New Zealand-native Kimbra exploded onto the music scene with her Grammy-Award winning song “Somebody That I Used To Know” with Australian singer Gotye. The song not only won “Best Record of the Year” in 2013, but also scored the singers a Grammy for “Best Pop Duo.” At only 24, Kimbra is the third New Zealander to have ever won an American Grammy. Having sung for a crowd of 27,000 people at a rugby game at the mere age of 12, Kimbra had a very young start, and is passionate when it comes to discussing her music and where she is going with it creatively. The singer’s debut album, Vows, was released in 2011 in New Zealand and Australia. With three charting singles — “Settle Down,” “Cameo Lover” and “Good Intent” — Kimbra’s album was certified platinum in Australia. Now, with the release of her sophomore album The Golden Echo, which came out in August, Kimbra wants her listeners to slow down and really listen. “I want them to live inside it, get acquainted with the deeper echo at work in the music and in the visuals, and find a space in life where you can find some stillness and get in touch with the world around you more.”
Known for her soulful vocals and penchant for fusing various genres – classic jazz, R&B, hip-hop, indie, pop – to make a sound that is uniquely hers, Kimbra is currently on a tour supporting The Golden Echo. She recently had two sold out headlining shows in New York City – at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (November 3rd) and at the Bowery Ballroom (November 6th). After a surprise performance at the Soho House, Kimbra will continue her tour in Philadelphia, Washington DC, Allston, as well as cities in both New Zealand and Australia throughout November.
The Untitled Magazine caught up with the singer for an exclusive interview and photo shoot while she was in New York, where she opened up about her inspirations, new album and future plans.
Indira Cesarine: I understand that you started to play guitar when you were ten. Can you tell me about your early days of getting started with music?
Kimbra: It was always a pretty natural way of expressing myself when I was young, but it became a bit more serious when I picked up an instrument. I joined a jazz choir when I was fourteen or fifteen and we performed a lot of Frank Sinatra. That’s when my love of complex music began. My phases of music have always been very different; I’d go from genre to genre very quickly. I just became a fan of music and the complexities between different genres. I never studied music but every day after school, I would go home and put records on and sing as a form of expression.
IC: What musicians did you love listening to growing up?
K: There was definitely a lot of R&B influence when I was young. I loved Mariah Carey and people like that. I listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder; I started falling in love with his music as well as Marvin Gaye’s. I would say that the artists who really changed things for me were people like Jeff Buckley, Kate Bush, and David Bowie – these were the iconic artists, who made me think differently about pop music. I thought, wow these are big massive hooks with huge panoramic records that transcended you.
IC: Do you feel like growing up in New Zealand influenced your sound at all?
K: I liked all the music in New Zealand. There is a lot of soul music. There is also a lot of acoustic guitar with rhythmic styles of playing. It’s all very soulful and very melodic and I feel like that has rubbed off on me in many ways. The music scene is very small there, so you get to know everybody there very quickly. It’s very different from America! You get a sense that everybody is in it together; everybody is very supportive of each other.
IC: I’ve heard so many different ways of people describing your sound… everybody has a different description. How would you describe it?
K: It’s funny to talk about it because the reason I make music is because I find words so limiting when it comes to describing things. When you put it on a piece of music, it’s somewhere that words can’t. I think the description of prog-pop [progressive pop] makes sense because we have roots in prog music as well as guitars… but the music itself plays around structures that are coarse. The idea of prog-pop makes me think of pushing the boundaries of a genre.
IC: Do you remember your first big live performance?
K: I sang the National Anthem for a big rugby game in front of 27,000 people. I was about twelve. There is something about it that is crazy: I wasn’t freaking out. I’ve been performing from a young age and it’s a real blessing that I was able to get comfortable and try out different ideas as a kid — that was a real blessing.
IC: That’s a massive audience for a twelve year old, I bet you got rid of your stage fright early on.
K: I did!
IC: How did you connect with Gotye for “Somebody That I Used To Know”? What is the story behind that collaboration?
K: I am a huge fan of Gotye. I moved to Australia and thought that it would be great to work with the producer who made his first album. I ended up producing my album with the producer; he introduced me to Gotye, we became friends, and when he wanted to find a vocalist for that song, he asked me. It’s crazy looking back at the days when I was purely a fan of his music, and then all of a sudden we were traveling the world together.
IC: How did it feel to win a Grammy from that song?
K: It opened me up to the possibilities. I was like ‘Wow, we can make a song in a bedroom. I can listen to it and think it’s just going to be a ballad on a record and then all of a sudden it becomes one of the biggest songs in the world.’ That opened me up to the infinite possibilities that a musician has to change the world and make a difference. We really never know what’s around the corner. You can write something and think it’s one thing, and then when it gets put out for the world, it can become a totally different beast in itself. That’s the really amazing thing and an amazing boost of confidence for a musician as well. I really did have no idea that it would become what it did.
IC: Can you tell me about your new album The Golden Echo? What was the inspiration behind it?
K: The title itself came in a dream and the words “golden echo” kept resounding in my head. I was thinking, what does this mean? It ended up being a name of a flower called Narcissus Golden Echo. The flower gets its name from the story of Narcissus and I guess I found a lot of resonance in the idea of a young man who is bombarded with reflections everywhere – that’s why you see a lot of reflections in the imagery because I think it’s reflective of our day in age. We live in this world that’s constantly projected with images of ourselves everywhere and it can be hard to find a moment to be present with the world around you. I moved to this farm for a while and I started to really ground myself and look at things in a new way. This idea of the golden echo to me is symbolic of listening deeper with things. An echo is something that resounds, so you have to lean in deeper to hear. I think that’s the way I want people to take this record away. I want them to live inside it, get acquainted with the deeper echo at work in the music and in the visuals, and find a space in life where you can find some stillness and get in touch with the world around you more. There is a lot of chaos in the record because I feel like you need to experience a lot before you can find space. Those are some of the ideas behind the album title for me.
IC: You stayed on a city farm in Silverlake to work on The Golden Echo. What drew you to that?
K: I was traveling around for years. I just wanted to be somewhere where I could get away from all the loud voices and opinions and just get connected again with the reason of why I make music. I think that nature is a place where I always am able to connect with, so I was surrounded by nature and animals. That was the main reason. Of course, I did a lot of pre-production at the farm. We then went to Burbank, California to finish it out. It was being able to come back to a place of stillness and complete serenity and peace that was great.
IC: I understand that you have a lot of really interesting collaborations on the album – from John Legend to instrumentals by Michael Jackson’s studio drummer?
K: Coming to that point of making an album and tracking elements, you have to decide who you want to come and play. You know? Usually you just pull in musicians – which are great, and I’ve worked that way before – but on this album I thought, ‘I’ve met so many great people on the road.’ I wanted people to come in and add a personality to the songs, even if they were playing just a really simple drumbeat. Sometimes it’s not obvious – the people on the record – but they bring a certain energy to it. It’s really natural, the way a lot of it happened. I found this gravitational pull towards my favorite musicians who were interested in being involved and participating. So it was a way of creating characters. It wasn’t so much about a hip-hop record where it’s like, “featuring this person.” It was almost like they were characters with one line in a film, but when they said that line it was special. It was a special moment for me to be able to have made history with some of the people that I love.
IC: What are some of your favorite songs on the new album? You’ve released videos for “90s Music” and “Miracle” already, what other ones are you excited about?
K: Those songs are definitely the more extroverts on the record because I consider myself an introverted person. Day-to-day, I think I resonate most with the calmer songs on the record. “As You Are” is a song that is very close to my heart. It’s kind of stripped back to piano, which will be nice for my fans to hear something a bit calmer. Another song called “Rescue Him” is a darker moment on the record, but it gets a bit more into that R&B sound that I really like.
IC: What was the inspiration behind “90s Music”?
K: It’s a song that embraces juxtaposition because sonically it’s a futuristic song. It doesn’t have any sounds from the 90s, but lyrically it’s reflecting on a time that I have a real fondness for. I think the 90s really imprinted on me and I wanted it to be a celebration of an era that a lot of us have fondness for. There is something kind of heavy about that song as well, it’s very playful and experimental. I just wanted it to be a track that felt really energetic and exciting – what it’s like to discover things for the first time through the eyes of someone who has grown up.
IC: You shot your video for “Miracle” on the streets of New York, and it seems to be very influenced by disco. Can you tell me about your inspiration behind the track and what drew you to New York to shoot the video?
K: “Miracle” lyrically is kind of about the mundane being transformed into the surreal. You can have a day that’s really gloomy or having a period of life that seems no good, and somebody comes into your life that completely flips you on your head. Everything seems technicolor and exciting… I think New York, as a city, has an amazing way of transforming your life. It can bring you down or bring you right back up – it’s a city that has a distinct effect on people so it felt like the right place to shoot the video. The idea is that you’re walking down the street, and things that can be very commonplace or ordinary, are suddenly transformed into extraordinary and it shifts your perspective.
IC: Are there any particular designers that you love to wear? What inspires your clothing direction and your look?
K: Day-to-day is different to when I’m on stage. When I’m performing on stage, it’s an extension to the music. I try to pick outfits that are, to me, reflective of my sounds. Whether it’s highly structural pieces or things that sparkle or things that have a bit of juxtaposition about them that is exciting to me. On a day-to-day basis, fashion to me is a form of self-expression. You have the ability every day to put something on that expresses yourself. I definitely see that as part of the creativity. On this video, I worked with Jaime Lee Major who made all the dresses. There are a ton of designers that I love – at one end of the spectrum, I think McQueen is an absolute genius, but I also really like this designer from London called Cassandra Verity Green. She’s pretty up and coming but I’m very inspired by her work.
IC: I heard a lot about the tour you were going to do with Janelle Monae which got cancelled. What happened with that?
K: We played one show of the tour and it was amazing and exciting. Unfortunately, Janelle became very sick on the first night of the tour. We were set to play the Sydney Opera House but unfortunately we got a call that she wouldn’t be well enough to do the dates. It’s one of those cases where people aren’t invincible and you understand. I have faith that our paths will align again and we’ll be able to do some more shows.
IC: Are you planning another tour to promote your album?
K: We’re starting off in the U.S. in October. We’re playing the Bowery Ballroom in New York. It’s great, they’re very intimate shows. My favorite shows are when I’m close up with people in a small room. From there, we’ll tour the rest of the world.
IC: Is there anything new with this album that you feel you’ve brought to the table compared to your previous album?
K: I think it’s a pretty different record in some ways. It’s definitely a lot more rhythmically different than the first album. I think I was still finding my confidence as an artist on the first record and on this album I was definitely a bit bolder with my choices. I have a lot more emphasis on baselines for the root of the songs. I branched out a lot more vocally on the album. I hope fans will still feel like I’m coming from the same place creatively as an artist. There’s still a lot of creativity and imagination but I feel there is a lot more maturity to the album.
IC: How did it come about that you worked with Michael Jackson’s drummer for the album? Did you guys work together before?
K: I was working with Rich Costey and he knows a lot of musicians. There was a period where people were really wanting to get back to the vintage sounds of music, so he had a theory that people were changing and wanting to actually get back to the vintage people. So, obviously working with people like Robinson – vintage people – is great. We were working on songs with drum machines and it sounded cool but I felt like there needed to be more sweat, more human blood, you know? He suggested that we get John Robinson and it was incredible. In one take he nailed the entire feel and brought an energy to the song that we couldn’t have without him. He played on about four or five songs on the album, and it was very exciting.
IC: You also worked with John Legend on the album?
K: We actually wrote a song together for the album. It’s funny, I was actually writing a song for his album called “Nobody But You.” It was supposed to be on his album but for some reason or another it didn’t make it. I felt like it was too good a song to be missed, so I reworked the song with some friends and changed the production. John is still playing piano on it and I put it on my album. We actually met over Twitter and we decided to do music together. It’s funny!
IC: Your album is released, you have your tour in the works… is there anything else you have planned that we should look out for?
K: I’m planning a lot of projects that will involve mixed mediums with this record. Another part of the Golden Echo is encouraging people to give back to their own art and echo in creativity. For the release of the album here in L.A., I’m doing an art exhibition, which will involve all of my favorite artists around L.A. They’ve listened to the album for a month and have created different pieces of artwork based off of their favorite theme from the record. The idea is that people will come to the listening party and they will put on headphones and they’ll listen to the record and look at the art pieces. I think it’s really important to find ways to engage people with the music in a deeper way. The art is really incredible. Hopefully I’ll get to bring it to New York as well. Doing more projects like this is a plan for me because it’s an opportunity to give other artists a platform to show how they’ve been inspired by the music. That’s really important to me – to be able to create a chain reaction with this album.
Watch our exclusive behind the scenes video with Kimbra on set with Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine:
Interview, Photography and Video Direction by Indira Cesarine
Fashion Editor: Indira Cesarine
Hair: Paul Venoit
Makeup: Georgina Billington
Behind the Scenes footage and edit: Marko Solvilj
Assistants: Jessica Natale, Victoria Monaco
Fashion – Intro image
Kimbra wears a silver chrome corset by Leka with a black leather pencil skirt by Nirco Castillo
Fashion – Video Intro
Kimbra wears a black dress with spiked embellished shoulder details by Philip Armstrong