There’s no escaping that this is a big album for Kimbra. While there may have been an element of flukey luck in sharing Somebody That I Used To Know with Gotye, she has undeniably made the best of the opportunities it brought. In-studio videos available online clearly illustrate the scale of the sophomore album project, the artist’s focused intent and the enthusiastic involvement of her collaborators on ‘The Golden Echo’. Van Dyke Parks, John Legend, Bilal, Matt Bellamy (Muse), Mark Foster (Foster The People), Daniel Johns – Kimbra sure knows some pretty cool bodies now. She gives great interviews too, but with just a 30-minute phoner on offer we were left wondering how best to do NZ’s second-most world-famous female solo artist’s new album justice. Passing the baton to now Melbourne-based Lisa Crawley proved an inspired option as the following delightful conversation reveals. With Kimbra working the phones from her home in LA’s Echo Park, it was just 7am Melbourne time when the two connected.
Lisa: Hi there, hello?
Kimbra: Hey Lisa, what’s up! It’s been a while huh?
L: I know, I know! I recently discovered your Tumblr page [‘Kimbra’s Catacombs’]. It’s very insightful, and nice to see what you’ve been up to and get an insight to how things are going from your perspective. I read you’ve just been involved with a tribute show for the wonderful, now I never know how to say it, Minnie Ripper-ton or Minnie Ripe-er-ton.
K: Ripe-er-ton, yeah, do you know her work?
L: Yes. I’ve listened to the vinyl and play the Loving You song at a piano karaoke night that a couple of singers have covered. When they request it they usually forget that it has that ridiculously high bit in it after the ‘la la la la’ line! Her voice is insane. Can you tell me more about the tribute show experience?
K: Yeah, it was just a few nights ago, it was an LA tribute show featuring tons of fabulous artists like Niki Randa, Coco O, Thalma De Freitas – it was amazing. Minnie Riperton’s husband was there and when I jumped up to do my song Inside My Love, we’d rehearsed it all and it was all going well and then half way through, Leon Ware came on stage and joined me! [Ware wrote and produced the song with Minnie.]
L: Wow! So you had no idea that was going to happen?
K: No I had absolutely no idea, it was just out of the blue, he just felt kind of, you know, moved by it and wanted to jump up too. So that was really special.
L: Congratulations on the new album. I’ve been listening to ‘The Golden Echo’ a lot and it’s amazing to have witnessed all your achievements since I had coffee with you in Degraves Street in Melbourne – that must have been quite a few years ago now. I wanted to ask you about your single, 90’s Music. You put the song out before the video didn’t you?
K: Yeah that’s right. It gave us time to get the video finished and I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was pretty aware that it’s the kind of song that was going to take time for people to get. It’s not the most digestible song on first listen maybe, so I wanted to give time for people to live with it, listen to it on headphones etc., so when the video came out it would add another dimension to it.
L: I really enjoyed listening to it on my headphones and hearing all the different layers to the track that I wouldn’t have heard on laptop speakers.
K: Yeah, it’s important. I really want people to listen to this record on headphones because that’s been a big part of my mixing process as well. I definitely architectured it that way, better than a panoramic kind of context, you know?
L: You were born in 1990, so the music of the ’90s must have been pretty influential for you. I remember my walls being riddled with Hanson posters and sitting with my cassette tape waiting to record Ironic by Alanis Morrissette when it came on the Top 10 charts. Ha, that seems slightly sad upon reflection!
K: Ha, yeah, it’s funny. The music from that era isn’t always something you actively remember and if someone talks about it it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, yes that’s right, it was such a big influence’… Sonically, 90’s Music doesn’t really reference the ’90s at all, but the idea behind, I guess, the way it translated in a musical context is that so often we remember these eras in our lives that come back in a strange context. Like you remember certain parts of songs but not others, and have these strange moments from being in high school or primary school and they come back and… you know what I mean?
L: Yeah, I had a ‘TV Hits’ karaoke party a few years ago and found all these old posters from Dawsons Creek etc, it instantly brought back the Paula Cole song line for line, and the memory of how those so called ’16-year olds’ used dialogue that sounded like they were from a 40 or 50 year old going through a midlife crisis! Did or do you have a standout ’90s musical favourite?
K: You know what, Jane Child for me right now. Jane Child is amazing, she’s got this song called Don’t Wanna Fall In Love and it’s so rad. She’s a big one for me, you should check it out.
L: I will! I remember that you had always been a big Silverchair fan. What was it like going from having someone’s poster from a magazine to working with Daniel Johns at the Adelaide Arts Festival last year – was that the first time you’d worked with him?
K: That’s right. I met him through Lenny Waronker, the main guy who worked at Warner Brothers. He’s a producer for Van Dyke Parks, he’d worked on the DreamWorks records, signed Elliot Smith and was connected to a lot of my favourite artists. He got us talking over dinner one night and Van Dyke said, ‘I’m doing this show, would you be interested in doing vocals?’ And I was like, ‘Ummm, yes!’
So Van Dyke was the one that brought us together and I’d wanted to work with Daniel for so long, after the show we decided to jump in the studio together to see what would happen and it was crazy man, I’d never had something that natural before in a songwriting context. It was a really special collaboration and he ended up singing on three or four of the songs and helping me write parts for them as well.
L: And the show with Van Dyke Parks and Daniel Johns was the first show you’d done with a full orchestra, which must have been really special. How did you find that?
K: Yeah, absolutely – it’s very different to having a band that’s a backbone and the song doesn’t go very far from how it starts out, but with an orchestra there’s a fluidity to the way it works. You have to consciously engage with them and I liked that challenge, it challenges me rhythmically, you have to listen in a lot harder than usual.
L: The strings that Van Dyke Parks arranged on As You Are are beautiful. Having worked with everyone from Brian Wilson to Joanna Newsom, he’s obviously a highly intuitive musician.
K: Absolutely, I would say he’s just the biggest genius I know.
L: He looks like a bit of a character too from what I’ve seen and heard. Very cheeky.
K: Ha, totally! He’s just a total beautiful person inside and out. It was more than just coming up with the string parts, it was a real collaboration. He got in there and moved things around. That’s how Van Dyke Parks works and that takes a lot of trust. He produced aspects of it and that meant a lot to me.
L: When you put out ‘Vows’, a lot of the beginning stages of that were created in your home studio set up in Melbourne, right?
K: Yeah, and a bunch of those songs I’d written before I moved to Melbourne and then when I got there I set up a basic ProTools rig in an apartment in Prahan. I worked on most of that record in a bedroom in Melbourne then worked with Francois to develop the songs, but it was actually a pretty similar process to ‘The Golden Echo’, because the day after the Grammy’s I moved to a farm. It was a little place I found on Craigslist ’cos I couldn’t bear the thought of being in a hotel again. I felt like I needed to be on that ground again and I did all the pre-production stuff there as well. It was great to be able to work in an organic space, and then when the time came where I wanted to re-track drums and get everything fleshed out, that was when Rick Coster came on board, which was the complete opposite end of the spectrum.
L: You would have grown up listening to a lot of the records that he had worked on. Did you ever imagine you’d be working with someone with such amazing credentials?
K: Oh my gosh, no way! I remember reading the credits of Mew from Denmark, they were one of my favourite bands in high school, and I just remember sitting there reading the credits going, ‘Wow, who produced this album? It’s so amazing.’ And then seeing that he mixed The Mars Volta as well! ‘Golden Echo’ has a lot of R&B references, so I wanted to find a producer who could put a spacey spin on things and get me to push into more of those psychedelic territories with the way I executed the songs.
L: After touring ‘Vows’ and playing so much with a live band, did that change your mindset and songwriting process for ‘Golden Echo’ – compared to when you’d first moved to Melbourne and perhaps hadn’t toured with a band?
K: It did change things, ’cos up to that point, even with ‘Vows’ I wrote all those songs before I started jamming them with my band. It was like, ‘Here’s the songs guys’, but with this record they were more involved. Timon [Martin] was writing parts from the get go, even 90’s Music was a jam I had with my band in the early stages of being in Melbourne. So we just made that up together as a group and then I went away and did a bunch of work on it in LA, but it did change the way I went about producing things. I was much more tuned in to how to work with live musicians – thinking about a drumbeat and how it will actually work in a song when you have experience of consistently working with a live drummer.
L: Especially when it’s a drummer like John Robinson!
K: Exactly, people like that – I knew from the get go that I wanted to include live musicianship on the record, and I knew that fans connected to our live performance. There are still a lot of electronic moments but finding that mix between the two and thinking about rhythm differently. Even going to Brazil last year, we played Rock in Rio over there last year, and that changed my viewpoint again.
We worked with Olodum, who are this amazing drum group that worked with Michael Jackson on that They Don’t Really Care About Us song, and they gifted me a couple of Brazilian drums to take back to the studio. After hearing all the swagger and things that they put on my songs made me think, ‘Okay… now I want to add some of this stuff to the album.’ So yeah, it’s amazing how the live context does inform the studio process as well – they’re not separate.
L: I can hear that ‘The Golden Echo’ has a lot of layers in terms of the writing as well as sonically with the actual sounds and what-not. Was there a hard processing of cutting out songs that were close to your heart?
K: Yeah man, I’ve always had lots of demos lying around but this was on another level. It was crazy. We had an A-list of about 40, a B-list of about 30 and a C-list of another 20. For real, it was just crazy having that amount of material!
I wrote a lot on the road, but on top of that when you go and work with all the songwriters – and I’d never done that before, that kind of like, “Okay – I’m going to give you a day with this person and a day with this person… It’s not my natural process but I figured I’d give it a try.
The interesting thing is throughout all of that most of the people I worked with were honestly the people I organically struck a friendship with over dinner or on the road, like Daniel Johns or someone like that. Even John Legend, we just mutually reached out to each other.
I’m not against the idea of ‘songwriting sessions’ but I try to make it more tolerable by, you know, making sure I get to hang out with the person quite a bit before we write – having dinner the night before or breakfast in the morning etc. The process of just going in there, doing it and leaving – it’s very different.
I’m sure you know, being a writer as well, that we do take a long time to emotionally express. We work on things and meditate on things. So for that reason I ended up with a lot of music, and had to start that process of going, ‘Okay, let’s choose the ones that are the strongest’. And that’s hard cause you get attached to a lot of them you know? A lot of my favourite ones didn’t make it, so there might be another one coming soon!
L: What was one of the main differences in how you and John Legend went about writing music?
K: I worked with him and his producer for a few days in L.A and I guess when I come up with an idea I spend quite a lot of time on the sound, even though it’s not the way a lot of people work – getting the melody, sound and worrying about production later. For me the two are very intertwined, I get inspired by hearing sounds and textures that I’m attracted to, rather than just having any old drums and guitars and it sounds cheap and cheesy and I don’t really get into it, you know?
I like to develop the production from the word go. We definitely fleshed out some production ideas but it was far more focused on getting the song. I learnt a lot from that, I think that can be my curse sometimes, that I’m so focused on the aesthetic from the get-go, but it restricts me from just focusing on the song.
So I enjoyed seeing the way they work, another way it was different was John and Dave [producer] they work on lyrics and go with the flow. ‘Lets get the lyrics now, and I’d kind of be like, ‘I’m not sure about that line, that word…’ For me I’d rather go away and work on it at home, maybe in a couple of days come back, spend some time meditating. It definitely seems to be a recurring thing I’ve done with the songwriting stuff in America. There’s a bit more of that there – if you’re in the moment, just go with it and get songs done. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong, it’s just different.
L: So being on the farm must have been a very reflective time for you…
K: The farm was a perfect place for finding some stillness, being around animals… They’re not really concerned with your status, they’re just doing their thing – and I think that’s a really important thing to deal with as a songwriter, to be connected to your environment and to be part of it. Even though there’s a lot of chaos on the record, chaos came from all these crazy studio sounds then I’d come back to the farm at this place that I could just wind down.
Lisa Crawley: Thanks Kimbra, I’ll catch you when you’re in Melbourne next time! Have a wonderful rest of the day, or night… sorry, I don’t even know what time it is in over there in LA?
Kimbra: Ha, neither do I!