Kimbra is an artist that’s hard to define – she makes pop music with a rare concoction of jazz, electronic, and even classic R&B elements. Her debut album Vows was an instant success as was her collaboration with Australian musician Gotye on his track ‘Somebody that I used to know’. Her second album, The Golden Echo, was released in 2014 since then Kimbra has kept a relatively low profile, until now.
The Kiwi songstress is officially back with a powerful new single, ‘Everybody Knows’, and her third album, Primal Heart, is due for release in early 2018. A lot has changed for Kimbra since her first album was released we sat down with Kimbra to find out what she’s been up to and why she feels this album is her most honest one yet.
One of the first things you notice about Kimbra is her voice, while she’s known for her powerful vocals, in person she’s soft spoken and articulate. She still has that unmistakable New Zealand accent despite the fact she’s been living abroad for the last few years. In fact, Kimbra has done quite a lot of traveling since her Vows days.
“I went from New Zealand to Melbourne to Los Angeles and now I’m living in New York. I found that Los Angeles really distances you from reality, while New York confronts you with it.”
Along with the change of scenery, Kimbra also believes her third album has evolved in style from her first two. “I was about 17 or 18 years old when I started recording Vows, now I’m 27 so a lot has changed in that time. I like to think of albums as reactions to the previous one. My second album The Golden Echo explored a lot of escapism and surrealism with this third album I wanted to create a more grounded and direct experience for the listener. In this album I like to think I’m a little bit bolder and more honest with myself – this feels like the record where I’m really exposing my heart a little more.”
Raised in Hamilton, Kimbra Lee Johnson always knew she wanted to have a career in music. By the age of 10 she was already writing her own songs, and when she was 12 she was gifted her first guitar from her Father. When she was 14 years old she won second place in the musical competition Rockquest, which is something she remembers fondly. “I was the only girl in the competition and I just went up there with my guitar and played my little songs,” she says.
After this performance Kimbra created her first music video for the children’s television show What Now. By 2007, after winning a Juice TV for best breakthrough music video, she had caught the attention of the Australian based record label Forum 5. Her first album Vows was released in 2011 and by the start of 2013 she already had two Grammy Awards under her belt for the smash-hit duet ‘Somebody that I used to know’.
While Kimbra recorded her sophomore album The Golden Echo she moved to Los Angeles which she describes as a “massive shift”. “In LA a lot of people are caught up chasing dreams, it’s very much about the entertainment industry and although I love music and the arts it’s not my whole life, there’s a lot of other things I’m interested in. It got a little exhausting meeting people who were only in the music and acting industry.”
These feelings inspired Kimbra to make the move to her current home in New York City although she did have to travel to Los Angeles to record Primal Heart. “I really feel like I belong in both New York and New Zealand – my heart feels a sense of belonging in both countries it may sound weird with all of the turmoil in America, but in New York you feel immersed in the heart beat of something very electric,” she says.
Kimbra admits while she sees herself living in New York for the next few years she does miss the landscape of New Zealand. “It’s a conflict for me, I want the nature and the country, but I also love the urban landscape of New York.” One place in New Zealand she does yearn for is Lake Rotoiti in the Bay of Plenty.
“Lake Rotoiti is this amazing lake, about half an hour out of Hamilton, that is set in this volcanic landscape. There’s hot pools that you can only access by boat, and I grew up going to this place. It’s where I started writing a lot of my music – I’d sit out on the jetty with my guitar and I just assigned such peacefulness and tranquillity to that place. I dream about it all the time and I can very much imagine spending more time there in the future.”
Primal Heart is an album partly inspired by these feelings of tranquillity – Kimbra wanted to create a sound that was more open and honest than her previous two. “This record was really about me exposing the core emotions that connect us as human beings. Many of these emotions are quite primal – self-preservation, greed, ambition, fear, when I looked at all the songs on this record it seemed like there was something very human about this album I liked the idea of exposing this primal heart, this part of me, I’ve played a lot of characters in my career, I’ve done a lot of different things, but this feels like the most honest record I’ve created.”
Many people may know Kimbra from her collaborations – she’s worked with Gotye, Mark Foster from Foster the people and Danish artist Slowolf. With this newest album she’s decided to steer away from collaborations. “I wanted to make this more about my work,” she says, “I’ve done a lot of collaborations, so there’s no specific duets on this record – I was inspired by other artists however, I wrote a beat with Skrillex one night at his house, which ended up being the core of one of my songs, and I did a session in the studio with Donald Glover that really inspired me.”
The release of Primal Heart is set to take place in early 2018 and while no New Zealand shows have been announced yet, Kimbra says she can’t wait to come back as there’s something meaningful about playing a home crowd. “New Zealand is the motherland where I first started my career, it’s pretty meaningful for me to come back and play at the place that gave me my first opportunities.”