Kimbra is pop music royalty. With queen-like grace, she unabashedly pursues the expansion of the genre's landscape, taking us to uncharted territories filled with sounds the likes of which we've never heard. A veritable workhorse, she has devoted her life to bringing new life to a scene that's hard pressed to find fresh innovation. A New Zealander by birth, she has achieved worldwide notoriety with her outstanding original work and her ever growing list of collaborations with bands across the globe.
Her live performances leave nothing to be desired, as she takes full responsibility for playing her music as close as possible to what she meticulously crafts in the studio. Recently she stopped by Houston, TX to play a set on the main stage of Day For Night festival and it was far and away one of the best performances of the weekend. With effortless confidence behind her insanely complicated instrumental setup, the ease with which she waxes towards joviality demonstrates just how much she loves what she does. Following her stellar performance we sat down for a brief chat where, among other things, we learned about her musical upbringing, along with getting fresh info on her forthcoming album Primal Heart, which drops in January of next year.
Magnetic Magazine: How did you first find your confidence?
Kimbra: Well, I started writing on little dictaphones when I was 8 years old. I would sing the melodies that I heard listening to the pop music on the radio. I was fascinated with the structure, the verse the chorus, and I'd write these silly little songs. At 12 years old I started playing guitar, learning Stevie Wonder songs, getting really deep into R&B chords and jazz chords. At 14 I entered into a competition in New Zealand, which was my first true boost of confidence. I came 2nd in the country, at which point someone told me that I could turn it into a professional career. That gave the me the strength to try.
MM: How did your parents feel about it?
Kimbra: I am very blessed to have parents who have always let me do my thing. My parents are in medicine, so it's a very different vibe, but they were always supportive. They could feel that it was a calling for me.
MM: Do they recognize who you are on stage?
Kimbra: I feel very free on stage and they’ve seen that since I was young. I come to life in a different way and I think that they can see that performance is like therapy for me.
MM: You chat to yourself quite a bit on stage, who are you talking to?
Kimbra: Well sometimes I’m chatting to the boys on stage, keeping connection with them, like, "cool man" and affirming them. Other times I'm talking to myself in a way where I'm like, "you got this, you got this, you got this." I get nervous! I have a lot of patches and different triggers so there’s quite a few technical things to handle on stage. Sometimes it helps me to talk to myself like I'm in my bedroom jamming. I feel more relaxed.
MM: Are there things you do to keep your confidence level up?
Kimbra: Having other musicians on stage is a huge boon. Most importantly, I really love to connect with my fans in the crowd. Really get eye to eye with them! See what they're responding to, see how they're moving. Watch their bodies move and then sync up with that. Performance is a give and take. It’s not just about me up there, it’s about having a conversation with the audience.
MM: What do the chaos pads speak to within you?
Kimbra: Playfulness; the childlike spirit. It keeps it improvisational. There’s no danger If I know everything that’s coming and I like the audience to feel the danger right along with me. It's nice to interact with technology that could collapse at any point. It does collapse, too, I often make a bunch of mistakes. It’s a risk you have to be willing to take. But I believe it is worth it; the ability to keep people on the edge of their heels. “Ooh this is getting unhinged...” I like that.
MM: How did you become comfortable with failing on stage?
Kimbra: Before this point I used to go out on tour and do a lot of free looping, which means that you're not on a beat clock, you just kind of have to hope that you get it. There have been many times where I've made big mistakes, even on live TV. On Jay Leno we got three shots at our performance. The first two shots I was totally off time with the loop. My hands were shaking because I was so nervous to hit the button on time. But the third take, WE KILLED IT! I was really proud of that performance. You have to be willing to walk in with failure as an option. I think the beautiful thing about performing for human beings is that they understand the natural human frailty.
MM: How has your connection with the audience changed over time?
Kimbra: So I have a new album coming out in January called Primal Heart. This album is different for me because I feel it’s the most personal. There were more characters on the last album; more dancing around and surrealism. But these songs have a sense of groundedness and tell stories. It feels like I'm really just hanging with someone and telling them what's up with me. In a way, I feel more connected to my audience on this record than I have in the past.
MM: Did it scare you at first, not having a character to play?
Kimbra: For sure! It was a battle making the record. The producer would keep asking me to get more vulnerable, and in response I would put up walls. As a producer myself I kept wanting to put sounds everywhere. But I took the producer’s advice and stripped things away in an effort to let my voice stand out front. It’s scary but worth it.
MM: Do you learn things about yourself when you open up to the audience?
Kimbra: Of course. The instinct when you feel yourself get vulnerable is to become afraid and run. Lately I'm trying to embrace the feeling and turn it into strength. My hope is that it inspires other people to give themselves permission to let go of the fear of being vulnerable. I think that's what it's all about. Artists give us the courage that sometimes we don't have in our day to day life.
MM: Do you find yourself battling with your audience's perception of you versus your own perception of yourself?
Kimbra: Of course there's expectation, right? They have an idea of who I am and they come to the show thinking I’m going to play certain songs. But again, I really believe in the emotional connection with the audience. You can gain their trust if you really bare yourself, and then you can find a way to lead them wherever you want. They will follow down crazy avenues and, even if they don't like it, they will feel the authenticity about it.
MM: With this new album, do you feel the need to round it out into an emotional arc?
Kimbra: There is definitely an arc to this one. It becomes more contemplative toward the end, which most of my records have done. I like to think I that I begin to strip away the layers. The final song is literally just vocals and it feels like an ultimate statement of directness.
MM: What are the albums that have inspired you to do this?
Kimbra: Mars Volta was one of my favorite bands when I was younger and I loved how their records always started with an intense intro. I love a lot of the way that experimental bands take that attitude. I would like to see that more in pop, so I take a lot from that idea of a very dynamic track listing. Stevie Wonder is a master at creating that within pop. “Songs In the Key of Life,” is a record that does everything that you want it to do. I hope to be an artist who crafts records that fulfill something for people. A sense that I made this for you. I thought of every detail in it. I think that's a really special gift.