“Dark, broody atmospheres, focussed writing and distinctive vocals”
— Tom Robinson, BBC 6 Music
Michael Kilbey is a singer-songwriter from a sleepy village in Hertfordshire, a few miles north of London, England. First appearing on the BBC Introducing Stage at Glastonbury as co-writer with The Franks at the raw age of 18, he has since written, arranged and performed over 40 songs as a solo artist.
When did you first get into music?
'Music was there from the very start. My earliest memories include singing along in the backseat of my mother's car to her favourite cassette tapes, which included Chris Rea, Simply Red & Fine Young Cannibals.
My school music teacher saw a degree of potential and asked me to take on the oboe. An instrument I reluctantly ended up seeing through, and one which to this day plays a cameo role in recordings such as Please Don't Bring The Winter. It's also brandished unexpectedly every now and then during live performances, often to much amusement.'
But his real passion lay with the school's beaten up nylon-string guitars, which lay in the closet next door. They were the pathway to a different sort of freedom, and he began teaching himself, motivated initially by the simple desire to strum along to the best indie anthems of the time. He would record hours of music on the radio, then listen back and transcribe the lyrics. Weekly journeys to the local record shop followed, and video tapes of MTV2 were compiled where melodic 90s rock - from both sides of the pond - was rife and profoundly inspiring.
Into adulthood, and following successful spells with collaborations The Franks, Harrison Hope & Whicha Mirrors, all of which gained airplay and were championed for their promise by BBC's new music DJs, he had the overwhelming urge to retreat. A sense that his most important work lay inside.
And how do you describe your musical process?
'I never wanted to be a solo artist - all my favourite artists are bands, which probably explains why I tend to write with layered, or even full orchestral arrangements in mind. I can probably now admit though that the solo life is what I am best suited to. I feel most free when I am alone, especially creatively. When I collaborate with someone else I lose all confidence. Whereas alone, I am free to go into my own world and it's a bubble which always seems to reward me. But I never go in without an invitation, there needs to be an urge, an emotional stimulus. I can honestly say I've never sat down with the intention of writing a song for the sake of it - it is far more organic than that and 95% of my songwriting credit belongs entirely to my subconscious. It is this process that gives me complete faith in the songs, as I know that whatever is created, despite whatever merit it might hold critically or innovatively, is real, grounded in emotion and not contrived in any way.'
It is Kilbey's fierce integrity, poetic turn-of-phrase and sincerity which has endeared him to a legion of online supporters across the globe. Harnessing the power of social media, in 2016 he took to the main stage of London's biggest outdoor music festival as winner of the annual Play On Blackheath competition by an overwhelmingly unanimous public vote. Festival owner Sir Harvey Goldsmith revealed that he had to mute his phone in the lead up to the festival such was the frenzy of tweets in support of the young artist.
His first professional recordings were also the product of an entirely supporter-funded campaign. The aptly titled I Was Waiting EP was released in October 2017. The launch show at Water Rats, Kings Cross was sold-out and included guests from 6 different countries who flew in from as far away as Quebec, Canada to be in attendance.
What inspires your music?
'From the outset, choosing Michael Kilbey as my artist name was always somehow ironic for me. It is the name I was christened with, but, when you give something a name, it's usually a sign of conviction or an indication of some sort of identity. Yet, so much of what I sing about is the mystery of my own identity. What inspires me is the very muddy sense of self and the struggle to be a human being, particularly in what has become such an over-individualised society. We have so many tools these days to define ourselves, yet somehow it often feels like we've never been less sure of who we really are. To that end identity, alienation and intimacy are at the very core of what I sing about.
As for this EP, it was my first chance to go into a studio with a professional engineer. So it was largely about providing a cross section of my strongest material to date, whilst also telling a story and showing the diversity in my writing. I am just as likely to create a rock track one evening and follow it up with an acoustic folk-song the next. Genre is absolutely one thing I refuse to be bound by. Life is so varied, our emotions so volatile, that to call myself a rock artist, or a folk artist, or an indie artist would be totally unhelpful and untrue. Life has so many facets and I don't see that music should be any different.
But why 'I Was Waiting'?
'Throughout my life I have found myself to be held back in some way. Never truly harnessing things or fulfilling my potential. Partly from self-destructive tendencies. But also when you possess a degree of talent you can be the target of envy, and people can be very adept at drawing you off course in the most subtle and calculated of ways. I Was Waiting is all about breaking free from that spell, from a delusion, and turning the pent-up frustration of a lifetime into euphoric retribution. There is anger, sadness, reflection, but also a sense of triumph in the song. I took great care in its arrangement and am particularly proud of the strings which were conceived upon a sleepless night hours before the final studio session, as a complete afterthought. We were only supposed to be going into record them on The Wild, but Anisa and Alex (our viol and cellist) were brilliant and nailed the un-scored parts intuitively, as I sung them to them, phrase by phrase from the studio control room. I'm glad things turned out the way they did.'
I Was Waiting will be Kilbey's first official single complete with official video and is set to be released in May 2018. Meanwhile he returns to London on Friday April 6th, 2018, with band, to play his biggest headline date yet. The show at Oslo Hackney is already sold out and a first UK tour is planned for the second half of the year with follow up singles 'The Wild' and 'Let Her Sleep' to follow in tow.
Michael was talking to Keri Pattinson of FeedMe Music