Mercury Music Prize: Michael Kiwanuka

The Primrose Hill singer is one of the nominees for tonight’s prize

When Michael Kiwanuka saw Jack White on a plane he was star struck. “I’ve been listening to him a lot this year, he’s an exciting artist and someone I look up to. I was too scared to say hello. He’s so tall. I was terrified but really wanted to say hi. It was an eight hour flight, I plucked up the courage for eight hours and still didn’t say anything.”

The singer songwriter from Muswell Hill has this year started his trajectory into the stratospheric level of his idols- beginning with the gift of the coveted BBC sound of 2012 label and a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize- to be announced tonight. When he got the news about the latter he was in bed in his Kentish Town flat. “I’d just been away doing some gigs. I was knackered and it kind of woke me up a bit.”

It must be daunting for the soul singer, I say, to be thrown up into the ranks of high profile nominees like Plan B and established singer songwriters like Richard Hawley. Compounding that, are voices of naysayers who say even if you do win, the prize could be the kiss of death for your career. “If you can keep making music and keep being excited about it yourself, that’s usually a good thing, it means that you always have a road to travel on. You’re never just gonna stop and give up. I think if you have that mindset and these awards come, they won’t scare you. If you don’t have a direction, something like this can ruin things a bit. It’s very important to know who you are so that these things don’t shake you.”

He’s a fan of a few people on the nominations list, including Cambridge outfit Alt-J, who he performed with recently.


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On the day I talk to him, Kiwanuka is in France, snatching some time for his lunch in between recording his single Home Again in French, which he doesn’t speak. “I’m going to get a lot of help. It will be a task but it will be fun.” He’s also recently visited America- quickly picking up the credentials of a worldwide recording artist. His diary may be at the mercy of his tour manager, but he still has time to visit his parents in Muswell Hill, where he grew up, attending Fortismere. “I bump into people on the street when I stay at my mum’s who ask me about how it’s going. People have just been nice and supportive. Some of the teachers come to my gigs. I’m hoping to go back one day, pay a visit to some of the teachers. There are still some of the teachers that I had there, so I’d like to talk to them about the experience that I have had, and say thank you, basically.”

Whatever happens tonight, Kiwanuka will go on, in the same way he intended from his days at school “The people I look up to have had longevity. That’s what I’m aiming to do. I’d like to keep putting work out. I’m hoping to put out an EP early next year.”

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“I write because it feels good to write. Writing songs feels exciting. You can write about what’s on your mind. It helps me to express what I see around me, that’s what I love about it. You can say things with a song in a way that you can’t using anything else. That’s what’s important.”

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