Kimbra: an innovative pop princess

Kimbra's conquered the world through years of hard work - and a little help from a duet with Gotye.
Kimbra's conquered the world through years of hard work - and a little help from a duet with Gotye.

When the duet Somebody That I Used To Know went to number one around the globe, there was a risk that Kimbra could have been forever defined as the “Gotye girl”.

But the New Zealand-born songstress had a shimmering and inventive pop album, Vows, in her back pocket.

And she was more than ready to unleash it on the world’s ears.

“The thing that allowed me to not fall into that trap was that I had a record straight away to put out – I ­didn’t have to rush to put an album together,” Kimbra says from her Melbourne home.

Vows was sitting there and I was dying to get it out.

“It cemented me as an artist that has a body of work – that’s really important.

“I think people realise that when they go to a Gotye show as well – he’s a musician with three albums worth of really good material.”

Kimbra’s intense, measured vocals in Gotye’s song Somebody That I Used To Know are undoubtedly a large part of why the song has become a worldwide phenomenon and resonated with women ­everywhere.

It demonstrates the talent of a songstress with musical maturity beyond her years.

Some of the songs on Vows were written when Kimbra was a teenager and it took a number of years for her to grow into them.

“I wrote Settle Down when I was 16 and it’s not really a teenage ­emotion,” the 22-year-old laughs, ­referring to her song about starting a family.

“As much as there are songs on the record about being young and working out who I am, there are a lot on there that are talking about ideals and things that men and women struggle with throughout their lives.

“When I was a kid I would come up with these ideas that would actually come to have more meaning down the line.

“I’d find that when I was 19 or 20 the song would mean something to more to me, because I was thinking about the idea of being in my first relationship and committing to someone and the idea of being domesticated at some point.

“All of these songs evolve as you grow, so I can still find a place somewhere in my heart to sing them from.”

From the outside it might seem like the success of Gotye’s track transformed Kimbra into an overnight success, but the singer stresses that the truth is far from it.

At age 14 Kimbra, born Kimbra Lee Johnson, came second in New Zealand’s nationwide school music competition Rockquest.

In 2007, at 17, the singer caught the attention of music industry heavyweight Mark Richardson, who signed her to his newly formed management company Forum 5.

“This year has moved quickly, sure, the momentum of the Gotye song taking off ­suddenly gave me this amazing doorway to tour,” Kimbra explains.

“But I sat in the bedroom that I’m talking to you in right now, making my record for three and a half years.

“It didn’t come out in America for another six months.

“All that time I was playing in bars with my band.

“Throughout that time I had a lot of space to think and reflect and prepare.

“When the momentum hit I feel like I had things to keep me grounded and not overwhelmed.”

Before the summer festival circuit hits, Kimbra is taking time to work on a follow-up to Vows.

As a singer that cites Icelandic genius Bjork as an influence and also has a penchant for jazz music, it’s no surprise that Kimbra’s music pushes sonic boundaries.

“There’s a few new concepts and approaches that I feel excited about, where I think ‘This could be an interesting direction to go in’,” the singer says of her new songs.

Vows is a record that’s very self-exploratory and I was going through that coming-of-age, becoming a woman stuff.

“It takes up so many of the themes.

“I’m not going to write about that same stuff on the next record and I’m also planning on refining my musical approach.

“I threw everything at the canvas on Vows, which was really fun but it will be interesting to strip things back a little bit.

“I will still maintain an aggression – I’m definitely in a place where I want to make music that is punchy.

“But then again, I don’t know – I like layering things into a cacophony of chaos as well!”

Soaring over that sublime musical chaos is Kimbra’s dynamic, versatile voice.

Maintaining that instrument takes work.

“It can be quite stressful,” Kimbra laughs.

“You’re doing three or four shows in a row, in a different city every day, plus interviews on the day of the show.

“I don’t go out much and when I do I make sure I don’t have a show for a week.

“I work very hard on muscular work – it’s quite a physical thing for me to sing and I rely very much on my muscles doing the work for me rather than the vocal muscle taking the whole strain of the show.

“There’s quite a rigorous warm-up routine before every show and there’s just psychologically preparing for it as well.

“I make sure I’ve got time for meditation and calming my headspace so I’m not too tense.”

There will be little rest for Kimbra, who is due to play the Homebake festival in Sydney as well as headlining Port Macquarie’s ­annual Festival of the Sun.

The stunning songstress isn’t phased by being the major drawcard on a festival bill.

“I feel really confident about how the band are sounding – we’ve just come off our headline US tour and that’s given us a greater sense of confidence,” Kimbra says.

“It will be fun to pull out some new visual ideas, since we are headlining – we have a really cool backdrop that we’re taking on tour for these summer festivals.”

Kimbra was in Maitland earlier this year for Groovin The Moo and has fond memories of her brief visit.

“It was really cool – the crowds were pumped,” Kimbra says.

“You could see that [Groovin towns] don’t get too much music in those places, so it was a cool feeling to see everyone getting into it. 

“It was a cool line-up too – I got to hang out with Flavor Flav [of Public Enemy] quite a bit.”

In her global travels, Kimbra has ­collaborated with musicians and producers from a wide array of genres.

From soul singer John Legend to Mike Elizondo (Dr Dre, Fiona Apple) to Greg Kurstin (The Bird and The Bee, The Flaming Lips, Foster The People, Lily Allen), Mark Foster (Foster The People vocalist) and A-Trak.

“I want to be able to grow through ­collaboration and although it’s fun to work with people who have the same process as you, it’s always more exciting to sit down with someone who approaches music quite ­differently,” Kimbra says.

“I have to have a common ground with the artist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean genre. 

"Most recently I worked with the musicians from the Dillinger Escape Plan and The Mars Volta.

“These are bands that don’t necessarily share the same genre as me, but there are crucial elements that we all gravitate to, whether it be syncopation or harmonic complexities – or even just jazz chords.

“Or even a certain risk-taking that they might do in their music, which I hope I also apply to my own.

“When you sit down together and talk about your influences, you find out that they’re really similar but we just think in ­different sonic palettes.

“My palette might be hand claps, voices and strings and horns, where as the other people I’ve been working with, like Ben Weinman [Dillinger Escape Plan guitarist], might be into distorted guitars and much more aggressive instrumentation.

“When you break it down a lot of the ideas we’re exploring are quite similar.

“With someone like John Legend, we both have older influences like Stevie Wonder and Minnie Riperton, so we could speak in the same language even though we might have gone about songwriting in a slightly different way.”

Kimbra performs at the Festival of the Sun at Sundowner Breakwall Tourist Park, Port Macquarie on December 14 and 15.

Head to for information and tickets.

The Maitland Mercury has a double pass to Festival of the Sun to give away.

For your chance to win simply fill out the coupon in today's Mercury and return it to our office by noon next Wednesday.


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