If “Grammy-winning pop star from New Zealand” were a Jeopardy! clue, one correct response would be: Who is Kimbra? For the past seven years, that particular query has also echoed in the minds of music critics wondering where to place the 27-year-old singer, still best known for contributing vocals on Gotye’s 2011 hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.” She answers the question herself while chatting with me at Warner Music Group’s New York office in December, explaining how she has written and co-produced her three albums. She answers it even further on the latest of them, Primal Heart (out in April), brimming with technical prowess and astute lyrical sagas. If the world thought she was here only to assist on hit songs, she sounds as energized as ever to prove them wrong; she sounds ready for you to know she earned her mononym in pop.
In 2012, a year after Kimbra’s debut, Vows, I waited in a long, cold line outside a Chicago venue to see her in concert. I didn’t realize at the time that we were the same age when she took to the stage of a sold-out house, singing from an album that sounds as ambitious now as it did then. What 21-year-old puts a live track made famous by Nina Simone (“Plain Gold Ring”) on their debut album?, I wondered. It’s layered, experimental pop that is both beautifully sung by Kimbra and woefully unsung by critics.
Born Kimbra Lee Johnson in New Zealand, the pop star tells me her birthplace made her “more imaginative, looking outward and dreaming, far away from the world.” She moved to Australia in 2008 to work on music, including her debut album’s lead single, “Settle Down,” which led to her signing with Warner Bros. Records and moving Stateside. Her version of living in Hollywood was to be on a sheep farm on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She won two Grammys in 2013 for her song with Gotye, one for record of the year and another for best pop duo. She says the awards “feel like a long time ago, so it's funny to think about that affecting [Primal Heart], but I guess everything does affect everything else.” She calls Gotye by his nickname “Wally,” and they still see each other frequently.
Kimbra sometimes employs spiritual terms to describe songwriting, talking about her search for “a song that you have never heard before, but you feel like you've known all your life.” She says that for her second album, 2014’s The Golden Echo, she “didn't really have that same acute intention.” The reaction to the album was mixed, with Rolling Stone hailing it as one of the best 20 Best Pop Albums of 2014, while Pitchfork called her idiosyncratic take on the genre squandered potential.
Her new album details her growth in the interim, a time in which Kimbra relocated to New York City, finding what she considers a healthy remove from the music industry. On Primal Heart’s last track, “Real Life,” she sings, “Nothing to fear if you lose your mind / Just keep your head up in the real life.” This approach, at once fearless and grounded, results in her most cogent musical statement yet. Beyond an echo of her mammoth range, Primal Heart sees Kimbra’s pop-star potential realized.
For Lenny Letter, I talked with Kimbra about the Primal Heart tour, starting January 28 in Boston, and what fans can expect from the new album.
__Thora Siemsen: What are you most looking forward to about the Primal Heart tour?