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31 October 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 7:15am

Michael Kiwanuka: “Mine isn’t a smooth rock’n’roll name that’s up in lights”

On the eve of the release of his third album, the guitarist talks imposter syndrome, learning from collaborators, and wishing he had more black fans.  

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

After 30 years in London – a childhood in Muswell Hill, and young adulthood spent between Camden and Kentish Town – just over a year ago, Michael Kiwanuka moved to Southampton. His wife found a job there, and he followed. Southampton is hardly a destination spot for an artist – it’s no LA or Berlin – but Kiwanuka saw possibility in the move. “New experiences are always good for writing music,” he thought, and while the port city is “lame if you want excitement”, it’s a perfect blank canvas. “You’ve got so much opportunity to start a community. Just put a studio in there, put an art gallery there, see what happens, see what comes. People have nothing to do so they’ll come, you know. Even the cinema gets sold out there!”

But while his label and PR’s offices remain in London, he won’t be able to completely escape the capital: back and forth as he is for interviews, photo shoots and meetings. This time around, sitting in a cafe on the Whitechapel Road sipping a can of San Pellegrino, he is here to promote his third album, Kiwanuka, a ruminative collection of soul and rock songs which signals the guitarist’s new age of self-acceptance.

“Now is the first time I’m really embracing being an artist,” he says, a declaration that, coming from most other people, would sound pretentious. From Kiwanuka, it’s grounding. “I’m finding the confidence to just create. When I say ‘confidence’, that doesn’t mean a confidence that everyone will love everything, it’s more just a confidence to create, come rain or shine. It’s important to just make stuff for the sake of making stuff.”

Always modest, Kiwanuka doesn’t speak like someone who knows he has more than earned his place as one of the best songwriters of his generation. His debut album, 2012’s Home Again, a vintage blend of folk and soul, went gold in the UK, while his second, the vulnerable Love & Hate, debuted at No 1 in the UK album charts on its release in 2016. He has been nominated for accolades including the Mercury, Brits and BBC Music awards, and yet he doesn’t always feel “successful”. “There’s always a part of me that wakes up with imposter syndrome: ‘When are they gonna find me out? Am I that good at music?’ That’s tiring. The process of making this album was doing away with that thinking,” he says. 

As a young singer-songwriter, Kiwanuka was encouraged to drop his Ugandan surname. Now, he’s tying himself to it. “I thought, what better way to say that you’re comfortable with who you are than by using just your name? Kiwanuka goes against fame, it goes against success. It’s not in the pocket, it’s not a smooth rock’n’roll name that’s up in lights. It can be clumsy, if you haven’t seen it before.” (“I won’t change my name, no matter what they call me,” he sings, detuned, on “Hero”.)

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Kiwanuka was joined in the studio by Danger Mouse (producer Brian Burton, of Gnarls Barkley fame) and Inflo, who share the record’s production credits. When discussing the writing and recording process, Kiwanuka talks of “we” more than “I”, and graciously makes clear that though the record bears his name, he is not the brains behind every single element. “A lot of those were Brian’s idea,” he says of the intriguing samples woven into a number of tracks, including a speech from a participant of a North Carolina Civil Rights sit-in in 1960 (“Another Human Being”) and the voice of congressman and activist John Lewis (“(Interlude) Living All the People”), each a small vignette of a life unlived by Kiwanuka, but embraced all the same.

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Taken out of context, Kiwanuka’s announcements of self-realisation might sound like the quotes you see framed in cheap wood and hung in bunting-clad kitchens: “In life, doing things with people is so much better than on your own, whatever it is that you do.” But he’s so genuine, it’s hard not to be convinced. “Individuality is great but you don’t need to try and be individual: being unique is just waking up. You don’t dilute yourself by being with people; if anything, they make you even stronger.”

Before “Cold Little Heart” was used as the theme tune for HBO’s Emmy-winning Big Little Lies, Kiwanuka was best known for “Black Man in a White World”, a festival-friendly anthem with a chorus which repeats its titular phrase. An up-front statement on Kiwanuka’s experience of regularly being the only person of colour in his work environment, the song takes on a whole new meaning when Kiwanuka sings it live, to a concert hall or festival field in which the vast majority of his audience is white. “I think it would be fun if my fans had exactly the same background as me, young black men that are into the arts. I long for that sometimes,” he admits. “I used to always be jealous of when I’d go to a gig and everyone in the audience would look exactly like the person onstage. It’s like a tribe.”

“There are never many black people at my gigs, but there are so many black people who helped make this music. Come on, man!” he says, evidently frustrated. He acknowledges that to some ears, his music might sound “expensive”, because of the strings and harps which saturate “Hard to Say Goodbye” and the crisp production which gives “I’ve Been Dazed” a glimmer of ethereality. He realises that this may alienate the type of people he’d love to see at his gigs – young black men who will see that lavishness as a barrier to accessibility, to feeling like they belong. 

But, he has come to understand, he has to focus on making the music he wants, more so than worrying about who’s listening to it. “The strings are such a good way of conjuring otherworldly thoughts and images. They get people to think beyond the song and go deeper into their imagination. I want people to get beyond the fact that they’ve just pressed play on Spotify or put the record on, and just really dream.”