Sure, one might argue that her naked back in the music video of that ballad (it’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ for you noobs) propelled her to international stardom. And sure, with 353 million YouTube views followed by what must arguably be a significant portion of said viewers breaking up with somebody they used to know, Kimbra Johnson has rightfully earned the honour of being that ex-girlfriend we all want to forget, but got famous for.. But this wasn’t her first successful foray into music.
Before her duet with Gotye garnered a global meltdown, the 22-year-old’s debut album, ‘Vows’, was already in the Top 5 charts over in her birthplace, New Zealand and current home, Australia. Her natural songwriting disposition blends avant garde, pop and a tinge of quirkiness at every tone – lapped up everywhere from SxSW (South by Southwest Music Fest in Texas, US) to Saturday Night Live.
I caught up with the artist ahead of her exclusive Laneway Singapore appearance (she and Gotye will not be performing in other cities) and talked about the pain behind her seemingly upbeat songs and the personal experiences that inspired it all.
There are a series of uncanny successes along the timeline of your career starting with Gotye’s ‘Somebody I Used To Know’ taking third place and your song ‘Cameo Lover’ winning the Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition. What did you make of that?
It was wonderful to be acknowledged for ‘Cameo Lover’ because it was one of the hardest tracks to complete on my album, ‘Vows’. It’s always an honour to be in the same company of artists you really admire. I knew that Gotye’s songs have an incredible power to connect, so having my own song acknowledged in the same way meant a lot.
Which musical route did you take back then?
My musical direction was starting to change a little as I had just begun work with some producers in the US for ‘Vows’. This was just before ‘Somebody I Used To Know’ really picked up in the States – it is funny looking back now and watching how the whole journey unfolded!
Kimbra ‘Cameo Lover’
And through producer Francois Tetaz, you and Gotye collaborated on what became an international hit. Then you got signed to Warner Bros. Records and released your debut album, ‘Vows’. All that in 2011. That’s pretty serendipitous.
I had been working on, and recording my album, since the age of 17 (and preparing for it even years before that); so to finally release it worldwide was hugely cathartic. The fact that it combined with the success of Gotye’s song was a pretty amazing alignment of events. Although it may have seemed as though it happened all at once, the lead up to it was many years in the making. And even before signing with Warner Bros., I already had a full album completed.
In an interview with Rolling Stone you mentioned that signing to Warner Bros. opened up a network of producers you could work with and have access to. What are you currently working on?
I just released a song on the soundtrack of Tim Burtons’ new film ‘Frankenweenie’ which was a lot of fun, and now I am writing new material back in my bedroom set-up in Melbourne. I will go back to the States early next year to follow up with some inspiring people and artists I met on the road, but the songwriting process for me has to include some solitude and stillness. I have a lot of new sketches I did on the road which I’m excited about – I am finally getting a chance now to flesh them out a bit!
Kimbra ‘With My Hands’ (OST ‘Frankenweenie’)
After touring with ‘Vows’ for almost a year, how are you relating to the songs?
We like to treat the live show quite differently and re-imagine the songs in a fresh way. ‘Settle Down’, for example, is on its fourth or fifth incarnation. We keep changing it on tour and it helps to keep the song relevant for me both lyrically and musically. I think it’s nice for the audience to hear the song grow and take away new meaning from it each time they hear it live.
‘Settle Down’ was written when you were 16 as a joke inspired by a film adaptation of the satirical thriller novel , ‘The Stepford Wives’ by Ira Levin. What does the song mean to you now?
When I first wrote it, it was a bit of fun mimicking these women who were all smiles but had a lot of cracks under the surface. It has come to represent a lot to me over the years. In many ways, I relate to the song as a call to embrace the present and not become obsessed with unrealistic expectations and ideals of perfection. But I also see the song as a heartfelt cry for a lot of women who crave a bit of stability and domesticity. That’s okay, and we shouldn’t shun that part of us, but we also need to understand its right place and not spin these ideals out of control.
Kimbra ‘Settle Down’
Most of your songs sound positively upbeat but are thinly veiled behind a painful side of reality. Is this a reflection of your own personal experiences?
I am curious about the layers behind an emotion and the words beneath the words, or the psychology behind human interactions. I think songs are stories that soundtrack a certain yearning for people, and my own experiences tend to subconsciously come through, whether I try for it or not.
To think that you’re all of 22 and have headlined concerts, festivals and tours; if given the chance, what would you really like to do in the New Year?
I want to find ways to keep practicing an inner stillness. Touring life can be very demanding and I have realised the importance of prioritising me time and connecting with nature (which is a big part of how I grew up in New Zealand.) I am excited to push into new musical territory in the New Year, and hopefully to inspire and give back along the way.
Of all the Laneway Festival cities, you’ll be playing exclusively for the Singapore edition. What will you be playing and will we be expecting some unreleased tunes from Kimbra?
We are always changing the live versions of the songs so people can expect some new interpretations of tracks off ‘Vows’ as well as older and some unreleased tracks that didn’t make it onto the record! The rest you’ll just have to wait and see!
You are now based in Australia. There are some notable festivals there, but how much of an impact do you think Laneway has?
Laneway has always had a reputation for bringing out some of the most exciting upcoming acts – I can’t wait to be a part of it, and especially getting the chance to see Singapore again!