The meteoric rise of Michael Kiwanuka has been founded on strong songs, great singing and Paul Butler's unique production style.
Anyone first hearing the music of Michael Kiwanuka might mistakenly think that they'd stumbled across a lost Bill Withers or Terry Callier record from 1972. Such is the 25-year-old North Londoner's liquid croon and mastery of the folk-soul crossover patented during that decade, as matched with a warm and suitably 'aged' production, that it's easy to be fooled into thinking you're listening to some long-forgotten, freshly unearthed classic.
Over two EPs released in 2011 on the Mumford & Sons-associated label Communion Records, Kiwanuka first unveiled his prodigious talents, attracting enough attention to see him top the BBC's influential 'Sound Of 2012' poll. Now comes his major-label debut for Polydor Records, Home Again, once more produced by Paul Butler of the Isle Of Wight's ever-eclectic Bees, whose own musical range spans indie-rock, psychedelia, authentic ska and '60s soul. But if Kiwanuka's music holds many other echoes of the late '60s and early '70s — Otis Redding, the Temptations, Paul Simon, James Taylor — he argues that he isn't striving to be deliberately retro, but is simply drawn to music that retains a certain pre-digital rawness.
"That's just the sound that excites my ears,” he says. "It just does something to me. And if the singing is raw and you can tell they're feeling it and they're kind of on the edge, I'm more inclined to listen to that, rather than a perfect vocal from beginning to end that's done in sections. That, for me, is what music is about.”
As a former Muswell Hill skater boy born of Ugandan parents, Kiwanuka first listened to Radiohead and Nirvana, before being turned onto soul via a free CD compilation given away with a music monthly, the standout of which, for him, was an alternate take of Otis Redding's '(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay', in which he was fascinated to hear the talkback exchanges between the singer and the engineer. Delving further into the era, he got into Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, though it was his love for D'Angelo's landmark 2000 neo-soul album Voodoo that first informed his tastes in sound recording. "There was a piece I read online by the engineer Russell Elevado,” he recalls, "and he was just describing how they recorded it with old tape machines and old amplifiers, and most of it was to tape, and the kit didn't have millions of mics around it. I was like, 'Well if it works for new and old, it's gonna be universal.' So I figured that's the best way to record music.”
In that sense, Kiwanuka and Paul Butler are a perfect match. Over four albums of handling production duties with the Bees, not to mention Devendra Banhart's 2009 LP What Will We Be, Butler has perfected a colourful, idiosyncratic, retro-modernist sound, through his judicious use of vintage gear. Now operating out of his basement studio, The Steam Rooms, in his house in Ventnor on the Isle Of Wight, Butler says that he prefers his approach to music to be seen as organic rather than retro.
"I'm a big fan of a musician playing an instrument,” he says. "That's my main thing, really. And I understand that a lot of modern production is almost like damage control. If something is tracked badly, then you can replace the sounds. Personally, I stay a million miles away from that. I'll always have a whole take, I don't really like looping. I'm a big fan of human rhythm over click tracks. My main thing, really, as a producer is just that things should be crafted. You just put time and effort into something and then you get the results.”
In 2000, the Bees put out their debut album, Sunshine Hit Me, showcasing their often dazzling musical invention, most famously with their rollicking, fuzzy-riffed rendition of 'A Minha Menina', the '60s classic from Brazilian psychedelic troupe Os Mutantes. While Paul Butler co-wrote, played and sang on the album, it was also noted that this remarkable record had been self-produced in his parents' garden shed on the Isle Of Wight.
"I had a Fostex D160, a Soundcraft Spirit Ghost desk and a pretty minimal selection of microphones,” he says. "I think I recorded the whole thing on a Rode Classic II pretty much, which definitely did the job at the time. Little else, really, so it was just down to some nice instruments — some nice vintage drums, a nice piano, a Hammond and Rhodes and a Memorymoog. Then there was my magical little Akai 4000DB quarter-inch tape machine, which I'm still using, amazingly. That's added a little magical zing, generally, on every recording I've ever done, it seems.”
In the wake of Sunshine Hit Me, the Bees signed to Virgin and stepped up to Abbey Road Studio 2 for its successor, Free The Bees, a happy turn of events which, strangely enough, came about as the result of a repair miswiring of Butler's HHB Circle 5 monitors. "They came back wired out of phase,” the producer laughs, "and so I was having loads of trouble with mixes. Not really knowing much about phasing at that point, I really struggled with everything.”
When the Bees' manager asked Butler where he would like to record, given the problems he was having at the shed studio, the frontman cheekily enquired about Abbey Road, owned by Virgin's parent company EMI. What followed was an intense six-week education in recording techniques for Butler, who emerged from the experience a dedicated vintage gearhead.
"It was getting in there with the old boys and getting all the old equipment out, using the TG console and the best of the microphones and learning just so much stuff. It was incredible. We managed to do an analogue-to-analogue-to-analogue record. It was the Studer 16-track, straight to Studer two-track, straight to vinyl. The idea was to make a simple recording chain, so we took out the Neve console in there and just literally had it through the greatest chain ever, in my view. Generally, it was the best of the U47s going through the Redd 51 preamp, with a Fairchild 660, going straight to tape. That, unfortunately, opened my eyes just to how good you can get a chain and just how amazing it is to sing into. So since then it's been a general project to try and create a mini Abbey Road in the basement of my house.”
The result was The Steam Rooms, which features a small 3x4-metre control room, with a similarly proportioned live room and small drum/iso booth. Butler admits there was only very limited sonic treatment done to the rooms. "It was complete guesswork,” he says. "Obviously, there's an immense science behind acoustic treatment. But I just stuck up some wood that I thought looked nice and it kind of worked. It was a fluke. There's obvious bass issues in such a small room, and there's reflection issues, and I've bought and made a few acoustic panels. But there's generally duvets or cushions or anything else soft that I can find to get rid of specific problems. It's a bloody mess, really, but it works.”
When producing Devendra Banhart's album in a house studio in Bolinas, North California, with an MCI eight-track that kept breaking down, Butler was first introduced to Pro Tools. At The Steam Rooms, however, he runs Logic, preferring its editing features. "To be honest, I just think the editing is totally superior to Pro Tools,” he says. "It's just so simple and so quick.”
Butler's setup is centred around an old Swedish broadcast desk, built in 1968, bought from Funky Junk for £8000 and rewired by Neve tech Blake Devitt. "It's got 20 awesome preamps on it, with very limited EQ,” he says. "But the limitations of the EQ put you back into the studio, where microphone selection and positioning are completely key. My microphone selection is my secret weapon, I guess. I've just got a huge collection of mostly terrible microphones, ranging up to a few really good ones.”
Among the producer's favourite microphones are his RCA 77DX ribbon, his Neumann CMV563 valve mic ("With the little mod to bring out the high-mid frequencies and make it a bit more U47-like”) and his Neumann U57. "Then there's more of my utility microphones — a collection of [Sennheiser] 421s and [AKG] 414s. I've a couple of little ribbon mics, which just do the business on certain things, like a Reslo and a Film Industries M8. Then there's the Rode Classic II, which still gets used now and then. The latest addition is the Neve/SE collaboration for the RNR1 — a big, long ribbon mic, very nice. The Coles 4038s are great because they just change the sound instantly. Instead of worrying and trying to tweak the sound, sometimes it's as simple as changing from a condenser to a dynamic to a ribbon. Just keep swapping around until you get the characteristics you're after.”
While Logic is where all the takes will end up during a session at The Steam Rooms, Paul Butler still makes use of his aforementioned Akai 4000DB in order to achieve certain effects. "I tell you what, it does something to a guitar, particularly an acoustic guitar, that EQ couldn't touch, ever,” he stresses. "It's just a bit of wow and flutter sometimes that actually really puts charm on a track. Unfortunately, it instantly adds this retro thing, but to me, it's the same as with film, the way it brings out those amazing colours. It's just literally tape bounces that go through it. Sometimes it's the drums, but it's more guitars for me. That's what really does it.”
For his part, Michael Kiwanuka was impressed to discover, when he first started working with Butler, that the producer insisted on sending his acoustic guitar parts over to tape, particularly when it created the wow and flutter effect that begins 'Always Waiting' from Home Again. "The tape was actually wobbling,” he laughs. "The machine is basically semi-broken, but it created a really warm, interesting sound for when the song first starts. It makes you sit up and listen.”
Home Again and its preceding EPs were put together at The Steam Rooms over a period of two years between 2010 and 2011. From the first time Kiwanuka took the catamaran over to the Isle Of Wight for the pair's initial exploratory sessions, the singer was convinced that Paul Butler was the right man for the producer's job. "It's just his take on sound, really,” he says. "When you're building up a track in the studio with him, it's almost like 3D, there's so many layers. Sometimes you think you've finished, but he's only half-finished. He's like, 'We'll add this, we'll add that.' You're thinking, 'Isn't that a bit much?' But when it's all mixed and put together, there's so many colours to it, but it doesn't take away from the song and the vocal.”
More than being simply Home Again's producer, Butler also plays drums, double bass, cello, brass and sitar on the album. "I generally play everything at a pretty mediocre standard,” he reckons. "But sometimes you only need something that's mediocre standard in there. It's all about feeling for my style of playing. I'd love to have the time to sit down and master an instrument. But I'm an integrated producer. I try to look at absolutely everything.”
Sessions with the pair tend to begin with Kiwanuka singing and playing a song on acoustic guitar, while Butler works out whether the feel and tempo are right and where the song might go sonically. Generally, he'll then get behind his drum kit to pin down the groove or, if it's a more stripped-back song, play a live shaker click-track for Kiwanuka to perform with.
"I don't like click tracks,” says Kiwanuka. "The sound is just incessant and not really very natural. Paul would loop a shaker part, so that it feels human. But with something like 'I'll Get Along', I played the acoustic guitar part first on my own from beginning to end, and then he added the drums and I added bass and electric guitar.”
Drum-wise, Butler's mic setup never involves more than four or five microphones. "Even though it's a small space,” the producer says, "I'll have a nice valve mic sitting in the other room with the doors open, just to get a little bit of room in there as well. Usually I'll use the Film Industries M8 near the kick drum or a Reslo actually in the kick drum, which gives a bit more of a rounder sound. Then I'll have the [STC 4021] 'ball and biscuit' over the top and something close to the snare drum, usually very low in the mix, either a [Sennheiser] 421 or a 441.
"The kit is a mid-'70s Hayman, which in theory I'm still borrowing off a friend, which I have done now for about 18 years. I've got a '63 Ludwig kit and it doesn't record anywhere near as nice as this Hayman, which sounds terrible until you put microphones in front of it and then it just sweetens itself. It's got the right decay on everything, it seems, for the compressors to really come into their own, 'cause obviously there's a lot of compression involved.”
For drum compression, Butler mixes and matches between a pair of EAR 660s, an eight-channel Audio Development broadcast unit and the TL Audio C1. "The TL is completely woolly, which can be useless for most things, but sometimes it just takes an edge off a kit. I've got a Klein & Hummel EQ which does some nice bits and bobs. My limited equipment, y'know, it all does something.”
When it comes to recording acoustic guitar, Butler admits he often struggles with the sound. "I guess the room doesn't particularly help,” he says. "It doesn't seem to complement an acoustic guitar. I'll try with the CMV563, normally, which has the interchangeable heads on it. It just completely depends on the track.”
Kiwanuka would use his 1966 Gibson J50 for the acoustic guitar parts, although the more bare-bones title track suited a Martin D18 Authentic. Elsewhere, all of the electric parts were recorded using Butler's Les Paul Custom through a Cornell Romany Plus amp. The electric bass parts employed a '70s Fender Jazz, either DI'ed or through a Fender Bassman amp.
"I got really into the Carol Kaye bass sound from Pet Sounds and the David Axelrod stuff,” the singer explains. "Just that picked, melodic, not too bassy sound. And the way we got that was to go through the Bassman and mic up the amp really close, which we did for 'I Won't Lie' and 'Home Again'. Sometimes we'd DI and then re-amp.”
In recording Michael Kiwanuka's vocals, and in line with their shared recording ethos, the singer and producer both tried to achieve takes compiled from entire verses and choruses, wherever possible. "Something like 'Rest' is just one whole take,” Kiwanuka says. "We changed the key from the way I usually play it live and I ended up singing really quietly.”
"The thing with Michael's vocals is that it's pretty rare that there's anything that's bad,” Butler says. "I guess he's kind of against editing, but with the power of Logic, it's just so quick and easy. I'm listening through his takes intensely, making a few notes, going, 'Oh, he's nailed it in the second verse on that take.' With quite a lot of it, there's no more than three takes.
"Mic-wise, it depends on the track. It's generally the CMV, but 'Tell Me A Tale' was done on the Coles. There were a few times, particularly when he was absolutely belting it out and the equipment started groaning, it needed something to warm it up a little bit, like a nice ribbon mic. Michael's got quite an individual voice, quite a strange EQ. He's incredibly present at either 1k or 2k, depending on what track he's doing and what notes he's going for. He's got such a dynamic voice, so I'm slamming it with the EAR 660 all the time.”
Come the mixing stage, Paul Butler admits he tends to get pernickety and perhaps a touch obsessive, working and reworking tracks endlessly. "For absolutely hours, days, weeks,” he laughs. "Everyone hates it. People come down and say, 'How can you do this?' But for me, it's all about attention to detail. I'll send a mix to my manager and then send a mix two days later and he'll just go, 'Sorry I can't tell the difference.' But for me, they're miles apart. Unfortunately, the majority of stuff is done within the first six hours and then it's just tiny tweaking until it fits for me. It's incredibly anal, but it needs to be done.”
In terms of reverb, Butler relies heavily on his EMT 240 plate. "I used to always go down the route of some dirty spring reverb, generally the Roland RE201 Space Echo, but using just the reverb from it. I guess it's a coming-of-age thing, but I've moved over to a more refined plate and I don't think I'd ever part with the EMT 240 now. It's just incredible. I just find the 140s in the big studios are just a touch too clean and rich for me, whereas the 240 just sits perfectly. I wouldn't trade it for anything.”
Butler's mixes generally tend to employ old-fashioned wide panning for extreme separation. "It's just trying to find a space for everything. And because I've got phase selection on the desk, I'm just playing with the phase, 'cause it changes the EQ instantly. I'm trying to avoid using EQ until I have to.”
Kiwanuka, meanwhile, says he tends not to attend these marathon mix sessions, preferring to sit at home and receive mixes via email. "Paul's very thorough, which is great, but it's difficult for me to sit listening to him working for four hours on one bar. He needs the space to do it on his own, rather than having me over his shoulder watching and saying little things every second, which is probably what I'd do.
"So he'll email the mix over and I'll say what I liked or didn't like. Sometimes the first one was great. Pretty much all of them were pretty tough. 'I'll Get Along' was a really tough one, because there's so much in there and we couldn't finish it. We had to do about five mixes of 'Home Again'. I kept arguing with him and the record label. At first they wanted to take the pizzicato strings out of the second verse and I was like, 'No.' Then they sent a mix back with them really quiet and I was arguing that there was no point in having them. So there was a lot of going back and forth, but we're all really happy with it now.”
As well as being a wholly impressive debut for Michael Kiwanuka, there's every chance that Home Again will make Paul Butler's name as a very individual kind of producer. "If it does, it's a massive bonus,” he says. "If I get that role of working with a young artist and instead of rushing an album, taking six months to help them develop, then I'll be very, very happy.”
One of the characteristic Paul Butler sounds is his thinned-out, slightly wobbly string sound, redolent of Curtis Mayfield's classic '70s records, which he creates by tracking violinist Andy Parkin and using two very different violins. "There's my incredibly shit violin that I get him to play,” he laughs, "and then there's his nice violin, and between the two you get this wonky bit in the middle somewhere. It'd be lovely to have a string section, but Andy Parkin has done a fantastic job. I generally track him up about 13 times using two different microphones, two different violins, in about three different positions.
"The [Rupert Neve] RNR1 has been really good for strings. The Coles  does it sometimes. Sometimes it's the [Neumann]CMV563 with the M7 capsule. There's quite a lot of EQ'ing on the way down to try to calm the string harshness a touch. It's thinning down the mid-range. It's a pine-clad studio, and so those slightly harsher frequencies are kind of exaggerated. In larger studios, the size of the room just helps immensely with dissipating those frequencies. With the limitations of the studio, it's kind of a lot about taking frequencies out. It's very rare for me to be boosting anything nowadays, which is how I started on the production side.”
In Home Again's sparse title song, the rhythm track is provided by Michael Kiwanuka's tapping foot. Singer and producer laugh when they remember that, perhaps inevitably, this was the toughest sound on the album to get right. "It took ages because we couldn't get the right rug,” says Kiwanuka. "Like, that warm, woolly, in-your-own-room sound. It just sounded really hard. We tried to do knocks on the wall of the stairs of the basement, we tried to do footsteps outside and in the kitchen, and everything was just wrong.”
"Amazingly, that was two days of takes before we got that one right,” Paul Butler adds. "Michael needed the right pair of shoes, on the right strip of carpet, because the wood was too much. The right microphone — the 77DX — the right compression and EQ. Anything too clean would have just sounded not quite right. And the claps on that one we recorded outside, which is a little technique that I learnt from recording with Devendra. We actually recorded quite a lot of his album outside because there's no reverb — it's just completely dry and there's nothing like it. Y'know, it doesn't matter what room you're in, you're always gonna hear it. But when you're outside and there's no wind blowing, it's just a beautiful sound.”
Audio files to accompany the article.
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