Kimbra Johnson is a name you should remember. Her voice is one that you probably already know, whether as the featured vocalist on Miami Horror’s massive 2010 club hit “I Look to You,” or as the female counterpart on Gotye’s global smash “Somebody That I Used to Know.” If you are one of the more than 25 million people who have viewed the accompanying music video on YouTube, then you also have a fair idea of how Kimbra looks: how absolutely all of her looks. So when Buzzine’s Stefan Goldby was offered the chance to pay the New Zealander a visit at the LA apartment in which she is living while recording some new tracks for the American version of her debut album Vows, we scrambled the crew and went to fill in the details of her musical beginnings, collaborators, and the feeling of being naked yet fully clothed…
Stefan Goldby: As a child, in your hometown of Hamilton, New Zealand, your parents were both in the medical profession, but is it fair to still say you grew up in a house full of music?
Kimbra: I grew up with music around. My parents were into James Taylor and Pink Floyd and Genesis, so there was definitely music in the house. I think it was probably my own endeavor to explore music at school: I joined a jazz choir very early on, and was really attracted to Broadway musicals, so that’s kind of how I started my interest in music and songwriting.
SG: And very early on, you began performing in public… at stadiums!
K: Yeah, I found myself singing National Anthems somehow for swimming competitions, and actually an All-Blacks rugby game, which was about 27,000 people, and at quite a young age – maybe about 14…no, it was even younger than that. So yeah, I got used to the idea of big crowds early on, and it helped for my sense of confidence once I got into performing, just to feel at ease in front of a lot of people.
SG: You’ve been writing material since you were a teenager, but didn’t actually release most of it until much more recently. In this age of young performers like Justin Bieber – not that we are making any direct comparisons - you could have publicly started releasing and touring your own songs at a young age. Why wait?
K: I think the reason for holding back on the release of music was due to a lot of the people that surrounded me from an early age. I had really great management that I signed with at 17, but even before that point a lot of people, I guess, guided me in how to approach the music industry and just about being really wary about your first album. It’s such an important thing to portray your music the first time for people. And I was entering competitions at the age of 14 and did well, and had a couple of songs on the radio, but I think the idea of making an album was still something that I really wanted to take my time with and make sure it was perfect.
SG: Over the past couple of years leading up to that all-important debut album, you’ve been tantalizing us here and there – popping up with Miami Horror last year, then with Gotye this year, and releasing “Settle Down” and “Cameo Lover” as singles and EP’s. Was it a deliberate plan of attack – to bounce around before the album followed – or is just organically how it happened?
K: I think those collaborations that I did before the release of my album were really just good timing and a bit of luck in that they happened to pop up at those times. I was making the album Vows for about three and a half years – I started it when I was 17, and it’s only just come out in Australia - so the chance to jump on board with people like Miami Horror and Gotye was really exciting and refreshing for me – to get my head out of making my own record and do something totally different. And it proved to be a great introduction for people to my music, and it just helped people to get an idea of the different varieties of music that I like to do, as opposed to just my own music on the radio.
SG: Having been off for a visit to those different musical worlds, what did you learn and bring back into your own album recording process?
K: I think working with a dance band like Miami Horror gave me ideas for my own record in terms of production. They are very focused on the detail in the production, and that helped me to open my mind up to different influences that they had – bands like Air and the dance scene that I started to get a lot more into from playing festivals with them. Working with Gotye was a fantastic experience because he’s also got a real mind for detail. He pays just as much attention to the sound of the snare drum as he does to the lyric, and I like to work that way as well. So just being around these people was inspiring. It kept me excited for my own process, and you just learn a lot and it’s just really fun to make music with your friends. We did the vocals for that song [“Somebody That I Used To Know”] in my bedroom. It was a really fun, organic process. It wasn’t really built up or anything – it was really casual and fun.
SG: When it comes to your music, you use your voice in a very interesting way – almost like another instrument at times. Is that how it’s been from the beginning, or is that something that’s developed in this long period of adjustment?
K: I think the music that first spoke to me as a kid was jazz. I used to like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and early on, Nina Simone, who I then covered on my album Vows. And there’s something in the color of their voices, the theatrics of the way they phrased things. But it probably wasn’t until I started listening to Jeff Buckley or Bjork, even the French singer Camille, before that really did emphasize the idea of the voice being an instrument; not just a vocal, but actually thinking of ways you can phrase to sound like a trombone or even like a drum. And that really excited me that I could arrange an entire song with just my voice, and I first started doing that with little Boss 8-Tracks where you can start to overdub your voice and create harmonies and different textures. And I think as a kid, I remember running home from school and getting really excited to get on this thing and come up with a new sound… completely coming forth from your body.
SG: You just referenced a couple of classic vocalists and your music very much blends modern technology with a classic kind of sound. How do you go about trying to strike that balance?
K: I think the fusion of classic sound and singers and modern-day styles of production is really important, especially now because I do listen to a lot of older-sounding music. But I’m probably most intrigued by present production. With the new technology, there’s so much you can do to make things sound sonically exciting. And I guess I try to listen to as much music as possible and not just limit myself to only listening to jazz singers, or if a metal band, only listening to metal. There’s a limitation to what you produce as a musician. I get just as inspired by Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails as Minnie Riperton – they are different, but they have the same passion or soul. It’s something you can’t over-think too much, but with lots of observation and listening to as much as possible, and taking notes on how you can borrow from these artists but find a way to make it your own.
SG: You’ve made it your own on Vows, which came out a couple of months ago in Australia and New Zealand, and yet here we are in Los Angeles in the middle of a new recording process. Why take music that to the world is already so new, and still change it for it’s American release?
K: For the US release, there’s only going to be a few different mixes, possibly an addition of a couple of songs, but it won’t be hugely different. I’m here to see if I can come up with some new stuff and work with producers. I’ve had some pretty amazing opportunities so far to meet with people here in the States that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise. And I guess it’s just an opportunity to give Americans something a little bit different from what I’ve already shown in Australia.
SG: From Francois Tetaz in Australia to Mike Elizondo in America is perhaps not the most immediate of producer leaps: Can you tell us about the variety of producers that you’ve worked with over the past three years and how they’ve helped you re-evaluate the way you approach making music?
K: The producer that I worked with most on my album is Francois Tetaz, who also helped produce Gotye’s records, and he really helped me to understand production. I went from a kid that only worked on a little 8-track to suddenly understanding ProTools and now arranging all my songs on that program.
But the interesting thing is he helped me to see music like a film, so we’d always arrange our songs with the opening scene, and then always have a climax to the song, and then the resolve and the closing credits. And every song moved like chapters, and he helped me to see everything visually, and that has been such a great skill, for now being on my own producing things and working with other people, to have that mindset. So I learned a lot from him.
Another producer I worked with was someone from a hip-hop background who had worked with some American artists like Amerie and Pharoahe Monch and definitely a different kind of upbringing with music, but he focused me on the rhythm section, which is such a big part of hip-hop, and helped me to get that aggression and punch to some of the songs that was lacking in some parts and I needed that.
Over here in America, I’ve been working with Mike Elizondo, who is probably again best well-known for his work with Dr. Dre, so kind of a hip-hop background. But he’s really into his rock – The Beatles, Pink Floyd, he’s done work with Fiona Apple, Maroon 5, Justin Timberlake – it’s crazy, the variety of stuff that he’s into, and I’ve learned a lot from him just as stories that he has from working. And he’s played in bands with ?uestlove and Wendy & Lisa from Prince and the Revolution…
It’s just being around these people who have had so many incredible experiences with some of your idols is really humbling. I work with a guy called Greg Wells over here, who’s done work with Rufus Wainwright and Mika, and that’s been a lot of fun. And there’s heaps more collaborations to go, so it’s very exciting.
SG: Within all of those days in various studios around the world, is there a single moment or a day that stands out most in your mind in terms of the recording of Vows?
K: There was a day recently that I had in America when I got to meet with Van Dyke Parks, who is someone that I’ve been a huge fan of for a while. We’re planning on working together at some point possibly in the future – not for this record, but we’ve started on a collaboration, and I think that was a real pinch-yourself moment of realizing what an incredible harvest of opportunities I have now, having these connections in America and getting to meet someone like that and possibly start work with him. And of course playing with Gotye and being a part of his record was a really wonderful experience. We played together at the Sydney Opera House earlier this year, which was an iconic moment.
SG: What goal, artistic, personal or anything else – needs to be achieved for you to feel like this debut album is a success in your own eyes?
K: Success is an interesting thing to define. I think it’s definitely in the smaller moments for me – the conversations with people after the show when they tell you how much that song has really touched them. And when you look out to the audience and you see people singing every lyric, I think there’s something quite magical about that moment – when you realize the music has gone from the confines of your small bedroom, which a lot of it was made in, and out to the other side of the world! There are a cappella groups in New York covering my songs, and people in Australia have been really touched by the music. I think that, to me, is definitely more what I get excited about or feel a sense of success from than any charting or awards. But that’s just me. [Laughs]
SG: Seeing as you did mention awards, you’ve got to be striking something of a mental balance, right now: Here you are in America recording what will be your debut album for the American market. You’re a ‘baby artist’, I guess, for want of a better word. And yet you fly home next week to go to the [Grammy equivalent] ARIA’s in Australia where you’re up for Best Female Artist and a significant chunk of Song of the Year. How are you keeping those two sides of yourself in balance?
K: I think it’s nice to have periods of time to get away and be in a new country where you’re not well-known and the sense of expectation isn’t necessarily looming over you like there is in the country that you’ve established yourself in. And keeping a mental balance is just about the people you surround yourself with and making sure you have your time doing your promos and doing your interviews, but also your time to just be in another country and do your writing… having time off tour to just relax for a bit. So I’m definitely aware of keeping those two sides in balance.
SG: The other core balance for a musician is between working in the studio and being out on the road. For you, you add that live band and there’s immediately a whole different atmosphere to your music on the road: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of those two aspects – being in the studio and being on the road?
K: Being on the road is a lot of fun. I’ve had experience with it in Australia and New Zealand, but not in America yet. I think probably at this point, it can be quite exhausting and there are a lot of early starts, and there’s a lot of keeping that stamina and that energy up, because a live show is definitely a lot more full-on than the record. It’s definitely quite a physical performance, so just keeping all of that together is a challenge. But it’s definitely my most enjoyed moment of making music because it’s the spontaneity in live performance that I love – that moment that you can’t go and do an overdub of it. It’s just about the moment. It’s just you and the audience.
In terms of studio time, it’s a completely different ballgame because the options are limitless. And I think the collaborations are my favorite part about that. I think one of the challenges in the studio is to keep that inspiration up at all times, because sometimes you have long periods in with the producer, from a few weeks or even a month where you’re trying to complete something, and that process can be quite draining, of trying to keep pulling that inspiration out, whether it’s lyric writing or continuing to complete a song. And I’m quite a perfectionist in the studio.
I definitely don’t stop until things are completely right, and letting go can be quite a challenge at times, when you just want to keep going to get it right, but you have to sit back and say, “This song is finished,” and that’s probably why my album has taken about three-and-a-half years to make. [Laughs] Because I’m not very good at learning when to let go… but I’m learning…
SG: The other part of touring is seeing the world, getting different views of the planet. Do you have a sense, with that hindsight, that there’s something special going on in music in Australia or New Zealand right now? From our experience, we’ve probably interviewed more artists from down under this year than we have in the last five. Is there something palpable bubbling up in the your native music scene that you are aware of when you’re back home?
K: I think living in Australia and having grown up in New Zealand, which is even further away from this side of the world, there is a sense of having something to prove, perhaps. We’re so far away from the rest of the world and not as globalized, and there’s something really unique about the music that comes from those countries, I think. And I definitely have noticed it in a lot of Australia and New Zealand music recently – there’s a real honesty in it, and there’s something very real about it, and unique. We’re taking from a lot of different influences on that side of the world, and I’m definitely really proud to be part of that movement. There seems to be so many Australians touring over here and making a mark, and it’s great to see that, because there’s a lot of great stuff going on over there.
SG: Why is it that everybody who grows up in New Zealand seems to have such a love/hate relationship with their home country? Almost everyone we’ve interviewed expresses that they think you have to leave New Zealand to actually achieve any significant measure of success. Why?
K: Growing up in New Zealand was fantastic – being so close to nature and all of that. But there’s definitely a point, for us musicians growing up in New Zealand, that the country just becomes too small. And there’s only four million people in the whole place. Melbourne itself, where I live in Australia now, is that same population. And you just get to know everyone really quickly.
You find that you know everyone in the industry, and you’ve exhausted the potential of that country in a matter of years. It’s not like that for everyone, but I think probably some of the people that you’ve interviewed have just felt that their dreams or their expectations for themselves have exceeded the potential for the country – just for the music industry. It’s just, when a country is that small, it doesn’t have quite the same opportunities as a place like Australia or America.
SG: But it’s not all bad, right? Tell us about Hamilton: What was it like as a town to grow up in?
K: [Laughs] Hamilton is an interesting town to grow up in. It wasn’t far from Auckland, so when I was doing music, I would travel up there a lot to do gigs. It was a place where there’s not a whole lot to do. There can be something really positive about that. Some of the best musicians I know - and some of them are now in my band - come from Hamilton as well, and we all agree that, because there was not a lot of nightlife as a kid to do in that town… and it’s very well-known for this; I’m not the only one to say it… we would lock ourselves in our rooms and just make music, and get together with friends and start a band. And I think that’s something positive that comes from sometimes being from an isolated city where there’s not a lot to do. I guess similarly in England, when the weather is so bad, people lock themselves up and just make music. So there’s something positive about that.
SG: While we have you in the mindset of being back in Hamilton in your bedroom, looking ahead to where things might go…when you start from there and fast-forward to here, in between those two, what would you say has been your best rock-star moment? The thing that 13-year-old you would be most happy about: When and where did that happen?
K: [Laughs] I’m about to play The Big Day Out, which is a pretty big festival through Australia and New Zealand, and as a kid, as soon as I was of age, I was there every year. My favorite band was The Mars Volta when I was in high school, and I recently played on a bill with them. You’d go see big bands at that festival, and now to feel like I’m on that bill and in a good time slot, I think that’s something that 13-year-old Kimbra would have been pretty pumped about, so you have to feel humbled by that.
SG: Any final words for the world today?
K: [Laughs] I guess I feel very thankful for all the support that Americans have given me so far, with the blog support and all the encouragement I’ve had for my music, and I’m very excited to come and share it with you…
SG: Uh oh – that begs one last question – as someone for whom the gossiping music blogs have played a huge role in spreading the word about… is there an internet rumor that you would like to take this opportunity to confirm or deny?
K: I feel pretty lucky on those. I haven’t started American press yet: You guys are the ones that spin the… there are rumors going around that I was having a thing with Gotye, and that’s definitely not true, so we can get that out in the open. [Laughs] Just because we did a video clip nude doesn’t mean anything!
SG: Not nude – painted! Totally different!
K: That’s right! Totally different! You’d be surprised, actually. It does feel completely different. You feel quite clothed with all of that on…
Kimbra’s ‘Settle Down' EP is out now on Warner Bros. Records.
The expanded US version of her debut album, ‘Vows’ will be released Spring 2012.
Kimbra won both of the 2011 ARIA Awards that she was nominated for – Congratulations!