Kimbra Interview: “Vows”

After a year-long courtship with this Kiwi indie pop siren, isn’t it time we exchanged Vows?

This time last year the buzz about Kimbra and her quality breakthrough single ‘Settle Down’ sent the blogosphere and Australian music scene into a frenzy. You could literally feel light bulbs going off in the underground and hipster community when they saw the video or heard the slamming Penguin Prison remix. I remember clutching my pearls and thinking, ‘who is this chick with the quirky musical sensibilities of Nina Simone, Björk and Bertie Blackman – and why is she not already huge?’

Well, fast forward to present time and the 21-year old artiste is co-reigning on top of the ARIA charts with Gotye on one of the biggest selling Australian singles of the year: ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’. The sudden mainstream crossover couldn’t have come at a more opportune time as Kimbra herself was ready to unveal her debut album.

Vows is a breathtaking mix of experimental indie pop powered by an undercurrent of jazz influences, hip hop beats and a lush orchestral soundscape. The highlights will depend on your mood and preference for poetic indulgence but it’s safe to say she’s got her bases covered from sun-soaked Brunswick pop perfections in ‘Cameo Lover’ through to some bewitching moments like ‘Plain Gold Ring’.

Here Kimbra chats with me about the album, getting naked with Gotye and tentative plans to crack America next year. She walks me through Vows‘ extensive creative processes from experimenting in the studio with her asthma inhaler through to the album art direction and original illustrations created for each track. We also discuss her significant signing with Warner Bros. Music and how coming correct as a “package” helped her seal the deal.

Kimbra‘s interview first aired on JOY 94.9‘s Diff’rent Strokes with Jade and Dave. Y’all can read the full chat after the jump.

 

First of all, congratulations on your shared #1 single with Gotye. ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ has topped the ARIA charts for a month!

Crazy, isn’t it?

I read that two weeks ago it registered the highest weekly sales in Australia since Christmas 2004. Surely you’re getting a decent share of the profits?

[laughs] I didn’t write the song so unfortunately, not in that aspect. But you know, it’s been such an exciting opportunity for me to be a part of it and especially perfect timing now with my album dropping. It’s bringing attention to my own music, which is awesome.

Tell us about the collaboration. How did that happen?

I met Wally [Editor’s note: Gotye‘s real name] a few years ago because he worked with Francoise Tetaz, who also produced my album, and I’m a huge fan. He rang me earlier this year and said, “Look did you wanna have a try singing on this track that I’m having a bit of trouble with at the moment?” And I was obviously really stoked to give it a shot.

Now, a lot of people are wondering – what’s the nature of your relationship? Are you both dating or have dated?

We’re dating and we both have relationships so you know, it’s always interesting when you both go into a scenario where you have to be naked in the video clip.

So just to confirm, you’re both in relationships but not with each other?

[laughs] No, not with each other!

It must’ve been awkward because I looked at the video and thought, “would I get naked with a friend?” Ooh, I don’t know.

Yeah, but it is art. You know what I mean? You’re getting painted. Because we both knew what a beautiful concept it was – this idea of visually showing someone getting drawn out of your world – I think it was a lot easier. You were focused on getting the job done and not getting hung up on nudity. It’s art, man!

Now onto your debut album Vows. You ended up with 11 songs on here but how many did you actually record throughout the whole process?

So many. I mean, there would’ve been 30 or 40 that I would’ve done here at home in preparation for the album and maybe in the studio we got up to about 15. It became clear towards the end which ones were standing out and which ones had to be on the album.

There’s a cover of Nina Simone’s ‘Plain Gold Ring’ on there – how did you end up picking that song?

Frank [Francoise Tetaz] suggested the song to me when we were in a session together. He said, “Look I really think this would be cool for your voice”. We came up with a Mos Def-inspired track for it and I went home that night to put down a vocal for it, and it just felt right. It was in line with the album’s themes and I wanted to pay tribute to an artist that I really looked up to.

I feel that in a lot of ways, the musical styles you’re displaying on Vows are like little homages to your favourite artists. I remember you saying you like Prince and your track ‘Call Me’ definitely has that spirit in there – would you agree?

Thank you. Yeah, I think that’s definitely an accurate observation. There’s always an underlying artist that influences certain songs. May not even be conscious, you know? It might just come through. I try to listen to a real range of music from Nine Inch Nails to Rufus Wainwright. I just want to be surrounded by as much music as possible to draw from.

Preview tracks from Kimbra‘s Vows album here:

 

You’ve worked with Francoise Tetaz (producer behind Gotye and Bertie Blackman) and urban produer M-Phazes (Amerie and Illy) – do you think their production styles complement each other in a way?

Yeah, I think they’re very different. Francoise’s from an indie/pop background and [his style is] very cinematic because he’s done a lot of film work. Whereas, M-Phazes is much more on the R&B side. Not just hip hop, he’s done a lot of soul and Motown stuff as well. I think it’s all about diversity and taking risks. I wanted to use two different producers that would bring out different sides of what I do and what I like to explore. So I’m glad I had two perspectives on the album to showcase the different side to the music.

Were there other producers who you had worked with that maybe didn’t fit with the overall material?

Those were really the only two. I was pretty involved in the production myself, a lot of the record I did do at home then bring people on board throughout the process – so it was a collaboration between me and those two.

I heard that you recorded an asthma pump for sound effects!

[laughs] We got pretty crazy in the studio at times! I’d bring along my handbag and Frank would sometimes ask me, “what have you got in there?” and I would pull out my asthma inhaler or some make up. We’d open and close the lid or twist something that would make an interesting sound. I thought since we’re in this beautiful studio, why not see if we can come up with something unique!

First of all, it’s very brave of him to ask a woman to bare the contents of her bag!

Oh, yeah. He doesn’t hold back at all! And I think that’s why we made some really special stuff together because everything was on the line. Everything was out on the table!

So is it for us to figure out which song and which bit has the ashtma pump or can you tell us?

I know it was in the session for ‘Settle Down’. I’m not sure if it made it into the final mix. Frank is interesting like that. He’ll have lots of different sounds hidden in the mix that you will pick up on in the third or fourth listen.

 

I heard that your new single ‘Good Intent’ [see above] was featured in the new Underbelly series. Have you seen it? Are you much of a TV watcher?

Someone told me it was featured in the debut of the new series! I’m not a huge TV watcher but I’ll get onto it.

You mentioned before that Frank has a background in making cinematic music and I know you’re a visual person yourself so, if you could pick a film director to feature one of your songs in their movie, who would it be?

There’s a film by Lars von Trier with Björk called Dancer In The Dark, which I think is incredible. I imagine working with a film director like that would be amazing. I’m also a big fan of Michel Gondry (director behind stunning music videos for Björk, Daft Punk and Beck)! It’s hard, isn’t it? There’s a lot of amazing film directors out there.

Speaking of visuals, I am going through your Vows album booklet now. Tell me about the artwork and illustrations here.

I had two really close friends – Rhys Mitchell and Raphael Rizzo – do illustrations for every song. So what they did was, they put the song on at home, got inspiration from the lyrics and music, and did their own piece of original artwork for each song – which I think is special. They were also the same people that did all the body art so it’s kinda related in a sense. I’ve kept them on board the whole way.

The body art’s very intricate. There are some that look that it was lathered on and the one on the cover has more detail, almost like it was penciled in. How long did it take to paint you on?

Oh, maybe three hours on the front and three hours on the back? Throughout the shoot we started to destroy the artwork, crack it a little and scrape it off, throw paint on the body to really destroy the work. It’s symbolic of how Vows start off very composed and polished, and then the album gets darker as it goes and you sort off end on this last track that is very unresolved and messy I guess, which is kind of the same line of thought that goes through the artwork. Everything is really deep! 

No, I really like that and that’s why I wanted to ask you, because a lot of people might just look at that and go, ‘Oh she’s being really arty’ or ‘Look at her with body paint, that’s cool’ but I wanted to find out what the inspiration was.

There’s a story! You know, there’s a lot of eternity symbols throughout the artwork that the boys have integrated, which are obviously relevant to the album. Leaving out the colour was very intentional. We wanted to make the colour to be all about the music but the artwork to be very stark. We really wanted to have that polar opposite of black and white, which is a really strong theme on the album, dealing with really light and dark concepts and finding your place in that sense. There’s a lot of thought that’s been put into it. I guess that’s what happens when you have four years on your hands!

Watch Kimbra perform one of my favourite album tracks ‘Two Way Street':

 

So you’re starting the album tour this Friday in Melbourne?

That’s right! The Forum – I’m so nervous! It’s such an iconic venue in Melbourne and it’s not little! You know, 1,500 seats.

And I hear the demand has been so great for some of your shows that you’ve had to upgrade the venue.

We had to upgrade the Sydney venue to The Metro because it sold out in a day. It’s pretty encouraging! I definitely did not expect that at all.

So how do you take in all this? I mean, the #1 single with Gotye, the buzz around the album, I open up the papers and I see you there…

It’s exciting but success to me is more than #1 singles and lots of press. For me, the moments where I feel the most accomplishment is on a personal level when I meet people after the show and feel how moved they were by the music. That’s the stuff that means the most to me. I don’t get too caught up in the press surrounding the album. It’s really encouraging to see people getting excited about it, but it’s not everything. It’s not the reason why I do it.

I hear you’re planning to launch the album in America next year. What are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, it’s pretty full on. I guess, the natural thing once you release an album in the States is to tour it extensively and it’s a different lifestyle, living out of a suitcase. But I feel that it’s the next step and it’s a really exciting opportunity to share it with such a big market.

Breaking America is a big task. Sometimes you can end up touring for like six to nine months at a time, just to establish yourself properly. So are you actually gonna relocate or will it be back and forth?

I’m not sure at this point. I’m in discussions with the American label to see what they need from me. I think I’ll be spending periods of time over there but hopefully I can make my way back to Melbourne every few months to see my friends. But it’s kinda up in the air. It’s what you have to deal with in this industry. It can be one plan one day and then a completely different plan the next.

I was surprised when you announced that you had signed an international deal with Warner Bros. Music. How long was that in the works for?

It was in the works for about six months. I took that time to decide whether I wanted to sign or not. There were a few deals on the table and I wanted to make sure that I make the right decision. We flew over to the States to play a showcase for Warner Bros. and I met them all. But of course, I was surprised to be approached by such a big label in the States!

I would’ve been happy to keep going along as an independent artist if that’s where it’s meant to go. It’s just that at this point, with the release of the album, it felt like the right thing to do. I had already made the album myself and made the album I wanted to make, it would simply be using the record company’s marketing tools to get it out there.

I was talking about how quickly your success has turned around here just in the last year and someone at the station who’s involved in the music industry said, “you need to ask Kimbra about networking because she’s a really good networker!”. So do you consider yourself to be a really good networker?

[laughs] I mean, I started at this so young. I was gigging in New Zealand when I was 14. In a way, I was a little bit of a businesswoman. I’d be ringing up radio stations and go, “Hey you should play this song!” It was just really fun for me. I guess I just like being involved in every aspect of it. Even here in Melbourne, I’ve done the hard yards and worked it from the ground up – tried to make contacts, network with people and just form relationships. I guess that all helps when you get recognised by labels. If you’ve done that work yourself and haven’t just relied on your management, it definitely puts you in a good position.

I think some people think they can just get out there and get signed straight away but nowadays, I think labels are looking for someone who already has a fan base…

Yeah, that’s right – and someone who is prolific with their work and has stuff to show for themselves. That’s why we have taken time to produce such good quality videos and productions so you’ve got a real package to your name.

And look at all that hard work paying off for the girl.

Footnotes:

Kimbra‘s Vows is out now – featuring a special iTunes Deluxe edition with two bonus remixes and the ‘Settle Down’ and ‘Cameo Lover’ videos.

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