Her voice first danced its way into our lives during the summer of 2014, when Yumi Zouma’s introductory single The Brae was on heavy rotate across alternative radio airwaves. Based in Christchurch, Kim Pflaum at the time fronted the Kiwi/global dream-pop trio who all of a sudden were being locally and internationally feted – not least due to touring as support act to Lorde. Surprising many, Kim left the band later that year, determinedly rising again since as a solo entity under the identity of Madeira, proving herself a valued new alt-pop-writing voice. Anna Loveys caught up with Madeira / Pflaum on tour in Auckland.
It’s a typical Friday night in St Kevin’s Arcade on Auckland’s K Rd. The usual 20-somethings clumped in groups around the outskirts, voices reverberating around the lively, much-loved inner city cave. Downstairs the Whammy Bar is yet to come alive as Pflaum soundchecks for her show tonight. This will be the second leg of a November homecoming tour, celebrating her five-track debut EP ‘Bad Humors’, digitally released a few months earlier.
On the merch table are two donation boxes “for the animals” and an assortment of t-shirts, vinyl, CDs and shiny metallic postcards for sale. Her recent few years have been spent travelling the world with music. Kim Pflaum has been making a name for herself among international indie communities, her global fan base growing from NZ to Japan, the US and France, and she clearly has this part of it down to a fine art.
“My friend from Paris said she was in a sushi shop and my song was playing on the sushi train! It’s just amazing with the internet. Anyone can just find your music.”
While self-managed, Kim is signed to US label, Carpark Records (also home to Toro Y Moi, Beach House, Speedy Ortiz and other such creative flames). She admits to being a bit scared of Trump’s America, saying she would like to conquer some of Europe before returning to the land of Kool-Aid and angry Republicans.
Her stunning debut stirs nostalgic elements of hazy ’80s synthesiser beds with thick, danceable bass lines that cut through the synth fog – until the final third element – being the late ’70s to early ’80s disco-inflected drum machines, round off the background to serve Kim’s heart on a sleeve.
“I’d started writing while I was still in Yumi Zouma, because at the time we were working towards an album,” she shares. “I already had songs that I had come up with and sent to the boys, so I wasn’t exactly at zero. I had some ideas.”
Indeed ‘Bad Humors’ seems to possess an air that once breathed through the earlier Yumi Zouma EPs – light, carefree shimmering guitars, synths and nostalgic production elements. Presented in full form Kim’s voice plays a soulful companion and a light at the darkest of times.
She navigates around a myriad of personal experiences with a neat balance of articulation and artistic creativity.
“I think the hardest thing is editing and stripping it all back. When I write songs, they’re always way too intense, with way too much going on. In the producing stage, I strip heaps out of the track and take it from the bottom up again.
“It was just about finding my new vibe and writing more songs throughout the last year, and going really hard,” she says, stopping what she is doing. “I was going through quite a tough time emotionally, as you could imagine, so some days I would be like, ‘I can’t do anything, I just gotta chill.’ On other days I went really hard and wrote a lot of songs.”
Enigmatic as a performer, she has always had a magical touch when it comes to making melodies. It is her specialty. Combined with the spacious, lush electronic arrangements supporting her gentle but equally lush voice, the vocal melodies, as well as the guitar lines, are the ultimate pay off. Unsurprisingly then, melody is a starting point.
“I find vocal melodies or lyric ideas often when I’m driving my car – it’s when my brain is actively working and dreaming, which is bad because I should be concentrating on driving! I never get angry in traffic because I feel like I’m being productive.”
Luscious melodies over striking chord changes, block chords and synths create the sound garden for her signature vocal style – breathy, calm in execution and very cool.
“It has become a preset – the Kim preset,” she laughs. “It’s just a matter of, I sing it, we put reverb on it, we compress it, add a bit of chorus…”
To help evoke nostalgia in her work Kim digests a wide range of music – though not as much from the ’80s as fans might expect.
“It’s more like rip-off ’80s bands like TØPS, which is a bit shocking. Early ’90s, ’70s… I discovered that kind of genre is what suited my voice the most. I stayed on that trajectory. When I’m writing I’m not listening to any music and just write what comes naturally.”
Shannon Fowler (aka Tom Lark), a close friend from her hometown of Christchurch, helped produce the EP.
“When we go into production, we’ll go back and reference songs – a drum beat from the ’70s or a synth tone from the ’80s. We’ll pick and choose a decade for each instrument.”
Why should we care about artists like Madeira? Like those who have come before her – the St Vincent explorers, the Kate Bush queens, the therapeutic Knowles sisters – the figureheads of innovation and leaders of alternative pop writing – she takes as much from the past as she does from the present, and projects something of the future to us. She is creating a time-free capsule – a timeless vault of art.