It feels like ages ago that Gotye propelled Kimbra into the mainstream with his breakout single “Somebody That I Used To Know.” In music industry years, 2011 is a hell of a long time, and since then Kimbra has inched her way into solo stardom. Her August release of The Golden Echo provides a whole new Kimbra, as the Aussie songbird delivers a project with a sound that will set the bar for what experimental Pop music could and should sound like. The stakes are higher for Kimbra, and she talks to Life+Times about her journey from her debut album Vows to The Golden Echo, her production skills on her works, and what she has in store for us as her star continues to shine as brightly as ever.
Life+Times: How’s it going? Are you excited that the new album is finally here?
Kimbra: It’s crazy. Yeah, it’s quite a trip. I feel like I’ve been waiting for it to come out for a while now so, I really can’t wait to share it with people.
L+T: What’s interesting is when you were doing Vows, you recorded between 2008 and 2011, so you had like three years. Now with The Golden Echo, it’s the same thing where it’s three years, 2011 through 2014, but a lot has happened in these three years. How did that affect your recording process as opposed to your initial recording process, where it was kind of like building up? Now you’re KIMBRA in capital letters and bold italics.
Kimbra: It’s a different ballgame for sure. I think the first record was made up of songs I’d written over a long span of time of course. I mean, “Settle Down” for example is a song I wrote when I was 16. For this record, it was very much about diving into new material. I just consolidated so much time into writing for other people, but also spending a lot of time on my own writing, and the process is different probably because I’m far more involved on a production tip than I’ve been in the past. I’ve always produced the music, but I think in this one I wanted to be a lot more hands-on with the way every part works on the record, so that was more drum programming. I went in with the conscious idea of wanting more live musicians on the record. I’ve been touring with a live band, so of course that changes the way that you think about music and the way you want to write it, because I got used to working with a live drummer all the time. Yeah, it keeps evolving. I think you set out with an idea of an album early on and very often, artists will say that it ends up being something completely different, and that’s really the exciting part. It’s that the sound keeps changing and the instrumentation keeps changing and you continue to create.
L+T: What was your mind state going into the new album? It does sound very different from the first one.
Kimbra: I wanted to be fearless about it, do you know what I mean? I wanted to go in without any boundaries or restrictions, limitations or even ideas about what I should create. I wanted to be ambitious. I feel like ambition is not only an easy place to sit in because you’re going to be polarizing when you do that, but I feel like Pop music should be ambitious music. When I look at my favorite Pop artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, they were so fearless. There were never any, “No, I shouldn’t do that because it’s not really in right now.” They weren’t really constrained. I mean I didn’t sit around and listen to top records that were doing well at the time. I went and listened to Pakistani music for ages, things that would make me think differently about the way to approach these songs. And of course choosing the musicians on this record, I didn’t want to just bring in typical musicians, which was the normal thing to do. I didn’t want to be like, “Oh this guy, he’s a great bass player or whatever. We’ll just bring him in.” I wanted to bring in someone like Thundercat, who’s actually got this whole personality and he’s going to being something that’s either going to work amazingly or terribly, and that’s amazing.I want that extremity of work on the record. It’s either going to be great or not. So of course Thundercat being such a genius, he came in and I decided I wanted him on every song! But you know, it’s about choosing the musicians that would bring an energy to the album and channel something a little bit more aggressive on my end. I tapped into a lot of ideas on Vows but you know, you’re still a kid essentially, kind of feeling your way out and pushing buttons and being like, “How does this feel? How does that feel?” And after asserting my own identity a little bit more in the live performance, there’s a lot more confidence going into this record. I really feel this is the right work, because I really tried to abandon any second-guessing on things and really tried to penetrate the moment and whatever that meant for me at the time.
L+T: Were there pros and cons to the Gotye track? It was a huge moment, but with moments like that, it’s sometimes an obstacle to come back and brand yourself as just yourself.
Kimbra: I feel like it was just one big blessing really, because I got to gain all of this incredible experience again as a live performer. I took my band on the road with Gotye, which was amazing. We played in all kinds of venues around the world with him. I got to be part of a song that really was a bit of a game-changer for radio. A lot of people commented that it really was out of the mold for music at the time, and so to be involved in a single that actually made people think differently about what made a Pop song, I think it gave me a fantastic floor to see that people are open-minded. Obviously this song was different, and therefore when going into discovering more of the music that me and Gotye both make, they’ll have an open mind towards it. It’s good to have a challenge. I like that idea of having to kind of prove yourself a little more, but it’s more to that place where people had a sort of expectation. You had great success with that one song, now what are you going to do next? Are you going to be able to support yourself as an artist in your own right? I think that’s a good, positive thing for an artist to have. If it all becomes too comfortable and too easy and everyone is a yes-man around you and praising everything you do, you’re never given a chance to kind of grow and push your own capacity. So I took that on as a positive and as a chance to be able to reach out to so many of my favorite musicians and have the blessing of them already being acquainted with my work, which was really awesome!
L+T: “90s Music” is so badass. Do you realize how many people are remixing the hell out of that song? There are like, 50 different remixes now to that song.
Kimbra: That’s so cool! I mean, it’s an odd song isn’t it? It kind of straddles a few different ideas in that song. When you’re working with a live band, they’re introducing you to a lot of new things that they’re listening to on the road as well. My drummer in particular who helped me produce that song, he’s got an amazing sort of knowledge of ‘90s music and he would bring to me all sorts of stuff. He liked Bobby Brown and Al B. Sure! and Keith Sweat and all this stuff that I never really knew of when I was super young, but I just got a new appreciation. I think there was something so fun about that era and something so…shameless about it? It wasn’t too over-thought, and it was kind of un-self-conscious which I really like.
L+T: This project feels like it has a greater focus on its production too. Was that intentional?
Kimbra: In terms of getting more into the heavier beats side of things, yeah that was a conscious decision on this record. There were songs on Vows that I felt we sometimes translated better live. I felt like sometimes people would come see a show and when “Settle Down” dropped it was like, whoa! We put this huge backbone on the song and it was kind of merging into that territory of being a little more focused on heavy rhythm. So I think yeah, it was more of a conscious decision to have it be a bit more of a sub-element on this record, but as you’ll know listening to it, that juxtaposed as a part of it. It’s never about choosing a sound palette and saying it’s going to sit there for the whole song, it’s about picking it like, “I want to evoke an emotion of toughness, so I’ll get that from the drums. But I also want it to feel nostalgic and dreamy so let’s get the dude in from Passion Pit on this and he’s going to do synths and kind of throw a different angle against the heavier backbone.”
L+T: It’s funny because even outside of the beats, your voice is such a star of the project. I don’t know a single person who didn’t try to nail your last line on “Somebody That I Used To Know” and failed miserably. S obviously everyone knew that you had a big, bold voice, but you really kind of test the limits of your own voice on this project.
Kimbra: It’s interesting because in the studio, you can go to lengths and lengths with your voice and not really think too much about it. But of course now going to play live, you kind of realize like, “Wow, okay! I really went in with quite an ambitious album!” But again, I really thrive off that challenge! If I wrote a record that’s going to go out of the range that I’m comfortable in, then I go to play it, it’s not going to be easy! I know that me and the band get better every time if we’re pushed to kind of work with songs that are exploring so many different sounds and so many different parts of my voice. So yeah, I find that place really interesting for a vocalist, where their voice breaks or where the tension comes in where you can’t quite get to the note so you have to work to find it. I think that that is such an interesting place for the listener as well, just to hear a vocalist at their itch. I think I’m always looking for those places to find a new texture or a new way of expressing the voice as an instrument, and it’s nice that you picked up on it.
L+T: You also have Silverchair’s Daniel Johns a lot on the project. You’re a big Silverchair fan, right?
Kimbra: Oh, HUGE! They were my favorite band in high school! Probably the highlight on the record for me was taking somebody like Daniel Johns and putting him in a room with Thundercat. That was such an odd match but they hit it off, and they really loved writing together. That to me was such a proud moment. I felt like a really proud mom that curated this beautiful moment to happen, and I’m like, “These are two of my favorite people in the world and we’re all sitting in the room together and we’re writing a song!” It was really special.
L+T: It’s like you almost doubled as A&R on your own project.
Kimbra: That’s it! I mean, that is really the role of producer a lot of the time, to sit there and curate moments and take a palette of sound and help it to grow. When I started to hit walls, Rich Costey was there, and he’s an amazing person of instinct for that as well. That’s how our relationship was, to keep bouncing off each other where we guide the process in different ways. It’s very much like the A&R in the studio setup.
L+T: It feels like nowadays female artists are no longer afraid to acknowledge their production hand in their projects. So often, there’s always some sort of a counterpart producer that almost gets all the credit, but you really have taken the reigns as a producer on this project. Yeah, you’re working with Thundercat and other people, but it’s really in your hands.
Kimbra: Absolutely! To me, the production side of things is of course not as open to the public as much because it’s behind closed doors, but to me that’s just as much a part of the art form as me doing the vocals. I put extreme, meticulous effort into every little element of the drums programming, the whole element of the synth sound, and not just the synth sound, but the set of synths. Which one is going to take priority out of the five that have been played back? How are they going to be panned? It sounds like just geeky stuff, but to me, this is all contributing to how the listener takes on the song. These are all layers that you can put on the record and listen to ten years later and still feel a sense of dimension to it. It’s a passion of mine to want to eventually be able to produce for other people, and have the technical skills to do that. I want that to be just as much a part of the process as the writing and the singing and the performance.
L+T: Who would be one artist that you’d want to produce for, given the opportunity?
Kimbra: That’s a hard question. There’s so many amazing bands that I love and would love to kind of work for or work with. I would love to work with someone like Rufus Wainwright or a vocalist who has such a diversity of sounds that they can do, and could mold their voice to so many different genres. I mean, working with Rufus in any way would be incredible, but I imagine being producer of sorts with a vocalist who had such amazing range and somebody who could dive into so many different genres.
L+T: What’s next? Is there a tour coming?
Kimbra: Well, there’s plan to tour. Yeah, they haven’t been quite announced yet so I can’t say, but we plan to be doing some shows for sure. That’s definitely priority for me to get on board with that stuff as soon as possible. I know for sure next year will be a big year for us touring. We’re already putting plans in place for that, so y