Kimbra tackles eclectic pop with lion-hearted exuberance.
Millions of people have hung on each emotive inflection of the female voice that challenges Gotye in his massive hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.” And so did the woman who sang the duet.
“I sat there listening to my vocal takes for days, trying to refine and get it right,” says Kimbra Johnson, the New Zealand upstart who performs under her first name. “He said, ‘I want you to almost talk it and be really stripped back and passive, and try to keep all your emotions suppressed,’ and that was really strange for me. Usually my vocals are a bit more ‘out there.’”
This is clear in Kimbra’s brashly eclectic debut, Vows, which was recorded before her Gotye collaboration but released four months later, in May. “In terms of production and vocal styles, I’ve tried to have it be really free and open-minded,” says the coltish 22-year-old singer. “It’s almost a primal approach.”
Indeed, Kimbra soars from the jazzy Motown flavors of “Something in the Way You Are” and “Cameo Lover” to the syncopated vocal layers of “Settle Down” and the Nina Simone favorite “Plain Gold Ring.” With production led by François Tétaz (Gotye) and Mike Elizondo (Regina Spektor), Kimbra slickly balances the arty and the accessible on Vows with everything-but-the-kitchen-sink touches that nod to her era-spanning inspirations.
Kimbra’s early love for Broadway shows, jazz choir and Frank Sinatra was eclipsed by an interest in primal alt-rock at age 15, when someone handed her a mix CD that included the Mars Volta and Nine Inch Nails. “I was like, ‘Wow, what is this?’” she recalls. “I just wanted to listen to experimental music all through high school. Whether it was Miles Davis or Kate Bush, I wanted to listen to different artists that were going to challenge me somehow.”
When she took up the acoustic guitar in her early teens, Kimbra drew influence from the native Maoris who lived around her North Island city of Hamilton. “At my school, they’d play a lot of Maori songs that had this hard, rhythmic strumming,” says the singer, whose album cover displays her body covered with Maori-like drawings. “I picked up a very percussive way of playing.”
In turn, Kimbra borrowed an eight-track recorder from school, a turning point still reflected in her songwriting. “I made a CD and showed mum and dad what I’d done, and they were, ‘Oh, that’s crazy,’ ’cause I’d done all these pitch shifters on my voice. Up until that point, I’d just been writing this pretty acoustic music.”
Her parents encouraged her pursuits. “They got me with vocal coaching to make sure I was doing it right and not ruining my voice,” Kimbra says.
At age 17, she was discovered by her manager, who arranged for Kimbra to move to Melbourne, Australia. A few years later, she was honored as Best Female Artist at the 2011 A.R.I.A. Awards, Australia’s equivalent to the Grammys. Then came the Gotye breakout, which warmed up the American market. “I think it opened up doors for me to put out a record like Vows,” she says from her tour bus, riding through Northern California.
She’s currently inspired by the band Dirty Projectors, not only for their polyphonic vocals but also for mixing raw indie-rock with R&B and soul. “It’s so exciting to see that happen, and to me, that isn’t schizophrenic,” says Kimbra, who’s likewise a fan of Björk and Janelle Monáe. “There are moments on my record where I’m like, ‘Ah, is this too odd?’ Then I’ll stop and think that’s what feels right. I want to go with that and not stop halfway.”
That full-charge investment especially comes through onstage, where Kimbra complements her vocal intensity with flamboyant baby-doll dresses and retro hairstyles that can seem almost cartoonish.
“I like contradictions,” says the ebullient dynamo, who brings her grooving, punctuating four-piece band to Royale on Oct. 24. “I like the live performance to feel like an experience that goes further than what you might expect.”
Kimbra plays at Royale Oct. 24.