Michael Kiwanuka

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 music I've ever heard." He said, "It's this band called The Bees." A couple of months passed, I signed a record deal, and a different A&R person sat down and asked, "Who do you want to work with?" I said, "I don't know anyone in the studio industry." He said, "Listen to this. I think this could be a cool match-up." And he played me that same song! "I definitely want to work with Paul, and this is a sign." I remembered it as soon as it came on; it has that unique sound.

How long did you guys spend at his place on Isle of Wight making Home Again?

It was on and off for two years. I'd get the train from Camden and I'd go up for about a week, sometimes two. A couple weeks later I'd go down again. It was a gentle, slow process. As I grew more confident, we started to pick up the process a bit quicker. Towards the end, we found a bit of rhythm.

That's a nice gestation time. You can throw material out and redo songs.

Yeah. I had no gigs, so I had loads of time. It was such a good time.

Were you still playing guitar on other peoples' sessions?

No, I was focusing on my songwriting and the studio. I was pretty overwhelmed by everything in those days. Record labels and budgets! I wanted to focus on that.

The first record did well, too.

Definitely.

Michael Kiwanuka

I know you and Paul started working on a follow-up. Some of it ended up on the next album, Love & Hate, but it was also a stalled out record, right?

Unfortunately, yeah. We did a whole record, which we loved; but it was hard to rally the troops around it, in terms of the business and record label. We finished the record. We didn't mix it and master it, but we got to the end of the process. There was no real excitement to it like there was at the end of the first album. We didn't know what to do so we stopped for a while. Then it was back to the drawing board, because the label was pretty much, "We're not going to put this out." It was either to go with the label and do loads of random writing sessions with songwriters to try and test the pop route, or to continue to find what I'd had with Paul, but in another way that would spike interest to get the company behind me. I got to know Danger Mouse, and I said to him, "I need some help making a second record. I'm struggling to get anyone behind it." He said, "Let's make one." I was also working with Inflo at the same time.

Right.

He's now co-produced the last two albums. We were in a similar position, career-wise; both in a no-man's land. We were making music together for fun. Everyone was thinking, "Nothing's going to come of this," but we struck something. I always use the Paul experience as a good anchor. If it felt anything close to what I had with him in the studio – where I feel super creative, someone's pushing me to do my best, I'm not following trends, and I feel I've got a purpose to the music – then I know that something good's happening. I always look for that feeling I had on the Isle of Wight, and I found it with Inflo and Danger Mouse. I loved the whole album that me and Paul did, but there were a few songs that I wanted to pull over that I thought fitted the new record [better]. Paul came to the studio in L.A. a couple of times – he had just moved there – and we worked together there.

It's a journey getting there with all
of this.

Yeah, man.

Were Inflo and Danger Mouse different than working with Paul?

With Paul, I would bring in songs. If he liked them, we would work on them. If I could tell if he was getting a bit distracted or bored. Then I'd know, "This one's probably not so good," and I'd try to write another one. With Danger Mouse and Inflo, we would go to the studio, start from scratch, and build up from there. I wouldn't bring any acoustic songs in. I'd play some guitar, we'd make some music, and build the track up from scratch. That was the main difference to the process of making the record. But the creativity and search was the same; looking for something that sparked our ears.

In what ways did Danger Mouse guide you on songs?

Inflo and Danger Mouse always challenged me, in every way. We'd talk about the fact that there're a lot of good singers; but singing, if it sounds nice, it can be harder to make a good song. If you're in the studio and you're recording, it can sound really good. Then, to connect with someone through the speakers and garner an emotional reaction, that takes a bit more craft sometimes – lyrically and creatively – aside from singing. "You can have some nice-sounding singing, but let's focus on what you're saying. What do you want to say on this second album? What is it that you want to describe, [in order] to make someone sit down and actually listen to it? They'll like your voice, but it needs [to be] more than that." That was what we'd start talking about. Danger Mouse put the idea to me that some artists can be subversive at times, so it can make you feel uncomfortable. You think, "What the hell's this? I want to listen to this again." Sometimes it's so heartbreaking that the lyrics pull at your heartstrings. Sometimes it's clever poetry. It doesn't matter. You pick what you want, but focus in on something. I remember him saying, "Would you ever sound angry?" I never thought of all those things. On top of that was the guitar. When he found out I liked playing the guitar, he said, "Man, that's a good string for your bow. Let's exaggerate that." That's another unique lane.

You've got a certain style and a sound that adds to your songs.

Yeah, exactly. I always loved Pink Floyd and Neil Young growing up, but I was always, "How do I put that into my music?" Being a soul singer, I guess, I love those rock elements; but how does it link? That was it. I listen to [Neil Young's] "Cortez the Killer" to get inspiration for a song. On the beginning of "Cold Little Heart," I wanted to sound like George Harrison and David Gilmour [Tape Op #139]. Then I'm reminded, "Oh yeah, I can do what I want." That's what I wanted to do all along anyway, but I didn't know it could be done.

I know you did some sessions with Kanye West. What did you take away from that?

It was funny. What we're talking about, being an artist, you have to be comfortable with the parts of yourself that are different to what anyone else does. I spent a lot of time trying to fit in. I thought that if you fit in, there's more chance of making room for yourself as an artist. What I learned from the Kanye sessions was that it's actually the opposite. Being more yourself and more unique is actually what's appealing. When I went to the sessions, I just had the album Home Again out. I was like, "What did he see in my album that would work on a Kanye West album?" I kept trying to second-guess who had already been on one of his records. I'd be trying to make something that sounded like Bon Iver, or whoever it was. But what he wanted was me. He wanted what I do. I think I was too worried, too nervous about it, and I didn't have enough self-confidence to capture that opportunity. But I don't regret it. It needed to happen. I learned a lot. Everyone was nice and super friendly. Going to the studio when Kanye West is there, and all the producers are there, it's so overwhelming.

Michael Kiwanuka

On your records it's only a few people at a time in the studio, as far as I can tell.

Yeah, it is. The studio's quiet. There's usually no more than three people in the studio when I'm working. It's pretty mellow. In the hip-hop world, it's another world. It's a conveyer belt of people coming in and out, all day. I'll forever remember it as a cool learning curve and an amazing experience.

You mixed Kiwanuka, your most recent record, in the immersive Dolby Atmos format? Did you go up to London for that?

The engineers and technicians at Abbey Road were spreading the word of Dolby Atmos, so I collaborated with them. Mainly to say, "You go for it." I would approve mixes, because it was above my head, technology-wise.

Literally above your head, sound-wise.

Yeah it was, exactly! I gave them everything they needed. I went down to the studio and listened, and I loved it. It brought a new light to a lot of songs that I hadn't experienced before. Songs like "Rolling" – I loved that song, but I loved it even more after hearing it in Atmos.

Did you give them stems after you'd mixed the record?

Yeah, we sent them every single stem of every song. Obviously the more they have, the better job they can do. You're hearing parts of the music coming in at all different angles. You can go deeper into the emotion you're trying to create. It's exciting. I've always been jealous of the cinema, because it is so all-encompassing. As massive music lovers, we hear it on nice speakers and take time for that – most people don't do that. The listener gets to appreciate music in films. Dolby Atmos is still pretty niche, but if that ever picks up some steam it could be one step closer to people going back to the pure ways of listening to music and getting a more emotional connection to music than listening to it off a phone.

Especially the first track, "You Ain't the Problem," has that crazy depth-of-field. It sounds like a live tape at the beginning, and then the music comes closer.

Exactly. And creatively, in the studio, you can think about it and it might influence your decisions, which can be cool.

Are you going to start tracking your next record in Atmos?

I dunno. It might be a couple records yet. [laughs]

I heard that you were thinking
of building a studio down in Southampton, [Britain].

Yeah, man. Me and my wife are out on the south coast now where there's a bit of space. London is like any big city; it's getting expensive. Down here you're near the nice countryside of Hampshire. I'd love to get a space first that's good, and then do it up and make a studio out of it. I've got to find somewhere first, and see if I can afford it. I'm still trying to basically recreate Paul's studio on the Isle of Wight. That way it could still produce some creativity; there's nothing much like that around where I am. It'd be a place for me to work and do demos before coming to America or London. I could tinker away regularly. I think it would be good for my creativity, and I could be more prolific. That would be nice.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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