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Michael Kiwanuka hits with a delicate fusion of acoustic folk and heart-rending soul

Patrick Caldwell
Michael Kiwanuka, all of 25, already has some impressive kudos, including winning BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll, and says he picked up guitar to fit in with his peers.

Michael Kiwanuka’s voice keeps cutting in and out.

London’s 25-year-old velvet-voiced soul and folk sensation is somewhere near the U.S./Canada border, bound for an evening performance in Vancouver. Between Kiwanuka’s soft, modest conversational voice — one that betrays little evidence of the textured singer’s persuasive pipes — and a dicey cell phone connection, it’s difficult to hear him.

Halting phone conversations with strangers are just one small indicator of Kiwanuka’s vastly changed life. Two years ago he was an all-but-unknown London session musician who’d only just started to perform his own songs in small gigs and open-mike nights. Since then, he’s released a triptych of fetching EPs and a lauded debut album, “Home Again.” More importantly, he won the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll, an annual survey of critics and industry figures intended to crown the big breakout artist of the year. Past winners include Ellie Goulding, Keane, and some unknown by the name of Adele, who Kiwanuka toured with in 2011. This year has seen Kiwanuka hit a number of high-profile festivals, pick up major stateside buzz at South by Southwest, and tackle an impressively rigorous touring schedule.

Not that Kiwanuka seems to mind.

“It’s been fun, actually. It’s been good. Luckily I’m touring, so I get to play every day and do road shows and basically have nine months of fun,” said Kiwanuka. “Yeah, parts of it have been hard, but at the end of the day it’s fun and exciting. It’s like a dream come true.”

Understanding Kiwanuka’s ascent is a simple matter. Queue up any song off “Home Again” — but especially the flute-reinforced soul-jazz of “Tell Me A Tale” or the wounded, bleeding blues ballad “Worry Walks Beside Me” — and prepare to be impressed by Kiwanuka’s delicate fusion of acoustic folk and heart-rending soul, like vintage Van Morrison by way of Bill Withers. Withers, in fact, is easily Kiwanuka’s most commonly noted creative cousin — not only for their vocal similarities, but for Kiwanuka’s similarly heart-on-his-sleeve warmth and humanity. Make no mistake, it’s Starbucks music, nonthreatening, not especially sexy, readily accessible and largely free of rough edges. But it’s also compulsively listenable and instantly compelling, largely because of Kiwanuka’s smooth-yet-stark voice.

Interesting, then, that Kiwanuka readily confesses that he first picked up the guitar and delved into music for that most universal of reasons: fitting in. The son of Ugandan parents who fled the brutal regime of military dictator Idi Amin, he had little exposure to music growing up. He did it primarily to make friends.

“Mainly, it was something to be a part of. When you’re young, you desperately want to be part of something bigger than yourself. You know, some people are good at reading or mathematics or something. I wasn’t too good at academics, but I was good at music,” said Kiwanuka. “I started playing guitar, and I found that I could pick it up pretty quickly. And that allowed me to join bands and do gigs at clubs and make friends that way. And then over time making music became a bigger and bigger passion of mine, and it pretty quickly overtook the social part of it.”

Kiwanuka briefly studied music at the university level, but ultimately dropped out, instead gigging as a session musician and pursuing his own career. But it wasn’t until he reached the age of 20 that he began to actually write his own songs — and he didn’t begin actively performing his own material until he was 22, a mere two years ago. Though his material quickly caught on — he was signed by the Universal-owned Polydor by the end of 2011 — Kiwanuka felt considerable trepidation at the prospect of performing his own songs.

“Oddly enough, I was, most of all, terrified of singing. When you’re playing guitar, yeah, you put yourself out there, but you can also kind of bury yourself a little bit. Everything is unspoken. You can retreat to the back of the stage a bit,” said Kiwanuka. “But when I started writing my own songs I knew I, obviously, would have to sing them, and I just felt like singing your own songs was kind of scary. It was seemed so nerve-wracking to me. So I just put it off.”

If “Home Again” is what Kiwanuka writes and records when he’s still a touch nervous, then it’s hard to imagine what he’s going to create now that he’s confident.

Michael Kiwanuka performs at at 4:30 p.m. Saturday on the Austin Ventures Stage.