Michael Kiwanuka is the London soul singer your nan would like. Danger Mouse is the producer who gained notoriety splicing Jay Z and Beatles songs. Together, they’ve made ‘Love And Hate’, the album of their careers. Andy Welch meets them in LA.
All hail the young fogey. When Michael Kiwanuka released his debut album ‘Home Again’ in 2012, the most notable thing about it was it could easily have been released in 1974, thanks to its nods to vintage soul man Terry Callier and Radio 2-friendly singer-songwriters John Martyn and Van Morrison. Winning the BBC’s Sound Of 2012 poll, he stuck out like a sore thumb compared to cutting-edge runners-up including rapper Azealia Banks, EDM king Skrillex and neo-soul star Frank Ocean.
Perversely, it’s exactly this out-of-step status that’s made him a man of the moment. The 29-year-old’s 2011 single, ‘Tell Me A Tale’, is the key to his reinvention. It set him up as a sort of a living sample, and those in the business of seeking out such things noticed. Kanye West heard the track, used it in his fashion shows and invited Kiwanuka to the Hawaii studio where he was recording 2013 album ‘Yeezus’. After all, why dig around in crates for snippets of old soul songs when there’s a bloke from north London who can do fresh ones?
“Kanye wanted me to write melodies,” says Kiwanuka over the phone from his north London home, seemingly still mind-boggled by the experience. “We didn’t hang out so much, but he’s cool.” West had scores of producers, beatmakers, crate-diggers and writers in the studio at once – as well as a throne for himself to sit on – each working on their own thing. “It was an odd setup,” Kiwanuka says. “It was like some modern-day Motown. I had no idea what to do.”
He did something right, though, and was invited to a second ‘Yeezus’ session in Paris. It was even less eventful, and the singer-songwriter left feeling awkward because he didn’t know how to use the software he’d been given. As a Christian, he also had a problem with the song West had asked him to sing: ‘I Am A God’. “It was so overwhelming,” he says. “And I wasn’t up for singing that, so I left.”
Although Kiwanuka didn’t make the album, it helped him learn how important collaboration is when seeking new sounds. Until this point he’d only ever written for himself, by himself, with just a couple of producers – most significantly Paul Butler of The Bees, who oversaw ‘Home Again’ in his Isle of Wight studio.
“When it came to making ‘Love And Hate’ I just tried to remember how Kanye had worked,” he says. “The different ways you can be creative, and it gave me the confidence to be more adventurous with lyrics and melodies.” This confidence would come in handy later on. Initial sessions with Paul Butler for ‘Love And Hate’ in 2014 resulted in 16 or 17 songs, hardly any of which Kiwanuka wanted to keep. It had him wondering whether his early success had been a fluke.
Enter Inflo, a relatively untested producer from London, who helped him get some ideas together and gave him reason to believe in himself once again. Just as Inflo and Kiwanuka were finding their groove, Danger Mouse – AKA ever-cool New York-born super-producer Brian Burton – sent a speculative email from his studio in LA offering his talents, too. He’s the production wizard who cut his teeth with Beatles and Jay Z mash-up ‘The Grey Album’ in 2004, scored a Number One single with CeeLo Green as Gnarls Barkley, and who’s produced albums for Gorillaz, Beck, The Black Keys and, most recently, Red Hot Chili Peppers. As with Kanye, it was ‘Tell Me A Tale’ that landed Kiwanuka on Danger Mouse’s radar. “I was intrigued by the voice,” says Burton, who was sent the track by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, but initially mistook it for a lost gem dug up for an advert. “When I realised this was an artist that was around now, I got really excited.”
We meet Kiwanuka and the producer at Burton’s favourite rib restaurant in Burbank, Los Angeles. The pair became firm friends during the making of ‘Love And Hate’, and Burton pokes fun at Kiwanuka’s bouts of jetlag that saw him crawling to the sofabed in Burton’s Sunset Boulevard studio at 3pm most afternoons. “Just as we were getting somewhere – BAM – he was out like a light, leaving [me and Inflo] to do the work,” he says. They’re both shy, but an obsession with music seems to bond them. More than anything, they seem giddy with excitement about the record they’re about to unleash.
Lyrically, it’s braver than Kiwanuka’s debut, with generic sentiments replaced by the directness of agit-poet Gil Scott-Heron. ‘Black Man In A White World’, for example, tackles the issue of identity and belonging. It’s a close-to-the-bone topic for Kiwanuka, who grew up feeling stuck between the cultures of his Ugandan immigrant parents and his Muswell Hill home. “I didn’t feel stereotypically black, with the way I dressed and the music I was into,” he says. “I didn’t relate to my parents’ culture – I can’t speak Ugandan for a start – so that song is about that, and being p*ssed off that I didn’t belong.”
The title track, meanwhile, closes with a blistering Jimi Hendrix-like solo. Kiwanuka says it was when he saw Hendrix on TV as a 12-year-old boy that he first found a musical figure he could relate to; a black guitarist playing in a genre dominated by white men. “That’s why representation is so important – to show that you can do your own thing and be creative no matter who you are. If I was 12 now and saw singer-songwriters, I’d think I wouldn’t get anywhere,” he says. Elsewhere on the album, ‘The Final Frame’ sees Kiwanuka channel his inner D’Angelo with a slow, sexy ballad; ‘Place I Belong’ takes influence from the loose, string-heavy arrangements of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’; and the Motown-like ‘One More Night’ brings Burton’s Gnarls Barkley days to mind. “I didn’t know how to nod to all my influences and ideas without making some pastiche, but that’s what working with Brian and Inflo really brought out of me,” says Kiwanuka, picking the meat from the last rib. “It’s definitely taken me a long time to make ‘Love And Hate’, but it’s perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
‘Love And Hate’ will be released on July 15.