Arts

Michael Kiwunaka on the struggle behind chart-topping second album

Although Michael Kiwanuka was unsure how his second album would go down with fans, Love & Hate has topped the charts and is currently in the running for the Mercury Music Prize. He talks to Andy Welch about why this is the record he was always striving to make

Michael Kiwanuka's second album Love & Hate hit number one last month

A FEW months before the release of his second album, Love & Hate, Michael Kiwanuka was fretting.

He thought the eclectic, experimental sounding record was either going to be lapped up or alienate the fans that bought almost 100,000 copies of his rather more restrained debut, Home Again, and sink without a trace.

He needn't have worried: Love & Hate hit the top of the UK Album Chart when it was released last month (and is currently still in the top 20), giving Kiwanuka his first number one.

Last week, the album was nominated for the 2016 Mercury Music Prize alongside releases by Radiohead, Laura Mvula, The 1975, Bat For Lashes and the late David Bowie.

Beyond its impressive 10-minute opening track Cold Little Heart, Love & Hate is an uncompromising album that's virtually devoid of what might be called a 'radio single'.

With loss, regret, heartbreak, uncertainty and doubt at its core, it sounds very little like its predecessor.

"I was really struggling with this album," Kiwanuka reveals, castling his mind back to 2013 and 2014 when he was working with his old producer Paul Butler of The Bees on the Isle of Wight.

"We had done about 16 or 17 tunes, but it just wasn't where I wanted it to be. Some of it was good, but it wasn't the complete second record that I wanted, nor the move forward."

There was a small detour involving Kanye West, in which Kiwanuka was invited – not once, but twice – to writing sessions for what would become West's 2013 album Yeezus, but for various reasons, it didn't come to much.

West liked Kiwanuka's voice and wanted him to sing his track I Am A God, but it was at odds with Kiwanuka's Christian faith and he refused.

Still floundering, he started to wonder if winning the BBC's Sound Of 2012 poll and the subsequent success of his debut LP had been a fluke.

Thankfully, he met young London-based producer, and future star, Inflo, and later the prodigally talented Brian 'Danger Mouse' Burton (one half of Gnarls Barkley) who has worked with U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck and The Black Keys among many others.

Soon, the ideas began pouring forth: the first two days of sessions with Danger Mouse resulted in a completed song.

"It was an apprehensive time, because I'd been listening to Brian's music since I was in school," says Kiwanuka.

"I don't know if other singers get this, but I always think I'm going to get found out and I wondered if Brian would be the person to do it,"

From the sounds of it, the three of them had a whale of a time writing and recording at Burton's Los Angeles studio. The process took longer than expected, and they were incredibly secretive about what they were doing.

Where the album really differs from Kiwanuka's debut is in its lyrics. The more vague platitudes of Home Again have given way to more direct, concise ideas regarding identity and sense of place in the world.

Black Man In A White World is the best example, on which Kiwanuka, the son of Ugandan immigrants who escaped the East African country for the UK as Idi Amin's reign of terror took hold, articulates how he felt growing up in a particularly white, middle-class area of North London.

"I grew up feeling stuck between different cultures," he says. "The natural thing for humans is to want to belong; you hang out with people that like similar things; music, clothes, whatever.

"If you can't relate to anyone you get p***ed off, and that song is about that; not being able to relate to anyone, or either black or white culture.

"I didn't feel stereotypically black, and I also like a lot of guitar music, but I didn't feel that I related to a lot of it. I also didn't really relate to my parents' culture.

"I'm British but they moved from Uganda, and I don't speak Lugandan, so we'd go there to see family and I couldn't talk to them, so that's a complicated relationship as well.

"I wanted to write about that tribal mentality we have. We move in packs, so I wanted to explain what it feels like not being in one."

Elsewhere on Love & Hate, there's a song called I'll Never Love, which given Kiwanuka's due to marry this summer seems an odd sentiment, but it's about deep-rooted loneliness, while Place I Belong, the album's best track, and Rule The World perhaps speak for themselves, as declarations of growing self-assuredness in his abilities that don't immediately come across in person.

From the feeling he was about to be found out, to searching for a new sound and finding the people to help him do just that, Kiwanuka has inarguably made one of the albums of the year, recalling the likes of Isaac Hayes, Pink Floyd, Dr John, Gil Scott-Heron and Minnie Riperton's former outfit Rotary Connection.

Somehow, despite nodding to those heavy, psychedelic and soulful influences, he's managed to create a deeply personal album, contemporary sounding yet timeless. No small feat.

"Yeah," he says with a smile.

"We were aiming high in the studio, and there were times I didn't understand how we were going to pull it off. The further we got into the album, the more ambitious we became and the more we wanted to try.

"I'd wake up in the middle of the night excited about what we were doing. Some of it is really hazy now, I don't remember doing a lot of it."

He adds: "What we've made is what I really wanted to make in the first place, what I was striving for all along. I wanted to make longer tracks that weren't mainstream, but that could reach loads of people.

"This album's not only for musos, or audiophiles or people who only listen to 70s music or whatever, but I wanted those qualities and authenticity without making something crass or convoluted.

"I didn't know how to nod to those things without making some cheesy pastiche, but working with Brian and Inflo really brought it out of me," Kiwanuka adds.

"It was really perfect."

If Love & Hate wins the Mercury Prize in September just prior to his upcoming European tour – which includes three Irish dates – things will be even more perfect, confirming Michael Kiwunaka as one of the hottest new music stars around.

Maybe Kanye can try writing for him next time.

:: Love & Hate, is out now. Michael Kiwunaka plays Cyprus Avenue in Cork on October 13, The Limelight in Belfast on October 14 and The Academy in Dublin on October 15. For more info, visit Michaelkiwanuka.com.

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