Mess+Noise interview: Kimbra: ‘I Didn’t Want To Study Music; I Wanted To Play It’, October 2011

I interview Kimbra Johnson for Australian music website, Mess+Noise. Excerpt below.

At this stage of the game, Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ seems a shoo-in for first place on triple j’s 2011 ‘Hottest 100’ list. With the song having notched up several consecutive weeks atthe top of the Australian charts and more than 10 million YouTube hits – not to mention seven ARIA Award nominations – you’d be brave to bet against it.

For many, it was their first introduction to Kimbra Johnson, who appears out of nowhere in the song’s third act, but those with keen ears will have already come across the New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based singer – even if they don’t quite realise it.

There was ‘Settle Down’, her sassy, sashaying single of July last year, followed just a month later by the Miami Horror collaboration, ‘I Look To You’. Drip-fed into the equation in April was ‘Cameo Lover’ (which, ironically, beat ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ to first place in this year’s Vanda & Young songwriting competition). And now there’s her eagerly anticipated debut album, Vows, which a few months ago would have barely registered on most people’s radars.

If it all seems like the timing’s a little too impeccable then you’re perhaps right. Ever since she left New Zealand as a 17-year-old, Kimbra’s been able to call upon the seasoned management of industry vet Mark Richardson, and in June she signed a worldwide deal with Warner Bros Records. But to imply that everything’s been laid out for her would be disingenuous. She wrote the vast majority of Vows herself, and co-produced the record with Franc Tetaz and M-Phazes – very impressive stuff for an artist who not long ago celebrated her 21st birthday.

It’s fair to say that you’ve come out of nowhere for a lot of people, and a lot of people maybe don’t know your story. You’re from Hamilton originally, right?
Yeah, a small city in New Zealand.

Your father’s a doctor and your mother’s a nurse?
Yeah!

So where did the music come from for you?
I’m not sure, really. It was just a very natural inclination from a young age for me. I don’t know how I got into it. I guess I liked musical theatre when I was young, and I started being in shows when I was a kid, and then at school I joined a jazz choir. My parents were playing music when I was growing up, but it felt quite natural for me to express myself through songwriting and singing from an early age. It just came naturally.

What kind of artists were feeding into your love of music as a kid?
I can’t remember exactly what my parents would play. I just remember what I myself got into from an early age. It would have been the classical musical theatre stuff, but also a lot of jazz from my first high school scat choir, which was a jazz group that did Frank Sinatra medleys and Ella Fitzgerald songs, and [George] Gershwin. We used to sing little jazz songs in our choir and I guess that gave me an ear for jazz. Once I picked up the guitar I was into learning jazz chords myself, and different things in that genre. So yeah, that’s probably what I first got into. But at the same time I was listening to a lot of pop. I loved Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson from a young age as well. [Laughs]

That jazz influence seems to remain in your music too.
Yeah. I think something about the colour in that kind of music and the soul in a lot of that singing probably stuck with me, for sure.

I understand the move to Melbourne was facilitated by Mark Richardson, is that right?
Yeah, he’s my manager. At the time, he flew over to Auckland to see me play a show there and then offered me a chance to move to Melbourne and start making an album with financial support. So it was up to me to make the decision and I decided, “Yeah, I’m keen!”

He offered that financial support to go to Melbourne, but was a move to Australia always in the back of your head? Or were you thinking somewhere else, perhaps: Auckland, Wellington or Sydney?
Well, I was going to go and study in Auckland – that was the intention. But in the back of my head I always hoped that maybe I’d go to Europe or something like that and do music. I never imagined Australia, but I had visited Melbourne once and I did think, “Wow. This is a great city.” Now that I live here, I’m just glad that I made the move because it’s a fantastic city.

What were you planning on studying in Auckland?
I think I was just going to do language, because I love French and I spoke it. I was interested in philosophy papers, and I wanted to do a Hebrew paper. [Laughs] So I just wanted to learn, really. I didn’t want to study music; I just wanted to play it.

I spoke to Barnaby Weir recently – of the Black Seeds – and he made an interesting comment that sometimes artists lose something when they move away from their home. Did that ever concern you?
I think it was pretty inevitable that I would change, going from the age of 16 or 17 to 21. Whether or not I moved or stayed in New Zealand, I think I would have changed a lot anyway, because they’re such defining years. I’m a person who adapts quite quickly to different surroundings, but I think that’s something that I actually wanted. I did want to expand my sound – I didn’t have the desire to keep it exactly the same. I did want to change it, whereas The Black Seeds: if they wanted to keep that distinctive sound, perhaps he’s right that moving countries would take something away from that original vibe. I guess it’s just different for every artist.

For the full article, visit Mess+Noise.

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