Can you become pop's next big thing by killing it softly? Despite winning the BBC Sound of 2012 poll (ahead of Skrillex and Azealia Banks), Michael Kiwanuka sounds nothing like your Saturday-night-party mix—but the 25-year-old singer-songwriter is about to own your Sundays with his folk-tinged retro soul.
Much of the hype surrounding the North London native has focused on his Otis Redding-esque vocals, but his influences lean toward rootsy Americana. "Being 15 and listening to the Band was weird," he says. "Black musicians I was playing with wouldn't even know who Levon Helm was."
After training at the Royal Academy of Music, Kiwanuka became a session guitarist, backing R&B and hip-hop acts like grime star Chipmunk. When he started performing solo, friends and fellow musicians were surprised—by both his seductively sandpapery voice and his emotionally charged compositions.
By last spring, Kiwanuka was opening for Adele across Europe, but now he's headlining in America, with an extended version of his U.K. debut, Home Again, out in the States this month. As he's made fans of Rick Rubin, the Black Keys, and the music blogosphere, the shy singer has wrestled with his burgeoning celebrity. "Mostly it feels encouraging," he says, "but it can be overwhelming." As he sings on "Always Waiting": "My time is coming… Who will be prayin' for me?"
—Alex Bhattacharji, executive editor at Details
THE PLAYLIST: Michael Kiwanuka picks the songs that formed him: