 2012, and was produced by Paul Butler, of the English band the Bees. Listen to either artist, and you are likely to be transported back to the 1960s: sweet harmonies, sweet lyrics, lush brass backing, and plenty of soul. The track “Tell me a tale” features jazz flute.
Reviewers seized on the nostalgic appeal of the album. “He just is Bill Withers, reborn,” Paul Lester wrote in The Guardian. The artwork, a rich brown sepia portrait of the artist, half obscured in shadow, would not look out of place next to a copy of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On. Kiwanuka’s voice is beautiful: velvety, mellow; his delivery often ardent, but unhurried.
MANY of the singers who influenced Kiwanuka’s album were inspired by their faith: Otis Redding began his career as a singer and musician in the choir of the Vineville Baptist Church; Al Green became a pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis; and some, like Gaye, channelled faith into protest.
Kiwanuka responds enthusiastically to this suggestion. “I have always loved that music; so I have always thought of it. I wish that that would come back. Some of the songs [on his forthcoming album] are not really like protest songs, but they argue a little bit.”
Growing up in the Church influenced his writing “in a huge way”, he says. “Probably 95 per cent. Five per cent is being a musician, and the other 95 per cent is the stuff that you write about, sing about, which is inspired by my upbringing in Church. And also what music can do — that emotion.”
The spirituality in his lyrics was not intentional, he says. “It just kind of came out. I didn’t think that these tunes would be on the radio.”
The song “I’m Getting Ready” features the lines:
Oh my, I didn’t know what it means to believe
But if I hold on tight, is it true?
Would you take care of all that I do?
Oh Lord, I’m getting ready to believe.
Reviewers were quick to pick up on this “God-bothering”. Alex Petridis wrote in The Guardian: “Those old enough to remember an era when British rock music, like the Blair administration, didn’t really do God might raise an eyebrow at how much of Home Again seems to deal with Christianity.
“Kiwanuka addresses the Lord with such frequency that you picture Him hiding behind the sofa and pretending to be out.”
Parallels have inevitably been drawn with Mumford and Sons, whose songs include “Awake my soul . . . for you were made to meet your maker”.
TODAY, Kiwanuka admits to being nervous about the release of “I’m getting ready”. “I’m not really around Christians that much; so most of the time I am around people that don’t like it. Not just don’t believe it, don’t like it. . . I thought ‘They are going to hate this,’ but my A&R man’s wife loved the song. . .
“I never played it at gigs. I never paid it that much attention to it. . . Now that is the song that a lot of people like.
“It surprised me, too, as much as The Guardian. They weren’t really meant to be commercial songs. I just wrote the songs for myself, and then, when I sent them in, I thought they’d be shelved without being released.
“I am by no means comparing my songs to “My sweet Lord” by George Harrison. That song’s much better, but my mum told me there was an interview on the radio where he said he used to not want to put that song out. He thought: ‘People are going to hate this song.’ But it was his biggest song.
“And, in a way, that is my own biggest song. It’s funny how that works. People hate it, but at the same time they want to listen to it.”
I ASK him how he thinks the Church is perceived by his peers.
“In the music industry, in terms of the commercial world, it doesn’t sell; so they kind of steer clear away from that.
“But you mentioned that Marvin Gaye political album — it’s also a pretty spiritual album, too. He sings about Jesus, and God. I don’t think record labels, or people who aren’t Christians, mind that, in the sense that, when he sings about it, he is singing about him and his relationship with God. . . But if you sing like a worship song, they are not really interested. But that is because it’s not selling records. They want to make money.”
This tension existed during his teenage years in the Church. His youth group was a “safety net”; he played guitar in the band, and “you could speak about things you were struggling with, and that was really nice, that was a cool thing to have, growing up.
“I used to always want to go to Hillsong [the megachurch] in Tottenham Court Road, because of the music,” he says. “I just loved the energy and how much passion was in it. Some of the songs were beautiful.”
But there was another aspect of his life: “Trying to get into clubs at 16, with my band, playing on Friday nights. That was weird. It was like I had loads of friends who had no idea about what church was like.
“I used to be quite nervous about that. I thought people wouldn’t understand it, and laugh about it. When you are 15, these things matter. Now, it doesn’t matter so much. . .”
KIWANUKA is currently writing his second album, and says that it is “difficult. . . I am just at the beginning, and I end up recording songs about 15 times to get the right one. I am preparing myself to get deep in the trenches. It’s going to sound still pretty soulful. Maybe different topics, but still that kind of searching-type songs and lyrics; still melancholy, a little bit.”
Later this year, he will be touring the United States with the American singer-songwriter Jack Johnson; and, last month, Third Man Records released a brand new single, “You’ve got nothing to lose”, by Kiwanuka, produced by the label’s founder, Jack White, of the band White Stripes.
The B-side is a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ ’round to die”. The lyrics are a classic Nashville litany of woes: “I tried to kill the pain, I bought some wine and hopped a train, Seemed easier than just a-waitin’ ‘round to die”. A far cry from north London, perhaps (Muswell Hill Station closed in 1954). But you can pull off most things when you are Bill Withers reborn.
A week after our interview, my signed copy of Home Again arrives in the post. I have filed it between Carols From King’s and Withers.
This article was first published in the Church Times on 21 March, 2014
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