Michael Kiwanuka: 'Eventually you accept who you are'

Hearing Jimi Hendrix convinced singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka that it was cool for a black kid to play guitar. Now the young Londoner with the mature voice has been picked for the BBC's 'Sound of 2012' award

These might come to seem precious hours for Michael Kiwanuka, when he looks back. It's a slow Thursday afternoon, bland and chilly in that specially offensive January way, the 25-year-old folk singer wrapped in a duffel coat and sitting unnoticed in the depths of a London bar. Tomorrow he will be named the BBC's "Sound of 2012", an award that seeks to identify, in the early days of the new year, the artist or act who'll prove British music's most significant debutant by December. Another bit of talked-up, awards-season guff, you'd say – you'd say if the call wasn't so often right, Jessie J and Adele and 50 Cent and Keane among the wisely tipped "Sounds" from years gone by.

It's an award that is in many ways self-fulfilling, given the enormous sales boost it gives an artist; after tomorrow's announcement Home Again, Kiwanuka's debut album of bluesy, soulful folk, will surge into the top five on both the Amazon and iTunes pre-order charts. On this slow Thursday he's still a hopeful singer-songwriter, anonymous, unhurried, half-thinking about Spurs' recent run of results – and tomorrow he'll be on a breakfast TV couch being chatted up by two grinning BBC smoothies, later performing on both Zane Lowe's and Dermot O'Leary's radio shows, all of a sudden a property, the form guide suggesting a No 1 single within the year (as with Jessie J), maybe the start of a lasting global march (the unstoppable Adele), at the very least the success of a catchy tune pre-empting a rumoured aperitif-based breakdown (Keane). It's unlikely to go on being a quiet 2012 for Kiwanuka. I chat to him at a teeter point.

"Loads of things excite me about it," he says of the BBC prize, having been warned of his win ahead of time – told to adopt the brace position. "I'm not gonna lie and say I don't care, because I've always wanted to be a musician and recognition for your art is definitely something you take to heart. But it may well come with baggage. Expectations. The fact that the more people who hear your music, the more people you discover don't like it."

His is likable stuff, though, a memorable performance on Later… with Jools Holland last year introducing many of us to Kiwanuka's guitar-strap-and-woolly-jumper aesthetic; his modest, uncluttered lyrics; a baritone so rich and ripe and sage-sounding there's a temptation to ask him – this 25-year-old! – if he'll reveal some of the grand, obscure wisdom his singing voice hints at. Kiwanuka only says: "I can't sing any other way. At first I hated it, I didn't want to sound like that. You have your heroes and you want to sound like them. In my little head I thought: I don't sound like Marvin Gaye, so it's crap. Eventually you accept who you are. That it's better to sound like you. That that's actually cool."

The album, due out in March, builds on three EP releases, and sounds something like a lusty Bill Withers meeting the modern folk whimsy of Laura Marling, the tracks infused, at the suggestion of producer Paul Butler, with some of the "looseness and groove" of Ugandan music. Kiwanuka's parents are from Uganda and moved to the UK in the 1980s before he and an older brother, Robert, were born. Religious, stern but loving, his upbringing in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill, he says, was a very contented one.

Nobody, though, got around to telling him it was OK for black kids to like the kind of music he instinctively liked. Crosby, Stills & Nash? No hot thing in the school playground, so Kiwanuka kept quiet about his fancy. "I was into guitar music, I played guitar, but there weren't that many young black guitar players that I could see. You'd notice people walking around wearing band names on their T-shirts, and when I saw the name Jimi Hendrix, I assumed he was a punky white guy."

After correcting the Hendrix misunderstanding ("I saw him on a TV documentary, this soulful dude!") he tentatively began rooting around to find other black artists making the sort of music that appealed to him. "Richie Havens and Curtis Mayfield and Sly and the Family Stone – these guys were playing acoustic guitars, this folk-y, soul-y music. I thought, well, they did it…" Nothing came of it. "Maybe I was over thinking things, I did that a lot as a kid, but the problem is that when you're young you don't think you can just be." Clueless about the rules of taste, trying to answer that through imitation and guesswork, he told himself he was a Nirvana fan like everybody else.

The swerve came later, just in time. After twice dropping out of university he was in his early 20s and working as a session guitarist, happy enough but definitely noticing he tended to get jobs playing behind rappers and R&B acts. "When I was doing these gigs I was trying to act how they acted, talk how they talked – still pretending I didn't like Bob Dylan. I'd come home and put on these records I actually liked and ask myself, what am I doing?"

After a gig with the rapper Chipmunk, a moment of epiphany. "I was duped out of the money somehow, his management didn't pay me, and I thought, this isn't good, I don't even want to play this stuff." Kiwanuka went record trawling again, digging out the old Hendrix albums, reminding himself about guys like Richie Havens strumming a guitar. He discovered that R&B frontman Booker T Jones had played on a Dylan album; that Stephen Stills had done session work with Bill Withers; he saw what kind of songs he might like to write. "That day I didn't get paid, I let go. I rang up friends and told them what I wanted to do. I wasn't scared any more."

He's eager to explain that "it's not at all the case I feel people have been prejudiced against me. It's not that. It's just that when you're a teenager you're sensitive to things. I remember there was someone on the bus. I was holding my acoustic guitar in a big case, and he comes up to me, I didn't know him, this 18-year-old black guy, to help me get it on board. He said: 'That's a guitar.' I said yeah… He said: 'Isn't that something white kids do?' That happened! I felt I needed someone to say: 'You're allowed to do this.'"

The memory of this feeling, he says, inspired the title track on the album. "'Home Again' is about getting back to yourself and being yourself." By 2009, starting to feel like himself, Kiwanuka was playing "Home Again" and other tracks in pubs around London. He was taken up by music collective Communion, its weekly gigs previously a platform for breaking acts such as Noah and the Whale and Anna Calvi, Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons. In 2010 Kiwanuka was signed to Polydor and last summer, between EP releases, toured on Adele's undercard for a month. Watching the singer perform monster hit "Someone Like You", flawlessly, night after night, Kiwanuka tried to learn what he could. "I watched closely how Adele did things. She never really spoke a lot about the music but you knew she really knew what she was doing as a musician, what it takes to hone your craft."

Adele's killer song, of course, was inspired by a break-up. Any equivalent weepies on Kiwanuka's record? "There's a song imagining what a good relationship would be like. Like, 'This is what I'd do for someone.' But I've never been in love. I don't think I have. That sounds harsh. I've been in love with friends and family; I've never been in love where you'd do anything for the person, never had that feeling that if they left, like with Adele, you'd be broken. I've been more single than not in my short life."

He chuckles. "Hopefully that will change – there are so many good songs written about break-ups. There's a Sly and the Family Stone song called 'If This Room Could Talk'… All of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks… I've been listening to this Marvin Gaye album called Vulnerable where he's just got divorced…" And blissfully, at length, Kiwanuka goes on to discuss the music it's very much OK for him, now, to admit he likes.

So tomorrow morning he'll wake up as 2012's aggressively pushed new thing, and life will be different. I offer him a hypothetical, given the timing of our conversation. If this were to be his final evening of comfortable anonymity, a precious last few hours, how would he ideally spend it? Kiwanuka doesn't hesitate. "A pub. A Spurs match. A pint." It puts him in mind of a football analogy, to better explain how he feels about what might come next.

"If you're training to be a footballer when you're a little boy, you don't wanna say, yeah, I'll take division three. If someone's giving you a shot in the Premier League you're gonna go. Right? If someone asks you to take a penalty in the last minute of the World Cup final, you're gonna take the penalty – even though there's a chance you might miss. You're gonna wanna try. So that's how I see all this. It might be horrible. I don't think it will, but it might be. But I'm not gonna say no because of that risk."

Michael Kiwanuka tours the UK from 10-25 Feb


Tom Lamont

The GuardianTramp

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