“(I want) to kind of decorate everything,” Kimbra confesses in a phone interview with The Daily Californian. While the United States perhaps best remembers New Zealand singer Kimbra from her show-stealing bridge on Gotye’s smash hit “Somebody That I Used to Know,” her own music is a radical departure from that song’s austerity.
In her albums Vows and The Golden Echo, Kimbra’s thin voice plays off of her increasingly complex and eclectic beats. In tracks such as “Settle Down” and “90s Music,” Kimbra crystallizes the appeal of her music. As her vocals swoon up to a delicate vibrato and down to a throaty growl, she anchors the otherwise bizzare jazz and trap beats of each song, respectively, through the verve her voice projects.
But her voice isn’t the only thing Kimbra brings to the table. As she makes clear, producing has always been a part of her toolbox, even when she doesn’t get credit — such as on her first album, Vows.
“I was 17 at the time, and François Tétaz came on as the main person of that album, but if I’m being honest with you, I was producing the whole time through that,” Kimbra said. “I programmed most of the demos and then François would take over, and he was really into retracking a lot of things. He was a hands-on producer, and nothing goes by François without running through his chain; he had to have his hands on every sound, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Kimbra didn’t receive any credit as a producer on the entirety of Vows, a situation that is not unusual: Björk once angrily noted how she herself “did 80 percent of the beats on Vespertine” and yet people assumed her role was minimal compared to her male co-producers.
Later in her career, however, Kimbra’s producers wanted to hold on to the vibe of her lo-fi bedroom productions. “It was kinda cool to be encouraged in that way. So I think my confidence just built,” she said. This external source of her confidence sustained her until she could produce on her own.
Kimbra’s upcoming album will be called Primal Heart. “To me, (the title feels) like the exposing of oneself, this idea that humans are running on the fuel of love — we crave it and we die for it,” she said. “(A primal heart is) ambition and fearlessness, but also ego, greed and envy.”
Throughout the past year, Kimbra has been releasing singles off the album, and the tracks have been bizarre, even for Kimbra’s standards. The strange combination of whispering distorted “ooh-ooh-oohs”and a chugging, alien-sounding beat on “Human” has to be heard to be believed, and the drum-heavy Skrillex co-production on “Top of the World” sounds like a M.I.A. track, featuring Kimbra rapping over the beat.
Kimbra, though, would object to any characterization of her performance as rapping. “My style of singing has always been rhythmic. I like to use my voice as an instrument and play off the rhythm,” she said. “At times, the singing might verge on spoken word/rapping, but I don’t think of it like that. I think of it like a more monochrome melody, a rhythmic way of expressing the voice.”
Kimbra attributes some of her newfound vocal stylings to Childish Gambino, with whom she has collaborated, though he does not appear in the track list for her new album. “He was part of my inspiration and confidence to step into new vocal styles. He was so into me doing the spoken-word thing in “Top of the World,” and it was so cool to be encouraged by someone you admired so much,” she said.
Other collaborators on the album include Skrillex, Natasha Bedingfield and Miguel. Kimbra recalls that she and Skrillex “met at the backstage of Coachella, and then we just hung out at his house one day, and he was playing me a bunch of beats, and he played me that groove that became ‘Top of the World.’ ” She started to sing along to it impulsively, and Skrillex proposed an impromptu recording session that very day.
Natasha Bedingfield, the slick pop princess known for jams such as “Unwritten” and that sappy masterpiece “Pocketful of Sunshine,” might be the most surprising collaboration. Kimbra’s sneering hit single “Settle Down” was, after all, a kind of repudiation of schmaltzy love songs. The originally cutely sung entreaties of “Won’t you settle down with me?” warp into a demand and a threat to lock down a man before he runs off with a rich “Angela Vickers,” a character similar to “Becky with the good hair” from Beyoncé’s “Sorry.” The title of “Black Sky” on the new album — co-written by Bedingfield — forebodes that Kimbra’s darker vision might have won out.
In an unusual move, Kimbra is touring the album before it’s even released. “I’m so excited for people to hear the new songs live for the first time. It’s like an electric feeling. This is such a bass-heavy record, such a primal, visceral record, I just can’t wait to bump these venues,” she said. There’s gonna be a lot of new material; I don’t want to give too much away.”
Her silence on her yet-to-be-released music is wise. Kimbra, after all, is a bit of a musical provocateur, and she has always thrived on her unexpected, genre-chameleon ways.
Kimbra is performing at the Regency Ballroom on Tuesday, Feb. 13. Her album ‘Primal Heart’ is due April 20.
Contact Adesh Thapliyal at [email protected].