GOTYE and Kimbra’s Somebody That I Used To Know is the year’s most enjoyably unlikely No. 1 single. At the Splendour in the Grass festival in Woodford, north of Brisbane, the reaction when the pair combined to play the song was near-deafening. ‘‘ My sound guy clocked the audience at 115 decibels just before we played the duet,’’ says Wally De Backer, aka Gotye ( left).
‘‘ That’s 10 decibels shy of a jumbo jet flying overhead.’’
Yet the song almost ended up in the too-hard basket.
‘‘ That song singlehandedly held up the record for five months,’’ De Backer says of the third Gotye album Making Mirrors.
He’d written the song by merging relationship breakups with a sprinkling of fiction. But it didn’t fly.
‘‘ For the first time I thought, ‘ There’s no interesting way to add to this guy’s story’,’’ he says. ‘‘ It felt weak.’’ He decided to add someone else telling another story, morphing it into a duet. Then came the ‘‘ heartbreaking’’ process of finding the right singer. A few were tried, including a ‘‘ high-profile’’ act who became ‘‘ too busy’’.
‘‘ There were a lot of shifting goal posts,’’ De Backer says. ‘‘ I was so close to putting it in the too-hard basket.’’
Producer Francois Tetaz, who had worked on Gotye’s previous album Like Drawing Blood, saved it. ‘‘ He told me I should find that thing, that it deserves it.’’
Tetaz suggested Kimbra after working on her album Vows. She was in.
‘‘ Like Drawing Blood was such a big album for me,’’ Kimbra ( inset) says. ‘‘ When I got that call, it was very exciting.’’
Kimbra was in the throes of signing a global deal with Warner in LA. Tetaz was busy working with Bertie Blackman.
‘‘ People’s timetables contributed to it being a long-winded affair,’’ De Backer says.
He left his microphones with Kimbra to record her parts in her own time.
‘‘ It’s such a fragile song. You have to nail the emotion,’’ Kimbra says. ‘‘ It can’t feel forced. We did a few different versions.’’
De Backer made a version with Kimbra’s vocals distorted by technical effects. Kimbra didn’t like it. She wasn’t alone.
‘‘ Most other people were on Kimbra’s side,’’ De Backer says.
‘‘ They wanted her to be more natural sounding. I agree now it makes more sense our vocals are on the same plane. I liked it because it was like she was musically behind me looking over my shoulder.’’ Weeks later came the version we now know. ‘‘ The one we chose we both agreed had a moment of connection in it,’’ Kimbra says. ‘‘ Obviously it worked.’’
The next step was the video. Director Natasha Pincus had a vision which included near-nudity, stopmotion animation and body-painting.
De Backer says: ‘‘ It was the right song to step out and be more direct and perform in one of my own videos. Kimbra was a good sport. She’s done a lot to be part of this song.’’ Kimbra remembers a ‘‘ full-on’’, all-night shoot. ‘‘ A few times your body just rejected everything. As soon as you move, you’re out of sync with the background. It was a good test of endurance,’’ she says.
De Backer morphed the background from a painting by his father Frank.
‘‘ There are times it looks like I have Kiss make-up on!’’ he says.
The video has sold more than 20,000 copies on iTunes, the song has sold more than 100,000. ‘‘ Seeing it up with Adele and Beyonce is quite odd. I’m happy I’ve made something different, a heartbroken duet. It’s genre-less,’’ De Backer says.