Singer/songwriter Michael Kiwanuka’s musical journey could probably serve as a pop-culture travel guide to North London. He grew up in the suburb of Muswell Hill, an area some particularly meticulous and obsessive Anglophiles will recognize as being the shooting location for Shaun of the Dead and at least one episode of Doctor Who. As a teenager, he gravitated to the scene in Hackney, collaborating with Labrinth and Tottenham grime impresario Chipmunk. His break came last year when he toured as an opening act for another brilliant pop voice out of North London, Adele, an experience that he says encouraged him as a singer.
A supporter of soccer club Tottenham Hotspur and the English national team, Kiwanuka says he and his crew still made time to watch the Euro matches and keep up with the Premiership gossip in the midst of the tour. When asked if he’d ever consider writing an anthem for Spurs or for England, he laughs and lights up at the possibility. He may be a ways still from being tapped to write the next “Ossie’s Dream,” but given his ability to connect with audiences and rapid ascension at home over the past year, he could be the ideal candidate to represent his home turf.
Kiwanuka’s uncomplicated but deeply personal songs have already won him at least one major accolade in the U.K. Earlier this year, he was named the BBC’s Sound of 2012, a decision he found surprising: “You have to love what you do, but I didn’t necessarily think it would really fit the mainstream of what was going on in the world and in England at that time.”
He may have been named the Sound of 2012, but Kiwanuka’s voice, warm and weathered but never overly rough, leads to associations with artists of previous generations, the soul of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Otis Redding, Van Morrison. “Soul music is just so linked to genuine human expression and emotion that if you get it right, people can relate to it,” he says. “It can be in the form of rock and roll, or Motown, or even folk. It just needs to press a button with audiences.”
But there’s one particular artist—Bill Withers—to whom fans, critics and casual observers most frequently compare Kiwanuka, a parallel made all the more apparent by his performing with Withers’ former drummer, James Gadson, and his lovely and almost uncanny cover of “I Don’t Know.”
“I don’t see an advantage but I don’t see a disadvantage either, really,” Kiwanuka says of the comparison. “I haven’t really thought about it too much. I really dig his style of music, and I think it may be because lots of people think about where they’ve heard it before. But I never really worry about what people say, anyways.”
Kiwanuka is already having a massive year, between the BBC honor, international touring and the release of his stellar debut album, Home Again. He’s recorded a B-side with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, the gentle, soaring “Lasan.” He toured the U.S. this summer, played his first show in Brooklyn, his first Bonnaroo and stopped at the CBS studios to shoot an episode of The Late Show With David Letterman. When he plays his single, “I’m Getting Ready,” on the show, the room gets quiet. It’s an intimacy not usually seen in late-night TV musical guest performances. He’s in his bedroom in Muswell Hill playing the songs just to play them; in the studio in Hackney; a welcome guest in your living room.