July 24, 2012


You Need to Know: Michael Kiwanuka

Matt Kent
Matt Kent

Every Tuesday, You Need To Know spotlights a rising artist we're positive will blow up big. Listen now. Thank us later. This week: British singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka.

I made a lunchtime pilgrimage this June to one of Bonnaroo's more modest tent-stages to investigate an artist whose gentle debut Home Again hadn't ceased its repeat cycle since I pressed play weeks before. This Englishman's name was Michael Kiwanuka, and it was his first American gig with a full band. Quietly taking the stage just after noon, he sweated through the insistent Tennessee heat with a bright smile and a sharp pair of shades, altogether radiating the gracious presence of a legend-in-wait. Stripping Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love" of its theatrical bombast, it was hard to tell the 25-year-old Kiwanuka wasn't merely performing another of his own tender stories-in-song.

Souls don't come older than Michael Kiwanuka's. The North Londoner born to Ugandan parents is imbued with so much timelessness in his voice alone, it's a marvel his acoustically threaded music is able to maintain pace. Yet the vocal richness and fluid musicality marry smoothly in a place where soul is valued above all else—a soft space where giants like Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye went to spin their melodies. Kiwanuka's tie to this heritage of bleedingly passionate songwriting is impossibly genuine. Posturing simply isn't an option when the sincerity thrums at this frequency.

Despite opening for Adele on a European tour last year, Kiwanuka is still ascending through the final stages of being a guy you can learn about from a stray tweet, having never heard his name. He's untouched snow, and he'll remain that way for some time—even after you've heard his name enough to try it out on your tongue, had a friend correct your pronunciation, and finally spent some quality time with the lovingly crafted songs themselves. Because the guy is deep, and while the the snow won't stay pristine, you'll find past the surface, there's a long way to dive.

Kiwanuka's Home Again is out now on Cherrytree Records.