“The artists that I’m compared to are people that I love and think are amazing, so it’s real nice,” the 24 yr. old says. “But I hope that soon those names peel away and people talk about me for my music rather than reference back.”
Born in North London to Ugandan parents, Kiwanuka, whose surname is African for “God of lightning and thunder,” has enjoyed a meteoric rise since abandoning his job as a part-time session musician approximately two years ago. Choosing instead to focus on his own solo material, the singer received an early boost from Adele, who, upon hearing demo recordings, invited him to open for her European tour in April and May last year. He credits the experience with helping him grow as an artist.
“Seeing her sing every night and the way that she carries herself was a good eye-opener,” he says. “It inspired me to work hard and try and do the same thing.”
Last year he released two profile-building EPs, “Tell Me a Tale” and “I’m Getting Ready,” on indie label Communion, run by Mumford & Sons‘ Ben Lovett. Having inked a deal with Polydor/Universal, the buzz surrounding Kiwanuka went into overdrive with the Jan. 6 announcement that he had topped the BBC Sound of 2012 poll, finishing ahead of Frank Ocean, Azealia Banks and Skrillex. Previous winners of the annual BBC poll, which is voted on by 180 U.K. tastemakers, include Adele and Jessie J.
“With this kind of music it’s not always easy to get heard, and the BBC poll gave me a fantastic platform,” says Kiwanuka, whose debut album, “Home Again” (Communion/Polydor), was released across Europe on March 12 and entered the U.K. chart at No. 4 with 30,000 first-week sales, according to the Official Charts Co. The 10-track album, which was produced by Paul Butler and contains a rich mix of vintage-sounding R&B, rootsy folk and rousing acoustic soul, will make its domestic bow July 31 on Cherrytree/Interscope.
“Michael is up there with some of the greatest young male voices around at the moment,” Universal Music U.K. VP of international marketing Hassan Choudhury says. “His music transcends across all demographics, and he has the qualities to be a true global star.”
Having played a handful of U.S. gigs to date, including two widely reported sets at this year’s South by Southwest conference, Kiwanuka will return stateside in the summer for promotion and a run of live shows, booked by Kirk Sommer at William Morris Endeavor. A European and U.K. tour, booked by Brighton, England-based 13 Artists, runs April 1-May 23. In line with Europe, where the artist has made a series of high-profile TV performances, including “Skavlan” (Sweden/Norway) and “Later… With Jools Holland” (United Kingdom), Kiwanuka’s team will target key TV, radio, print and online platforms in the States.
“Every time that Michael is heard on the radio, every time that someone sees Michael live or on television, we will embrace another fan,” Choudhury says, eyeing a multifaceted, year-long campaign.
“My ambition is just to try as hard as possible to have some longevity and for my music to stay relevant regardless of how old the music will become,” says Kiwanuka, who’s published by Warner/Chappell. “It would be nice if I could get old and look back and see a back catalog. Nowadays that’s quite rare, but it’s something that I’m looking to do.”