Michael Kiwanuka Wants to Keep the Vintage Music He Loves Alive

by Reyan Ali

If you ever need a record cover to justify that cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words, Michael Kiwanuka's Home Again does the trick. His 2012 debut full-length sports a stark closeup of its creator's face draped in half-shadow and wearing a pensive expression. You can just barely track all his details on one side, but it hardly matters -- it's the photo's vintage feel that's doing most of the communicating.

Also clustered within the simple design are the artist's name and the album title, in minimalist type; the record's U.K. labels (Polydor and Communion; in the U.S., Interscope handles Kiwanuka); and a box that reads "Stereo 360 Sound" -- that last touch a quirky promotional device that adorns old Columbia releases such as Johnny Cash's Happiness Is You (1966) and Barbra Streisand's Simply Streisand (1967). Depending on where you're seeing it, Home Again's image may or may not be sepia-toned. Either way, the whole product instantly evokes decades-old photography and vintage record cover design.

None of this is unintentional.

Michael Kiwanuka is scheduled to perform Wednesday, June 5, at Desert Sky Pavilion.

"I used to just love the covers for jazz albums like Miles Davis records and Herbie [Hancock] records -- usually late '60s/early '70s [music]," Kiwanuka says over a shoddy international line. "Basically, when people asked, 'What kind of artwork would you like for EPs or albums?,' I'd just send them those kind of records. I just feel [that style] has a warmth to it."

Though not jazz, his music also is a playground for nostalgics of that era. The singer-songwriter focuses on acoustic guitar folk and soul that lives for the notion of "warmth," both from its measured shuffle, careful production, and earthy voice. Kiwanuka prizes the same kind of sophisticated, smoky, retro-adoring template as Adele (with whom he has not so coincidentally toured in the past).

You could guess his touchstones with little trouble, but in this interview and others, Kiwanuka already clears the path for that.

The London-born son of Ugandan immigrants remembers being first smitten with Nirvana's distortion-and-all grunge but then being especially captivated by their acoustic set on MTV Unplugged in New York.

This appreciation led him to savor 1963's The Freewheeling Bob Dylan and more work of artists linked closest to the 1960s and '70s: Otis Redding, the Band, Bill Withers, the Staples Singers, Sly Stone. Still just 26 himself, Kiwanuka can't speak or create from the perspective of someone who lived through that heyday but rather someone exalting it through rose-colored glasses.

"I didn't know what was going on socially at the time or what music meant to society. I mean, I read about it, but you never really know," he says. "That's what makes [my music] a different take: [It's] how to keep things I believe in musically [alive] that I feel sometimes are lost today."

He doesn't regard himself as too cynical about the state of contemporary music, but he does believe that a lot of current musicians are about being seen and making money, whereas past artists wanted to say something with their music and be famous for what they said.

Kiwanuka -- a hired gun for English hip-hop and R&B sorts until he got his solo career off the ground circa 2010 -- repeatedly has been reminded of how deep his similarities to and connections to those older artists go, and, as a young name, he's embraced it so far. But he's emphatic that he expects -- and wants -- the conversation to shift once he's established himself.

"I don't want to just echo stuff that's been before," he says. "I want people to go, 'Oh, that sounds like Michael Kiwanuka.' I want people to follow me and my career around because they like me and my music, not just because it sounds like something that reminds them of other music."

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