ARIAs, Grammys, two top five ARIA and New Zealand albums under her belt and widespread industry praise. Kimbra’s come a long way from her early days as “girl with a guitar” in her hometown of Hamilton, New Zealand.
Three years on from her monstrously huge collaboration with Gotye, Kimbra is now living in Los Angeles, recently dropped album No.2 – ‘The Golden Echo’ – and in a couple of months, will arrive in Australia for headline shows in Sydney and Melbourne.
To mark the live dates, we popped on the phone to the songstress and began by asking her who of her New Zealand contemporaries inspired her most in her formative years.
“There were a lot of singer songwriters in New Zealand who I guess I listened to early on,” she reveals. “I used to be ‘girl with a guitar’ doing the very singer-songwriter type thing, so I always appreciated the melodic nature of that music; people like Bic Runga.
“Then I guess in high school, I started to listen to a lot of punk and rock music and there were a lot of bands like The Mint Chicks and Cut Off Your Hands that I loved.
“Around that time, I was wanting to get into music that was a bit more experimental, but still had the things that I loved about pop music, such as the catchy hooks, but I was trying to be more of a producer and work with beats. So that’s when I started venturing a little more. New Zealand music definitely was a part of that.”
We ask her whether she believes, as a New Zealand artist, one needs to move beyond the country’s shores in order to become a little more experimental.
“Well you have to be challenged in some way, I think that’s very important,” she says. “And for me that came in the form of moving to Melbourne and living there by myself. I was 17 at the time and that certainly brought its own set of challenges and definitely made me think differently. I got on ProTools for the first time.
“And then similarly coming to America to write ‘The Golden Echo’. That was a different challenge in itself. But it’s not so much about running away from where you’re from, it’s more about getting new experiences and being in environments that make you think differently.”
Kimbra’s debut long player ‘Vows’ arrived in late 2011 off the back of the extraordinary success of ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ with Gotye and, with pop nuggets ‘Settle Down’, ‘Cameo Lover’ and ‘Good Intent’ within the package, it quickly found favour with fans globally. Almost three years on, its successor was released last month and Kimbra tells us that her wishes for ‘The Golden Echo’ were rather simple.
“I just wanted to make a record that I’d like to listen to and one that I’d get excited by listening to,” she admits. “I think when you express from that place of real, pure honesty and excitement and pure passion for the music you’re writing, your fan base naturally gravitates towards that. And I feel that they then feel their spirit in the music and I think that’s what has been attractive to people so far; the spirit of the music and the live shows.
“I wanted to embrace all that on the new record and get that feeling of imagination and a sense of challenge as well. I strongly believe that music can touch you in the heart and also challenge you in the mind at the same time. I don’t think you need to choose one side.”
Lyrically, ‘The Golden Echo’ is heavily influenced by affairs of the heart. “Not always in a romantic sense, but definitely love in the different forms that we find it,” as Kimbra says. It’s a sonically diverse record, but extraordinarily stylish, polished and always interesting. Coming off the back of the aforementioned international chart success, she tells us that the pressure to strike it big again with album number two was surprisingly bearable.
“It wasn’t so much a pressure. Sure there was a sense of expectation, but that can be very positive as well,” she explains. “I had my own expectations for myself and I wanted to meet them, so I think it gave me a really good, positive determination as if to say, ‘alright, we’re going to go hard on this and really think boldly’.
“‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was an amazing springboard to get me super-inspired and adventurous with the second album, knowing that I had access to some amazing people that were excited to work with me. Many people contacted me at the point of writing this album and wanted to be involved. Some of them were of no interest to me and some of them, of course, were so of interest. So I was given this amazing opportunity.”
One of the collaborators on the new LP is former Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns, who came out of semi-retirement to lend his expertise to three tracks on the album, including current single ‘Miracle’.
“I like to think that our time together has really re-inspired him, because it’s been a while since he’s released,” Kimbra tells us. “He’s been doing a solo album, but when we really hit it off, it kind of invigorated us both.
“A lot of the people who did work on this album were people who contacted me and said they loved ‘Vows’ or they loved the work with Gotye. Then I’d open up the conversation.
“Some of them were people I put the word out to as well and I was just so honoured that they were excited to be a part of it. It was never about ‘I’m going to feature this person’, it was more about ‘how can they be a colour on the record?’, even as just a subconscious influence on its sound.
“That’s more what was interesting to me… Kind of tipping the scales a little by bringing in an energy from a totally different world. Like someone from The Mars Volta or someone from Queens Of The Stone Age… putting these people in there who would just shift the landscape a little.”
The campaign for the new album began in earnest earlier this year with the single ’90s Music’. It’s a track Kimbra has described in previous interviews as a “joke song”. She explains.
“Well I did the same thing with ‘Settle Down’! That was totally a joke when I wrote that song,” she admits. “I was 16 years old and was writing about settling down and having a kid called ‘Nebraska’. It was a caricature. I was playing, acting, being silly and joking around and that was the first song Francois (Tetaz) heard and he thought it was really special. So we fleshed it out.
“Same with ‘90s Music’. I definitely knew it had a lot of vibe to it, but when we were first writing it, I thought it was more of a good jam. I was talking about being a kid and listening to ‘90s music, with little gangs yelling out from the background, all fun and silly.
“The guys in my band helped me with the production and we put these 808s on it and suddenly, it just had this new weight about it and I thought, ‘Damn, this is really cool. This could be a really special song’. It definitely doesn’t sound like anything else.”
New single ‘Miracle’ is arguably a whole lot more commercially accessible, what with its shiny, feel-good choruses and disco beats.
“Yeah, I think so. But I don’t really claim to know anything about that stuff,” Kimbra admits. “Seriously I don’t. I mean, I heard ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ and I thought, ‘this song’s really rad, it’ll probably be the ballad on the album that people will get into’. I didn’t think it was going to be what it was, so I never make assumptions on that stuff. But I understand ‘Miracle’ is one of the more catchy, up-tempo songs for sure.”
It’s a track that’s sure to get an airing as part of the setlist for Kimbra’s upcoming live shows in both Sydney and Melbourne. She was due to perform for audiences in the three main East Coast capitals back in May, as part of a co-headlining tour with US songstress Janelle Monae. That is, until Janelle cancelled due to ongoing health issues. We ask if Janelle’s now off the Christmas card list. Kimbra laughs.
“I think she’s back on the road and busy, which is great. We still text and keep in contact, and of course the main thing is that I’m happy to know that she’s healthy and doing well. It would be so great if our paths could cross again or for us to work together again in some capacity. I really still believe that was a powerful collaboration, so we’ll see what happens in the future.”
For now, however, it’s headline time and Kimbra tells us what to expect from her performances.
“This run of shows I’m doing will be a bit more stripped back in terms of the smaller venues,” she says. “We’re still going to put on a huge sonic show. There’ll be lighting and, of course, there’ll be interesting outfits. I’ve done my fair share of big festival rounds, but this is definitely about getting intimate with my fan base.
“I’ll be performing these songs for people and helping them to connect with the tracks in a smaller setting, which I’m really excited by. My favourite shows are the more intimate ones. I’d always choose to do them over a big arena-style thing.”
But she tells us not to be expecting any grandiose, shiny sets influenced by the stunning visual imagery of her new LP.
“The shows will always be visually expressive and visually adventurous, but I think I want to leave room for this to really develop. I see ‘The Golden Echo’ being a very long story that unfolds.
“I don’t want people to come to one show and think they’ve seen it all. I really like the idea of seeing the first incarnation and then coming to see the second incarnation. And maybe more and more imagery from the album is incorporated into the live shows as we go along.”
Anyone who’s seen Kimbra live before will know the boundless levels of energy she brings to the live arena. We tell her that after our first live Kimbra experience, we thought she was “utterly bonkers”. She laughs.
“It’s always been a place where I feel I come alive. I feel like I can let go of any self-consciousness,” she says. “It’s a place where I can really surrender and it’s exciting to have that outlet.
“I can still get nervous and things can happen when you’re on stage, but for the most part, because I’ve been doing it so long, as soon as I’m around melody and rhythm and singing and creating on stage, it’s a very comfortable place to be.
“In fact, far more comfortable than any of the photoshoots or the interviews or any of the other stuff. I guess it’s just what happens when you do what you love… what you feel you’re meant to be doing with your life.”
Not one to sit idle for too long, Kimbra closes by telling us she’s already started work on album No.3.
“I’m doing things with other people and keeping creative, making things, beats at home,” she reveals.
“I just started doing this residency where I’ve been jumping up every Sunday night with a bunch of musicians in Los Angeles ranging from members of Herbie Hancock’s band to Thundercat and members of The Mars Volta who played on my record. All kinds of crazy people… Mike Elizondo who’s worked with Dr.Dre. Getting them up on stage and just doing a night of improvisation. Literally no idea what we’re doing… we just write songs in front of people.
“We had the first show last week and it was crazy. It was kind of scary, because I mean it when I say we had no practice at all and no idea of what we were going to do. But bringing up such amazing musicians on stage, it just works. We came up with some crazy stuff, the room was packed and there were lines out the door… it was very special.
“So yeah, live performance is the way that I actually stay sane and not go crazy from having ideas that I can’t express.”
Kimbra’s album ‘The Golden Echo’ is out now.
She plays Sydney’s Metro Theatre on Thursday November 20 and The HiFi in Melbourne on Saturday November 22.
Tickets are on sale from the LIVE NATION website.