Headed to town Saturday night for an all ages show at Concord Music Hall, I spoke with New Zealand born singer, songwriter, producer and pop star Kimbra about her third studio album Primal Heart, the idea of empowerment as a theme on it, embracing the reach of pop music and much more...
Sometimes it's not easy for an artist to rebound from the overwhelming success of a truly massive pop single. They can develop expectations from fan and label that become hard to avoid, pigeonholing artists in the process.
Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" (on which Kimbra arguably steals the show) cracked the top 10 in thirty different countries around the world. The single sold over thirteen million copies and the video wracked up over one billion views. It's easily one of the biggest singles of the 2000s.
The song came from Gotye's third studio album. But for Kimbra, the July 2011 release of the single preceded the launch of her debut studio album Vows by just one month.
Vows was finished and ready for release and Kimbra was in the final stages of completing a deal with Warner Brothers Records before the unexpected commercial crossover success of "Somebody That I Used to Know" struck. It's anyone's guess how Kimbra's career would've progressed had she not already been in the process of shopping that finished debut.
"I had built up a body of work that I felt I was ready to promote. But fantastic luck I guess that my record was already starting to circulate without that song," Kimbra said. "I think it would’ve been a very different story if I had gone out with the [Gotye] collaboration while I was making [my first] record, or about to make the record, and have that feeling of, 'Now when I come out, I don’t know how I’m going to make my own mark,'" the New Zealand born artist continued.
Over the course of three studio albums (her third, Primal Heart, is scheduled for release April 20th), Kimbra has forged an identity as one of the most unique voices in pop music, recording each of the three albums in a different city, experimenting with a diverse array of sounds and musical genres on each. On Vows, she covered Nina Simone while The Golden Echo (2014) features collaborations with artists ranging anywhere from The Mars Volta to John Legend.
Primal Heart is heavily influenced by R&B, despite being a bit more of an electronic experience, and is marked by themes like empowerment. The new record establishes a sort of intimacy through the inclusion of some of her most confessional lyrics and features the work of artists like Skrillex and Childish Gambino.
Following the lead of one of her favorite artists, Prince, Kimbra embraces the reach of pop music and it's ability to put listeners in a mindset where they're ready to accept things that are different: different people and different sounds with the constant goal of pushing the music forward on her own terms.
I spoke with Kimbra about the importance of a strong live set in the pop realm, addressing what's going on in the world on the empowering new Primal Heart and forging ahead with a unique identity in the pop world as "Somebody That I Used To Know" achieved virtually ubiquitous status. A transcript of that phone conversation, lightly edited for length, follows below...
Q. I think one of the things that strikes me about live pop music today is the ease with which some artists go about recreating it live – pre-recorded backing tracks, all of that stuff. But you don’t cut any corners. You tour with a full band. How important is all of that to you when it comes to going out on tour?
Kimbra: It’s a pretty huge part of what I do. Because that’s where I started. I’m not an artist that was created in the studio and then learned how to perform things live. I started as a guitarist and singer playing songs and then sort of ventured into a record deal to make studio versions. So, it’s really important to me that I always keep that energy really alive on stage.
But that’s not to say that I don’t embrace electronics and different ways of doing that. People will be maybe surprised to see that I have a slightly different touring band on this run. It’s not quite the same full blast experience, it’s more of an electronic experience - so very synth heavy. Of course that’s to reflect the new album in many ways, which is a quite programmed album. I’ve really worked hard to make the live show a real showcase of the voice and vocals and intimacy.
I’m on stage triggering the drums myself - so in terms of using controllers to kind of trigger off the drumbeats and then being able to kind of warp and manipulate aspects on the fly. Like a DJ I guess. Incorporating different vocal effects and then the boys behind me are backing up on a lot of different instruments and synths.
So it’s very different from just working to a backing track because it’s still very improvisational and I am in control of where we go to. I can decide to keep an outro going longer and I’m sort of master of the ship when it comes to the drum elements. But it’s been a different journey because I’m so used to playing with a full, rocking band.
But it’s more about serving the music. And this record really is about a different kind of intimacy.
Q. Well, let’s talk about the new album. You’ve said that R&B music was a big influence on this album. What is it about that music that helped to kind of inform Primal Heart?
Kimbra: Maybe it is the intimacy. Maybe it’s that sense of how – whether it’s Stevie Wonder or Frank Ocean or Solange – these singers have this sort of way of piercing into the heart and singing in a very almost restrained tone at times to just reach out in a conversational way. There’s something about a lot of R&B music that feels very relatable. I’m singing in a different range of my voice as well.
There’s still a lot of psychedelia on this album. I think I’m always going to be drawn to that kind of progressive style of music. I just picked my moments more. I really wanted the lyrics to be a little more confessional than what I’ve been in the past.
Q. Primal Heart was recorded in New York City. What kind of an effect did being in New York have on this one?
Kimbra: When it comes to that confrontational boldness that I’m alluding to, I think that has come from moving to New York and making a move that was very much about me and my spirit as opposed to moves for my career.
I think that comes up in a fearlessness or a courage that comes through in some of this new work. And an ability to expose myself a little more which is just what this city kind of brings out of you I think. It’s the kind of place that demands you to be a lot more direct in order to just get through basic life.
So I think that’s come out a little in the way I’m writing.
Q. Obviously it’s an… interesting time to be living in America. And in “Top of the World” in particular, you kind of address the world a bit (when you sing about the rise of a leader, I think I know to whom you’re referring). That’s obviously a risk for an artist to take today in such divisive times. How important was it for you to go there?
Kimbra: It’s much more important than it’s ever been before.
I think, in the past, I would’ve taken a bit of a back seat to direct conversation about things I was experiencing or more so just things that my friends were experiencing. Again, I think going through moving to New York and making friends that are outside of my normal circle – seeing a person in so many different ways… You can’t sit back and watch when you’re an artist. Especially when you realize the platform that you have.
Even if you were trying with all of your might to not address these things, the mystical aspect of songwriting is that your subconscious always comes through. You start writing about things that are actually very deeply on your heart. I just believe in following what the music wants you to do. And if it wants to speak to things, you have to go there and trust that people will not take it as an opportunity to take sides.
I think art exists to make us reflect on things, doesn’t it? And get us to kind of ask questions. I always do that metaphorically with my work but I think on this record I certainly had a little more courage to speak to things that I feel strongly about.
And it could be a song about Trump… But it also could just be a song about ego and human nature and greed. And any of us are victims who fall into those things – if we let ourselves.
I think it’s important to always look at things on a macro level as well.
Q. You just started to hit on this but I’ve heard the idea of empowerment frequently referred to as a theme on Primal Heart. In what ways does that idea kind of manifest itself on your new album?
Kimbra: I think it’s not as sexy a word but "maturity" is a big part of that. Just growing up.
You become more empowered I think as you learn a bit more about the world - as you accept yourself and accept your womanhood. Just relationships, all these things - life experiences empower you. Seeing the world at large can empower you, especially if you find a purpose within the world or something to speak out about and someone to be. Someone that has a purpose in the work that they do. So I think that in itself is empowering.
And also watching myself grow I guess. Watching, even in interviews when I was a young girl, seeing how I handled things when my career was in a whirlwind early on and seeing how I handle things now. And there’s something empowering about seeing growth.
I will also say it’s empowering to acknowledge your vulnerability and your humanity. And this record is very confessional about a lot of my own flaws and faults and things that I don’t think have evolved within me or that I want to work on like everyone does. And I just think that’s empowering.
It’s actually way more empowering to own up to those realities than continue to try and escape them by putting on a hundred costumes – which I’ll always do! I mean, I love doing that. It’s a big part of being part of an entertainer.
But when you talk about empowerment, I think there’s actually something very empowering about acknowledging or connecting the good and the bad parts of our nature.
Q. Speaking to that idea of empowerment… You take a lot of control over your music: the sounds, the ideas presented, all facets really. You’re credited as executive producer on Primal Heart, your third album. How difficult is it to avoid the pressure that’s placed on young pop stars to look a certain way or sound a certain way and assert the kind of control over your art that you do?
Kimbra: Well, I am very assertive about it because, to me, it’s so strongly linked with what I do.
Yes, I co-produced this record and many of the songs produced - up until maybe even 80% of what is on the final record. And then [I] had that objective person come in and say, “Ok, now this needs to go here. This needs to go there.” And I’m very appreciative of those people but anyone you speak to that works with me will acknowledge that I’m in that process right up until the last moment. Even after – to the fear of everyone at the record label - when I’m going days over the plan of how many I’m supposed to have.
But it’s so integral to the message that gets out and how things sonically sound as well. I’ve been assertive about that from day one because it feels just as important as all the other aspects. And people will disagree with that. Many will say, “It’s just about the voice.” And we’ll let that be as it is. But I just really believe that my fans actually listen to the music and get very connected to it because of all of those integrating aspects. The sounds that actually jump out at you that you don’t realize until five listens in.
For me to remove all of that stuff from my work would be to kind of amputate a part of the songwriting in a way or the artistry. I think that that’s just been about having really good communication with people like my manager and the people at my label. To be honest, I haven’t had to do too much explaining. Just because I prove it with the work I do. I’m a big believer in you can talk and talk and talk or you can just show up and do it. And do it well.
I think I’ve been lucky. The first album, I was producing a lot on that. And the second. There’s something to be said for having experience under your belt and earning the trust of people. They see the work now and can feel confident that I’m not going to completely sabotage what I do or make it so uncommercial that it has no life. I really like pop music! They respect that.
I want to make music that has appeal but I just want to do it on those terms.
Q. I know you’re a big Prince fan. And when I think about pop stars like Prince or David Bowie, I think one of the things they did so wonderfully, in utilizing their reach as far as pop music, was to create things that were different and get people into a mindset where they could accept things that were different - different people, different sounds. I feel like we could use that now more than ever. Is that a role pop music can play today?
Kimbra: Absolutely. I’d say you put it perfectly.
I’m a big believer in forming trust with your fanbase. People trusted the voice of Prince and Bowie. They trusted the aesthetic. They trusted them as taste makers. They trusted them as voices of the people – and sometimes of the minority. When they did something out of the box, there were people right there ready to listen – even if it was nothing like what they had heard before. And I think that’s because they trusted that those voices had something to say and went down that road for a reason.
That’s why the live performance is so important - to build a trust with people. That everything I put out, they trust that I’ve run it through my filters to get it where it is. And that’s definitely something I take from those artists: their ability to earn the right to totally surprise people.
Q. I was reading a bit this morning and was shocked to see that Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know" was released as a single one month before your debut album Vows came out in the summer of 2011. As that song took off in the unique fashion that it did, crossing over, was there ever a fear that it was going to overshadow your album or pigeonhole you as an artist before you even really got a chance to get started?
Kimbra: My album was done and perhaps I had just signed to, or was in the final stages of signing to, Warner Brothers Records.
The record I had sort of made, it was just me and my manager - but then Warner Brothers had expressed interest even before anyone knew about this Gotye song. So that was already coming. It was set to come out. And then this collaboration, with a guy that I liked a lot, and it of course did what it did.
And I had built up a body of work that I felt I was ready to promote. But fantastic luck I guess that my record was already starting to circulate without that song. I think it would’ve been a very different story if I had gone out with the [Gotye] collaboration while I was making [my first] record, or about to make the record, and have that feeling of, “Now when I come out, I don’t know how I’m going to make my own mark.”
I think I was given a really great platform to kind of keep building the fanbase that I had for my music. Which, to be honest, was quite different than Gotye’s music.
So, in a way, that maybe was a positive as well: that the work that I put out sometimes had quite a different fanbase – more of an R&B following. Or kind of set in more of a Prince space or something than maybe even where some of Gotye’s stuff did. Maybe that was a good thing as well – that we weren’t making exactly the same kind of music. But I’m not too sure.
I do feel very confident that I’ve been lucky to not become defined by that track. And that’s just because I continue to keep working and keep putting music out that builds who I am as an artist.
And I’m also very proud of that song! To be known for it is certainly not a negative to me. I’m very proud that a song like that broke into the mainstream as well, you know?
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Saturday's Kimbra show at Concord Music Hall below)
Saturday, February 3, 2018
Concord Music Hall
Doors open at 7PM
Also performing: Arc Iris
Click HERE to purchase tickets