Henry Oliver talks to Kimbra, the Hamilton-raised, New York-based art-pop star, about her new album, Primal Heart.
Since leaving New Zealand ten years ago (and topping the singles charts of twenty-something countries with Gotye seven years), she’s moved to LA and then to New York where she set up a home studio to write what would become her new album Primal Heart.
Taking the maximalist global sounds of her last album, The Golden Echo, and stripping them down to their core elements, Primal Heart is the best expression of Kimbra’s eclectic art-pop yet. Here she talks about working in New York, the diversity of her audience, and travelling to Ethiopia.
Since The Golden Echo, you’ve moved to New York, where you recorded Primal Heart. How is making music different there?
In LA you create these little bubbles for yourself where you get lost in imagination and create these very surreal worlds because the whole place is a little bit surreal and crazy. In a sense it kind of distances you from reality. New York confronts you with reality. It’s right in front of you, all walks of life, race, class. You interact with it every day. On the subway, all around you. In a sense, it didn’t work for me anymore to stay on the sidelines and observe things from afar. I needed to talk to them directly and immerse myself more in that visceral energy.
There’s a Zadie Smith essay talking about living in New York and going back to England and how New York makes you put your shoulders back and be more ambitious. When she’s in England she looks at her New York self as a bit cringey for that ambition.
It’s the simple thing like just getting on the subway, you can’t be timid or anything, you just have to walk up and do it. In order to get the basic things done, it requires you to have a little boldness about the way you hold yourself. It is inspiring to be around people who are all there for a reason. They’re all there to learn something, to create something, to achieve something and it rubs off on you and you start thinking big as well. I think it’s a positive thing for human beings to be lifted up by their fellow neighbour and striving towards great things. I like being in a city that encourages that.
The lucky thing for me is that I always have New Zealand as my true home and it kind of balances me because they’re so different but they’re both such a part of who I am in a way. New Zealand to me is a place where I find that nourishment, that rejuvenation, that rest and that peace and there’s so much ambition here as well, in fact, some of the most ambitious people I’ve met have been New Zealanders who’ve ventured overseas.
How has that changed the way you make music?
I’ve met an amazing musical community there. People like Questlove from the Roots, I’ve been jamming with him, I spent time with David Byrne of the Talking Heads and did a performance with him – these people who are idols of mine. I also set up my own studio in my apartment so I have an actual place now that’s not in my bedroom but set aside. It’s got analogue synths, Wurlitzer pianos and drum machines in a space that feels my own, not renting it out somewhere else.
I think that changes the ownership you have over the music you’re writing. You can invite people to your studio to work on things. I still did a lot of writing in LA and all around the world for this record. I think that’s still a big part of it but there’s a spirit from New York that’s seeped into the directness of the music.
Does that slow a process if you’ve got your own space? Is it more gradual?
The writing process has been lengthy. I’ve been writing ever since I finished The Golden Echo so there’s been a lot of time that’s passed while writing, but the actual production of the record, which I co-produced with John Congleton who has made all the St. Vincent records, Goldfrapp, Blondie, and he likes to work very fast. This record took a lot longer than he’s used to. He normally does things in about a month and ours was more like three months. Even though the songs were written and a lot of the production aesthetic was already defined, we were adding and changing things. Even then, the production’s final incarnation was done quite quickly and I liked that process. I like spending longer on the writing and refining those things but then when you get to making choices on the sound, the drum part, the lines, just be fast about it. I like that approach.
To force some restriction?
Yeah, exactly that, and then I don’t go crazy having a myriad of options always at my fingertips and never finishing them.
It’s an eclectic record…
Yeah, less eclectic though. I think the last record had so many collaborators and featured artists and different people from such varied worlds… And yes, there are a couple of producers who worked on things with me [for the new album] that are quite unexpected – Skrillex for example – but the actual core of this record has a lot more focus. There were a lot fewer people involved overall and the people who played on one song also played on three others, so the same drummer appears on all of them, the same guitarist appears across all of them. I like that it feels a bit more intentional in the people I picked. It’s still eclectic but I think that’s been focused in a new way.
Is that an album-making approach? Do you have a picture of what the work’s going to be as a whole rather than a collection of songs?
I think that came towards the end. I’m called the record Primal Heart, which came from the song ‘Human’ but it wasn’t until that point when I knew that was going to help me define which songs I make as the record. Before that point, you are fumbling in the dark a bit. You’re waiting until you stumble upon a body of work but until that point, it just feels like a collection of songs everywhere.
I didn’t necessarily know what I was going in to create but I did have a very strong intention that I wanted it to be more focused around my voice and not as interested in doing too much decoration to distract from the core thing. I wanted it to feel Primal Heart. The sense of really exposing the core of a living thing and what connects us as human beings. What that means is losing a part if it doesn’t really help a song, if it doesn’t help to contribute to the story then it doesn’t really need to be there.
With the help of John Congleton, helping me to be more focused I was able to make bolder choices rather than thinking everything needs to happen all of the time.
The last record was very maximalist…
It was dense and maximalist, exactly. That’s what I needed to do at that point. I was in that headspace and I was an excited kid in a playground. I wanted to throw everything at the wall and I’m really glad I got to do that. I’m so thankful I had people around me who said ‘You know what? Do it’. That’s really cool and it’s led me to this point.
Is it hard to go from that and pare it down?
It wasn’t too hard because it’s what excited me. I was so excited by maximalism on the last album but what I was excited about for this one was more minimalism. It was hard because it goes against the grain of how I work. If you see me in the studio, engineering or producing or writing I’m constantly looking at as many different approaches as possible and how we can explore every avenue and choose the best one, but in this process, I was being asked to commit. As soon as you feel like you’ve got something that works and tells the story, commit. No going back, no trying the part again differently. Even the vocal takes. Singing them top to bottom, not tapping into the verse. I really had to treat it like a soul record, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield. Jumping on the mic and singing the song down from the heart. It was hard because it’s not the way I’m used to working. To change your skill set.
Is that something that you can get from a producer? Does it help having someone else there to force or at least encourage that change?
That’s the beauty of an objective opinion right? Because I’m never going to be able to be objective about my own work. I can have a good instinct about things but I’m so close to it. I’ve always viewed my voice as an instrument in the mix, so I’m always telling people, ‘Pull it back but bring up the guitar,’ and he said, ‘I don’t care about any of that stuff, I just want your voice up’. I’m never going to tell someone to do that, it’s just not the way I think. It helped to have someone else step in and say ‘Dude, people just want to connect with you, why are we distracting, let’s just get this out front and centre’. The first single ‘Everybody Knows’ is an example of that, it feels a lot more vulnerable and raw than things I’ve done before.
What was the learning of making this really eclectic maximalist record and then playing live and translating that to that environment?
I think what was really special about the whole environment of The Golden Echo is just the diversity of people it attracted. Playing through the States you’d have dads bringing their daughters who haven’t really gotten into anything new since 70s prog bands they used to love and they loved that they could hear the influence of Mr Bungle, and all these bands that they used to love. in our live arrangements. Also, straight-up dudes who only listen to R&B and hip-hop and girls who also love Ariana Grande but love my songs. It was really special to me to see that The Golden Echo magnetised such an interesting fanbase of people who were really curious about music and wanted to listen to every bit of it.
It feels like a really good place for me now with all I’ve learnt from that to focus things in a little bit more. It’s an obvious journey but I think of everything as a reaction to what I’ve done before. I love artists who’re doing that, I have my favourites – Bowie, Prince – they’re always reacting and reinventing themselves, literally, based on what they were before. It takes courage to do that but it feels like the right thing to do at this point and it feels like I’m not as interested in all of the character work. I like to play characters because there are many characters inside my personality, but when you do something one way for a while you become more interested in doing it another way.
So less fictional?
I really like to play with surrealism and ideals a lot. If you think back to ‘Settle Down’ and a lot of the songs on The Golden Echo there’s a lot of nostalgia and throwbacks to ’90s music. Things that existed in a kind of surreal space as well, visually. But I want this record to be grounded. To feel like it’s on the earth and what I was talking about from afar, I’m now talking about amongst. That changes the way you want to speak to things you’re experiencing as a lyricist as well. Not that I don’t write about things I was experiencing, but in a way it was perhaps a little more decorated by escapism and things.
Is that feeling more comfortable to do that? Is it getting older?
I think it’s the basic things. I’m 27 now and I’ve been through more things and done these travels that changed my life during the last couple of years. I’ve been to Ethiopia twice and put out a record and moved my life to New York. I did a road trip across America seeing all of the South. There are things in my life that have shifted and given me a sense of confidence to step into that space, which feels really empowering.
Why did you go to Ethiopia?
It wasn’t anything to do with music. I don’t think anyone on the trip knew that I was a musician till the very end. I stumbled into a church in LA once and they were talking all about the trip that they were doing, not the church itself, but an organisation called Tirzah, who work with women and children to help empower them. These women have been affected by HIV in Ethiopia but the Ethiopian charity over there are giving seed money to help them form sustainable businesses. So Tirzah are partnering with the Ethiopian charity to help tell the stories of the women and help to financially support and also learn from them. I really believe we have a lot to learn from people we meet in the third world rather than going over and ‘teaching them our ways’, which makes me a bit ill to be honest. It means we miss out on all the beautiful things we can learn from all of these cultures.
The women I met over there gave me so much strength to go back to America and deal with some of the hard things I was going through because I saw the way they wake up at 5 am every day and climb a mountain and back with massive logs on their backs just to make sure they get enough food for their five children that night while they’re also fearing that they might be HIV positive and they don’t test them because of the stigma. Things like that really put a lot into perspective and I think changes the importance of the thing you’re talking about as a musician.
You’re someone who has the opportunity to do what you do as a vocation. You make and album and then you tour the album and then eventually make another album, but how conscious are you of having to do other things to either recharge or find new things to write about?
I think of it like the yin to the yang. It’s my career and Kimbra is an identity as a musician, but it’s also my name which is a bit weird and looking back I would’ve like to have perhaps created a stage name to create a little more separation. At the same time, it gives me a chance to have a real honesty about what I do because it is my name.
I think having those times where I’m contributing to the world just as a human with hands. Nothing necessarily special or talented, but it’s really humbling. It’s just a way to remember the weight of any work that I’m doing. Everybody has something to give, and it absolutely recharges me and gives me more joy for what I’m doing.
I think if my job isolated me more and more from the world I’d get more and more depressed doing it but when I take moments to connect with the world as someone anonymous, not a musician, it connects me more to the world and it makes the music more connective language as opposed to something that separates me from the world. It can happen, especially in the world of Hollywood, you can find yourself quite isolated from real life problems that are going on every day.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.