By Rob van Alstyne
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When you first listen to "Home Again," the title track off Michael Kiwanuka's debut album released this past March, you might mistake it for a long-lost Bill Withers track. The vintage sound and Kiwanuka's smooth, buttery vocals make the entire record sound like a sunny late-summer day from 1972. Home Again is one of the feel-good records of the year, and Kiwanuka looks to be joining the ranks of Sharon Jones, Amy Winehouse, and Adele as another fresh face of the soul revival movement.
It's easy enough for music critics to trip over themselves to spread the love on this guy. He's a 24-year-old British kid with Ugandan parents, and he popped up out of nowhere to win the BBC Sound of 2012 poll.
"I mean, it's really kind of scary," says Kiwanuka of the comparisons to such influential names as Withers, Otis Redding, and Randy Newman. "It's a huge thing, those are huge names in modern music. I feel sort of silly, but it's surprising. They're so good."
Michael Kiwanuka with Bahamas and Yuna play on Friday, September 28, at Fine Line Music Cafe; 612.338.8100
Speaking over the phone with City Pages, Kiwanuka is effusive, but so humble. The native South Londoner has never had such grand visions for himself. When asked about his childhood, Kiwanuka mentions that his mother worked as a cleaner: "nothing fancy," he says casually.
"I grew up in a town called Muswell Hill in London," He recalls. "It was kind of middle class, and I went to school there. I found Hendrix and the Beatles, and started listening to soul music as well. There's always people to play music with, and that's kind of what led me to this."
"This" being Kiwaunka's path from playing in teenage rock bands to being a session guitarist for Labrinth (Tinie Tempah's producer) to, you know, being at the forefront of modern soul. Though he went to college for music, he never assumed performing would be part of his career.
"I really wanted to get a degree to start teaching in really good schools, and that was just what I had in my mind. When you stop and think about it, I feel good," says Kiwanuka of his new status as international touring artist. "It's just a pleasure. I've always wanted to [tour and perform], and just not quite known how. I've just always wanted to play guitar and get people to come to shows and travel the country, and when it came around, it went quite well."
No one but Kiwanuka is particularly surprised that his retro-soul sound is finding a wide audience. Aside from his honey-and-grain timbre, Kiwanuka sprinkles in just the right amount of airy flute and sax jams to allow songs like "Tell Me a Tale" to cross generations of listeners. "Lord, I need lovin'," sings Kiwanuka sweetly, and it's no doubt he'll find it with his fans. When asked about where this old-soul inspiration comes from, Kiwanuka concentrates on the experiential.
"Music to me...I really got into to just having fun and dancing to it, to have it in the background, and it [reminded me of] people like Marvin Gaye," he says, pausing through the phone. "The song makes them feel nice, and so that's what I wanted to do songs about when I started writing. Songs that sort of calm you down."