I’m a bit of a music savant. I love a lot of music from different genres. I’m not bragging because music is my passion. There’s so much amazing music that has been recorded in the past 100 years that we as humans have created. It’s a remarkable, wondrous musical legacy that many, like me, relish. One of the things I find most remarkable is when artists are aware – aware of past artist’s styles, aware of current fads and aware of their own limitations. Knowing about other artists is one thing, but being keenly aware of their contributions to music is quite another.
Why is it so important that an artist is aware? Well, take British singer/songwriter Michael Kiwanuka for example. This directly from his website:
Like most of his schoolmates, he liked bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, Offspring and Blur, but it was only when he discovered that Jimi Hendrix was black that he understood he had a place playing rock guitar. In his teens, two other icons helped him find his voice. A friend gave him a Bob Dylan box set, and Michael was bowled over by the power of a well-crafted song, delivered with just urgent vocals and an acoustic guitar. Later, he was playing the free CD that came with a music magazine and heard an outtake of ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ in which Otis Redding was talking to the studio engineer. It made the soul icon seem more human, more accessible, and though there were later to be other influences from Bill Withers and Terry Callier to John Martyn and Laura Marling, it was Dylan and Redding who laid the foundations for Michael’s own rootsy, folk-inflected modern soul.
The underlining is mine and the reason is that it goes to my point of being aware. Whether you, as an artist, are made aware by someone or stumble upon that discovery on your own it is all the same. There is no distinction between the two. I use Kiwanuka as an example, because it is clearly exemplified in his brilliant new album Home Again. The influence of Otis Redding is undeniable, but there is also a nouveau style in the mold of someone like a Jack Johnson. The difference being that every song isn’t as similar as many of Johnson’s songs seem to be. Another difference is the pure tonality that emits from Kiwanuka’s mouth is perfection. Whereas someone like Otis Redding was described often as soulful with rawness in his voice, Kiwanuka has no such issue.
The Dylan influence is harder to spot, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I, myself, am hugely influenced by Bob Dylan, but I would find it difficult to incorporate his poetic style into my work. The same thing goes for many other artists that grew up idolizing Dylan. His influence is prevalent in everything from Springsteen to Gaslight Anthem to Michael Kiwanuka.
When you pop your ear buds in or you listen in your car or wherever you enjoy music Kiwanuka fills the air. That’s not writer filler, he literally fills it. Kiwanuka doesn’t have filler, he doesn’t phone anything in, from “Tell Me a Tale” to “Lasan” every song is special. “Lasan” being my favorite of the album, because it shows mature beauty in the easiness with which he flows through the lyrics like the chorus:
Just you live your everyday, like you’re running out of time
Say the things you say, don’t leave everything behind
Try to find new somethings that won’t fade away in time
These are things I’ll always see on your side
Perhaps the singer is channeling his inner Dylan here after all and at the same time realizing the immediacy of life. It isn’t preachy or self-aggrandizing, but merely prescient. He is telling you the listener you’re going to regret things in life, everyone does, but if you live your life like “you’re running out of time” then the regrets will be minimal. In a sense what Michael Kiwanuka is saying throughout this record is merely to be aware, because he certainly is.