More than a cameo lover: Kimbra

Updated: 29 Jan 2013
More than a cameo lover: Kimbra

Rising star Kimbra opens up about her love-hate relationship with fashion, her upcoming sophomore album, and life after Gotye. By Wong Boon Ken

Perhaps best known for her cameo on Gotye’s monster hit ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’, Kimbra Johnson is also a talented singer-songwriter in her own right. The quirky Melbourne-based New Zealander’s 2011 debut album ‘Vows’ included highlights like ‘Cameo Lover’ and ‘Settle Down’, showcasing the 23-year-old’s penchant for dreamy jazz-tinged electro-R&B and soulful vocal prowess.

You started writing songs before you were ten. Who were your musical influences back then and how have they evolved through the years?
I loved show tunes and musicals as a kid and I loved jazz like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra as well. When I turned 15 or 16, I started to get into a Japanese artist called Cornelius, whom I absolutely love. I also got into a lot of metal bands like The Mars Volta at that age. Jeff Buckley, Prince and Michael Jackson were very big artists for me, and they introduced me to a lot of great music through their records.

How did you begin writing songs?
I used to just record every little silly idea I had to cassette when I was a kid. I also had an analogue recorder and burned different tracks onto a CD, and that’s when I discovered my voice could take on very different textures when it was layered and doubled. I got into the idea of creating complete songs a cappella, but I was also playing guitar from the age of 13 and writing a lot of songs on the instrument. I then moved into production and arranging songs with vocal and string parts.

Incidentally, what was the first song you ever wrote?
Oh gosh, you know, I couldn’t remember now but it must have been when I was nine years old. I guess I just played around a lot as a kid, and I was lucky that I had parents who supported me and said I should go to a studio to make recordings. I was lucky that they encouraged me, but I don’t think I’d like to hear those songs now. They were probably really terrible [laughs].

Aside from music, you’re also growing to become a style role model with your fondness for different textures, cuts and novelty designs in fashion. What drives you to dress up?
It’s not something I really plan; I’ve just always enjoyed coming up with fun outfits. I like going into op-shops and trying to put together an interesting outfit for $10. But for me, it’s more about the music. I don’t want people coming along to shows and caring more about the outfits than the songs. It’s absolutely about the songs. What the band and I wear or the visuals on that day is only a way of extending the message and emotion of the music more. I think it’s about inviting people into a world where they can feel a sense of transcendence. If the visuals can do that to someone and make the show more memorable then that’s a great thing.

You’ve collaborated with the likes of Gotye and Mark Foster [of Foster the People] to great success in recent times. Do you have any collaborations lined up in the future?
I’ve been working with a lot of people over the last year, and I also wrote some songs with John Legend for his next album. In terms of my own record, I’ve worked with some members of The Mars Volta in the past and I’d love to work with some of them again. I’ve been playing around with The Dillinger Escape Plan guitarist [Ben Weinman], and we’ve started coming up with ideas together. It’s a huge departure from what I’ve done previously, so it is really something fun. There are a lot of people I’m looking to hopefully work with.

Anyone in particular?
There’s this Japanese musician named Cornelius, whom I mentioned earlier. I’d love to work with him, and we are talking about doing something together, so there’s a lot of stuff in discussion at the moment.

Are those discussions in preparation for a new album?
We started working on new material, and that will be my focus for the next few months. I’m excited about the new body of work as ‘Vows’ feels old to me now. I look forward to putting up new music. I also recently released a new song that’s featured in the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie’.

Will your new album follow the same direction as ‘Vows’ with sprinkles of soul, jazz and electro-pop?
I really don’t know at this point, but I think I will definitely evolve and there’ll be some pent-up aggression to the new record as well. I’ve been inspired by Flying Lotus and his minimalist approach to songs, and I’d like to explore the idea of stripping things back a little and integrating my live band, which I haven’t done before. There are a few options but I don’t know where it is heading just yet.

‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ really blew up globally. ‘Vows’ has generally received favourable reviews but it is nowhere near as iconic as your appearance on Gotye’s hit. How do you feel about that one song’s level of success when compared against your own?
You know, it has just been an amazing experience to be part of that song and that journey. It’s such an impactful song to so many people around the world and it provided a great opportunity for me to put my album out there as well. I think the song was boundary-pushing and changed a lot of people’s perceptions about pop music. It was very different from a lot of the stuff on the charts at that time. I was just glad to be part of such an artistic collaboration.

What are you most looking forward to in the New Year?
I’m extremely excited about making the new record and working with new producers. I’m not sure what is in store for 2013, but I can’t wait to see what opportunities come about and to be on the road again.

Kimbra’s debut album ‘Vows’ is now in stores.