It’s hard not to embrace an interview subject who enters the conversation laughing before the first question is lobbed. That’s Kimbra: the New Zealand soul singer whose albums before 2018 (The Golden Echo, Vows) were cheerfully cluttered, genre-mixing experiences marinated in the meaty juices of dance-pop.
Her newest album following her recent move to NYC, Primal Heart, is due in April, and takes a different tact in that the whole of the album is a windier, more minimalist experience, which allows her emotional lyrical perspective to shine through to a greater extent than in previous sonic settings. Before she appears at Union Transfer on January 31, Kimbra chatted about golden echoes, gods and Gotye.
The Key: You have come a long way with Primal Heart since The Golden Echo, which came along way since your debut album, Vows. Do you feel – as an artist, as a woman – you have to jettison yourself from the thing you do last?
Kimbra: I’d like to think that whatever I do is a reaction to what came before it. Every album is a chance to explore one idea, so then hopefully the next one finds something else to explore – that I’m following a new line of possibility and curiosity. I don’t feel an external pressure to do something different so that is all internal, about evolving what I do. Also it is so I don’t get bored, to be honest.
TK: Is there anything of your original artistic impulses – something of an aesthetic throughline – that you dig hanging onto?
K: I’ve noticed there are a few things that emotionally and aesthetically tie all of my music together. I’d say to start that there’s probably a sense of longing. As many different genres that I have played with, at its core there is an emotional questioning… a sense of idealism too.
TK: Is there a first song for Primal Heart that premeditated where the rest of the album went?
K: Ah that song didn’t make it onto the record (laughs). Yet, it set me on a trajectory, because it had a lot of space for the vocals – air – a sense of coming out and being vulnerable. That song was a journey… taking more time and room to announce something rather than decorate every moment.
TK: That sounds like you are describing your new song “Human” quite frankly – an icy, un-crowded song.
K: Well that’s funny because “Humans” does wind up defining that same process. The title gave me license lyrically and sonically, gave me a strong sense of what wanted to manifest itself in a mix of origin and instinct. It even pulls from a lot of old gospel songs that I love – a texture that you present the melody with.
TK: Do you have some deep church background in New Zealand or did it come to you later?
K: Later when I got to America really. Pastor T.L. Barrett is someone I fell in love with. Kanye West sampled him. Johnny Greenwood talks about him. I went down that road and found even more obscure congregational music. If you are looking for music that longs, that music has it. This is the music of transcendence. Having not really grown up with religion as a child I’m curious about faith – why people believe in what they believe – why we question our existence especially through song.
TK: When you came to America did you get religion in your life or are you still a godless heathen?
K: [laughs] I would say certainly that I am now someone who prays and meditates. Being in America has made me very hesitant to use labels to express an idea of my faith. I can see how incredibly destructive religion has been in this country and throughout the world.. I deal with experiential union. I am in a constant state of questioning. Even as a child that was true. It was nice to not live with the filter of having it forced down my throat.
TK: You mention this country. What has your move from New Zealand to LA to NYC done for you?
K: It triggered a lot in me – especially on the new record. There’s a new courage and grounded-ness. I have a life outside my career.
TK: Jumping to the earliest parts of your career – did you sort of learn everything at once? Were you figuring out how to produce and write and sing songs all in one shot?
K: I did learn it all at once quite early and out of necessity because I wanted to express exactly what was in my head. When you are a curious passionate 18 year old trying to express herself in a way that requires more than a guitar, you learn new skills. I’m a big believer in being self-taught. I am not one to read a manual. I find them quite boring.
TK: I hear you. Your vocal lines are WAY up front o this new album. Is that your idea or John Congleton’s? You seem to be vocally present rather than one of the instruments as you did on your other records. Did the lyrics push you to do that?
K: I was guided by John to turn the music down and the vocals up. He wanted people to feel me coming out of the speakers and my tendency is, as you said, to be at one with the music and use the voice as another instrument in the mix. He’s got that punk rock approach and the more he pushed me up the more I wrote music and lyrics that required that sound. The music asked for it. The record required a storyteller that was way out front.
TK: I am usually loathe to bug about a lyrics’ minutiae BUT “Everybody Knows:” at first it feels broad and universal but after repeated listenings gets real specific. Is the loss (and breakup) your own?
K: On a micro level, my songs start off personal – loss or a relationship’s change – and you draw on experience. But either I dig deeper from my own perspective and experience OR I go macro zoom out and see what others are going through with this theme. There are deep emotions that I have that are drawing from other people’s experience. The core of the emotion speaks to an insight into a relationship that is somewhat oppressive and abusive. You speak out to that and see something fresh. Pain stems from the same places. A lot of Primal Heart is about things that are essential to our existence.
TK: By this time in our collective history, your Gotye duet “Somebody That I Used to know” is ubiquitous still despite being seven years old. Are you sick of hearing it?
K: [laughs] It’s not as if I hear it altogether that much but I do know it gets played a lot. Oddly enough, I might hear it in a cafe and smile because it reminds me of the whirlwind of that experience. That said, I’m not actively putting it on for my listening pleasure.
Kimba headlines Union Transfer on Wednesday, January 31st. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.
Kimbra, Union Transfer