The Red Bulletin November 2019 (UK)

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Michael Kiwanuka

“I’m glad I said

no to Kanye”

How walking out on one of music’s top producers

helped the soulful singer-songwriter keep his feet

on the ground and his career on the right track…

Words BJÖRN SPRINGORUM

It’s safe to say that you’re destined

for greatness when Adele asks you

to support her on tour before you’ve

even released an album. And when

folky London-Ugandan singersongwriter

Michael Kiwanuka’s

debut, Home Again, came out the

year after he joined the awardwinning

singer on her 2011 Adele

Live tour, it reached number four in

the UK album chart and went gold.

His second album, 2016’s Love &

Hate – produced by Danger Mouse –

outperformed its successor, topping

the UK album chart and affirming

Kiwanuka’s reputation as one of the

world’s most sought-after young

soul voices. Another superstar who

discovered Kiwanuka’s talent early

on was Kanye West, who invited him

into the studio to record together.

As he prepares for the release of

his eponymous third album, the

32-year-old reminisces about that

Kanye moment, and reveals why

he still believes that cancelling the

session was the right decision for

his fledgling career…

the red bulletin: Kanye West

is famous for collaborating with

the world’s hottest and most

talented musicians. How did it

feel when he invited you to go into

the studio with him?

michael kiwanuka: The whole

thing was utterly crazy, man.

Photography OLIVIA ROSE

Kanye West, the mightiest figure

in music, invites me to Hawaii…

and I didn’t really understand why.

I didn’t even have my first album out,

and I was only just learning the tricks

of the trade. I was like, “What? How

did he even hear one of my songs?”

I was scared. I couldn’t believe that

he really wanted to work with me.

All I could do was try to second-guess

how he wanted me to be.

His invitation didn’t feel like

a confidence boost?

No, not for me. I arrived at his

studio laden with self-doubt and

disbelief. And perhaps the craziest

thing of all was that he was being

super nice the whole time. He let

me sit in his main room while he

was making music. He was so

quiet and concentrated, and he

worked constantly, almost 24 hours

[a day] – I hardly ever saw him

sleep. He had this confidence

radiating off him, and he always

told me that I could do anything

I wanted to do if I just was being

myself. He actually said that.

So, what happened?

I didn’t believe a single word. I was

positively convinced that I had to

become another person, because

I couldn’t see that he wanted me

the way I was. I went home, even

left my guitar there.

To know that someone that talented

can hear something special in my

music is utterly surreal.

Do you think that in life you

sometimes have to sacrifice

a big opportunity for an even

larger goal?

Well, you never know what would

have happened. But yes, I guess

it can be good to miss out on

something. In the end, everything

got me to the point where I am now,

and I couldn’t be happier. So, in

that sense, yeah, I’m glad I walked

out on Kanye West.

At the time, did it feel like you’d

failed in some way?

Yes, but that’s fine. People who have

always been good at things, and

who have got through life without

any difficulties at all, really struggle

when they fail for the first time,

because they’re just not used to the

feeling. Even Kanye West has failed

a lot of times. Failing early on is

the best way to learn. It’s not exactly

fun, but it’s essential.

Your debut album, Home Again,

was a breakthrough hit, and the

follow-up, Love & Hate, topped

the album chart. With your third,

Kiwanuka, ready for release,

how do you define success?

Ultimately, it’s about personal

satisfaction; a contentment with

what I am doing. I’m able to do what

I love for a living: getting up in the

morning and making music.

And winning a major award –

a Grammy, for instance – isn’t

part of the equation?

Awards are like landmarks: they

keep you on this journey. A Grammy

will never really solve any real issues,

but it can make you keep going.

Kiwanuka is released on October 25;

michaelkiwanuka.com

Why was it so difficult to believe

what he told you?

I think the invitation came too

early in my career. I learnt a lot

from it, though, and I’m glad it

happened that way. Who knows

if it would have got to my head?

Still, it was a great experience.

THE RED BULLETIN 27

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