Kimbra's musical experimentation

90S CHICK: Kimbra, right, will be at Vector Arena with Janelle Monae on May 24.
90S CHICK: Kimbra, right, will be at Vector Arena with Janelle Monae on May 24.

What kind of album would you come up with if you spent a year in Los Angeles with eight sheep, a couple of chickens and Michael Jackson's drummer for company?

The hint is there in Kimbra's new single, 90s music, released on Triple J in Australia last week. You might call it experimental; it's a cacophony of beats that almost feels like a mixtape in one track, featuring Muse's Matt Bellamy on guitar.

Slate has called it an "incredibly ambitious, impressive mix of genres," and Kimbra, a slightly American twang to her voice from her home in Melbourne, says the song is the first on an album that's pushing the boundaries.

"It's a really exciting record, I feel like it's the album I've been wanting to make - it's definitely my most experimental record yet. So that was exciting, and it's also the record I've done the most production on as well as the writing and stuff."

Like most 90s kids, she was raised on a diet of Beat It and Billie Jean - so it's no surprise that one of her favourite collaborations on the upcoming album is with Jacko's former drummer, John "JR" Robinson, who has provided beats for the likes of Quincy Jones, Madonna, Lionel Ritchie and Daft Punk.

"That was incredible, just working with him one-on-one," Kimbra says.

"I think after working with a live band, after a couple of years on the road I became a lot more aware of rhythm and heavy beats, so I like working with a lot of different drummers."

Hamilton-born Kimbra will be back in New Zealand this month, in Auckland for a one-off gig with American R&B artist Janelle Monae on the pair's Golden Electric tour, which will also see them tour Australia.

Born Kimbra Lee Johnson, the young electro-pop musician won Rolling Stone's One to Watch award in 2012, and in 2013 won two Grammys for her song, Somebody That I Used to Know, with Australian artist Gotye.

She's been holed up on a Los Angeles farm for the past year working on her new album, due out later this year, with a who's who list of collaborators including Daniel Johns, Bellamy and Queens of the Stone Age bassist Michael Shuman.

Silverchair's Diorama was one of her favourite albums as a teenager, so working with former lead singer Johns had always been a dream. Despite coming from different musical genres, working together was "crazy natural," she says.

"We're really similar songwriters; we both like big twists and turns. It may seem like it wouldn't work because we have very different styles of music, but when you break it down we are drawn to the same things."

Kimbra's debut album, Vows , was released in August 2011 and reached the top 5 in New Zealand and Australia. Tours for that album followed, chased up by hitting the road with Gotye. When she moved to LA to make her new album she chose to live on a farm purposefully.

"I just wanted to get close to nature after all the crazy touring. It had been a whirlwind; I had been thrown into the spotlight quite quickly. When you can find a place you call home you can kind of choose when you can plug in and turn off."

She's also enjoyed the relative anonymity of LA, saying while she loves to come home to New Zealand it's not quite the same.

"I think because there's so many musicians and actors there you don't seem so exposed, because everyone is in that industry in a way, and it's a really nice city," she says.

"It's crazy when you come from Hamilton and you've kind of always done your thing since you were a kid . . . even going back there is different for me.

"The strangest thing is getting used to things like photographs - but it can also be a really kind of amazing experience to speak to people who say you have affected their lives with a song."

She's excited about her upcoming tour with Monae, with whom she bonded when the pair met in a hotel bar in Sweden after the Montreaux Jazz Festival.

A shared love of Prince got them talking, and an impromptu jam session with their respective bands cemented the friendship.

"She's tough, you know, she's just got a real strength and energy about what she does, but at the same time she's very forward-thinking. We connected on a few levels."

Kimbra and Janelle Monae play Auckland's Vector Arena on May 24.

Sunday Star Times