New Zealand-born singer Kimbra's voice might sound familiar — she was featured on Australian singer-songwriter Gotye's “Somebody That I Used to Know,” now the third-best selling Australian single of all time.
But she's also making tracks of her own, with her American debut, Vows, debuting at #14 upon its May release, and her April show at the Troubadour selling out in 45 seconds. Tomorrow and Friday she's performing at the Fonda Theater. We spoke with her about big labels, big collaborations, and tampons.
Hopefully not too many people think you're Australian because of the Gotye collab. Who else well-known comes from New Zealand?
There's a band called Unknown Mortal Orchestra; there's a lot of acts that you might not know but they're making it famous. It's a very small country and it's very far away so it's natural for a lot of people to move into a bigger market once they've kind of exhausted the local venues and radio stations.
Speaking of a bigger market, when you came to America you signed with a pretty big label, Warner. As someone who has a lot of creative input into your music, was signing with a big label nerve-racking for you?
Totally, yeah. Up until the signing, I had made the whole record independently with my manager… and, like you said, had kind of set out my direction so it was a nerve-racking thing because I was letting in a team of people who have a reputation, sometimes, to shift and change that agenda. But I've been very lucky, to be honest, and at the end of the day people can say what they want about big labels but they're still all just people, and if you find the right people that connect with your vision [you'll be fine] … I think if I can manage to stand my ground, I'll be OK.
You recently wrote a song with John Legend. Where is it and when can we hear it?
I don't know yet! I believe it'll be out on his next record. There's a couple of songs that I've sung on for him, one of them was one we wrote together and I was gonna use it for my album, and then he was like “actually can I use it?' and I was like, “yeah!”
Yeah, it's cool, it was really fun. It was just one of those things where he really liked my music and hit me up on like Twitter and asked if I could write with him. It was really great to have that experience on an artist level.
You've collaborated with a lot of people you look up to, like Deantoni Parks from The Mars Volta. When that happens do you feel like “Oh my God, is this really happening to me?” Or is it more of a “Wow, this is great but I always kind of saw it coming?”
I wouldn't say I always saw it coming; if you had told me while I was in high school that Deantoni Parks is gonna play on one of your songs or that Thundercat is gonna ask you [if he can] play bass — there's no way that I'd believe that.
The anxiety going into the studio especially with people like this is, “Will I be able to keep up with them?” But I think it's just constantly reminding yourself that there's a reason why they wanna work with you and it is about mutual respect.
I saw you play School Night at the Bardot a few months ago, and you do a lot of uninhibited movement while performing. Is that something you practiced in the mirror with a hairbrush or does it come naturally to just move with the music?
It's definitely developed with time; I don't think there was a moment I decided okay, this is how I'm going to look on stage or anything. It always has to be very honest; as soon as something looks forced or contrived, I don't like that.
I mean there are certain things that actually help me. I find that manipulating my body in some ways will actually help me unlock certain parts of my voice. I've had coaching where it's very difficult, like, you'll collapse your ribcage down to one side, and move your chest to help your projection, or certain muscles in your back… And when I come to a show I like to see that a band is physically involved with the music as well.
I remember reading on your Myspace some years ago that part of the percussion for “Settle Down” was made with a tampon?
[Laughs] It was a session that we did and I had all this stuff in my handbag, like hairbrushes, and I was like “yeah, here's a tampon packet,” and … we just kind of sorted them out and were like “oh, that sounds good.” One thing was my asthma inhaler that I played in that session as well, it's like a great sound when the air shoots out. We were trying to find a sound where no one's actually going to know what that is.
What is your purpose with your music – what do you set out to do?
I like the idea that you have to challenge people. I think that's the great gift of music, that it actually makes people think differently. There's not many things in the world that make people stop and go actually, yeah, I'm gonna think differently about this. I think it's our responsibility to use the gift in a way that will be beneficial and help other people.
A lot of people feel that effort to challenge them, especially with the constant new live versions of your songs. Are you afraid of becoming static?
Yeah, I think I need an element of danger in the songs. I never want it to become too comfortable or familiar or to get into the mindset of it being a job… and you know, that stuff can go wrong! Especially the looping stuff … there's been many times that I walked off stage kind of angry thinking “ugh, I completely messed that up” — but then, people will come up after the show and say they enjoyed it. So it is a mix of a few things — boredom, on the one hand, [laughs] and also believing that music and songs should evolve.
What's the strangest interaction you've had with a fan?
One thing I really like is that they make a lot of artwork for me – I think it's pretty cool that my music makes them create. This girl at that Bardot show drew a picture of me dressed up like in the video for Cameo Lover… but I was a zombie with blood pouring out of my neck and bones sticking out of every angle – it was freakin' weird! And I told her like “thank you, but I don't know what you're trying to say with that.” I mean I actually thought it was pretty cool, I've got it hanging up in my room.
When I was in Kansas playing “Warrior” with Mark Foster… this guy came up from the audience cuz he was quite drunk, and came for me like he was about to throw me down. I don't know if he just wanted to dance but he started sprinting towards me. And Mark Foster was like “Shit!” and he jumped off the piano – and it's quite funny because the songs is called “Warrior” and he literally had to become a warrior for me… it was kind of scary.
As you get bigger, what do you never want to let go or lose sight of?
Having the ability to not take yourself too seriously and never get too high on your own praise. I met Janelle Monae earlier in the year and she told me the same thing. She wrote that song “Tightrope” about never getting too high on the praise and never getting too low on the criticism, and I'd like to be riding in the middle.