Close your eyes and listen. Really listen. You’ll hear smoky soul, flights of dazzling invention, and intricate layers of deeply felt emotion. Then you’ll start to ask yourself some questions. What forces shaped that extraordinary voice? And how does a 20 year old from New Zealand’s North Island get to be this good?
As a teen growing up in Hamilton, Kimbra’s gifts were recognised early on. Already gigging solo, she twice won grants from NZ On Air – one of which resulted in a recording session with Greg Haver (Manic Street Preachers) and went on to receive high rotation on radio and television. Kimbra soon relocated to Melbourne to cultivate her musical profile (and a growing and restless creative ambition), and under the wing of Forum 5 management, paired up with producer Francois Tetaz (Bertie Blackman, Gotye) to begin work on her debut album.
The goal was always to find an authentic voice - to make Kimbra sound like Kimbra. (“Exactly” she smiles “but with hints of this and that”). It’s a voice that belies her age, a rich, expressive timbre settled somewhere between the honeyed croon of a soul singer and the acrobatic flair of an indie rock girl. Kimbra has already earned comparisons to jazz greats like Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, while also bringing a contemporary edge more akin to Bjork and bonkers French maverick Camille.
As those who’ve seen her live will attest, Kimbra’s characterful vocals are backed up by a strong performance ethic. She’ll often cut, sample and loop her voice via her trusty loop pedal for accompaniment – and that ability to take risks translates into a rare creative abandon in the studio too.
Alongside working with Tetaz, Kimbra also took a sojourn to L.A. to write and record with alternative act As Tall As Lions in order to get new inspiration for her long-gestating debut. Kimbra says collaboration has long been a key part of her process:
“Before I went overseas, I had lots of songs, but I didn’t really have that moment that defined the album, those couple of songs that were really the stand out tracks. I just needed to get out of Melbourne for a bit and get some inspiration.”
On the evidence of the album’s stand out tracks, it pays off. “I wrote the song Two-Way Street while walking up and down the Hollywood boulevard.” Replete with a suitably flashy, glittering vibe without being superficial, Two-Way Street plays with the metaphor of the boulevard and about how two people must meet in the middle to make love last. Cue starry-eyed keyboards and organic sounds aplenty. A recurring characteristic to her music, forthcoming single Settle Down even samples a tampon packet for its percussion track. “Settle Down has got that immediate quirk to it” notes Kimbra. A rhythmic collage of handclaps, cheeky horn parping, and a ballooning bassline married to an escapist lyric about domesticity: “I wanna raise a child/Won’t you raise a child with me?/Raise a child/We’ll call her Nebraska/Nebraska Jones/she’ll have your nose.”
Bolstered by this swathe of new material, Kimbra began gigging with a full backing band. “It’s got to the point where I just heard so much more in the arrangements and wanting to translate it all to the audience rather than just a glimpse.”
After a slew of solo shows in support of label-mate Bertie Blackman, Kimbra’s band shows now demonstrate a full command of the new material: “There’s a lot more focus on the songs and their stories, and now I can relay them using a whole range of sounds, there’s three-part harmonies, vocal sampling, drums, bass and guitar – it’s much more of an experience.”
Back in the studio, Kimbra brought local hip-hop maestro M-Phazes on board for the final mixes:
“I wanted someone to bring another perspective to the album and he was the right person to come in an give them a bit more punch and aggression. It’s been cool to have two strong people on board.”
So now we have Kimbra’s debut in our possession. Mixing styles and moods with confidence, she brings something new and unexpected to the singer-songwriter landscape. Female singer-songwriter? It’s a label Kimbra is conscious of bucking, “It’s always been a very strong idea of mine to try and shake up that idea of the ‘female-singer-songwriter.’ This resurgence, is a good and a hard time to be doing it, because it means you’ve got to bring something fresh and original otherwise you’re just going to blend into the sea of voices.”
She needn’t worry. There’s something of the ‘old soul’ in this young artist. Songs about the lure of domestic bliss, dealing with an old flame – these are a million miles from wide eyed teen pop or glib r’n’b swagger. Make no mistake – Kimbra is picking up steam even as she arrives. It’s going to be a wonderful trip…