British songwriter Michael Kiwanuka was advertised as a soul singer on the Amoeba website, and after watching him play his too short set inside the record store on Wednesday night, I would agree, there definitively was a lot of soul in his voice, but wait a minute, his music was much more difficult to describe than just this adjective… he only played six songs, with his guitar and his warm voice, and there was a richness and diversity of sounds that I rarely hear in such a short amount of time, He sounded like Marvin Gaye, Nick Drake, Nina Simone, or Bob Dylan, with a touch here and there of African crying harmonies — his parents are from Ugandan. His music was quiet and intimate folk, a mix of soul-folk, with layers difficult to describe and probably more perceptible on record, as he was performing with the only use of an acoustic guitar,… and slightly nervous about it. But he had absolutely no reason to be, as he played the songs with an impeccable tempo.
As it has happened so many times before, I had never heard of the artist, and suddenly there were a lot of people gathered around the stage, and all of them were listening extremely silently Michael Kiwanuka finger picking or strumming his guitar during ‘I’ll Get Along’, or ‘Tell Me A Tale’, songs off his last album ‘Home Again’. There was immediately something touching in his melodies and so much longing in the vocals, but something familiar too although I had never listened to him. It was as if his music was belonging to a past you have missed and loved at the same time, and despite the undoubtedly ‘retro’ side in all this and the immediate connection, the music curiously sounded genuine and moving and not trying to sound like an imitation of oldies. This is what Michael said in an interview, and I totally believe him:
‘The truth is there was no intention behind any of it. There was no intention for my voice to sound old. The songs come out like they do because I like the sound of stuff like that. I didn’t start writing songs to get a record deal. I wrote songs to express myself and they ended up sounding old.’
It’s difficult to write about something that moves you instantaneously, it’s too personal and magical, and his music did that to me, right away, I found it sincere, soothing, and delicately touching different eras of music history without sounding like a pale imitation but rather like instant old classics. And I was not the only one, as one person beside me filmed the whole performance without even blinking. The common expression about being an old soul in a young body seemed to fit Kiwanuka so well, and in spite of the fact there is certainly no shortage of bands which are currently trying to capture an ancient sounding era, in Michael Kiwanuka’s case, it sounded natural and effortless.
In interviews, he has cited Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Shuggie Otis, Roberta Flack’s First Take, Bill Withers’ ‘Live At Carnegie Hall’, and D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo’ as key musical touchstones, and I totally heard where all this fits in his hybrid music. It is interesting to imagine different readings of his songs, ‘I’ll Get Along’ or ‘I’m Getting Ready’ could be read as English folk songs injected of soul, ‘Rest’ had accents of sad country ballad, ‘Tell me a Tale’ had again lots of soul and rhythm, and some under-layers obviously not perceptible with the rendition on guitar, but sounding more Nina Simone-meets-Fela-Kuti’s sax on record. ‘Home Again’ was so sweet and delicately melancholic, and people began clapping at the more sonorous and upbeat ‘Bones’ (despite the longing and aching in the vocals) and its gospel-doo-wop retro charm.
This guy, which seems to have already incorporated a lot of music despite his ridiculously young age (he is only 24!), was super happy to be in ‘the largest music store in the world’… he was the BBC Sound of 2012 winner, which could seem totally ironic when you listen to his 'retro' music…, oh but it isn’t, since his quiet music is as fresh as it is timeless.
I’ll Get Along
I am Getting Ready
Tell me a Tale