There are probably plenty of people who would feel at a pretty low ebb when in the presence of Kanye West. For Michael Kiwanuka, it was for musical reasons. The London singer-songwriter was hot stuff in 2012, the winner of that year’s BBC Sound poll, writer of a gold-selling debut album and support act for Adele on tour. It shouldn’t have been surprising that hip hop’s biggest head would have sought him out to sing on his Yeezus album at sessions in Hawaii and Paris, but it left Kiwanuka feeling far out of his depth.
“I didn’t even get why he wanted me to be there. I was lost, absolutely lost,” he tells me. “I just felt stupid sitting there with my acoustic guitar with all these producers and rappers. He didn’t tell me what he wanted, he just said: ‘Do your thing and it will be good enough.’ I don’t think I really believed that. I wanted him to tell me what to do because I didn’t know how to do it.”
In the end, he simply left. He isn’t on Kanye’s album. Instead he brooded and doubted and eventually got together with a more hands-on collaborator, Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, to make a new album of his own that is an absolute triumph. Love & Hate, coming in July, takes his smooth folk-soul sound into darker territory. There’s a ghostly backing choir, expansive orchestral strings and powerful proof that he knows his way around an electric guitar as well as an acoustic. His decision to open with a 10-minute song, Cold Little Heart, on which he doesn’t even sing until minute five, shows the extent of his newfound confidence and ambition. That strong oak voice, reminiscent of past greats such as Bill Withers and Richie Havens, is worth the wait. I’ve already cleared a prominent space for it on my albums of the year list.
Love & Hate’s brilliance is all the more surprising because Kiwanuka wasn’t building on his earlier success. When he began writing for album two, he felt like a failure. His debut, Home Again, reached the top five in the UK and was nominated for the 2012 Mercury Prize, which was won by Alt-J. Jack White reached out to him to produce a standalone single, You’ve Got Nothing Left to Lose, for him in 2014. None of those things helped his confidence much. “The kind of success I had was weird. It was good but I wasn’t like Ben Howard or Jake Bugg, selling out three Brixton Academies,” he says. “I was respected musically and people kind of knew it, but I felt behind in the league.”
Home Again is a lovely, rich album of sounds so authentically retro that you can hear the dust, but perhaps it fell into the trap of being considered background music for your dinner party – songs to discuss house prices to. There’s real passion on his new material. Three songs are already available, including Black Man in a White World, a bluesy clapping song that deals with his early experiences as the only black guy with a guitar in Muswell Hill, as well as life in a British music industry that remains overwhelmingly white.
“I didn’t feel that out of place at school. No one was weird to me. It was when I started trying to be an artist. People would ask me, ‘What are you going to be called?’ I didn’t realise my surname would be an issue. And I grew up with guitar music but this was post-Amy Winehouse so I was being told I’d be sold as a soul artist. It pissed me off. When those lyrics came about, I was kind of angry.”
Today he’s relaxed and friendly, more accepting of the idea that with a voice like his, the word “soul” is bound to come up often. He’s dressed down as ever in a checked shirt, thick hair still sprouting waywardly upwards and downwards from his head, feet up on a coffee table in a Soho hotel. It’s his 29th birthday, and I’ve given him the gift of 20 minutes of unexpected me-time by being disgracefully late to the interview. He’s lovely about it, which makes me feel even worse.
If we’d got together in 2014 it sounds like I would have met someone very different. He says he genuinely wanted to give up making music. “I did, for about a year. I wrote a first set of songs for the new album, I liked them and I still do, but they weren’t good enough. That’s when I started to dip. I thought I was good for a couple of folk ditties and that was it.”
The first breakthrough came in collaboration with British hip hop producer Inflo, who turned Black Man in a White World into something that sounded fresh and exciting to Kiwanuka. “He sent it to me a few months after we did it and I didn’t even recognise me. It sounded like fun again.” Then his label suggested that he try writing with Brian Burton, who as Danger Mouse has produced hit albums for Beck, The Black Keys and Gorillaz, as well as co-writing the Gnarls Barkley hit Crazy and the song River Lea on the new Adele album.
“The cool thing about Brian is he’s been very credible but he’s also had a lot of commercial success. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in that. When you write songs it’s cool if they’re remembered. The first time around I was a bit tentative, thinking, ‘Woah, I’m in a studio, don’t mess up.’ But I do have ambition. I really want to be a career artist and be around for a while and have loads of albums.”
He talks about idols including Jimi Hendrix, the obvious guitarist for a young man of Ugandan heritage, and Prince. “I always think, how did they do so many great records and get better and better so quickly? I feel like I’m the complete opposite. It takes me sooo long!” The indie bands of his teens had an effect too. “It was Elephant by The White Stripes, Razorlight were big. I was obsessed with music, headphones on, walking to school. When you’re finally putting records out, you think: what can I do to make people feel like that?”
With Love & Hate, he’s cracked it. What if Kanye were to call again? “Looking back now, I can see that I was there for a reason. I know what it is about my voice or my music that is appealing,” he says. This special songwriter knows now that he could step into any room, head high, and hold his own with the best of them.
Love & Hate is released on Polydor on July 15.
Oct 11, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk)