Michael Kiwanuka’s Sublime Folk Soul

When Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings unveiled 100 Days, 100 Nights in 2007, the album’s success, critically and commercially, ignited an explosion in retro soul that has given us some of the most thrilling sounds of the last decade.

Granted, the idea of a music movement rooted in the old school is nothing new. In the ’90s, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill all helped popularize what was then labeled “neo soul.” But where the progenitors of neo soul generally filtered their crate digging through a post-hip-hop lens, the Dap-Kings (along with the likes of Leon Bridges and Charles Bradley) create analog-rich records that look, sound and feel as if they could’ve been released in the 1960s or ’70s. For them, nostalgia’s allure isn’t something to be mitigated but rather embraced wholeheartedly.

With his sophomore effort, the Danger Mouse-produced Love & Hate, 29-year-old Michael Kiwanuka — who counts Dan Auerbach, Jack White and Kanye West among his fans — has positioned himself to be retro soul’s next breakout artist. He has it all: stirringly universal pleas, potent musicianship and a rich, husky voice that can draw tears from those who encounter it.

Born and raised in the North London suburb  of Muswell Hill that gave birth to The Kinks, the British singer, songwriter and guitarist honed his craft through a steady diet of session work and low-key solo gigs before capturing England’s attention when he won the BBC’s “Sound of 2012” — the same poll that helped launch Adele’s rise in 2008.

Michael Kiwanuka
Michael Kiwanuka

That same year Communion Records dropped his debut, Home Again. Its blend of atmospheric soul and front-porch folk pastoralism had critics salivating, and when they weren’t doing that they were drawing comparisons to the likes of The Dock of the Bay-era Otis Redding, Woodstock icon Richie Havens, The Band, Terry Callier and even Marvin Gaye’s more progressive offerings. Yet the name that popped up most frequently was Bill Withers, whose run of brilliant albums in the early ’70s played a central role in the evolution of the very folk soul subgenre that has so deeply inspired Kiwanuka.

Such lofty comparisons can be tricky for a young and emerging artist. While certainly flattering, they can easily become a nasty form of reductionism. It’s something Kiwanuka tried to take in stride.

“The way I see it is every artist that I’ve been influenced by is influenced by someone else,” he told Interview. “At the beginning your influences are more on your sleeve than when you develop, so for me it seems quite natural and quite normal. What makes it alright for me is it’s true; if they were saying there are these artists that I sounded like or was influenced by and I wasn’t really, then I think it would piss me off a bit more. But I can’t really deny it. I think people will find out more about me when there’s more albums and more music.”

Not surprisingly, the pressure to top Home Again was intense, so much so that when he began work on a follow-up in 2014 he struggled to come up with viable material. Finding himself slipping into the doldrums, he went so far as to contemplate ditching music.

“I did, for about a year. I wrote a first set of songs for the new album,” he revealed in a candid interview with the London Evening Standard this month. “I liked them, and I still do, but they weren’t good enough. That’s when I started to dip. I thought I was good for a couple of folk ditties and that was it.”

A turning point came when Kiwanuka hooked up with the in-demand producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) who helped the singer/songwriter gradually recenter himself. All that time and toil definitely proved worth it as Love & Hate is a mesmerizing and emotionally intense album that, while retaining his music’s core qualities, also finds him pushing into exciting, new terrain. Not unlike Ray LaMontagne’s Ouroboros, the set incorporates subtle touches of vintage psychedelia and cosmic-stained blues. It’s also significantly more muscular thanks in large part to his heavy reliance on electric guitar.

There are those in the music industry who believe the sophomore slump is a “legitimate industry trend.” Clearly, no one ever told Michael Kiwanuka that because Love & Hate is the sound of an artist coming into his own. As he recently admitted to Entertainment Weekly, “I’ve always wanted to make an album that felt and sounded like this one.”