The Big Issue story: ‘Track Record: Kimbra’ – October 2014

A feature story for The Big Issue #470 — a profile of New Zealand musician Kimbra and her recently released album, The Golden Echo.

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KIMBRA LEE JOHNSON gets bored easily. “Especially when you’re about to start an album,” says the singer-songwriter, who’s known by her first name. “I had to get some new inspiration.”

Kimbra’s new inspiration turned out to be Los Angeles, which has been her home since moving from Melbourne a year-and-a-half ago. Even over the phone, it’s easy to imagine ennui setting in for the 24-year-old: she tackles ideas like she’s hill-climbing, words are exerted in thick torrents until she crests her thoughts and relaxes again. “LA exposed me to a lot more music,” she says. “I was hanging out with people like [bassist and producer] Thundercat and learning a lot about the dance scene here. Obviously there are a lot of musicians in LA who worked on records with Michael Jackson or Prince, around funk and soul and West Coast hip-hop. There’s so much going on here. So much history.

“And it’s funny because I’ve done a complete 180 on this city,” Kimbra continues. “When I first came here I really disliked it. I just couldn’t find the soul of the place [but] it’s that age-old cliché: when you do find the community of people you connect with and you find a nice place to live that feels homely, that changes everything.”

It was a plucky move. For most Australian-based artists, the pro forma would have been to capitalise on the initial success of a platinum-selling debut – in Kimbra’s case, Vows (2011) – with a second album and tour, and then perhaps think about tackling foreign territories. But the New Zealander instead rolled the dice on a country that knew her mostly for her bitter riposte on Gotye’s double Grammy-winning single, ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’.

Was it a risk moving to Los Angeles when she did? “Maybe,” she says. “The natural thing would’ve been to go back to Melbourne and settle there for a bit, but at the same time I’d been living in Melbourne for almost six years, so it was really time for a new experience… I never thought of it as a risk. I saw it as something that would shape me into a better musician.”

The result is The Golden Echo, an ambitious, giddy, hour-long second album. It’s Kimbra’s jazzy electro-pop and R’n’B opened up to a technicolour palette of sounds and influences, one that moves her towards the cutting edge of pop music in the US.

Kimbra claims she wasn’t nervous about how the album would be received by her Australian and NZ fan base: “I went for a pretty audacious choice for a first single [‘90s Music’] and I think in some ways that’s more nerve-racking,” she says. But there’s no doubt it’s a bracing adjustment for listeners, the album zigzagging its way through a variety of influences and sounds. “Many [career] decisions I’ve made so far are about saying, ‘Hey, this is maybe not what you’re going to completely expect from the second record, but it’s going to be exciting, and all from a place of authenticity’.”

Perhaps more impressive than the intent is that an album like this negotiated a major-label system renowned for scuppering creativity. Kimbra talks about being expected to have a clear vision for The Golden Echo, as well as the collaborators to whom she now had access: John Legend, Muse’s Matt Bellamy and Silverchair’s Daniel Johns all worked with her on the album. Perhaps most important to Kimbra, though, was the involvement of legendary producer, Lenny Waronker.

Waronker has built his reputation on prioritising music over business. “When that’s your day-to-day person advising you, it’s always a very musical conversation,” she says. “It was about: how do we make this as timeless as possible and as great as possible? There’s always going to be a dance recognising that you’re still a commodity to a company and you need to produce something that’s marketable. But that’s all stuff that I try to leave at the door when I go into the studio. All those conversations will come [later].”

Now come the live shows. Kimbra remembers with bitter disappointment the short-lived Australian tour with Janelle Monáe last May, which ended after just one Melbourne set from Kimbra when Monáe fell seriously ill. “It sucks there’s no footage,” she laughs. “It almost feels like a phantom tour now. It was great, though, and I feel like the songs translated amazingly well. We’re embarking on a US tour in October, and that will be the time to really showcase these songs live. [From] the little I’ve seen I feel like it’s going to be a really explosive experience for people.”

And Australia? There are just two local tour dates so far, but after the experience with Monáe you get a sense of unfinished business. “Of course. That was such a hard time,” Kimbra says. “We all understand that Janelle was totally sick… [but] it was so hard for everyone to be so prepared and for it not to go ahead. I’m absolutely looking forward to coming back.”

by Matt Shea

» The Golden Echo is out now. Kimbra performs in Melbourne and Sydney in late November.

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