Entertainment & Arts

Michael Kiwanuka: Singing with his soul on his sleeve

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Media captionMichael Kiwanuka performs Tell Me A Tale.

It's a lot to ask of vintage-soul newcomer Michael Kiwanuka when he is compared to music legends like Bill Withers and Otis Redding.

But when the 24-year-old straps on his guitar and opens his mouth to sing in front of a small audience at a central London venue - there is no escaping the deep soulful voice that belies his tender years.

"The voice is kind of deep but I didn't practice to make it sound like that, it just sounds like that luckily for me," explains Kiwanuka before the gig to launch his debut EP Tell Me A Tale.

"People who have haven't heard it get shocked, which is a sort of compliment."

It has attracted some early attention from the music press and Kiwanuka was called on to support the UK's biggest selling artist of the year so far, Adele, on her European tour.

It was a chance encounter with a track on a music magazine CD covermount that inspired Kiwanuka to find his rootsy-folk sound.

It was an acoustic recording of Otis Redding's classic Sitting on the Dock of The Bay.

Image caption Kiwanuka has worked a session guitarist for pop producer Labrinth

"It was quite raw, it didn't have the electric guitar, it had some horns but it was really raw," he explains.

"You could hear the engineers talking over it while the acoustic guitar was strumming and I loved that sound. And then the glorious voice started... "

Raised in north London by Ugandan parents, Kiwanuka's teenage music tastes differed little from his those of his peers.

He listened to The Verve and Nirvana but also credits an introduction to the music of Redding and Bob Dylan as a "big turning point".

"They just stuck out like sore thumbs to me," he says.

To add credence to the Withers comparisons, Kiwanuka has also performed with his former drummer James Gadson.

Few who have seen the classic clip of Withers performing Ain't No Sunshine on BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972 will forget Gadson almost stealing the performance as the "world's coolest dude on drums".

"That was pretty crazy," admits Kiwanuka. "I did some sessions with him, worked on some tunes - he still sounds the same."

Gadson is one of the most recorded R&B drummers of all time, having played with the likes of Randy Crawford, Herbie Hancock and BB King.

"He actually played on Gloria Gaynor's song I Will Survive - I didn't know that," adds Kiwanuka.

Kiwanuka says while the 71-year-old drummer didn't point out the similarity to Withers, he did show an appreciation for his music.

Jazz flute

The vintage feel to Kiwanuka's sound is no more evident than in the title track from his debut EP.

Once served up as target of ridicule in skits like The Fast Show's Jazz Club, the track features jazz flute played by renowned musician Gary Plumley.

"I'm a massive jazz fan so when it came to this tune, the groove was kind of headed in that direction so I thought a flute would be cool," says Kiwanuka.

Clearly a keen student of music, he goes on to namecheck influences ranging from musicians such as Miles Davis, Terry Callier and David Axelrod, through to shows like Porgy and Bess.

"I think I skipped a lot of music, like when I was 17 or 18. I didn't know about a lot of new bands because I was so immersed in older music," he says.

"You have to remember it's new to us because we don't hear it on the radio. When you hear it from a mate's dad's record collection, it sounds brand new and fresh."

The new EP has been produced by The Bees' Paul Butler, who took Kiwanuka to his Isle of Wight studio to record the songs.

"I've been recording, we should be releasing another EP in August or September and the album should be the end of this year or the beginning of next year."

"It's progressing nicely."

Michael Kiwanuka's Tell Me A Tale EP is out now.

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