Kimbra: I don't need to sound pretty

Date

Elaine Lipworth

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I am sitting on the outdoor patio of Los Angeles' hippest new restaurant waiting for Kimbra, the New Zealand musician known for her acrobatic vocals, jazzy melodies and catchy choruses. Bang in the middle of the city's newly fashionable Koreatown, Commissary is a greenhouse – all glass, hanging plants, fig trees and vines – opening out onto a rooftop swimming pool in which nobody is swimming.

The men are ripped, the women are toned and chic; it's a classic Hollywood scene. But the ink-haired, pale-skinned singer bounding over to join me, long, lean legs balancing on heavy platform boots, is a breath of fresh air.

The 24-year-old Kimbra stands out from the lunch crowd with her light-blue eyes, scarlet lips and blue nails, dressed in a black bustier dress over vintage blouse. As we order lunch – aubergines in coconut curry and grilled figs in rainbow sauce – from the exotic menu, she is in a nostalgic frame of mind, waxing lyrical about her childhood in Hamilton, in NZ's North Island.

Never a show pony: Kimbra started performing at an early age, but was always worried about standing out too much.

Never a show pony: Kimbra started performing at an early age, but was always worried about standing out too much. Photo: Matias Indjic/Contour by Getty Images

"Our house looks out onto a big gully," she says. "I'd run down to my tree hut and this huge river at the end of the banks at the bottom of the forest."

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Kimbra pulls out her iPhone to show me the view from her bedroom window. "There's the mist over the river. As a child, you went behind that gate and you were in Narnia."

Kimbra got rave reviews for her 2011 debut album, Vows, but it was her collaboration the same year with Gotye on the smash hit Somebody That I Used to Know that put her on the map.

The powerful duet has sold more than 13 million copies and resulted in two Grammys. Music legend Prince presented the Record of the Year Grammy to the pair. "We couldn't believe that he was actually there and we were freaking out," recalls the singer. "Then, damn it," she taps the table with her hand, "we're up there on stage and we look down and there's Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Jennifer Lopez and Adele. We're getting a standing ovation and I am laughing. I'm like, 'How did we get here?' "

"Here" is Hollywood, where Kimbra lives and where she wrote her new album, The Golden Echo, an ambitious mix of pop, R&B and hard rock.

Part of the excitement about Kimbra is her unpredictability: she's impossible to categorise. "I've heard the term 'prog pop' thrown around. Females often think they need to sound pretty," adds Kimbra, explaining her idiosyncratic sound, "but I stopped thinking like that and started treating my voice like an instrument. If there's a moment of aggression in a song or intense pain, it's about letting the voice crack, finding your breaking point."

Kimbra is one of a gifted group of New Zealanders living in Los Angeles, including singer-songwriter Lorde, whom she recently met. "We have mutual friends," says Kimbra. "It's always nice when another artist has a similar trajectory; you can both relate to certain things.

"There is a bunch of us Kiwis – Ladyhawke, Flight of the Conchords and Neil Finn." she continues. "Emily Browning [the Australian actress] is a good friend. There's not a place where you all congregate; you're all in your bubbles.

"I didn't know the Naked and Famous were living in LA for a year," she says about the New Zealand band. "I was like, 'Dude, I've been here for a year here as well, making my album down the road from you.' "

Born Kimbra Johnson, the singer grew up with her father, Ken, a GP, her mother, Chris, a nurse, and her older brother, Matthew. "Hamilton is not a very exciting place for a young person growing up; there's not much culture and I lived in my imagination."

Music came naturally. She listened to "the big divas – Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey" on the radio and sang along, then began writing her own "fluffy love songs: I copied the lyrics I heard but I had a strong sense of pop structure".

At age 12, she took guitar lessons. "My teacher introduced me to Stevie Wonder songs and to R&B and jazz." She was soon performing professionally. As a teen, she sang the New Zealand national anthem to 27,000 people at an All Blacks match. "My dad would drive me up to gigs in Auckland, then I'd go to my maths class at nine in the morning and fit back into that world."

How did her classmates react?

"I was never a show pony. I'd get asked to perform in front of my class or at assembly, but I didn't like drawing attention to myself because kids can be a bit nasty."

Early success clearly did not go to her head. "I've seen how fame can destroy people's lives – Amy Winehouse is one of my strongest influences," she says of the British singer who died of a drug overdose in 2011. "She was one of the first people to take that jazz thing I love and make it tough and put beats behind it. But she didn't have tools in place and people to help her and love in her life."

Unlike Winehouse, Kimbra tells me she never felt the need to experiment with drugs. "I didn't have much interest. Like any other teenager I got drunk in high school; you try it out with your friends, but that urge some people have to feel different things, I felt I had [with music]. I lived in my own world a lot of the time and I felt free to express myself."

At 17, Kimbra was all set to attend the University of Auckland, with the intention of studying languages and communications, when her manager suggested she move to Melbourne and record an album (Vows) instead.

"I just had my guitar with me and I jumped into going to gigs," she says. "It was a very intense time, being away from my family. I got into a relationship early on [with Miami Horror singer Josh Moriarty] – that's what you do when you're lonely."

Following her Grammy win, Kimbra moved from Melbourne to LA. She has faced the inevitable challenges of navigating an industry still dominated by men. "You have to stand your ground a lot. I know how to talk about compression at the same level as an engineer. I can tell you the frequency I'd like to have pulled out of my vocal cords."

The appeal of living in California, she says, is that it's unfamiliar. "I don't want to be in a place of comfort all the time. I know every little nook in Melbourne, but in LA there are endless things to explore and strange pockets of culture."

She discovered the oddest pocket of LA life imaginable to write The Golden Echo, spending a year living on a small urban farm with "sheep, 20 chickens, three dogs and a rooster".

"I had an outdoor kitchen: there was a microwave hanging from a tree on a chain, cooking grills on tree stumps and a big tub to do dishes. I'd sit outside with the animals and my guitar. I got back to a simpler lifestyle." She now lives in a shared house with a fashion designer. "I've made space for a studio in the garage below and it's looking rad."

Though artistically stimulating, the farm was sometimes lonely. "A lot of people were putting their faith in me and investing in me, and sometimes I'd be like, 'What if I can't live up to that?' "

That kind of pressure might have led other young musicians to catch the next plane home, but Kimbra's ongoing spiritual quest (she has been studying Eastern mysticism and is an admirer of Father Laurence Freeman, an English Benedictine monk) has put the music business into perspective. "It's made me realise I'm not a musician first and foremost. I have friends and family who support me, whether any of that [success] works out or not. It's about having a belief in myself as a human being."

Also helpful in dealing with the hoopla of the music business are her altruistic pursuits. In Melbourne, Kimbra volunteered at the Salvation Army's homeless shelters. "They'd rap and we taught them songs and did a concert." A lifelong asthma sufferer – "I carry my inhaler everywhere with me, even on stage" – Kimbra supports the Asthma Australia foundation. If she ends up making serious money, the singer intends to follow Beyoncé's example.

"I read that she put millions of dollars into building a homeless shelter in Texas. She is a super-inspiring woman."

Lunch over, Kimbra says she is excited about returning to her roots this month for her short concert tour. "In Sydney, I love swinging by the harbour and walking through the parks. I love the vintage shops in Surry Hills.

"In Melbourne it's the food, the Thai restaurants, seeing my brother. And in New Zealand," she adds, laughing, "I think I'll put my foot down and say I have to have a day in Hamilton."

Where's home? "I feel a strong, almost spiritual connection to the history of New Zealand," says Kimbra, "but home to me is a verb, it moves. Home is here." She puts her long fingers on her heart. "I feel like I could make my home in many places: Amsterdam, Poland maybe ... my music does quite well there."

For now, though, she's happy in LA. "California is a very easy place to live. There's sunshine all the time and the people are really nice," she says. And then she's off to spend the rest of the afternoon in the dark, holed up in her studio-garage, creating musical magic.


Three facts: Kimbra

Her parents chose her unusual name after a child they were babysitting mentioned their "Aunty Kimbra".

At age 11, she went on a NZ television show, What Now, singing an original song.

Her duet with Gotye, Somebody That I Used to Know, has amassed 565 million views on YouTube.

 

Lead-in image: Bec Lorrimer/Headpress.