With Michael Kiwanuka, it’s all about the voice. A voice that he describes as “hitting straight through to the core” with direct, emotional songs about love, yearning, comfort and belonging. It’s a voice that built him a following via MySpace and small London gigs, and led Paul Butler from The Bees to invite him to the band’s Isle of Wight studio to lay down these introductory tracks. Which makes it all the more strange, really, that what Kiwanuka originally set out to be was a session guitarist who maybe wrote the odd song for other people.
Now 23, growing up in North London Michael struggled at times to see where he fitted in. An avid England and Spurs fan, he found it hard to imagine a day when a name like Kiwanuka could sit comfortably on the back of a football shirt here. Nonetheless, when his parents took him and his brother back to the Uganda to visit family, he and his brother were immediately recognised as English tourists. Like most of his schoolmates, he liked bands like Nirvana and Blur, but it was only when he discovered that Jimi Hendrix was black that he was able to imagine himself picking up a guitar.
In his teens, two other icons helped him find his voice. A friend gave him a Bob Dylan box set, and Michael was bowled over by the power of a well-crafted song, delivered with just urgent vocals and an acoustic guitar. Later, he was playing the free CD that came with a music magazine and heard an out-take of ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ in which Otis Redding was talking to the studio engineer.