NPR

Michael Kiwanuka: For Those Who Think Young

Michael Kiwanuka's debut album Home Again was released this spring. (Courtesy of the artist)

It's been a hugely successful year for Michael Kiwanuka. The British singer-songwriter, who just turned 25, has been voted the BBC Sound of 2012, and was picked to tour with Adele. His debut album, Home Again, has received much praise from music critics, who have compared him to the likes of Bill Withers, Van Morrison and Marvin Gaye.

Speaking with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon, Kiwanuka says he appreciates the attention — though he's taking it with a grain of salt.

"These are pioneers in popular music for the last century, and these are people who have influenced me as well, so it's pretty flattering," Kiwanuka says. "I've got a long way to go to reach anywhere near what those guys have done. But it's a good encouragement."

Kiwanuka's music draws from the more upbeat sides of gospel and blues. The lyrics, however, tend to be a little more melancholy, as on the song "Bones":

Well I long to be alone with you
And If I couldn't have you, I don't know what I would do
I guess I would leave this world alone
Without you I'm just bones

"If you're just bones, you've got no life," he says. "I thought, 'That's quite a good image.' You can kind of imagine this little skeleton running around lost."

Finding images like that, Kiwanuka says, often means taking a step back from the reality of adult life. He says that at its best, songwriting mimics the thought process of a child being read to.

"You've got such a vivid imagination of what's going on, even if there's no pictures. You just conjure up all these images in your head that are so unique to you," he says. "You need to kind of re-engage that inner child to come up with interesting perceptions."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sometimes you hear a voice that just makes you sit back and listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GETTING READY)

MICHAEL KIWANUKA: (Singing) Oh my, I didn't know what it means to believe. Oh my, I didn't know what it means to believe.

SIMON: That's "I'm Getting Ready" by the British singer and songwriter Michael Kiwanuka, taken from his debut album "Home Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GETTING READY")

KIWANUKA: (Singing) But if I hold on tight is it true, would you take care of all that I do?

SIMON: Been a hugely successful year for Michael Kiwanuka. So far he's been voted the BBC Sound of 2012. He was picked to tour with Adele. And his debut album," Home Again," has received so much praise from music critics, who have compared his voice to Bill Withers and Van Morrison.

Michael Kiwanuka joins us from the studios of the BBC in London.

Thanks so much for being with us.

KIWANUKA: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So you're only in your 20s?

KIWANUKA: Yes. I just turned 25 recently.

SIMON: So what's it like to be compared with Bill Withers, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye?

KIWANUKA: Pretty cool at times. You know, these are pioneers of popular music, you know, for the last century, and these are people who have influenced me as well, so it's pretty flattering. But I've got a long way to go to reach anywhere near what those guys have done. But it's a good encouragement and good pillar to try and reach.

SIMON: Let's listen to another song of yours, if we could, with "Bones."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BONES")

KIWANUKA: (Singing) Lady, where you been for so long? I don't need you no more. I just had to write you this song. Well, I long to be alone with you. And if I couldn't have you I don't know what I would do. I guess I would leave this world alone. Without you I'm just bones.

SIMON: Oh, that line, without you I'm just bones. That's got to be devastating. You ever said it to someone?

KIWANUKA: I've only said it in that song?

SIMON: So where's this song come from?

KIWANUKA: Yeah, I remember listening to like gospel-y blues tunes. I'd just listen to the rhythm and the music was upbeat. Always upbeat if you get like a good rhythm you can nod your head. You just feel good. But then when you listen to the lyrics it was quite sad. So I sat down and thought I'd write a song a little bit like that. And there was someone at the time I wrote it that took my fancy, or so I imagined her and I just thought what would I say if she said, actually, I'm not interested in you back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BONES")

KIWANUKA: (Singing) Well, I dream of you so much, love you so much, but thoughts aren't enough...

I thought it'd be quite cool to put an image of just being like, you know, if you're just bones you've got no life. You know, you're kind of lost. I thought that's quite a good image. And you can kind of image in this little like skeleton running around lost without this woman that said that they don't want to be with that person.

SIMON: When you're writing, where's an image like that come from?

KIWANUKA: I think the best place is like when you're a kid of someone reads you picture book. You've got such a vivid imagination of like what's going on, even if there's no pictures. Then you just conjure up all these images in your head that's so unique to you, but they're so vivid.

With writing music and writing songs and recording music and coming up with stuff, you need to kind of reengage that kind of inner child to come up with interesting perceptions. And I think that's probably where I got that bones idea, because I think if I thought about it too literally and too adult I would've said it in a more kind of direct, obvious way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BONES")

KIWANUKA: (Singing) I guess I would leave this world alone. Without you I'm just bones. I guess I would leave this world alone. Without you I'm just bones.

SIMON: When you were growing up and listening to music in London, could you recount for us what the image you had in your mind of Jimi Hendrix was?

KIWANUKA: It's quite a funny story this one. I mean, people used to put bands on the back of their bags. So they'll have like the modern bands at the time, like from Slipknot to like NOFX, all these punk bands. They'll have maybe Led Zeppelin and a lot of them had Jimi Hendrix.

By that point, I was about 12, 13 years old. I was this young black kid into rock music, which was kind of strange. People would always assume I'd be into like more modern R&B, which is a stereotype, but that was kind of what was expected. And I had all these guitar magazines of all these musicians that didn't look like me. So I assumed Jimi Hendrix was one of those.

And then he came on TV on this documentary and it was this African-American soulful black guy, playing an electric guitar, which I'd just started. And it just blew my head off. I had like an afro at the time, too. It was a bit all over the place. And it wasn't a thing to have an afro. No, that's kind of quite old school. You're supposed to have like a neatly cut shaped up haircut.

So even him, seeing like this messy afro on his head, and a bandana, back then it was pretty cool to me. I was like, man, this guy seems to be cool and he's done it. And there's a whole program about him, so it means I can have a go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME A TALE")

KIWANUKA: (Singing) Tell me a story that I can reach. Tell me a story that I can see. Paint me a picture that I can see. Give me a touch that I can feel. Turn me around so I can be everything that I was meant to be.

SIMON: We mentioned the extraordinary success you've had over the last year, really. Voted as BBC Sound of 2012 and touring with Adele. Do you - well, who wouldn't - you feel pressure?

KIWANUKA: Yeah. I mean, at first it was the whirlwind was just amazing and it was just a lovely rollercoaster. I didn't have any cares. But sometimes I do now. I'm thinking, man, I've always longed for a career in music, you know. And I've just laid some good seeds to start that. But how do I keep that going, you know? Or people have said all these cool things, written these cool things, and after a show are they satisfied or are they underwhelmed? So, yeah, sometimes the pressure comes, you know.

SIMON: Is there a song you want to particularly point us to on this CD?

KIWANUKA: I really like a song called "Rest" and the recording of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REST")

KIWANUKA: It's kind of like a love song, but it kind of shows my excitement for that mix between like country influences, groups like The Band, mixed with the soul influences of people like The Staple Singers or Marvin Gaye and that kind of mix.

And, well, finding out that Ray Charles sang country songs but it sounded as soulful as any rhythm and blues record that kind of opened up my horizons for what songwriting was and what singers I could listen to. "Rest" is like my song that came out of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REST")

KIWANUKA: (Singing) Close your eyes. Let them rest. I ain't in no hurry, no hurry at all.

I mentioned earlier about listening to a lot of guitar rock and roll music and feeling quite eccentric because everyone expected me to learn and develop like R&B. This kind of made me feel a little bit better, because I realized it was all the same, you know. There's no difference. It's just music.

(SOUNDBITE OF "REST")

KIWANUKA: (Singing) I swear I will carry...

SIMON: Michael Kiwanuka, speaking with us from the BBC studios in London.

Thanks so much.

KIWANUKA: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REST")

KIWANUKA: (Singing) I won't let you go, go on hungry.

SIMON: You can hear more songs from Michael Kiwanuka - and I know I want to - at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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