There’s a feeling of clever strategy, the perception of a winning plan behind Michael Kiwanuka foreseeable and apparently unstoppable ascent to stardom.
We are half way through 2012. Going back just 12 months no one would have heard of him.
In a year Michael Kiwanuka will open for Adele, sign with Polydor, appear at Later with Jools Holland, win the BBC sound of 2012, release his debut album and sell out is first tour.
It is an achievement a few artists could put on their CV. I can’t think of anyone else in recent times.
It doesn’t happen to any emerging artist, with no albums and no tour history to open for the artist who has sold 30 million records (and counting) in the era of the music industry worst crisis.
It doesn’t happen that Polydor knocks at the door of any musician in London who has been around for just six months, who doesn’t have a large live following, with a fountain pen and a contract.
It doesn’t happen that the BBC and its musical embodiment, Jools Holland, broadcast new music throughout their powerful channels.
Home Again, the first single extracted from Kiwanuka album was released on new year day. Twenty weeks later it turned 3 million hits on youtube.
I could continue with striking achievements, I’ll stop and talk about the music to attempt one of my reflections.
There are three reasons why such an advance is possible:
- Michael Kiwanuka is an outstanding artist, one of those to appear once in a generation.
- Someone in Kiwanuka management is very good at marketing.
- …he is not Italian so I will not consider the third option.
Kiwanuka is a soul musician. His is plain, traditional, soul(ful) music.
He plays guitar, his record have brasses, percussions, there are choruses, there are the arpeggios, there are the gospel echoes, there is love and suffering. There is Ben Harper, there is Jimi Hendrix
Kiwanuka sings, with the deep voice of the soul singers.
He knows by heart all soul singers. Otis Redding his the main, almost too obvious influence, but anyone from Marvin Gaye to Wilson Pickett, from Solomon Burke to Sam Cooke can be used to identify his singing.
Kiwanuka album, titled as the single, Home Again, recalls the soul golden era in any details. Stax records, Memphis, Detroit but even Van Morrison. He’s of Ugandan origin but grew up in London.
The cover photo portrait, a low contrast brown tone close-up, the simple yellow graphic and the label logo on the front. All is in pure 60s, vintage style.
You play it and you’re in Memphis. The arrangements are crystalline has it used to be, as it must be. There are the back vocals answering the singer, the big sound, the bluesy rhythm and the flawless electric guitar. And Kiwanuka voice is impeccable, if you sing soul you got to be in tune.
A major production, backed by Polydor, with no improvisation and an overall feeling of perfection.
Perfection. This is probably the right word to describe the whole package. I cannot find a defect, a weak point to the entire Kiwanuka “operation”. It’s spotless.
Here the skeptical me jumping in.
Such a rise in such a short time it is what I think possible only when there is a strong masterplan behind.
I haven’t seen Michael Kiwanuka spending years and years playing gigs in pubs to emerge. He has a good voice but he’s not the new Otis Redding.
I rather see managers of a label analysing graphs, data, statistics and come with a strategy.
So I asked myself, what’s the strategy?
I came with the idea that in the end it could be very simple. Egg of Columbus at Polydor.
Soul music has been missing from the scene for quite a long time.
Soul music has always been top seller. Strong feelings, tunes for lovers, radio, adverts. It targets older people, those that never learned how to download illegally and still buy music complaining about how expensive it is.
Ben Harper has been probably the last male superstar of soul music but his music was politically inclined and for more than 10 years he changed his sound towards noisier rock and less successful territory.
There have been UK women. Amy Winehouse, sure. Duffy which dramatically failed her second album and, of course, there’s Adele. But women soul is a different thing for a different crowd.
The Black Keys gained an incredible success, and Grammys, when spiced up with soul flavours their blues. Danger Mouse is quite good at this melting pots.
Listening to Kiwanuka‘s I’ll Get Along reminded me of the Black Keys at their most soulful.
“Get out there and find me the best soul voice you find”. I can hear someone asking a talent scout while scribbling on a piece of paper the sequence of moves to build up on that. To find a big tour to support, to contact BBC, to win something.
We are in the era where new music is discovered on the virtual web and get shared on social network. Virtual friends talk through Twitter, rarely know each other and sometime don’t even meet at the gigs they are both attending.
I may have been distracted despite my obsessive persistent presence online, but I am confident to say that Kiwanuka rise bypassed most web music channels. The web is just catching up now.
He went the old path. He came up from TV, Radio and the BBC to get embraced by legion of lovers. I saw his CDs at Tesco and he sold out the big venues throughout the country without a Barfly date or a Lexington stop-by. I may be wrong.
I get to the sold-out Junction in Cambridge to see Kiwanuka first gig in town.
Spring has started a couple of months ago in the rest of the world but this is the first warm English night since he emerged as an artist.
There is a mature audience, parents with their children in the first rows. It is full of black people to Cambridge standards, expectedly, and there is an incredible amount of loving couples hugging and kissing. Kiwanuka must be responsible of soundtracking most of 2012 love stories as Duffy did in 2008.
The concerts starts on a low. I am not impressed by the first half of the gig but I am tenacious and I stay. I know the setlist.
I am even more suspicious to be not in front of a new outstanding promise of soul music but a clever management and experienced press office.
Things change in the second half. The moment Kiwanuka plays Jimi Hendrix’s forgotten beauty, May This Be Love, a bit more known as Waterfall. I remembered it as a psychedelic ballad on Hendrix debut, Are You Experienced?
Tonight the song is a beautiful soul piece and, because there’s no guitar solo - no one that should ever attempt going Hendrix in his solos – the result is impressive.
It is followed by I’m Getting Ready, probably the sweetest ballad in Home Again and then two songs that Michael Kiwanuka plays solo. Couples hold tight. Health and safety stupid rules prohibits lighters and smoking isn’t in fashion anymore but, if we were in ’66, the entire Junction would be a sea of flickering flames at this moment.
The band comes back for the single, Home Again. Bill Withers’ cover I Don’t Know gets everyone merry. All is very good now and seem to work at perfection almost as in the album. Kiwanuka voice is a bit less impressive live than on CD, the six members band does its job well but has to get on the road more to gain confidence and mutual understanding.
Kiwanuka is back on stage together with the bassist for a one song encore. He picks Lasan, a B-Side of an early EP. Clearly he doesn’t have material left to delight is loving and clapping audience.
We will see if Kiwanuka comet is here to stay for more orbits. There will surely be more to listen in the near future.
If you have been missing some pure, unadulterated soul music for many years, Michael Kiwanuka is your man and these are the places you want to visit to keep in touch:
Kiwanuka photo policy is a two songs no flash affair, which I hope it is not the way the industry is planning to move because, despite you can still take some shots, five or six minutes are not enough time to get accustomed with the performer and his stage presence. We had no time to understand how and where he moves and it is time to move out of the pit.
Before the start, probably influenced by the album cover photo, I imagined of taking some portraits from a side. Dark background and a light coming from the other side.
Clearly it was just a dream. In concert photography, photographers don’t have any control and all they can do is to deal with the available lights. These were not suiting my idea.
The available lights tonight are good. Front white spots and mainly striped (is this the correct word?) backlights.
What I didn’t like was the cold tone that I don’t think suits Kiwanuka as any black artist.
Back home, I let my photographic rigidity go. I attacked the raw files with one of those devilish controls on photo editing packages. The simplest. The white balance cursor slid to the right into warmer temperatures. It is like adding sun to a cloudy day.
It may well not be what the gig looked like to an experience eye, but I like the photos more. Digital photography is plenty of opportunities that I discover bit by bit. Even more slowly I embrace and adapt to my style trying not to change dramatically what my eyes witnessed. To be open minded is never a bad option, whatever you do in life.
This is what the original situation looked like.