By LOGAN CARR
Hot off her success in New Zealand and internationally with her debut album Vows Kiwi artist Kimbra Lee Johnson, otherwise known as singer / songwriter Kimbra, returns to New Zealand as the headline act of a one-off show at Vector Arena on Saturday 28th July.
Hey Kimbra, Logan here from MASSIVE Magazine. How are you?
K: I’m good thank you, how are you doing?
Yeah, not too bad thanks. So I want to start with your duet with Gotye and your worldwide hit “Somebody That I Used To Know”. When you guys got together and recorded it in your bedroom, did you have any idea it would be as big as it’s become?
K: (laughs) No I don’t think anyone could’ve anticipated it at that point. He was sort of down on the song, I guess, cause he was like “I can’t find a way to finish it”, and he was really struggling to get inspiration with it. I was just hoping at the time that I could help bring some new perspective to it and we sat around talking about the emotion of the song for a bit and then got straight into it, and, as we were recording, I think we definitely got a sense of “oh, you know, this is coming alive and there’s something special about it”. I was a big fan of Gotye for many years when I first moved to Melbourne so it was just super exciting to be asked to sing with him. Then of course it started blowing up and it was all very kind of baffling for us, because as much as we knew it was a great song – and I’m sure he had a feeling that it was awesome – I don’t think anyone could’ve expected it to be up there with Lady Gaga, and compete with her or anything like that. It’s just sound-wise so different to anything on the charts, so it was a big surprise.
Now your debut album Vows was released last year in New Zealand and Australia, and has gone platinum in both, and you’ve just finished a tour of the U.S. with Foster the People and promotional work after releasing an extended debut album over there. How does it feel to be having this much success at only 22?
K: It’s a huge blessing. When you list it like that it does sound quite full on (laughs). I guess I never really think about it in that sort of way. The way my head works I’m pretty focused on what I have to do today, or this week, I don’t sort of sit around – I have no time to even sit around and reflect on all the stuff that’s been going on in the last few months cause it’s been so busy. And because of the staggered releases it still feels very much like the beginning for me. It’s not like I’ve had a point where I’m like “ah!” and can sit back and think it’s all kind of sorted. For me it’s just starting to pick up in the States and I’m excited for the next step. I’m always thinking about what’s next, and the record I’ll be working on in the coming months. It is really rewarding to have worked on this music for so long, and have put so much time and effort and soul into it, and to get that affirmation and reciprocated energy from people. And that affirmation – that I did something that’s connecting and that’s making a difference – meant having a voice in the landscape of music today, and I feel excited about that.
So if you weren’t in the music industry, what would you be doing?
K: I would probably go to university, and study languages. I enjoy French, and I really love reading about philosophy and psychology and religious theology – it’s kind of my hobby to read up about that stuff when I’m not doing music. So I feel that if I hadn’t got into music, maybe I would’ve gone into studying that stuff. Or maybe some work involving working with children or something kind of social – I’m interested in that too. I was interested in acting when I was a kid as well – so who knows what I would have done and what I still might do (laughs).
Your album features a range of sound, and you’ve been reluctant to assign it into just one category. Tell me a bit about that. Are you going to keep exploring different styles in future rather than categorizing yourself in one way?
K: Yeah, it’s not even a conscious thing, it’s about kind of going with the emotion of the different songs. Every song deserves a different treatment, a different style of production, according to kind of what the emotion and what the lyrics suggest, and I haven’t really sat down and been like “alright, this is going to be a funk song”, or “this is going to be a dark track” – it’s just more about trying to be super free with it and go where it instinctually leads, and of course I’m going to continue to keep exploring stylistically if that’s where it feels right to go with the next record. I think over time it’ll become more clear what sort of genre it’s fitting into, or sort of what elements will continue to be integral – I mean obviously I think heavy vocal work and syncopation, and certain harmonica ideas and sounds will be recurring for the rest of my music, because they seem to be sticking at this point. But, at the same time I just don’t want to. A lot of my favorite artists just continue to push the envelope of their own sound and let themselves be kind of moved by different influences and I think that’s more where I hope to kind of go, rather than sort of limiting it to just one sound, but we’ll see.
I’m sure you have fans come up to you all the time and tell you they love you and your music – what’s been the coolest individual response to your music?
K: There’s been so many. I mean, I think the most exciting thing is when you get other artists, that you love, giving you that sense of encouragement. We just played a show with Janelle Monáe, and I’m a pretty big fan and find her very inspiring as a new female artist, and she spoke with me for quite a while at the concert and let me know that she really believed in what I was doing and that was pretty exciting. Of course the fans are amazing – every time someone comes up and expresses their love of the music – it’s just even more kind of exciting when it’s someone you’ve gotten a lot of influence from. Another artist I’m really into is St Vincent, and she’s expressed a real excitement over my music as well, which was really exciting. I also get a lot of people that give me artwork at shows – fans that come up and are like “hey, I drew this for you” on this beautiful canvas with a picture on it, and I think that’s really awesome that people go to that effort of actually creating something for me, and give back to me. I find that really humbling and flattering.
I’ve also heard that thanks to your single “Settle Down” you often get shouted marriage proposals during your shows (laughs) – what’s the weirdest thing a fan has ever shouted or done?
K: Hmmm, let me see. I had this girl bring along a portrait of me dressed as a zombie, but it was a strange painting that she’d done of me in the “Cameo Lover’ dress, it was sort of like bones sticking out of my neck, and like strange limbs detached and reattached (laughs). It was just an odd thing to give me because she was really excited about it and was like “look, I drew this for you” and I was like “thank you, I’m not really sure if that’s a compliment or not” – but it was thinking outside the square and I found that quite cool. But in terms of people shouting stuff out nothing too crazy, people are pretty respectful (laughs).
When writing a song, where do you begin?
K: It’s usually triggered with a drum kit, or a vocal kind of groove, or something that I’ve created on the computer – I just find rhythm sparks my attention a lot. It might just be a recurring melody that’s been with me for a week. There are two ways that I write, either on guitar – sort of from-the-ground organically picking it up and rolling with that, or actually getting on the computer and sampling ideas, whether that’s alternating strums, playing with them, effecting them, switching them, creating an interesting kind of bed for a musical idea to stick on. Then once I’ve got a mood going on the computer, I’ll just go about adding a lot of different sounds that I hear with vocals – and that’s why so many of the songs on the record are very vocal heavy, because much of the songs are arranged just using the voice and then I plan to replace those parts later, and then oftentimes I don’t because that’s just how it is. So yeah, either on the laptop or guitar, there’s no kind of rules with it. I just go with whatever’s lying around at the time.
You’re playing as the headline act at a one off show at Vector Arena this Saturday alongside The Black Seeds and others – is it special when you come back home and play in front of a Kiwi crowd?
K: Yeah, it’s so special. I think we played the King’s Arms last year, but we haven’t really done a proper headline show for New Zealand in this whole sort of while, so I’m really excited to come back, and see all the people that have been there right from the start, who’ve probably seen me play in gigs and pubs in Auckland (laughs), and it’ll be fun to come back and show them the band – because the band are amazing – and reconnect with everyone again. I’m really looking forward to catching up with some friends as well.
Well thanks a lot for your time, it’s been great talking to you, and good luck with everything.
K: Thank you very much.
TICKETS TO THE VECTOR ARENA SHOW – WHICH ALSO FEATURES THE BLACK SEEDS, MT EDEN, VANDALISM AND RUBY FROST – ARE STILL AVAILABLE AND ARE $65 FROM TICKETMASTER