Now that she has sold 10 million albums, the 10-million-windowed ocean liner that is Adele’s music career can start pulling along a few smaller vessels in its wake. The biggest singer of 2011 is going to have a significant influence on the major breakthroughs of 2012, and the acts she has chosen to support – Amos Lee, The Civil Wars and Michael Kiwanuka – are a fine improvement on the usual jumble that follows a star.
When a band reaches a certain high watermark of success, it’s common for the rest of the music world to shift towards their way of thinking. There will come the diluted imitators of their signature style, of course, as with Lily Allen’s mini-me Eliza Doolittle, but their old mates will also suddenly find it much easier to land a big money record deal. In the past, Coldplay chose to revive the career of lumpen Huddersfield chestbeaters Embrace, while few thanked Nirvana for shoving The Melvins into the spotlight, or Oasis for giving Proud Mary to the world.
Adele’s endorsements, all of whom have supported or are about to support her on her current tour, are a disparate bunch – two US acts and one fellow Londoner – and none resemble her big soul sound, although all are making similarly mature, old-fashioned, sophisticated songs with the potential for global appeal. And just as her own achievements are less about endless public and media appearances or the celebrity side of the business, these performers too are all about the music.
The most established of the three is Philadelphia singer-songwriter Amos Lee, who released his fourth album, Mission Bell, on Blue Note earlier this year. Although he’s still to have a hit over here, it went to number one in America, and he will headline the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire on January 21 next year (0844 477 2000).
Back in 2007, it was an unknown Adele who was supporting him at a gig in Camden’s Jazz Cafe, an early chance to glimpse a superstar which Lee has since admitted he slept through. Adele has been more enthusiastic in his direction, saying: “I thought he was amazing live and I love how honest he is in his songs. I think he’s truly, truly amazing.”
He’s got other significant connections in his life too, having previously supported Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Paul Simon, while Wille Nelson and Lucinda Williams appear on the album. It’s a gentle, relaxed recording produced by Joey Burns of alt-country bigwigs Calexico, and there’s a breeziness to Lee’s quivering voice that offers a late taste of summer. In the ballad Stay with Me, he has one of the most moving songs about loss I’ve heard.
The Civil Wars are a darker proposition from sunny roots. When the Nashville-based duo met, Joy Williams was already a significant player on the CCM scene (that’s “Christian Contemporary Music” for the godless among you), releasing three albums featuring smiley covers and heaven-centric songs such as Child of Eden, I Believe in You and The Love of the Lord Endures. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s something satanic about her new musical partner John Paul White’s long black hair and pointy beard, but the delicate, harmonious music the pair make is significantly darker and plain better.
Now it’s all glowering black-and-white publicity photos and a sparse acoustic sound that recalls the haunting bluegrass duets of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. “I love the blend of what has happened, that I am collaborating very much with a Southern gentleman,” Williams, originally from California, has said.
Says Adele: “The Civil Wars are by far the best live band I have ever seen.” The simple twinkle of songs such as To Whom it May Concern and the folky charmer I’ve Got this Friend were well suited to the reverent surroundings of a headline gig in Islington’s Union Chapel earlier this week, while Barton Hollow, the title track of their debut album shows a rawer, bluesy edge. They’re about to announce another London gig at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire for January. Although the album will be released here on Sensibility Music around the same time, it’s already done well in America, reaching number 12 in the Billboard Chart, and can be streamed in full on Spotify.
The man who jumps out the furthest for me, though, is Muswell Hill’s Michael Kiwanuka, who I first saw plucking his acoustic guitar when he supported Adele at the iTunes Festival in the Roundhouse in July. The first time I heard the horns, flutes and strings of the psychedelic folk-soul on his debut single, Tell Me a Tale, released in the summer on the Mumford & Sons-affiliated label Communion, I couldn’t believe it was a new song and not some great lost tune by Richie Havens or Terry Callier.
Kiwanuka, 24, of Ugandan stock, has an overpowering voice that’s pure soul, no hint of pastiche, and with production from Paul Butler of the retro-minded Bees, he has the authentic musical backdrop to match.
He has said he’s “a music lover and then a music maker”, naming Bill Withers and Otis Redding as inspirations. The two singles he has released to date suggest that when his debut album finally appears in February he will prove to be one of 2012’s most significant new stars. And with the golden touch of Adele behind them, how can next year be anything other than bountiful for all three of these new talents?