Michael Kiwanuka On His New Anti-Alter Ego Masterpiece 'Kiwanuka,' '70s Psychedelia, Songwriting & More
Whether grabbed by its striking album art or its name on high-profile top 10 lists, Michael Kiwanuka's latest LP has probably hit the radar of most music enthusiasts by now… and for good reason. Kiwanuka is an adventure into a world where R&B, folk, funk, and psychedelia collide with purpose and power. But combining these elements, as it turns out, wasn't a process of reinvention, but rather of introspection.
"I decided whilst making this record that I would [concentrate] on who I am more so, and just accept that instead of trying to fit myself into something else," Kiwanuka told the Recording Academy. "And that's the anti-alter ego, just Michael Kiwanuka."
The plan worked. The album, Kiwanuka's third full-length, ambitiously breaks new sonic ground underneath remarkably personal and vulnerable songs and performances. But for all its stylistic exploration, his cause to make the album true to himself centers on his captivating vocals. As The New York Times points out, "the grain in his voice is equal parts weariness and persistence."
Currently out on the road in support of the new album, Kiwanuka checked in with the Recording Academy to talk about making what he proudly considers his new masterpiece, working with Danger Mouse and Inflo, his songwriting philosophy, what music he's had on repeat and more.
Let's start with the tour. What can you tell us about this time out on the road?
Yeah, man. Yeah, I'm super excited for the tour coming up. I actually love touring the U.S., because it's quite so unique. Every place, every continent's different, every country. But yeah, man, the plan is to play a lot of the new record. I've only done a two-week tour so far with this new album because it's still just fresh out, I guess. I did a European tour in November. A lot of the new record is quite a long set, in a way, because there's a lot of songs off the new record, plus songs from the last, and a few from my first album.
I'm trying to give people an experience similar to how I was trying on the record, where you turn up, and then once the music starts, you can get taken away to another world almost, and just forget all of what's going on in your life and all the stresses, and really have a time just being still. And that's my plan with this record, very soulful, very colorful and vivid, and that kind of vibe.
I love what you said about calling it an anti-alter ego album, and I guess for a self-titled album, that makes sense, to a degree. But how did you arrive at that direction on your third full-length?
Yeah. It came to me because over the years, I've always had this thing of I'll try and look, even since my early teens, I'll try and look towards someone on the TV that played guitar or music, a musician, that seems to do the same thing that I wanted to do or someone I could relate to. And I guess with the kind of music I make, there wasn't so much of that around. So I always, because of that, had this imposter syndrome slash I don't feel like a bonafide act that someone would stereotypically go and see. Because some people can have the uniform, whether it's rock and roll with the skinny jeans and that kind of Keith Richards look, or if you're a hip-hop artist, there's is a certain way.
And I just didn't really have any of those things. And so, I kept looking outside for approval, I guess. And then, you get to the third album, and it gets in the way of you really being present and enjoying what your music [is] and what you do, and how amazing the job is. And it also takes away some confidence.
So I decided whilst making this record that I would switch that and be concentrated on who I am more so, and just accept that instead of trying to fit myself into something else. And that's how I came up with the title. And I was thinking that all the alter egos that people make, All of the legends have done it, whether you change your name, or you have Ziggy Stardust or Sasha Fierce, or whatever it is. I have nothing against it, but that's just not me. So I thought, "Well, I'll go completely the other way, and that'll be who I am." And that's the anti-alter ego, just Michael Kiwanuka. What you see is what you get.
You must be quite self-aware to make that kind of artistic decision based on identity. What are some things you do to stay mentally healthy, and especially when you're on the road?
Yeah, man. That's a really cool question. And I'm lucky to have, on the road, have a really good team of talented musicians and people, but also really grounded, good people. And some of the band, I've known since I was a teenager. So, that keeps me in check and in place. I'll always try and wake up, have a routine, and try to eat healthy as much as I can. And even though it's fun, you get excited when you go on tour, but you're laying back on some drinking sometimes really does actually help. And you're slowing the pace because you get carried away and you're going to lose yourself. But essentially, I just try and stay close to the music, and that's what keeps my mental health relatively stable, is focus on the music, whether it's really getting into the gig and then making sure I'm doing the best I can. Or even in the downtime, going to watch a show, going to a guitar shop, going to see an exhibition writing my music. Just staying connected to what got me into it in the first place. That's what keeps me level and keeps me in the right headspace.
Very cool. Well, and as a songwriter, how do you like to write? There's a couple of schools of thought: sit down and make it happen no matter what, or wait for the inspiration to shine through you. Do you have a preferred process or philosophy?
Yeah. It's interesting. As I've been learning and put out records, I'm like, each time, you learn a new facet of the process of being creative… Working in close relationship with Danger Mouse and Inflo, they have their ways, and they've taught me quite a bit, there's basically... The best times are the inspired times where a song pours out of you. But I've found as well, being ready and working to that place can help.
So sometimes, I'll just sit and play and play and write and write. And I know that a lot of this stuff will be not very good, but it opens my brain, the creative side of the brain, to be open and really maybe to let inspiration come through.
So now, it's a mixture of waiting for the inspiration, but also being quite specific about going and just creating, and trying something, and just going and going until your brain loosens up and stuff begins to flow. And this stuff that flows is always the best stuff, but sometimes that hard work beforehand gets you ready for it, you know?
Can you pick one thing about Danger Mouse and one thing about Inflo they brought to the table on this album, one thing about working with each of them that helped shape this sound?
They brought so much, such great, great artists and producers and creators. They brought so much, even really from the way you think about making a record to an actual musical idea, everything. Ideas and production and mixing, all of it.
But a particular thing could be, for example, all the interludes and sections that tie songs together, I remember early on in the process, I really wanted to have an album that flowed end to end and felt like one whole piece. And I was really interested in skits on records that people used to do… And I was always sitting there and just really thinking, "How can we do that?"
I remember mentioning that to Danger Mouse, and he got into the idea, and sat there with headphones and his laptop, and came up with all these samples… and mangled the music that we already had been making to get the music to flow between records. And that was one massive thing that he brought to the record that was pretty exciting. Amongst everything else. That's such a small section.
And then, Inflo's really cool. I really love when I'm writing my lyrics, he always pushed me to be as open and as creative as I can. So yeah, I remember with a song called "Hard To Say Goodbye," we just sat in the studio. I remember the first verse, we must've ended up being in the studio in London for five days, Monday through Friday, and just listening to the chords and melody. And then slowly, slowly coming up with something that made it sound like me or someone sitting down and just pouring their heart out, and it's so effortless.
But I remember we sat at lunch for a long time, just listening, thinking, "What could I write that could be true and beautiful?" And he was always really good at pushing me to find the interesting metaphors and pictures and things. Here are these lyrics, "You are my air to breathe, just like honey to a bee." And I really love that line. I came up with that, but that definitely came with being pushed and pushed and pushed to the point, on the Friday from the Monday, thinking, "Oh, that sounds good." So, he's really good at pushing me to be way more vivid and abstract as I can.
It's a great lyric. And yeah, sometimes you got to sit with it and take your scalpel out and carve it a little bit. Is there a song that's changed and evolved, as far as what it means to you since it came out?
Oh, yeah. That's cool. I think definitely "Final Days." It's funny. In the studio, that's really evolved the most for me personally, in terms of what it means to me. I remember when I first started making that in the studio, I remember Inflo was like, I remember he had a baseline and a drumbeat, and I was like, "What is this?" And it was just bare-bones, and I kept putting it off, putting it off, putting it off.
And then, eventually, he'd worked on it, and then it turned into something that I thought, "Wow, that's really unique. I never thought... I used to hate this." I didn't think it would make the record. And then it became one of my favorites to listen to. And then, when you start playing it, I was thinking, "Well, playing it's going to be weird. It doesn't sound like what I usually do, I may skip it on shows. I don't know."
But then, I started rehearsing, and it was almost the, not the easiest to play, but kind of played itself.
And I really, really reengaged with the lyric and the melody of that song. And then, just what's been happening in the world, with the climate in Australia and… in Indonesia, and just the craziness of the climate. That's what's going on. "Final Days" is really apt now. Really, in my head, I had these ideas of space and leaving the planet, and it's the end of the world. And then, now it feels like, when I sing it, it just feels like something that's happening today on Earth. So that song's really, really changed in the time I've written it and played it on tour.
You've been very outspoken and inspiring in addressing racial and social issues. Do you feel like the industry has changed in the decade or so since you started as an artist? Is it any different now for a black artist doing what you do, making records, touring, building a fan base?
Yeah, I think definitely. I think in a positive way, yeah. I think definitely from when I put my first album out in the U.K. to now, in whatever genre it is, I think it's been a huge change. And I think the fact that I'm able to have a third album titled Kiwanuka, and have the artwork on the front of the page, and it's so proud and bold, like an African chief… And that being so easily consumed in the West, where we live.
And seeing, in the U.K., grime music just take off, and in the U.S., hip-hop music's always been huge. But it just blowing up and keeps becoming bigger and bigger. And also seeing a lot of black artists doing things that remind me of maybe what inspired me so much about '70s music and '70s soul. Seeing artists like H.E.R., an incredible musician, guitar player, bass player, like a modern Prince. That hasn't been around for a while, and that's something that young people are really excited about and into and inspired by.
I didn't feel like that was happening in my early teen or my early 20s. So yeah, I feel like the growth and the inclusion and the excitement of black artists is really, really changing and pushing. Even a Tyler, The Creator album like Igor, for him to just be going, him to have an album like this compared to what he was doing 10 years ago, you wouldn't see that coming. And I think there's a confidence and excitement that's come through, more acceptance of black artists that's happening now. So I definitely think it's really exciting being a young, black artist at the minute.
What are you listening to these days?
Well, last year, towards the end of the year, I was enjoying the new Tyler, The Creator album, Igor. And I enjoyed that at the end of 2019. I've been listening to Nino Ferrer… I've been listening to him because I just really love that '70s psychedelia.
I'm into this group called Thee Oh Sees. I love Thee Oh Sees, a song called "Sticky Hulks" in particular from a few years ago. Now, I've really, really been enjoying is from 2018, is seeing a producer who sadly passed away called Richard Swift. He's amazing. He's got an album called The Hex. It's a really, really beautiful record. That's been on repeat.
How about outside of music: what do you do for fun and to unwind?
So yeah, I've been into a few different things. [When I have] spare time, I love just taking photos. I'm into amateur photography for fun. Learning how to use film, .35 mm photography, whilst I'm on tour, just snapping anything when I'm almost done in the studio. I really love doing that in my spare time. That's really fun. I guess that's another creative outlet.