After Michael Kiwanuka released his second album in 2016, its psychedelic track “Cold Little Heart” soundtracked the opening credits of HBO’s Big Little Lies, becoming one of the most recognizable songs on TV and expanding Kiwanuka’s U.S. fan base.
For his third album, Kiwanuka (out Nov. 1 on Polydor Records), the London-based troubadour turned inward, dusting off vintage instruments and embracing a newfound appreciation for poetry.
Since his 2012 debut, Home Again, Kiwanuka has had an acoustic guitar in hand, but with the help of producer Danger Mouse, on the new album he experimented with funky, psychedelic R&B. He often gravitated toward a Prophet 5 synthesizer made in the ’70s; it softens the somber track “Solid Ground.” Kiwanuka sees it as an alternative to a Wurlitzer: “It’s a sound that loads of people have used, but it’s new for me. It’s beautiful.”
“Hero” is Kiwanuka’s ode to activists, specifically the late Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton and musician-poet Gil Scott-Heron. Their words led to Kiwanuka: “I’m a musician and a singer, and a lyricist last — I find that the hardest part,” says Kiwanuka. “They were really confident in themselves; that helped me with the record, a lot. A song like ‘You Ain’t the Problem,’ I had never had a flow like that before.”
Kiwanuka and Danger Mouse were rounding the bend on the album when they decided to work in clips of historic speeches, best heard on the thought-provoking track “Another Human Being.” It’s a tactic used on some of Kiwanuka’s favorite albums, like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and the Fugees’ The Score, which he listened to as a teenager. “I was trying to keep people listening, keep the mood throughout the record,” he says of the interludes.
During the recording of the new album, Kiwanuka snapped shots of the studio sessions using his new Canon AE-1, an SLR camera he bought at Adorama in New York. “We always had a camera in the studio,” he recalls. “I love classic records and music from the ’70s, and there’s so much good documentation of the music and what was happening at the time. I felt like I didn’t have any of that [before].”