Published Nov 04, 2019What's in a name? For British singer-songwriter and musician Michael Kiwanuka, it's everything and more.
Born and raised in London, Kiwanuka is the son of Ugandan parents who escaped the Amin regime. As a first-generation immigrant, even having his surname pronounced correctly was an exercise in patience. So titling his third album simply Kiwanuka is a declarative statement about who he is and how he's defined.
"My name just represents so much to me," he tells Exclaim! "It represents me being first-generation British born to Ugandan parents. It represents so many things and so many emotions to me. It also represents confidence in myself and really owning the idea of being a singer-songwriter and being unapologetically myself."
The 14-track Kiwanuka was produced with regular production collaborators Danger Mouse and Inflo, who worked on him with sophomore outing, Love & Hate. That ten-track album was solidly received — giving him his first top-selling full-length and spawning the single "Cold Little Heart," an epic ten-minute track that became a hit after becoming the theme song for the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies. The song become ubiquitous, much to the amazement of the soft-spoken artist.
"When we play the song on tour and in festivals now, people cheer the beginning and phones come out. And that's pretty much a new experience for me."
It's also still a bit odd, he adds, especially when you're promoting a new record and people still want you to play the song. "I've never really, really had that. I've never had a song known as well as that one. So it's a new feeling and sometimes it's amazing," he says.
But it's all about Kiwanuka now. "Danger Mouse and I worked on Kiwanuka for about three years, but on and off. We started to make this record while I was still promoting Love & Hate."
Artistically, he notes he's in a unique place in the music landscape, where he creates music that draws on older soul sounds of Sam Cooke or Bill Withers; Kiwanuka aims to push things further in the present day.
"It is nice to feel like you're in the mix. I'm at this point and there's loads of great music being made and great albums coming out and great artists around," he says. "I think with each album and I just want to connect even more with music fans and listeners. I just try and show a different side of myself — and show people more of what and who I am as an artist and as a singer and as a songwriter. I just want more people to hear the message, at least."
Tracks like "Hero" and "You Ain't the Problem" reflect his self-conscious, yet confidence approach.
"This record is about self-acceptance and a love for, as cheesy as it sounds, yourself and taking care of yourself mentally. As someone who's had low self-esteem and issues about fitting in over the years, that's something that I've been searching for. But when you start really enjoying the differences, the weird things about you and the odd things that don't quite work, you start really celebrate those. That's when life becomes so exciting."
Kiwanuka is out now on Polydor/Universal.