It wouldn’t be wrong for the average person to suggest that Kimbra lived in the shadow of Gotye after her appearance on the Grammy award winning single that you just couldn’t get away from “Somebody I Used To Know.” But being featured on a song that has nearly 600 million views on YouTube automatically casts a large shadow on the career of the guest. However, Kimbra is far from your average collaborator who should be recognized for far more than her memorable guest spot on a massive single. For those that have purchased a ticket to her show off the strength of Gotye’s immensely popular single, chances are they were pleasantly surprised to hear the extraordinary range and reach of the Kimbra’s tool set. Her debut album, 2011’s Vows, was a jazzy introduction to Kiwi singer but it is The Golden Echo that has truly showcased a remarkable talent in the 24-year-old Kimbra that refuses to play by the rules. Life+Times caught up with Kimbra to discuss her recently released album, why she opted not to use her collaborations with John Legend, Thundercat, Daniel Johns and Foster The People as a selling point, and why it is an artist’s job to not play it safe.
Life+Times: When did you start recording this album?
Kimbra: I started recording literally the day after the Grammy Awards. I moved into an urban city farm in Los Angeles with a bunch of animals and decided that this was where I was going to chill and start writing.
L+T: How much did relocating help in shaping this album?
Kimbra: It was everything because if I stayed in Melbourne and made a record there I wouldn’t have had these opportunities to grow and learn as much about being a producer and meeting people that were so crucial to this record. Los Angeles is the hub of progressive thinker.
L+T: With Gotye you learned you can create something unconventional and still have a hit record. How did that shift your mindset going into The Golden Echo?
KImbra: It took away a lot of the rules because it proved to me that you didn’t have to walk into a factory mindset of spitting everything out to a formula. In saying that, Gotye was aware of pop structure but I do believe that song came from a genuine place and happened to fall into this context of mainstream pop that I don’t think he ever crafted for that purpose. I could be wrong. I think he may have been aware that it could crossover but never expected it to. It kind of made me feel like I can do anything on this album and really focus on coming from a truthful place where you’re inspired. The weight of that song felt so honest and genuine. He taught me a lot in that respect that I didn’t have to play in this really rigid construct of pop. You could be experimental. But so much has to do with luck and timing so I never claim that I know anything so I just do what I do and if it connects that’s so great.
L+T: Was it a conscious decision to put something together that was so eclectic?
Kimbra: It just started happening. I knew I wanted to be bold on the album and not just do songs that were expected of me. I knew that this was going to be an important record to show what my values are as an artist. For that reason I took opportunities to write with a lot of people. I did get in the studio with a lot of people like Thundercat and John Legend and a lot of these people came to me as just genuine fans. We ended up with a lot material and the hard part was deciding how to create a coherent body of work.
L+T: Was it ever a concern that you might stretch the listener’s boundaries a little too far?
Kimbra: I just believe we’re all multifaceted as people and I made the choice to show so many different sides as an artist. Maybe it’s confusing for some people but I believe that part of your job as an artist is to share every side of your experience and give permission to others to do the same. An album is your chance to be the arc of human experience and give it your all. That’s what The Golden Echo was all about.
L+T: With all of these guests you could have boasted about all these features prior to release but you didn’t. Why?
Kimbra: I never wanted it to be like that. I think of it like a canvas and these people are your shades and textures. Not that I don’t want to honor them, because I do and I talk about them all the time. But it was more about them becoming sample libraries that I could bring their personality and perspective to the whole landscape as opposed to “this is a funk song and it has to have a funky canvas.” No. This is a proggy pop song and Thundercat is going to come in there and subconsciously become part of the landscape. I like where people are listening to this crazy virtuoso of people.
L+T: There are a lot of influences that can be heard on this album. But who helped shape and mold the artist you have become?
Kimbra: Like any other pre-teen girl I listened to what everyone else did at that time like Mariah Carey and 90s R&B that was on the radio. Super pop stuff like Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys was my world as a young kid. Then I joined a jazz choir and I learned about Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Billie Holiday. From the Beach Boys I learned harmony and guitar. I learned Stevie Wonder songs around the age of 14 and I started listening to jazz. Amy Winehouse helped shape my perspective because she was jazzy but she had sick hip-hop beats behind her. I like women who push to be tougher like Bjork, who uses her voice as an instrument. There are rock bands that could fuse funk grooves like Red Hot Chili Peppers. Anything in that world became interesting to me. As a kid who just played guitar and sang, I wondered how I could bring these ideas into what I do. I don’t want to be a pretty singer with a guitar. I wanted to do more. I bought an 8-track and learned that pushing the faders can help you do so much more.
L+T: “Teen Heat” is a song that truly showcases this collision of worlds on the album. Can you talk about the creation of that song?
Kimbra: That was the first song that I knew was going to make the album and started the themes of the record. There’s a recurring theme of world’s colliding on The Golden Echo juxtaposing ideas from one set of musical influences that shouldn’t really go with this set of musical influences, but we found a way to do it. I worked a lot of drum machines and synthesizers to create those starting points and I actually used an old omnichord from the 80s that I pitched down the drum beat that came from the stock sounds. I worked with Daniel Johns from Silverchair on that song and started the chords. It’s a simple song about this idea of being a teenager and suddenly being aware of your sexual impulses. I remember being in the studio with him and saying that this is nice but what if we just shifted up? And I had the breakdown on my iPad and it was so lo-fi but producer Rich Costey said we couldn’t change it too much because when something is in its demo form it’s very special. We added Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain to put drums down. Essentially, what you hear on the record is the first vocal take I did and just a very pure composition.
L+T: You took a lot of vocal risks on the album that could present a challenge in your live performance. Do you concern yourself about how these songs will translate on stage?
Kimbra: I probably should but I don’t because that would restrict me. The studio is about pushing your imagination. It’s your spaceship with every instrument you would want. Why not just push it and find a way to do it live? I don’t get the notes right every performance but the studio is about jumping into the unknown and going to those places you dream about and making it happen. It’s the playground.