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Michael Kiwanuka On His New Anti-Alter Ego Masterpiece 'Kiwanuka,' '70s Psychedelia, Songwriting & More

Micheal Kiwanuka

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Michael Kiwanuka On His New Anti-Alter Ego Masterpiece 'Kiwanuka,' '70s Psychedelia, Songwriting & More

"What you see is what you get," says the eclectic British singer/songwriter, who also talks about working with Danger Mouse and Inflo on his new self-titled LP

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2020 - 12:09 am

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.

Got To Keep On Movin': How Matthew Wilder's '80s Deep Cut "Break My Stride" Broke TikTok

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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

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Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

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Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards