How the West was WonIt took Kimbra 13 years to get from the North Island to Beverly Hills. She’s won two Grammys and made a host of famous friends, but the genre-defying singer is just getting started
Hi, I’m Kimbra, and one day I’d love to be a popstar.” This was the prophetic announcement of Kimbra Lee Johnson, aged 11, when she appeared on series five of long-running children’s TV show What Now. Fresh out of Hamilton, Kimbra was in Auckland City courtesy of the show for a popstar primer that included an intensive vocal coaching session, mentoring from singer-songwriter Anika Moa, on-camera tips from TV hosts Francesca Rudkin and Erika Takacs and studio time with engineer Rikki Morris, to record her self-penned song, Smile. After nailing her vocal over a stuttering R&B track, blissfully unaware of the demands of post production, she asks excitedly, “Can I take it away now?”
Times have changed: these days Kimbra has her own home studio, housed in the basement of her Los Angeles apartment. Thirteen years after What Now, she has made good on her tween declaration. She’s won two Grammy awards, courtesy of Gotye’s 2012 smash Somebody That I Used To Know, has two genre-defying albums under her belt, and counts musicians Matt Bellamy of Muse, Silverchair’s Daniel Johns and Kanye West’s go-to crooner John Legend as friends and collaborators.
“As a young kid I really did feel like I wanted to make a difference in some way,” Kimbra says, sitting in her new apartment, spitting distance from Sunset Boulevard, as she recalls her TV debut. “When you’re setting out and people ask what you want to be when you grow up, I’d tell them that I wanted to share a gift with the world, whether that was music or something else. The moment I found my music connected with people and could be a vehicle to do that, I ran for it.”
Aged 18, Kimbra had a record deal with independent label Forum 5 and was living in Melbourne, Australia. But it was recording Somebody That I Used To Know with Gotye that really changed life as she knew it. Though one of her own tracks beat Gotye’s to the winning spot in the Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition 2011, it was his that became a smash hit.
When Kimbra takes the stage at The Independent in San Francisco this October 20, the first stop on a tour that is selling out fast, it will mark the second phase of a US campaign launched off the back of the global chart triumphs of that Grammy-winning single. Not missing a beat, she segued its success into two years of touring, winning her newfound audience over to the jazz-infused pop direction of her 2011 debut, Vows. The day after Somebody That I Used To Know won the Record of the Year Grammy in 2013, Kimbra moved to LA.
“It’s crazy. I was the last person to think that LA would be home to me,” she says. “When I used to come here, I totally did not get it; I felt like it was soulless and without any grounding. But then I just gave the place a bit more of a chance. It really was the classic cliché of meeting the right people and them taking you to their favourite little club or restaurant downtown or something. Once I made those discoveries, it really did click.”
But Los Angeles is more than a home, it also gave access to a talent pool the 24-year-old tapped for her guest-heavy second album The Golden Echo, among them star bassist Thundercat and The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Her surroundings also inspired more than 50 demos she recorded to make the album. These working sketches were all influenced by LA extremities, whether it was the lifestyles of its blue-chip insiders or impoverished outsiders. “There’s the ultimate glossy, polished, superficial aspect of the city; then there’s the very real skid row in downtown, and the homelessness and the hustle,” she says. “I think when you see that every day, something changes about the way you make your art and challenges you. I think it definitely rubs off.
“I felt like I had a spirit of fearlessness with this album that I maybe didn’t have in the past. People here want to make their mark. It can be kind of sickening when you meet people who are just climbing social ladders, but then you’ll meet people who have a revolutionary spirit about them – and when that feels pure and authentic, it inspires you to bring that same attitude to your music.”
Between The Golden Echo’s worldwide release in August, and the run of dates in October and November that will see Kimbra and her band road-test the album’s 12 tracks across venues in the United States, New Zealand and Australia, the adopted Los Angelean has been presented with a rare opportunity: a two-month window of downtime before getting back on a tour bus. But rather than use this to take breather, she initiated an international media blitz to talk up the release, breathing new life into the album’s studio sheen with a handful of stripped-back sessions for radio, and striving to maintain her live chops, but in a much more intimate environment than the theatres she’ll soon visit. In true musicians’ musician style, Kimbra has launched an LA residency at a venue she won’t reveal, preferring to keep thisa strictly under-the-radar exercise.
“It’s just a little thing every Sunday night where I get some of my friends on stage to jam,” she reveals. “It’s really about embracing the spirit of spontaneity, creating a song from nothing. It’s not about jazz solos, we’re not playing any songs from The Golden Echo, it’s just about musicianship and connectivity. It’s a nice way to keep that spirit of creation alive.”
Kimbra’s first album, Vows, written and recorded in her then-home of Melbourne, came at a time when few other Antipodean pop talents had a platform beyond their home territories. At the time of her second, just three years later, US and UK radio is awash with chart contenders from down under. It’s not only Lorde who has dominion over the airwaves and streaming sites: the Joel Little-produced sibling outfit Broods are flexing their pop muscle, Sydney’s 5 Seconds of Summer are giving their One Direction comrades a run for their money, and Iggy Azalea of Mullumbimby, NSW, had the song of the summer with Fancy.
“I really do think that New Zealand musicians have something extra special,” says Kimbra. “When I was back home recently I noticed that there is so much great stuff happening. We’re so far from the rest of the world that there’s not much of a direct influence from American culture. Growing up in Hamilton, I was so isolated from overseas pop culture that when it came to creating my own music, there was a ton of freedom to move, but also more ambition with it. It was like, OK, if I want to get my music out there I’ve got to make it great. I really think it comes down to our isolation.”
It’s not just Australasian media outlets that have picked up on this local uprising; The New York Times, The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times have all hailed Kimbra’s arrival as a ‘Kiwi’ songstress, as if this might divine some explanation for her skewwhiff pop savvy. As A&R opportunists and major labels continue to sort through a crop of new local talent in the hope of laying claim to the next Kimbra Lee Johnson or Ella Yelich-O’Connor, Kimbra herself is still striving to make her own mark, her eyes locked on the same path to pop stardom her 11-year-old self set out on.
“This is what I do, this is what I live and breathe,” she says. “It’s not that I have to do this, it’s that I need to do it. Whether it needs to be at the same level of intensity that it is now or not, I know now that it’s something I was born to do.”