George Palathingal July 13, 2012
The tale so far ... Michael Kiwanuka has been named the BBC sound of 2012.
Michael Kiwanuka's critically lauded sound draws on a broad range of influences.
Every year, the British Broadcasting Corporation gets a bunch of music industry know-it-alls to compile a list of bright young acts they think will provide the sound of that year. The poll has an unnerving habit of getting things right, especially in a leap year - radio-hogging mega-sellers Keane and Adele topped the BBC Sound of 2004 and 2008 lists respectively - meaning this year's No.1, soul troubadour Michael Kiwanuka, is probably also destined for great things.
The 24-year-old Londoner acknowledges that topping the 2012 poll has proved a turning point in his career but, unsurprisingly, plays down the hype.
''The 'BBC Sound of' poll really kind of promoted the music to a much wider audience than I had had before and allowed me to travel a lot more,'' he says. ''Without that, maybe I wouldn't have been able to do that so quickly. But I try not to focus on it too much.''
The songs were there before all that, anyway. His first single, Tell Me a Tale - which sounds like soul great Bill Withers getting a little jazzy while riffing on Van Morrison's Moondance - turned up in April last year and earned Kiwanuka a spot supporting the aforementioned Adele on tour, just as her 21 album was snowballing into the phenomenon we know today. The experience offered up some useful insight.
''She's such a huge star but behind the scenes she's so down to earth and I didn't expect that,'' he says. ''It's just all geared around the music, really. That was really encouraging to see: someone doing so well, being probably the most successful artist we've seen for a long time, but it being purely about the music and nothing else.''
Kiwanuka has always been about the music, too, but in many different forms. When he was younger he was into the alt rock of Radiohead and Nirvana. By the time he started playing guitar professionally it was as a session muso on British grime and dubstep records. He says he arrived at his warm and soulful present sound ''because it's the music that is the most natural and honest of me, really'' and it proves a glorious fit throughout debut album Home Again. But those Withers and Morrison comparisons aren't coincidental - nor the only ones you might make.
''Yeah, artists like that … there was a certain depth to the singing and the music and the sound of it all that set my imagination just that bit further than a lot of other things. Then there's guitar players like Hendrix. I like other soul and funk artists, like Sly Stone. Then there's, like, Bob Dylan and folk artists like that … I think when people see [us] live they get more of an idea.''
That chance will come for the masses at Splendour in the Grass and at a handful of intimate showcases for Communion, the record label co-founded by Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons and to which Kiwanuka is signed.
''The thing with Communion is that there's a whole group of musicians that are doing the same thing - y'know, different styles of music but singing, songwriting. The people there understand because they're in the same line of work and are of a similar age.
''Like, you can make music just the way you make it without having to put on any kind of airs or graces … you know, you can just play.''
Tuesday, July 24, 8pm, Factory Theatre, 105 Victoria Road, Marrickville.
TICKETS factorytheatre.com.au, 9550 3666, $46.50.
TRAVEL The 423, 426 or 428 buses from Circular Quay via Central Station. Limited space in the car park but some on-street parking available.
LIVE A singer-songwriter leading a six-piece band through rich, old-school soul, breezy folk and a touch of rock.
BEST TRACK Tell Me a Tale.