In May of 2008 I was sitting outside a London pub with Paul Butler [Tape Op #75], Phill Brown [#12, Are We Still Rolling?], and John Baccigaluppi talking shop. Paul had begun working on what would become Michael Kiwanuka's debut album, Home Again, and Phill was also curious where Michael's career would land. Here we are, over a decade later, and Michael Kiwanuka's music has deservedly made it around the world, showcasing his passionate voice and special guitar playing. His second album, Love & Hate – produced with Danger Mouse [Brian Burton], Inflo [Dean Josiah Cover], and Paul – featured the track "Cold Little Heart," which gave his career a major boost when it was picked as the theme song for HBO's Big Little Lies. The follow-up, last-year's Kiwanuka, carried on with some powerful themes and arrangements. It was a treat to chat with Michael and examine his studio path and thoughts.
When Paul Butler was producing your first record [Home Again], we met for a beer in London and you came up in conversation.
Yeah, man; I love Paul. Paul's the one who put me on to Tape Op when I met him. He's a genius. He's had loads of studios; but the studio I worked in, on that first album, on Isle of Wight, was a magical place. It was the best-sounding studio ever, and it was just his basement.
Was it nice to get away, to not be in the middle of London, making a record early on?
Yeah, it was amazing. On top of that, Isle of Wight is a holiday place for the U.K., so I was always there around November; out of season. No restaurants would be open. It was so quiet. I had enough to do, but I could still be creative. I always look back, and often I never realize how good I've got it until after the fact. It was the most perfect place to be creating.
Working, with Paul producing, were you trying to figure out how to present your songs, how to focus your sound, and to figure out who you were?
Yeah, definitely. The idea of a studio was still new to me. I've always loved records and writing songs, but I had no idea about what it entails and how to do it. I could write and play my guitar, and that was it. Paul showed me the ropes and what I could do. Even things I didn't think I could do, he would show me, "You can do this."
on like that?
Producers always do that. They bring out of you what you don't know you have. I remember when we were in the studio, and we got stuck. We were talking about rhythm and the feel of music, and he was saying, "You've got a good feel." I'd always try to bring a band to the studio, because it's always, "How do you make it sound big, with just an acoustic [guitar]?" He said, "We can do that together. You don't have to be a virtuoso at the instrument in the studio. You can bring your rhythm and feel to the table, and it actually sounds cooler." I thought you had to be an expert. If you need bass, you get a pro bass player in. He's like, "No, you do it. We've got time here. Let's start playing." That added a new element to my music that I never thought I could have. At that point, I got excited and I came up with this song "Tell Me A Tale" on the first album. That was towards the end of making it. There was no way in my head, before doing that song, that I could imagine making a song that way. Paul brought that out of me. "We can jump on the bass and have wild ideas." That would be how he began to show me the ropes of what it means to be an artist and creator, and to be making records.
In the studio, so many times the simplest little two-note guitar part makes a recording better.
Yeah, exactly. I continue to learn about it every day, but that was the beginning of the journey. What an amazing person to start that journey with, because he thinks so outside of the box. He's perfect for any artist who wants to be creative. He will challenge you to do something interesting. On top of that, the way he gets his sonics – the sound he can get out of instruments and the mixing desk – he's unbelievable.
Yeah. I'm a fan of his group, The Bees, too.
It was a cool time, because I knew, at that point, I had to work with him. They were about to put out [The Bees' album] Every Step's a Yes. I was about to get a record deal. At the time, 2010, people would make mix CDs. One A&R guy had a mix CD with the first song ["I Really Need Love"] off Every Step's a Yes. I said, "Who's that? That sounds like the most classic...