Ten years ago, Kimbra was walking across the 55th Annual Grammy Awards stage with collaborator Gotye, accepting the award for “Record of the Year” from the incomparable pop icon, Prince for their song “Somebody I Used to Know.” Today, Kimbra is expressing her newfound freedom from a major label through her gorgeous, and most ambitious fourth studio album, A Reckoning.
An incredibly bold and fearless record, A Reckoning demonstrates Kimbra’s unmatched artistry through her fierce production, vulnerable lyricism and prestigious vocalization throughout the entirety of the 40-minute runtime. Dipping her toes into a blend of multiple genres from electronic to hip-hop, A Reckoning does not cower away from challenging the pop-centric song structure.
As she winds down her U.S. tour supporting the new record, Kimbra plans to bring her illustrious show back to her hometown in Hamilton, New Zealand at the end of March. With a couple of days off in New York, where she currently resides, mxdwn had the honor to talk with Kimbra about the emotional writing process on the new album, working with producer Ryan Lott and some important advice she would give to her younger self working in the music industry.
mxdwn: First of all, how are you and where are you currently in the world?
Kimbra: I’m in New York which is where I live, and I just got finished with a… man, it’s been almost two months of touring. We started off in Europe for a smaller run and a really extensive U.S. tour. I have a few days, well, two days off right now then I head to New Zealand for a couple of shows out there and also taking a little bit of time off while I’m out there. So it’ll be good.
mxdwn: I know that you’ve been living in New York for a little bit. How has living in New York or your physical environment in general influenced your art and creative headspace?
Kimbra: Well, New York is one of those places where inspiration is around every corner. Whether it’s little jazz bars in the Village that you can go to, or just the accessibility of so many amazing musicians to be like, “Hey, let’s do a session at your house.” That kind of culture which of course is very prominent in LA as well. But these still remain the two cities where you can get so much creative fire. And I think there’s something about both the anonymous feeling in New York that I have. Like the feeling that you’re one in a million people out here, or many more millions than that. But also the feeling that you’re intricately connected at the same time. It’s an interesting contradiction, but I feel both. I feel like I can be totally anonymous and then also really connected to lots of things at the same time. So that has an impact on the way I write and the way I make music.
mxdwn: You’ve been touring the new album, A Reckoning, which is an amazing feat blending multiple genres and vocal stylings into one record. How has translating these deeply personal songs to a live setting been?
Kimbra: It’s been cool translating them for live because you start working out different parts, different angles of the songs that have a bit more impact in the live setting than perhaps the things you did on the record. And that could be fun because the songs start to evolve in a new way and have different high points, and I enjoy that process. The fans really have enjoyed hearing the music live. I think it’s given it an even deeper meaning to see the words performed. The story is being told in that context, I think it helps for when they go home and listen to the record. There’s a new way of understanding it, you know? Once you’ve seen the storyteller doing it in real life. A lot of the slow songs are quite emotionally disclosing so it’s taken a lot from me emotionally, spiritually, and everything to perform a lot of these songs night after night. Maybe I wasn’t quite expecting how much I would be giving from such a deep place. But I also feel like I’m doing quite a lot of healing every time I perform the songs and getting to slowly move through those emotions in a new way. And you do that on making a record, but also live, you’re in this process of giving the stories away. They’re yours, always, but you’ve had your time with them and now you’re slowly detaching from being so interwoven with all the emotions. It’s a process of letting them go.
mxdwn: A Reckoning was a self-released record. What were some of the difficulties of putting out a record on your own? How do you feel like the freedom of releasing this album channeled itself through the writing and production process?
Kimbra: I hear a lot of freedom on the record. I know a lot of people I played it to in the early days as well were like, “Wow. This sounds like an artist coming into her power and finding her voice in a new way.” And I appreciated it when my friend said, “Maybe it’s just that there were very few cooks in the kitchen in the making of the record.” It was really just me and my co-producer, Ryan Lott. He was the person that I went to for all the creative feedback. It was really just us. And other producers of course that played parts on different songs that were also involved. And at the end of the day, the executive vision always ended up with me and Ryan.
So there were no A&Rs, managers, like people interfering with that. So I think that’s why there’s a focus to the record that maybe is a new step for me. And also a fearlessness that comes forward in some of the work. When you’re less worried about… I mean, I’ve never made music to please people. I’ve always made the stuff I want to make. But sometimes in the back of your mind there’s a sense you need to make certain people happy or fulfill some sort of idea of what a pop song is. I think a lot of that went out the window with this record. It was just about making something truthful and exciting to us. And trusting that if it’s exciting to us, it will be exciting to my fans as well.
mxdwn: I love that. So you’re really just embracing yourself on this record.
Kimbra: Yeah, totally! That’s the creative side of it, is that embrace. And obviously, releasing without a major label is quite a different process, but it’s also empowering because, with the help of managers or whoever is on your team, you’re hiring all the people that you want to be part of the mission of releasing the record. So there’s a sense of autonomy as well in that because you’re building your own team of people that believe in the work rather than it just being assigned to you which is a little more like that on a major structure.
mxdwn: “save me” is a very emotional and luscious ballad that begins the record pleading for help from anyone who will listen. Why was it important to place this song as the first track on the record as well as the first song on the setlist of the tour?
Kimbra: I think it sets a tone. I think of the gong in the start of a meditation that sends out this vibration of a frequency that everyone aligns to and then gets still. And then you can begin the mediation or the chant, or the prayer. And that song to me was like a leveler that gets everyone into that place of shared human vulnerability. And then from there, we can start getting into the warrior who rises out of that, and the anger that is being suppressed and needs to come out.
But “save me” is like the surrender, the start of all that. Like when you hit rock bottom, and you’re like, “Alright, I’m ready now. Just take me.” I think it’s like a conversation. Like when you get vulnerable with someone and you tell them one of your secrets, they’re like, “Oh, now you told me that. I guess I’ll tell you this.” And then everyone gets… there’s like an air of love and tenderness in the room. Now there’s courage to face everything else.
So it’s a long way of saying it just felt like a really great place to start the record from because all great healing has to begin with a kind of admission of the need for each other. The need for each other and the fact that we do often feel very scared and very fragile. I think if I could start the record from that place of real truth-telling, then it would allow for all the other emotions to rise up out of that. It would create a space where we could hold all of that rather than coming straight into the banger. It just sets a tone of like “we’re going on a journey.” And all great journeys start with a kind of surrender.
mxdwn: It’s like when you’re starting with this vulnerability you’re open arms and inviting everyone in, and you’re creating a safe space for everyone. That’s beautiful.
Kimbra: Yeah, exactly.
mxdwn: You started the writing process a lot on piano for this album instead of guitar. And for me, I’ve always felt like piano is a very personal instrument, like you’re playing for yourself while guitar the sound goes outwards. How does this initial instrumentation translate to the overall narrative of the album?
Kimbra: Yeah, I agree with you. That’s so interesting. I have a Wurlitzer at home so I would play on that and then on friends’ pianos at their studios. I would send over the demos just with me playing really basic Wurli or piano to Ryan and then basically he would start the instrumentation again. So he would take my vocal and then redo… but using piano, he did a lot of contorted pianos. Like the organic instrument but turning it into strange manipulations. So you’ll hear the piano on different songs like “the way we were” or “foolish thinking,” it will start really simple and then it will go off into these twisted pianos. It’s like he was taking the original seed which was a vulnerable ballad on this instrument but then putting a personality to that instrument and taking it outward.
It was cool because it honored the way it started. And it’s not like he sent it back with tons of drums and everything on it. He would keep that spirit of where they came from but also expand on it because my piano playing is very basic and I still wanted to make sure that it could flower and blossom in the ways we needed.
And in terms of the songwriting being different on piano, I think you’re right. It is a lot more personal as a process. And I had to apply a simplicity to the writing because that’s all I had was simple chord forms that I could play. And there was the power of paying a lot of attention to the process because it wasn’t my first instrument. So the songs had a real devotion to every… it’s very intentional because I had to be in order to write the song. I couldn’t just run about doing jazz. It was grounded, it was really grounded.
mxdwn: How was working with Ryan Lott on the album and what did he bring into the record that you found was refreshing?
Kimbra: It was amazing. We actually communicated a lot over that messaging app, Marco Polo. So I would make something, working on the track and then I would send him a video message about it and then he would be working on something and send something back over Marco Polo. We would pump each other up like, “Check this out! Or what I’m thinking…” We were like little kids. It was a real childlike energy, both following the excitement.
And he added a lot of really wide and claustrophobic spaces. He’s really into playing with space. Which was great because A Reckoning was supposed to be on one hand you have this really strong, aggressive, explosive and cathartic, and on the other end, you’ve got something very tender that required us to play with different rooms and spaces. So he’s very talented at creating a vocal that feels really wide and open in spaces that are so expansive and enclosing the world in, and making it feel really tight and almost too intimate. I think that’s what he brought to a lot of the productions and arrangements was this real sense of spatial experimentation.
And then, of course, his fearlessness to play with the pop structure. We both knew we were making a pop record but we were also thinking more like some of those bold moves that someone like Kanye makes on his records. Where it’s like, “Alright, scene change! Boom! Now we’re going here.” Those sorts of bold cuts and movements. I think he challenged me in that way to be really bold with choices. And then I challenged him as well to bring the pop mentality to that as well and be like, “You know what, let’s play into this hook and repeat it.” It was a cool push and pull there from him being on a more experimental end of the spectrum, me being a bit more on the pop end. It just felt very married in a really good way.
mxdwn: As someone who became known as a featured artist and has given plenty of spotlight to amazing artists throughout your career as well as on this record such as Erick the Architect, Pink Siifu and Tommy Raps, in your opinion, what do you think makes for a great feature on a song?
Kimbra: It has to offer a new perspective. If it sort of encompasses the same energy, it doesn’t really take the story anywhere, right? It has to present an angle on the song that is either lyrically a different angle to make you think differently about the song, or even rhythmically like some new syncopation or pocket, or way of playing into the beat or the music where you’re like, “Oh! Now I’m moving like this (does a little dance) to it rather than…” You know? So, I think that’s really important is how someone sonically reframes the song but also how they offer a perspective lyrically that can add another dimension. A great feature is an expansion to the song and is memorable because it’s a moment you wait for. Just adding an extra level and layer of excitement. And it’s a chance to throw a spanner (wrench) in the work. Like a chance to create a surprise in a song.
mxdwn: Continuing to speak about features, there was an interview you did recently where you mentioned that other than pop music, you wish you could expand into other genres like ambient or drum music, essentially music without any vocals. How significant was it that you were able to work with The Album Leaf, an artist known for creating ambient music on the track “Afterglow?”
Kimbra: Well, when I heard the song, I loved the mood of it. It’s hard for me to write, especially lyrics when I don’t see images from a song. I’ll get sent things and it might be a good piece of work but when I close my eyes, I don’t particularly see anything or feel like my instrument would add anything to it. So sometimes I’m like, “This is a great track but I don’t think it needs me. I don’t hear anything that I can do that is exciting.” I can do something on anything, but does it need me? Does it want that? Whereas that song (“Afterglow”), when I closed my eyes, I was like, “Oh, I see where a really airy and floaty vocal could absolutely serve this song to tell the story better.” So when I closed my eyes I saw this relationship unfolding and I saw this lyric, it was a poem I had about a parting of lovers. And when I heard the music I remember pulling up the poem and feeling like it was married to some of those words.
But talking about instrumental music, it’s like if I were to do something like that I would probably still use my voice, my instrument. But I’d be interested in how I could tell stories without lyrics because most of my writing process is actually in gibberish. Or in vocal, it’s all just sounds and shape. So working with my voice as just an instrument rather than a lyrical… that would be an interesting thing one day, yeah. In that case, lyric did work really well. It added something to the song to tell a story alongside that instrumental.
mxdwn: I know that you’ve expressed your concerns with being presented as a “pop star” and fame in general. Now that you’ve become an artist who has grown more into their own especially with this latest album, what kind of advice would you give your younger self in her 20s about maneuvering through the music industry and garnering fame?
Kimbra: I think for me, the biggest threat to artists in this industry, especially young girls, women who start out very young, is that you can sometimes lose your own voice, your ability to trust yourself, because there’s so many other voices projecting their idea of what you should be doing and wearing. Having a team is great and having people weigh in and give guidance is important but if I went back and talked to my younger self, I would probably just remind her to really trust yourself because that’s actually the elixir that people are drawn to, is the thing that you do that no one else does, they’re your gut instinct. And like I said I think that’s the biggest threat in this industry.
And I’ve gone through points of this as well where suddenly I have so many voices in my head and people saying… that I’ve actually forgotten what I think. And that meant I’ve had to go into solitude or change something in my life to go and find that again. But that is your greatest power, is your own inherent, true voice. And I think that’s the best advice I can give to young artists or to myself is to set up your life and your process in a way where you can always attend to that like it’s the most sacred thing you have in your life. Like when you close your eyes and you get that, “Hmmm, no. I think it needs to be this.” You know, that gut instinct. This doesn’t always come immediately but I would tell her to always trust yourself above all. That’s the elixir of art, that’s why you’re here. That’s why you’ve been given these opportunities because you trusted something in yourself that no else can give to you. It comes from within.
mxdwn: It’s apparent that music has been such an important part of your upbringing, even having a room named after you at the music department of your old high school. But besides music, what are some other passions you have and other artistic ventures you wish to pursue in the future?
Kimbra: I have a lot of poems that I write and I think would be nice to publish at some point in a book. I enjoy watercolors, I enjoy tasks that are creative but don’t require me to be thinking a lot. Even though my favorite moments in music are when my brain switches off and I’m purely present. But a lot of the music-making process is also quite analytical and working in Pro Tools and doing a lot with the mind. So I like hobbies that teach me to kind of move in the realm of instinct.
Creative endeavors, I have plans to make albums, some that I’ve already started on, that have rules around them. Like making a record for example that’s just a band record, like live drums, bass, guitar and a voice. Putting some restrictions on my creative process that would really challenge me to write and perform differently. So I’m quite drawn to those ideas of projects that have a container on them which can inspire you to break that container. Or as I was talking about, purely drum music or purely ambient. I have plans to do projects where there’s some kind of strict regulations on it in order to push me. So that’s what I kind of think about in the future. And I love dogs (laughs).
To keep up with all of Kimbra’s creative endeavors and any future tour dates, check out her website. And make sure to listen to the new album, A Reckoning, available on all streaming platforms now.