Michael Kiwanuka: Britain's Otis Redding is ready for the big time

Voted the BBC's Sound of 2012, his breakthrough came with supporting Adele on tour. But the release of his first album is the real litmus test

Michael Kiwanuka's debut album is still 24 hours away, but already there is talk that he is Britain's answer to Otis Redding. The BBC has named him as its Sound of 2012. He has toured with Adele and just lost out to Emeli Sande for the Critics' Choice at this year's Brit Awards.

But from tomorrow, for the first time, the public will be able to judge for themselves. The release of Home Again is a litmus test for the 24-year-old who has become the darling of the music industry on the back of just a few live performances and a handful of EPs.

The transition from part-time pub performer to award winner came largely thanks to Adele, who heard his demo tape and invited him on tour. It was a belated union for two musicians who, at one time, were leading parallel lives in separate corners of north London. While Adele grew up in Tottenham imitating the Spice Girls and dressing up as Gabrielle, Kiwanuka was in Muswell Hill, grooving to Jamiroquai and also listening to his father's old Miles Davis and Bob Dylan LPs.

Now, depending on how things go, it may not be long before Kiwanuka has to find his own support band. Speaking from a hotel in Norway to The Independent on Sunday, in the middle of his European tour, he reflects on the impression Adele made on him. "Watching her go about her business proved to me that you don't have to be all over the place or be a bit of a diva to be successful. She was down to earth and straightforward."

Straddling the thin line between fame and failure, he is aware that the decisions he makes now are likely to have repercussions in the future. Not the least of these is to record under his own name. Kiwanuka is African for "God of lightning and thunder", and he agonised over whether to change it when people struggled to remember it. "I thought about it a lot. I was afraid of what type of music they would expect of me. But I couldn't think of another name to go with. I knew I wouldn't be able to pull it off if I did change it."

He is the son of Ugandan refugees (his father is an engineer, his mother a part-time secretary) who fled Idi Amin's regime in the Seventies – an era long before social media could draw attention to oppression in a matter of hours.His talent for music doesn't come from either parent, he says, and cites instead his teacher at Fortismere School in Muswell Hill, who encouraged him to play guitar and cultivate his musical tastes. He went on to study jazz at the Royal Academy of Music and popular music at Westminster University but, finding himself more interested in writing and playing than in academic study, he soon bailed out of both.

Despite being catapulted on to the stage with Adele, he insists he was unfazed. "You soon realise that, as a support act, you've got nothing to lose. No one is expecting anything except the star they've paid to see. You just walk out on stage, and far as they're concerned you're just there to kill time. So you soon relax and think, if it doesn't go well you haven't lost anything."

That, however, will all change next week. In an era dominated by X Factor-friendly artists such as Ed Sheeran, Jessie J and Olly Murs, Kiwanuka is an entirely different proposition. His music conjures a nostalgic, retro mood, his cover artwork resembling Marvin Gaye records from the Seventies, his music videos bathed in grainy sepia tones.

It would be easy to dismiss this all as a clever piece of calculated marketing were it not for a soulful maturity in his voice that belies his age. It is reminiscent of a different era; no wonder that some critics have seen parallels with the blues of Bill Withers and the modern folk whimsy of Laura Marling.

Kiwanuka has an untainted honesty, insisting that, despite the nerves, he feels "lucky" to have made it this far and to have got a "foot in the door". "I have never made music to cater to anyone other than myself," he says. "This is an album that I am proud of. If it doesn't cater to everyone's taste, it'll be a shame. But I can't worry too much. It's out of my hands now."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada