Golden girl Kimbra gets real
To get the gold for her new album, Kimbra shunned the lights and distractions for a bucolic bolt hole in LA that echoes her native Waikato.
Only a Kiwi girl could find a sheep farm in the middle of Los Angeles.
The day after the 2013 Grammy Awards, Hamilton native Kimbra Lee Johnson moved to a sheep farm in Silver Lake, California, and surrounded herself with nature.
In her mental suitcase she'd packed a year of hype, screaming media attention, the release of her debut album, Vows, and two Grammy Awards for her international No 1 hit with Gotye, Somebody That I Used to Know.
The song topped Billboard's Hot 100 chart in 2012 and has sold more than 13 million copies.
"It's an interesting thing to receive a lot of praise and criticism," she muses the day after moving to a new sheep-free apartment in Los Angeles. "Both of these things are daunting to go through. I had an amazing response to the music but even that can be a challenge."
The 24-year-old sought serenity and a reconnection to her spirituality in the "indifference" of nature.
"There's something beautiful about having grown up around a lot of nature and I feel very connected to it.
"There's an indifference that nature has towards you. I really like that about hanging out with animals . . . I was chilling with a bunch of sheep, they don't give a crap who you are. It's refreshing to just be part of the cycle of life. I needed that after all of the craziness."
With the upcoming release of her new album, The Golden Echo, she's about to push replay on that craziness.
Surrounded by the sheep and lambs owned by her landlady, she wrote the album over 18 months from her bedroom studio in LA.
"I put the songs together in a little bedroom I had in the back of the house on the farm. Then I went into Eldorado Studios in Burbank. It was a dream studio. It had stacks of old consoles and modular synths. A lot of the record was made there.
"It was a cross between a very lo-fi set-up in my bedroom and a high-fi set up in the studio in LA."
The album references the Greek mythology of Narcissus, the proud son of a river god and a nymph, who became so in love with his own reflection in the water that he could not see anything else. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, he died by the river and a yellow flower grew in his place. Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself.
"The title came to me in a dream. When I woke up, I lay in bed and researched it. I found the poems The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo. There's also a flower with the name."
By 19th-century English Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poem is about coming to terms with ageing. Its lines: "Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty . . . from vanishing away?" struck her immediately.
"It concerns holding on to beauty and joy and is also about giving it back - that's the echo.
"I quickly realised that it is one of the strong energies on the record. I'd had self-projection everywhere in the world, I saw pictures of myself everywhere but the other meaning to it is a calling outwards to the universe, calling you to give beauty back and calling you to be connected with the whole again."
Her musical journey was to find the golden echo she could give back to the world.
Was it love? The voice of God?
The album begins with Teen Heat, her examination of youth and innocence. It ends with Waltz Me to the Grave.
"It is an important song on the album for me. It shines a light on death, something we should not avoid talking about."
Written after she'd read The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, she says the song is close to her heart.
"It is about the moment of surrender. Every time I listen to the song I am sure I am going to get a strong feeling from it.
"I'm fascinated about the possibilities and ideas of where we are going when we move on from here."
On her blog, under the title Kimbra's Catacombs, is a quote from Frederick Buechner: "Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace."
The Golden Echo was co-produced by Rich Costey and Kimbra, but it was Kimbra driving the bus, inviting "friends" including neo-soulster John Legend, renowned bassist Thundercat (Flying Lotus, Suicidal Tendencies), Queens Of The Stone Age's Michael Schuman and rocker Omar Rodríguez-Lopez of The Mars Volta/At The Drive-In fame to join her in the studio.
This inclusive approach extended to Michael Jackson's main studio drummer,
John J R Robinson, Muse's Matt Bellamy, Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth and rapper Flying Lotus.
The songs with Longstreth and Flying Lotus are not on the album but will be released later in the year. Bonus tracks on the deluxe edition include appearances from Ben Weinman of The Dillinger Escape Plan and Jonas Bjerre of Danish band Mew, one of her favourite bands.
Each artist played their roles in the "movie" of The Golden Echo.
"It wasn't a conscious decision to have someone feature on every song or anything like that. I wanted to have a record that played to personalities. I loved the idea of including the artists I've met along the way, of it being a cinematic experience where they each added a shade of themselves.
"When opportunities came up to work with those people I jumped at them, like Daniel Johns from Silverchair. John Legend and I reached out to each other on Twitter. It was organic and it just happened. It ended up being a record with a lot of my friends involved, which is such a nice energy."
Kimbra remembers thrashing around to Silverchair's angst-ridden Frog Stomp, as a teen.
She met Johns through veteran American composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks when they did a show together. Johns co-wrote four songs on The Golden Echo.
"It was a nice energy. We wrote a lot of songs that no-one's heard yet. It was inspirational for me."
The song Madhouse emerged from a jam with bassist Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat, and is Kimbra's take on the "modern day echo chamber" set to an irresistible beat.
"I became fascinated with 80s songs with great basslines, from Michael Jackson's heyday, like Billie Jean and Talking Heads. It was the hook of the song and everything fell around that, I wanted to explore that.
"We jammed and Thundercat laid down a bassline, it was so sick. John worked on Thriller. He laid down live drums for Madhouse and it was done in one take. He came in and it was perfect. One ticket to riff-city."
The Golden Echo sees Kimbra break out of her electro-pop pigeonhole into funk, soul, indie rock and rhythm and blues.
Like its creator, it is ambitious, sophisticated and complex.
The single 90s Music - bubblegum pop melody, electronically altered vocal, stop-start tempo and spare hip-hop beat - seems to have divided listeners.
"Nothing else on the record really sounds like that song sonically but, in saying that, no song sounds much like the other on this record. I have placed innovation, artistry and experimentation as high values while working in the studio."
She did worry initially that she was "jumping around too much" between genres but feels the recurring theme, and having Thundercat lay down the bassline on most of the songs, offered a sense of cohesion.
Goldmine is a heavier song which incorporates snippets of, and inspirations from, "old chain-gang and slave music field chants".
In the studio, Costey encouraged her to experiment, to follow her instincts and to be playful.
Grammy buddy Gotye lent her "little toys" such as Omnichords and old samplers.
She has always considered digital audio workstation Pro Tools to be an instrument but also dabbled with iPad apps on this album, a first for her in a recording context.
"The iPad is all over my album. I write with a lot of instruments, I really enjoy pushing technology to its limits, pushing it to places where it's on the brink. I find it interesting to get sound out of something in a different way."
On Miracle ("my song of praise and gratitude"), she offers a vocal horn impersonation dubbed the "Jackson 5 moment". She sang it on the demo, simply as a guide for a real trumpet to be added later on in the process but Costey was intrigued by the effect.
"What up, you know? The more we kept listening to it the more we thought ‘wow, it has its own thing going on'."
Comfortable producing and doing technical elements in the studio, under "dream collaborator" Costey's eye, Kimbra says the challenging environment helped her grow.
In the music world, mention New Zealand music and one singular name follows the next.
Kimbra and Lorde are "brand New Zealand" music on the global stage.
The pair met in August last year when Kimbra went to one of Lorde's shows at a venue called The Echo, close to her home in Los Angeles.
They share mutual friends and Kimbra once sang vocals on one of producer Joel Little's records, a tune called All For You back in 2006 when he was in the band Goodnight Nurse.
"I congratulated her. It was nice. There is an energy and a connection because we have a ticket on the same crazy ride."
Often receiving praise from fashionistas for her classy vintage style, Kimbra is embracing a wider approach to her art and not just a new musical direction.
In Los Angeles, for the album launch, local artists will create artwork around their favourite song.
"We'll have headphones in the gallery and people will come in and connect and engage with the music within a piece of art."
Even the photoshoot for the album's dreamscape artwork was an artistic expression which saw Kimbra and her stylist spontaneously creating outfits.
"We made one dress out of a blanket."
Last year her tour with Janelle Monae, The Golden Electric Tour, was cancelled due to Monae's ill health. With the touring machine gearing up for this record, is there any chance it will be rescheduled?
"It's going to be very busy touring once the record comes out. Dates will be announced shortly. I can't say too much now but I want to get back down under as soon as possible ... trying to get the music to people and connecting with people who have supported me again."
Alongside touring and the festival circuit, Kimbra has a "bunch" of side projects on the go, including plans to work with Kiwi band Electric Wire Hustle.
"I can't really talk about them until they are confirmed. Flying Lotus, Dirty Projectors, we've been working on stuff together, collaborating on something coming up. It's impossible to work without doing something on the sidelines otherwise I just get stuck in my own head."
Her childhood home overlooked the Waikato River. She began writing song lyrics when she was 10 and started to learn to play the guitar when she was 12.
At high school she was mentored by Anika Moa and Anna Coddington as part of the Music Commission's Bands Mentoring Contract, after she reached the national Smokefree Rockquest finals in 2004 and 2005, winning the national female musicianship award.
At 14, she was runner-up in the competition, out of hundreds of entries and as a soloist up against bands.
In an interview after Rockquest, in 2004, she said that her dream was simply to be a working musician. "I couldn't imagine my life changing that much even if it came true."
At 15, she added Costey to her dream list of collaborators. Now she's made an album with him.
In 2010 she was signed to a worldwide deal with Warner Bros Records in the United States by legendary A&R executive Lenny Waronker, who also signed her idol, Prince.
Last year she performed at Brazilian festival Rock In Rio. When she sang Michael Jackson's song They Don't Care About Us, more than 10,000 people in the audience chanted it back at her.
The experience informed some of her material.
What does she think her 14-year-old self would make of her life now?
"I get recognised now and the people around me have changed. I've had opportunities to do things. Your context changes and your circumstances change but as a person you don't.
"I'm still attracted to nature and attracted to ambition which I was as a kid.
"Yes I've won Grammy awards but I wrote my second album on a farm with some sheep."
The Golden Echo is released Friday, August 15, and is available for pre-order now.
- Weekend Magazine
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