KIMBRA, A SOUND UNTO HER OWN
If you haven’t heard of New Zealand’s stunning new vocal talent Kimbra, then it’s time to catch up as she continues her trail-blazing tour across the country.
WORDS ADAM BAIDAWI
PHOTOGRAPHY EMMA PHILLIPS
Inside the Victorian-era Melbourne offices of her record label Warner Music, 21-year-old Kimbra Johnson — the mesmerising trans-Tasman pop sensation — is gracefully working her way through a bowl of muesli and yoghurt. She’s wearing the morning well. An immaculately proportioned five-foot-six, her huge, bright green eyes tell the story of the past few weeks.
Promotion for her long-awaited, much- hyped debut Vows has hit full-throttle. It’s 11.15am as she pokes at the muesli — her first respite since starting the day at 6am. This is, after all, everything that the rising chanteuse, her label, management, fans and family have been banking on.
Away from the mania of the album’s release, however, Kimbra is remarkably poised and articulate — at ease with herself and the process. “It’s a bit of everything, you know?” she shrugs. “I’ve been working on it for so long. It feels so nice to hold it in my hand, and see other people responding to it. It’s not my experience anymore — it’s theirs.”
Born to a doctor and a nurse in Hamilton, New Zealand, Kimbra was discovered at age 17 by Melbourne-based Brit, Mark Richardson — whose previous assignments varied from Jamiroquai to Paula Abdul. The star manager’s only catch (and there’s always one) was that the young Kiwi would have to uproot her life in Hamilton and move to Melbourne to piece together a debut album.
Though her parents had long supported and nurtured Kimbra’s obvious talent, the decision wasn’t one taken lightly. “I’m very close with my father. He’s my best friend,” explains the songstress. “You don’t find that all that often — we just have that connection. We’re on the same page.” (Indeed, it was her father’s stray Genesis, Led Zeppelin and Beatles records that helped pave Kimbra’s musical rite of passage.)
Though the move to the moody, charming laneways of Melbourne ultimately proved a success, Kimbra is emphatically starry- eyed about her hometown.
“I definitely miss having that nature and landscape around.
It was so accessible,” she says. “To wake up in the morning and see the river views, to go outside and be so among it. There are trees everywhere, native birds everywhere: very New Zealand. It’s a slower lifestyle — at times I long for that.”
On arrival in Melbourne, Kimbra and her new team began the intricate task of compiling a lifetime’s worth of songwriting — and several newly penned tracks — into what would become Vows. The amalgamation of old and new, paired with considered input from renowned producer François Tétaz, proved a creative tour de force. Kimbra wrote “Settle Down”, the opening track of Vows, when she was 16. The track reveals curious influences of Nina Simone, Prince and Icelandic wonder Björk. The freshly produced version would go on to win the Pop/Top 40 category of the 2010 International Songwriting Competition, while her unabashedly boisterous follow-up, “Cameo Lover”, would take out the equally prestigious Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition.
The album’s production cycle was arduous — taking the team from Melbourne to LA and back — and its end product speaks volumes. A melange of ’80s funk, Motown brass and electro chic, Vows is all in the extra 10% — punchy horns, hidden sonic layers, and mesmerising vocal runs.
“My producer, François Tétaz, helped me to think of the record like a film. The opening scene, the climax, the downturn and the credits rolling at the end… I loved that idea,” explains Kimbra. Amid the ongoing compilation of Vows, Kimbra quickly grew to prominence —and demand — within Melbourne’s discerning musical clique. Her electric live performances and chameleonic versatility led to high-profile collaborations with the likes of synth-fuelled Miami Horror, and more recently with folk mainstay Gotye on “Somebody That I Used To Know”. Upon release, the Gotye collaboration spent more than a month at number one in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Gotye’s native Belgium.
The Melbourne-made track received an unprecedented online response. The likes of Ashton Kutcher, Katy Perry and Perez Hilton championed the song on their Twitter accounts, setting in motion a viral juggernaut that’s accumulated more than six million listens to date.
“She has a darkness and intensity not many vocalists her age can match,” says Wally de Backer, the man that is Gotye. “Add to that her great vocal dexterity. We both knew that we wanted to capture something very direct and raw — she recorded all the vocals herself and came up with a stunning, powerful performance.”
Like Kimbra’s collaborations, Vows is full to bursting with early signs of immense pop potential: an irreverent, unexpected take on modern pop that’s fresh and agreeable.
Breakfast finished, the young singer is sitting on the couch, describing her childhood home in animated detail. “Outside, there is this big, grassy area. It goes all the way down through to the river — which flowed outside the house. We spent a lot of time playing down there, in imaginary worlds.”
Would she call herself a daydreamer? “I look to the future and see exciting things. I’m in imaginary worlds all the time — it’s dangerous,” she smiles. “You can’t look ahead too much. No, you’ve got to be in the present. You can’t put too much weight on those dreams, can you?”
Maybe it’s the glimmer in her eye that betrays her. Maybe it’s the 6am start. But at last, 21-year-old Kimbra is unconvincing.
KIMBRA’S FAVOURITE JETSTAR DESTINATION
FIJI: “I recently had a holiday in Nadi, and loved getting to know the Fijian people while exploring the beautiful beaches and islands. Search the cute little markets that are dotted around or head to the National Park, where you can hold a snake around your neck.”
CATCH KIMBRA LIVE
25 NOV Queenscliff Music Festival, Queenscliff, Victoria
3 DEC Homebake Festival 2011 @ The Domain, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney
30 DEC Falls Festival, Marion Bay, Tasmania
31 DEC Falls Festival, Lorne, Victoria
7 JAN Southbound Festival, Busselton, Western Australia