New Zealand's very own pop superstar Kimbra has just released her third album Primal Heart. She spoke to Alex Behan about working with the likes of Questlove, The Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and members of Queens Of The Stone Age.
Kimbra’s come a long way from Hamilton. Most people first heard her on the Gotye song 'Somebody That I Used To Know', now she collaborates with the likes of Outkast's Big Boi, Janelle Monae, Thundercat, and Pino Palladino – the bassist from The Who.
Her third album Primal Heart just came out and she dropped in to speak to Music 101's Alex Behan about her journey so far.
Alex: There's a clip of you on What Now? when you were eight years old. It's gone around the internet, and in it you’re really open about who you are: you're like, "I want to be a pop star."
Kimbra: I didn't know what I was in for!
After your first album Vows, it seems like you realised there were doors open for you and you very consciously, I presume, took a path towards musical excellence and complexity rather than taking the easy wins.
For sure. It's funny, actually, a good friend of mine in New York is Ahmir – Questlove he's better known as ... He talks a lot about this. He calls them departure records … basically, he's super intrigued by that stage in most of his favourite artists' careers, where they take a really harsh left turn, and people see them going in one direction and they kind of surprise everyone, and often … it can seem to their detriment.
Of course, there's exceptions, like the Beatles, who sort of did that in a, "We don't want to be the Beatles anymore," kind of way, and of course, it was the best decision they ever made and made them the biggest band of all time.
He also brings up Sly & the Family Stone’s There's a Riot Goin' On and [how] there's different records where, basically, artists have kind of done the exact opposite of what was expected, and you wonder, why is that?
Because you're right. Why not shoot for every possible opportunity for success? I don't think it's quite as clear-cut as that in the sense of like, “Oh, I see all my roads before me, and I can either choose to go commercial and have massive hits or not,” because for a start, hits are a very kind of ... I believe quite a sort of mystical kind of thing, to me.
Of course, there are songs that are written in studios very formulaically, but I was certainly involved in a hit that was not created that way, and I've been around many artists who have had songs blow up that they had no idea were going to do that.
I still strongly believe that these things aren't as controllable as we think, or certainly not the kind of hits that I'd like to be a part of, to be honest, because I really think it's beautiful when you set out to do what excites you, and then, organically, something pops out of that place that connects with people in a very global way.
So, my journey has been more about following lines of curiosity … Like, “What's exciting me right now?” I guess I am a bit of a stubborn little kid.
Well, I was going to say stubborn little brat, because basically, you've got this path laid out where it's like, this is what you should do … But it just was exactly what I didn't want to do when it came to the second album, and maybe what people don't know is that I've spent most my teenage years listening to complex prog rock.
Of course, I listened to a lot of R&B and classics, but my favourite band in high school was The Mars Volta. If people know that, it does make quite a bit of sense that I [brought] in The Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez to play on a song with me, or guys from Queen of the Stone Age, or Thundercat.
It's like, this does actually reflect my palate of taste. Of course, also John Legend, which is totally different, and I think that's ... Somewhat of a paradox to have such different spectrums of interest.
I think every artist needs to get that off their chest, actually. I think it's a really important part of being a creative, to have that freedom to jump in the playground and just explore all of the avenues of your interest. And I think people really connect with an artist who is clearly connected to their work.
I think another thing to remember is I'm not particularly drawn to massive celebrity or fame anyway … My favourite moments in life are very anonymous, private moments … Conversations with people on the street, and sitting in cafes with a glass of wine, writing lyrics, or reading books.
So, to chase that one thing, it's kind of not really what I got into this for, do you know what I mean?
When you say you and Questlove are friends, does that mean you have his phone number and you guys text each other and stuff?
Does Questlove send emojis?
No, he's not a big emojier. He's quite a straight up texter, he's very to the point and quite colloquial and fun, and yeah.
To be able to sit down with a guy like that, a guy who put together D'Angelo's band for his first album ... to speak to him about things like departure records and have that encouragement. It must give you so much faith and courage to follow your own intuition.
I think you're right, yeah. We were doing an interview and he actually sort of approached me about the topic of collectives and movements in music ... I've been doing a lot of improvised music in New York and kind of gathering my friends to just write music on the spot.
It's a whole jam and collective thing, I think. Is Red Bull involved in this, is that right?
Yeah, they helped us out with the residency where we just recorded a bunch of music. That's where Ahmir came through. I used to do these Space Jam things in LA ... Thundercat, even Miguel came down and jammed with us, just anonymously. [Miguel] rolls up and just starts singing. It was crazy.
But Questlove, he starts talking to me about this idea of how collectives converge, and how people come together … he started talking about his own experience with the Soulquarians.
[Questlove’s] mum would be cooking dinner upstairs, and they'd be jamming downstairs. It'd be Bilal, Erykah Badu, all of these guys in Philadelphia – this world that emerged out of a basement. It's a huge honour to even be in the same conversation as something like that, someone so iconic … but when someone acknowledges you or observes something from afar, it's a huge encouragement … That's kind of the dream, right, to be a part of something that catches on to other like minds and can possibly live on in spirit, maybe even if you move away or ... Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, you nudge each other forward.
That's exactly right … I spent some time in Stankonia [Studios] in Atlanta, where the Outkast made all their records ... They talk about … how it's a movement for them ... To be immersed in that space. And [for me] to be welcomed in as a like mind, it's like, these are people that literally set motions forward in music and in thinking. To me, those are the moments that, again, I am very thankful for and inspire me to be courageous.
You're a really good name dropper, Kimbra, because boy, you've dropped some names during this interview.
You've taken me there!
I know. You don't do it in a show-off kind of way – this is your daily life. These are just the people you're hanging out with and miss.
I mean, I don't know about that. Of course, I spent a lot of my life with musicians, but I also spend my life doing really simple things like cooking and reading books and hanging out by myself. So, I don't know.
It's one of those things where ... They come in seasons, you know? We all have this really intense season where you're spending a lot of time with people that are your idols and you can't believe your life, and then you'll have a week that just feels really mundane and you're hitting your head against a wall for ages, thinking that you can't write any music and that you're never going to make an album again. It's both ends of the spectrum, so don't get me wrong.
I'm not sure how you're going to take this question, but we were speaking about things being economical, and I'm curious, for an artist at your level, how do you make most of your money? Is it royalties? Is it live shows? You don't have to give me numbers or anything, I'm just fascinated.
It's definitely an interesting time to be a musician, and I think there's probably a lot of misunderstanding around how artists make their money. It’s probably assumed that many artists are going out on the road around America, for example. People would think that's where most of my fan base is, and [that I’m] taking home a lot of money from touring.
But that's really not where we can make money … we have to pay the crew, the management commissions, the booking agent commissions, the label, and I have spent a lot of label money, of course, making records.
I've been very lucky to be supported, but there's also a lot to be paid back, and this is the reality of the music industry and an artist who's not necessarily [at the level] of Katy Perry, where you're constantly in profit, right.
It doesn't make everything impossible, it just means that you don't look to those spaces to be your main revenue … the other avenues, artists need them. It's the one-off gig for Google or something, where you go play one song in Sydney and it funds the whole tour, or it means that you don't make a loss.
So, it's pretty interesting, and people can have all of their opinions about sponsorships, or doing a makeup campaign … [but] damn, it's really changing. Things are changing, and I like seeing the openness ... If you can align yourself with brands or products that you believe in and that you think, totally, this represents an aesthetic, then ... We've all got to find a way to balance it, really.
I don't know a single artist anymore that would say no to putting their music on the right commercial, because sync deals, TV deals, commercial deals: you got to do what you got to do.
In one of my music videos, we had a car placement, and it ended up funding most of the video, to be honest. It was six seconds ... the car in the ‘90s Music’.
But the director was really fun and creative about the way we used it, and it's this amazing bird's eye view shot where I'm laying on it, and it's my favourite shot of the video. It's super David LaChapelle looking. I could not have made that video without that, because we had such an ambitious concept, and it's like, I have no shame about that.
I haven't asked you any personal questions. What do you do for fun? Reading and cooking and things like that. All I've done is ask you about music. I did note on your Twitter that you're heading off on your first silent retreat.
I did. It was amazing, actually. Probably one of the highlights of the year. I've been to Ethiopia twice since  and that's been an incredible time for my own growth and just doing things as a human being, not as Kimbra who's a musician.
I think that's really important. I didn't go this year because the group that I go with, an organization called Tirzah, working with HIV-positive women and children over there, they weren't doing a trip this year, and it wasn't really all that workable with my schedule.
So, I decided, look, I'll take a retreat with my friends who were going, and it'll be a time similar, where I get to kind of step out of this identity in my career and just be ... Yeah, be a human who needs, like everyone, time for replenishment and a different kind of inspiration.
So, yeah, I think that's super important, the balance of taking moments away from all of that stimulus and reconnecting with a sort of central part of myself that really does feel all that I do. That's the thing.