Interview and photography: Thom Kerr at Independent Artist Management
She was world famous, and not just in Paeroa, when she became the first New Zealander to top the US charts as the yin to Gotye's yang on Somebody I Used To Know. She shuns low contact snaps with fans in favour of one-on-one meetings after shows, adores writer Thomas Merton and hopes her fans experience her music with heart, soul and mind. She is Kimbra, founding member of Aotearoa's burgeoning quiver of pop princesses. On the eve of touring with Janelle Monae (since cancelled due to Janelle's illness) and releasing a new album The Golden Echo, Thom Kerr hears the excitement in her voice for BLK #21...
Thom Kerr: Sitting where you are now, looking back at everything that has unfolded, did you ever think your journey would take you this far away from your hometown of Hamilton?
Kimbra: I always imagined myself travelling but I couldn’t have guessed that America would be a place I would spend so much time. I always had a strong conviction about making music beyond the confines of my bedroom and to somehow share it with the world so I thought a lot about that when I was younger but I could never have imagined the experiences I’ve now had and the people I’ve worked with. It’s exciting to know that as many plans as you make in life you always end up being surprised.
It's been a pretty crazy few years, how do you make sense of it all, highs and lows included?
I try make sense of moments by remembering myself as part of a great whole. One of my favourite authors, Thomas Merton, talks about us being like one organism, where our highs and lows are informed and produced by the highs and lows of others so we can never become too concerned with our own singular narrative. I find this very grounding. "Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and ‘one body,’ will we begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures and accidents in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors is not my own: for I am preparing the way for the achievements of another. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from failure of another, but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore the meaning of my life is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time."
What has been your experience as a female artist rising in this industry? Often I've really admired your determination because there are many expectations placed upon you that men don't really have to deal with...
You certainly have to be tough, and yet graceful. The expectations can be hard to manage, but even harder are the expectations we place on ourselves. I think as a women in the industry it is so important to be disciplined about what drives you because the peripheral roles can so quickly become the focus and the art takes a back seat along the way. I am lucky to know a lot of amazing female role models who have continually reminded me of the importance of realigning with your vision everyday and surrounding yourself with a team of people who are connected with that. This has been crucial for me.
Does it weird you out the way in which fans can idolise your image?
It is especially harder nowadays with the internet because people express themselves in ways they wouldn’t in person. I try not to pay too much attention to that but even in face-to-face scenarios it can be very strange to see how people put you on a pedestal. It is wonderful to be thanked for the work you do and how you touch people but to be idolised as someone who is somehow different or embodies an ‘ideal’ can be difficult - especially because I want the work to be the centre of what I do. I never want the image to become more important than the music, it should help people engage further into the experience, but not become the experience itself. How special is that connection with your audience?
How would you describe your relationship with your fans?
I really value engaging with people one on one, this is where I feel most natural socially and musically. I have never felt comfortable with the culture of people lining up for a photo or an autograph and not saying a word to the artist, so I try to take opportunities to create moments of connect in smaller groups after a show - the opportunity to engage with an artist in conversation is something you take away for a lifetime rather than an autograph so I want to be able to give fans that chance wherever possible. I have also been humbled to see how artistic a lot of my fans are, I see a lot of the artwork they send in it’s cool to see that the art I create inspires my audience to also be artistic - it becomes a shared space.
What responsibilities do you feel as an artist when you release your work to the public?
To be committed and authentic in the work I do. This means following my instincts when I create and sharing from a place of openness. I think when an artist speaks their truth and anchors deeply to an emotion, it gives everyone else permission to do the same. What runs through your mind just before a big performance? I think of myself becoming the music, I focus on moving out of the mind and into the heart, channelling from that place instead. It’s very important to walk on stage with that sense of joy and gratitude for me. I try to practise a real surrender to the moment and let it be new and fresh every time.
How did you feel about featuring on Gotye's track after it was number one around the world?
It was exciting to see that people were gravitating to something different in pop music and drawn in by the vulnerability of the performances - and the artistic approach of the video clip. It gave me a platform to be ambitious and fearless with the music I went on to write - and an audience who felt a connection to my music. It was a crazy experience watching something blow up around the world especially when we had no expectations for it to work out like that.
Did you ever worry that the singles success eclipsed your own voice as an artist?
I always saw it as an amazing chance to share my music with a wider audience. I never expected to sell out numerous shows on my first solo US tour and see crowds singing along to all the words on Vows so that was a real confirmation that my music had connected outside of that one song. I’ve been surprised to meet many fans who had been following the music long before I worked with Gotye and also people who were led to my music through that song and have now been able to discover a whole new body of work. I think if there had been no music available for people around the time of the single it could have been hard to find my own path, but I’d worked so hard on my album and live show leading up to that point so it became a platform to be able to share that.
What was running through your mind when Prince himself was presenting you a grammy?
I just couldn’t believe that out of all people it happened to be Prince. I remembered him getting up to present the award and thinking ‘wow, whoever gets to receive this award from Prince is going to lose it’… Wally and I were just freaking out over the fact that he was even at the Grammys, let alone presenting an award, and further, an award for our song. It was very much like a dream. Prince is probably the most influential artist for both Wally and I so to be up there acknowledged by the man himself was a very surreal moment.
What do you want people to understand about you most as an artist?
That my highest value’s are innovation and creativity and challenging people to experience music with their heart, soul and also their mind.
What are some of the misconceptions about you that you find frustrating?
There will always be misconceptions. Especially with artists who don’t fall neatly into a box - I don’t put any boundaries on the music and I let each song be its own story and visual world so this can at times lead people to make assumptions about the kind of artist I am perhaps from one angle they get. It is frustrating when people judge art with a dualistic mindset because the music I want to make is the kind that works as a body, and is understood in light of all the different moving parts. But there is a positive challenge in working with misconceptions or expectations, it pushes me to never get comfortable and to keep growing.
How do you feel about the success of artists like Lorde in terms of New Zealand music being exposed to a global audience?
I’ve always felt there’s something really unique and special about New Zealand music. Maybe it’s the fact that we get a trickle of so much music from around the world but we’re not saturated in as much direct influence so there’s a bit more space to cultivate one’s own sound and style. Being so far away from the world there’s also a certain kind of drive and ambition for people to get overseas and travel to get their voice heard. It’s always been seen as so difficult for artists from NZ to break into the US market so it’s exciting to see that people are now really switched onto music coming out from down under.
As we draw closer to the release of your new album, are you nervous about how people will respond to the evolution of your sound?
I’m prepared for some of the music being divisive, I think whenever you are ambitious and take risks there are people who will feel challenged by it and miss what you did before. It’s hard being held to a sound you produced in the past because we are all changing and evolving each day and as an artist you wouldn’t be staying authentic if you didn’t also follow that call to evolve. However I feel the new music is still a natural progression from the ideas I touched on with Vows but it’s a lot tougher. I grew so much as a producer on this record, I’ve been deeply involved with every aspect so there is an intense love and attention towards all the sounds, stories and textures. It feels like a very soulful body of work so I’m excited to share it and have people grow with me into the next phase.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians dreaming of a similar career trajectory to you?
Know deeply the reasons why you make music and the values you want to hold onto along the way. Then realign with them everyday if necessary to stay close to that intention and sense of purpose. This advice has always helped me to stay focused.
What has been the greatest lesson you've learnt so far on this journey?
That life is an ongoing series of lessons and it’s okay when we take a few times to learn them. Tomorrow’s always a new day.
What can we expect next from Kimbra during 2014?
Just you wait :)