While you may know her best as the body-painted guest singer dueting with Gotye in his ridiculously popular "Somebody That I Used to Know" video, Kimbra had already made a name for herself in her native New Zealand even before the collaboration drew international interest. Her debut album Vows birthed a string of hit singles down under during the nine months before it was re-released this summer, with six new tracks, here in the States.
The 22-year-old artist — whose shimmery blend of pop, jazz and avant-garde influences have earned comparisons to Kate Bush and Björk — has since racked up more than 20 million hits on YouTube with "Settle Down." An oddly beguiling music video, it features the creepiest little girls this side of The Shining acting like latter-day Stepford Wives and dancing oddly with Kimbra while a wall of vintage dolls goes up in flames behind them. It's a perfect match for the song's first-person narrative of domestic obsession, and makes the Gotye body-painting video seem embarrassingly normal by comparison.
In the following conversation, Kimbra talks about working with Gotye, finding A Place in the Sun, and living in the eye of a pop-culture hurricane.
Indy: One of the downsides of being famous, I would guess, is having your entire life on YouTube. So of course I've seen the clip of you on [the New Zealand TV kids show] What Now? at the age of 11 saying, "Hi, I'm Kimbra, and one day I'd love to be a pop star!" So now that you've become a pop star, how does it differ than what you thought it would be back then?
Kimbra: Well, of course you have a very different view of what life will be like when you're that age. And to be fair, I was doing a little TV show and we had little scripts, you know? [Laughs.] I mean, I did dream of being a musician, but I think it was never my dream to have celebrity or fame or anything like that.
I think my parents would probably testify that what I talked about was more the idea of doing something that involved making music for a living. That was exciting to me; you'd get to do what you love, and make other people happy while you do that.
But yeah, there would have been a bit of naivete, and it looked a lot easier than of course it is. It's been interesting living life on tour, the idea of not really having a home or stability. There are aspects to that which can be really difficult, but also it's amazing getting to see the stuff that I've been able to see, playing shows in Istanbul and festivals in really obscure places.
Indy: Your studio performance clip of "Cameo Lover" had 17,000 views in December of 2010, and you posted on Facebook how exciting that was. Now it's up to 1.7 million, and the "Settle Down" video has reached 20 million. When the Gotye track got so huge, did it occur to you that it would translate over to you as well? I know you were popular back home, but here you were still very unknown.
Kimbra: It's funny thinking back now, but yeah, when Gotye asked me to sing on that song, I was like, "Man, we're still mixing Vows right now." We're both such perfectionists, and we were struggling to finish our own albums.
But when that song was being put out around the world, Vows still hadn't come out in America yet. So it was kind of this moment of, oh wow, this is the perfect opportunity to put the record out in America. It was never really planned or anything; it wasn't like sitting down and writing this big marketing strategy. It was just like, oh, the stars kind of aligned in a way, and people were suddenly interested in what I do. So it was a blessing, and I was like, "OK, well here's a full album of tunes that I've been working on for the last four years."
Indy: In the cover story of the new Keyboard magazine, Gotye mentions "Running Up That Hill"-era Kate Bush as an influence. Are you a fan of hers as well?
Kimbra: Yeah, Kate Bush has only come onto my radar in the last year, which seems crazy. But, you know, I always knew that I liked her. And actually, yeah, in the studio when I was making my Vows album, we would listen to certain songs for their production, and I really enjoyed how she had this sense of space and the really odd kind of percussion.
But I'd never fully delved into her records, so I made a point of getting her Sensual World album, and it's incredible and just so progressive. I listened to that non-stop for weeks, and I especially love the title track and a song called "Deeper Understanding."
The track on my album called "Sally I Can See You" [one of the new songs recorded for the American version] was right in my Kate Bush era, when I was listening to her so much. I really got into her use of the Fairlight [synthesizer] and her kind of de-tuned strings. I even bought the Fairlight iPad app, because I obviously can't afford a real one.
Indy: I also want to ask about the song "Settle Down." I noticed the fleeting reference to Elizabeth Taylor's Angela Vickers character from A Place in the Sun ...
Kimbra: Haha, good.
Indy: So does that mean that the song is essentially told from the point of view of the Shelley Winters character?
Kimbra: Well, I had the initial idea when I was 16. I think I might have just watched the film Stepford Wives, and I was intrigued by the idea of these manipulative housewives who put on this exterior of happiness, but there's like this really creepy discomfort beneath the surface. And then I wanted to kind of rework it once I'd moved to Melbourne, because it was really only just a verse and a chorus.
So a producer I was working with at the time suggested A Place in the Sun would be a great film to watch and maybe add some references to it. I spent a good day just kind of taking notes on the film, and watching it over again, and realizing it actually had a lot of parallels to some of the things I was touching on in "Settle Down."
It's kind of heartbreaking in that film, the main character's desperate yearning for stability and that kind of ideal lifestyle with her husband, and all her dreams being broken.
Indy: Doesn't Montgomery Clift throw her out of a boat at the end?
Kimbra: Yeah, exactly, it's dark. So this little idea that I wrote when I was 16, which I felt had no meaning, was actually kind of profound. Just grappling with all those ideas about marriage and what fulfills you as a woman.
A lot of women really do crave domesticity, and I thought it would be interesting to write a song about that, because not many people do. On the one hand, it's wanting that stability, but also not wanting to become dependent and to place your whole life's expectations on this perfection being fulfilled. Because if you do, it can burn down before your eyes, which is what the video clip represents to me.
When people watch it for the first time, they might feel a bit of discomfort from the visuals. But it makes you want to watch it again, and then you realize it's much bigger than just some kind of shock factor. I'm not into just shocking people for the sake of it. It's about provoking in a way that then makes you dig deeper.
Indy: You've said that you'd love to get Lars von Trier to direct a video for you, and you've also done a song for the new Tim Burton film [Frankenweenie; see p. 39]. What is your fascination with these sort of darker artistic expressions?
Kimbra: Well, the first film I saw by Lars von Trier was Björk's Dancer in the Dark, and I guess there's something about the humanity in his films: these uplifting scenes with just beautiful music and scenery, and then just really kind of melancholy, heavy stuff as well. I'm really interested in how he rides that line constantly in his films.
The same with Melancholia, that clash of such intense beauty and then the depression that sort of underlies it all. And I enjoy exploring those things sometimes in my music, because it's just real life, isn't it? And Tim Burton as well, the way he creates that kind of altered reality in his films that leaves you on the edge of your seat.
Indy: You mention Björk, who was an early influence for you, and you also cover a Nina Simone song on your album. Obviously they're two very different artists, but is there a through-line there, some trait or spirit they have in common?
Kimbra: Yeah, I think it is just that — the spirit, you know? You can't necessarily put it into words what it is, but both of those artists share a kind of fearlessness. It's that ability to just put everything out there for their audience.
When you see live videos of Nina Simone — and the same with live performances of Björk — it's like a vulnerability, you know, but it's fierce as well. They can be so fragile and not hold anything back with their audience. It's very truthful, it's very honest, it can be very aggressive at times as well, you know? They're not afraid to sound ugly sometimes, if the song requires it. If the mood requires you to kind of scream like an animal — if that's gonna serve the song — they do it. And I really respect that.
I think there's a moment where I shifted my tastes in music, and really craved hearing that kind of tension. And then when you do resolve it for a moment of beauty, it's so much more powerful. So that's the common thread I see in artists like that — not being scared to take risks, you know?