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Michael Kiwanuka: For Those Who Think Young

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Michael Kiwanuka: For Those Who Think Young

Michael Kiwanuka: For Those Who Think Young

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


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."


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."


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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

Thanks so much.

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


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

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