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

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy