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Kimbra is Busier Than Ever After a Five-Year Recording Break: ‘I’m Growing as a Person’

todayFebruary 16, 2023 3

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Kimbra is very aware of how big things became.

“Let’s be honest: me and Gotye’s names kind of became household names for a period of time,” the New Zealand-bred, New York City-based singer-songwriter reflects after catapulting to unlikely superstardom with their Hot 100-topping, Grammy-winning 2012 smash “Somebody I Used to Know. The duet went on to become one of the longest-charting hits in Hot 100 history, and remains one of the best-selling digital singles ever.

Over a decade later, however, Kimbra now finds herself picking up the pieces from a particularly turbulent period of her life since her last studio album, 2018’s Primal Heart. The title of her new album — A Reckoning, which was released last month — came to her before the songs did, as a perfect summation of what happened to her following a personal loss, the end of a relationship and a deal dissolution with longtime label home Warner Records, all amidst the pandemic.

A Reckoning is the result of choosing to turn inward and confronting her own emotions and thought patterns head-on. Co-crafted with Son Lux’s Ryan Lott, with features from Erick the Architect, Pink Siifu and Tommy Raps, the honest, genre-blending body of work twists aggressive beats, R&B-influenced melodies and shape-shifting organic sounds around vulnerable confessions, prayers and empowering declarations. “Replay!” is an ode to compulsive thoughts partially inspired by Kelis’ vocal delivery on “Caught Out There,” while “Foolish Thinking” is a moving piano ballad composed as a letter to her future daughter.

“We love people going through the rough, and then emerging to tell us what the war was like,” she says. With a renewed confidence in herself as a storyteller and in her purpose as an artist, Kimbra is ready to share what she calls a “redemption story.”

It’s been a while since 2018’s Primal Heart. What’s happened since?

We’ve all been through so much. The Primal Heart campaign came to an end, and I began to think about what I want to say next. I went through a stage of really struggling to write. Maybe it was because I was struggling to articulate what I was feeling. I hadn’t landed on something that felt honest. I don’t want to sell people something I don’t really believe.

I wrote “Save Me” in 2020 as things were really collapsing. My relationship at the time was coming to an obvious end as well. I was breaking up with my label. My team was changing. I moved upstate. I lost my best friend out of nowhere back in New Zealand. Some real lows.

I think, sometimes, our greatest breakthroughs happen at rock bottom. “Save Me” was a bit of a breakthrough – that feeling of hopelessness and being stuck with yourself. I struggle with a lot of anxiety and difficult thoughts. If I hold them in, it gets dangerous. I named something in me that I needed to get out. That’s where A Reckoning began. I had titled it before I even had all the songs.

Did the thought ever come that music wasn’t going to be the space for you anymore?

No, and that’s the biggest fear of all: that music won’t save me, and I won’t be able to get out what I want to say. When you keep turning up and believing that there’s something there, it comes through. It took other people — like Ryan Lott, the co-producer — to help identify what the sounds were going to be to tell the story. It’s an act of faith to make an album. You can turn a s—t sandwich into a beautiful liberation. [laughs]

Was there a sonic mood you were striving for?

I think the cohesion in my work is often the storyteller at the center, the voice that leads you through these different worlds. There’s a juxtaposition in the aggression of certain sounds against something very soft and tender, which is really me in a nutshell. I have all these conflicting things that live within me. My art is an attempt to translate my inner world to be understood, like all of us. The sonic identity is ever-changing, because I’m ever-changing.

When you talk about longing to be understood, does that extend to your former label?

Yeah. They wanted to extend my deal. It was already at six albums. They wanted to go to eight. They wanted to pick the producer. I can’t work that way. I need to have the agency in my work to put the right people in place to tell the story. I don’t do this to just sell a product. It’s my life.

It was a rock to my confidence. That’s another kind of reckoning: How bad do you want it? Are you gonna fight to get your music out there, form the right team, and keep turning up when you don’t have also someone breathing down your neck saying, “When’s the record done?” Now you have to motivate yourself.

How did you assemble a team of collaborators on your own?

I met Ryan doing a co-headlining tour with Son Lux. He has such a strange sound world to his music. I bring these catchy melodies – an almost R&B thing. That was an intriguing combination. I often bring people in when I’m struggling to finish a song, or there’s something not quite right. Bringing rappers on to jump on songs, or bringing Questlove in to help the rhythm section of the track — who’s doing this in their own work that could throw another color into the canvas? I’m hunting for the moment when I go, “Ah, that captures something I haven’t yet said.”

“Gun” was written in a Rihanna writing camp. Are you writing for others often?

I’ve done a little bit, not a ton. The whole place was dedicated to writing, every person in the studio. Her vocal coach would come through and guide me on how to perform the demo as her. I’m trying to embody the strength I see in Rihanna.

I’m just a kid from New Zealand. I still can’t believe I have a billboard up in Times Square. I look at a lot of the pop stars as being a lot more strong and badass than I am.

Fake it ’til you make it.

Exactly. And that’s what I did for that song. I don’t feel like I’m the s—t right now, but I’m gonna sing “I’m the s—t, so shout my name,” because I know Rihanna would say that and sell that.

There’s a certain kind of oppression that happens to artists, where you start to believe that you are a product of the people. I had to confront the fact that a lot of people I trusted had broken that trust. It’s about building yourself back up again and realizing there’s this inner strength that deserves to be spoken out loud. I just needed to wait until I was at the time of my life where I could sing a song I wrote for Rihanna. I think it was meant to be mine all along.

Can you talk about the collaborative doors that opened after “Somebody I Used to Know”?

I mean, let’s be honest: me and Gotye’s names kind of became household names for a period of time. There was a lot of respect that came from that song. When I would reach out to my favorite guitarist, they would know my name and have an interest in working together. And it wasn’t just, “Oh, you’re that girl with the random, massive song.” It was, “You made something that I really felt.” What a blessing that I got to penetrate the hearts of millions of people all over the world.

Are there sessions that didn’t see light of day that you wish had?

Yeah, there are songs lying around with various people. I just don’t know whether to name them, because it might still come out. The mysterious thing about music is you make things, and they may not reemerge for another 10 years. That’s another act of faith, to just keep making things, regardless of what timeline they’re on.

Are there plans for a musical reunion with Gotye?

Gotye has been working very hard on music. I’m sure he’ll come out the cave at some point to talk about it. It is not my place to talk on that, unfortunately. I’ll leave that up to him. But, let me tell you… anything is possible in this world. [laughs]

Do you retreat from popular music when you’re making music?

That’s a good question. I do take intentional breaks. Maybe just instrumental music for a while. I think constantly listening to vocals is a lot of stimulus for a vocalist. If you listen to SZA all the time, you might be writing a lot like SZA. Sometimes I will just listen to Philip Glass records or something, so I can work out what is my most genuine melodic perspective right now.

I’m really inspired by artists that are very ambitious in their records. I think Kendrick Lamar is one of those artists. He takes on a spirit of jazz that I think is very important — being able to jump around a lot, but have a very clear message and vision. He knows why he’s here and what he’s doing. It’s aggressive, it’s tough, but he can really speak truth to a lot of things in the world, in a very prophet-like way. Frank Ocean has been one of those groundbreaking songwriters in the last 10 years that I still go back to, with some of the most timeless songs.

Do you feel you still grapple with imposter syndrome?

Totally. I have that mentality still of being a young kid, insecure in high school. The only way I try to combat that is to remember that everyone feels that to a certain extent. You got to accept that you never really feel, at any point of your career, that you’re deserving of that place, or that you’ve done enough work to get there. It’s trusting something I’ve done connects with the world. It’s bigger than me.

I try to be humble about that. If they believe I am this person that’s really helped them through it, then let me turn up to that. Even though I feel s—tty today, that’s the service of the work.

What is your approach to feedback about your music online?

More and more, I’ve realized that anytime you take a risk and try to do something slightly daring, there will be people who don’t like it. There are people who like you to stay small, especially with women. Sometimes when I receive negative feedback, I almost take it as an affirmation that what I’m doing is pushing into something new. It makes sense that someone hates that version I did of a Beyoncé song, or something. Don’t get me wrong: it can really deflate me when I get something negative. People can be very cruel. But f—k, it’s just part of it, man. Every job has its thing that you have to be able to armor against.

So many artists who have come before me have experienced people not giving a s—t when their records came out. They were reviewed terribly. And then years later, they’re heralded as absolutely game-changing. People’s perception of you is always going to be changing. You’re not in control of that. At least there’s a reaction! Better than people kind of being like… eh.

You mentioned covering Beyoncé – you recently took on “Break My Soul.”

I’m always looking to find a new angle on something. I love the dissection process of a song that we all know really well. It comes back to wanting to have fun with music. If I’m always thinking about what other people want to hear, it’s not very fun. But if I’m loving it, then chances are someone else is probably going to feel that same way.

You have a Soundfly vocal arrangement and production class. What are your thoughts on the amount of female engineers in the studio? Has there been a shift?

I’ve seen the conversation change most among men. That’s where it’s important. Women have always been talking about this, but if we’re not being heard or respected by the people that have the power, nothing changes. It’s the same with the #MeToo movement. What we really needed was men to be in the conversation, rather than just being outside of it. I’ve seen a shift there.

There’s a musicality that comes from women in production and technical roles that is different. The feminine in all of us is very healing. We’ve been living in a patriarchy for so long. I think people are sensing we need a shift. It starts with conversations. If more people talk about it, we’re going to be more open to our cultural settings changing as well.

As the dust settles after releasing this record, what goals do you have, personally and professionally?

I really want to take this music to people one-on-one, and lift people up after all this s—t we’ve been through. I’m excited for that.

I’ve written more music in the last five years than I think have in my f—king entire career. I have more bodies of work that I’m currently working on: one is highly collaborative, and one is super dance floor with BRUX, the producer who did “Replay!” We started writing a lot of celebratory, anthemic dance tracks. I’m working on a lot of very heavily leaning R&B stuff. And then I want to make a very organic band record.

As I approach thinking about motherhood in the future, it would be cool to get as much out in this time of my life so I can take a break for a bit.

Personally, I’m always on a journey to keep healing. I make music so that I can better myself, and to be a more empathetic person in the world. That’s always my hope, through the vehicle of music, that I’m growing as a person, and hopefully helping people.

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