Michael Kiwanuka Wants to Keep the Vintage Music He Loves Alive
by Reyan Ali
If you ever need a record cover to justify that cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words, Michael Kiwanuka's Home Again does the trick. His 2012 debut full-length sports a stark closeup of its creator's face draped in half-shadow and wearing a pensive expression. You can just barely track all his details on one side, but it hardly matters -- it's the photo's vintage feel that's doing most of the communicating.
Also clustered within the simple design are the artist's name and the album title, in minimalist type; the record's U.K. labels (Polydor and Communion; in the U.S., Interscope handles Kiwanuka); and a box that reads "Stereo 360 Sound" -- that last touch a quirky promotional device that adorns old Columbia releases such as Johnny Cash's Happiness Is You (1966) and Barbra Streisand's Simply Streisand (1967). Depending on where you're seeing it, Home Again's image may or may not be sepia-toned. Either way, the whole product instantly evokes decades-old photography and vintage record cover design.
None of this is unintentional.
Michael Kiwanuka is scheduled to perform Wednesday, June 5, at Desert Sky Pavilion.
"I used to just love the covers for jazz albums like Miles Davis records and Herbie [Hancock] records -- usually late '60s/early '70s [music]," Kiwanuka says over a shoddy international line. "Basically, when people asked, 'What kind of artwork would you like for EPs or albums?,' I'd just send them those kind of records. I just feel [that style] has a warmth to it."
Though not jazz, his music also is a playground for nostalgics of that era. The singer-songwriter focuses on acoustic guitar folk and soul that lives for the notion of "warmth," both from its measured shuffle, careful production, and earthy voice. Kiwanuka prizes the same kind of sophisticated, smoky, retro-adoring template as Adele (with whom he has not so coincidentally toured in the past).
You could guess his touchstones with little trouble, but in this interview and others, Kiwanuka already clears the path for that.
The London-born son of Ugandan immigrants remembers being first smitten with Nirvana's distortion-and-all grunge but then being especially captivated by their acoustic set on MTV Unplugged in New York.