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Kim­bra is back with a soon-to-be re­leased al­bum and, at 27, she says she has a much more grounded view of the world than she did at 24. Brid­get Jones re­ports.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Big things can hap­pen in your 20s. Your tastes change, your pri­or­i­ties shift, you ex­plore the world, you fall in love, you fall out of love, you change your hair.

And Kim­bra John­son has had her own ver­sion of a personal epiphany. Where once sat a ta­lented, ea­ger young mu­si­cian, now stands a ma­ture busi­ness woman with a new­found sense of con­trol to go along with a cre­ative patch that is mak­ing her soul soar.

“I’ve gone from be­ing 24 to 27 and a lot can hap­pen in those years. It might not seem very long, but it is a lot,” she ex­plains. And who of us could ar­gue?

The time frame is one many mu­si­cians mea­sure them­selves in - the gap be­tween al­bums. I have in­ter­viewed Kim­bra a hand­ful of times over the past seven years, al­most al­ways fit­ting into that cy­cle, from an ex­cited 20-year-old be­ing touted as the next big thing by US gos­sip king, Perez Hil­ton, to the re­lease of her first al­bum, Vows, and then her sec­ond, Golden Echo.

Of­ten we’d talk in the most glitzy of lo­cal five-star ho­tels or from var­i­ous over­seas lo­ca­tions where the singer was tour­ing or putting down more per­ma­nent roots, and each time, she changed slightly, as peo­ple tend to do. There has al­ways been an in­ten­sity that came when she talked about her work, but she has never seemed as, well, se­ri­ous as she does now. Even the func­tional arm­chair she’s folded her­self into in her ster­ile Auck­land ho­tel room is stripped back to ba­sics. Maybe it’s her, maybe it’s a sign of the aus­ter­ity hit­ting the lo­cal mu­sic in­dus­try, but the flounce and frills of the old Kim­bra are long gone and the fo­cus is on the mes­sage she wants to de­liver.

For her, rein­ven­tion came from learn­ing; about the in­dus­try she works in, her role in it, the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process of­ten left to the men in suits, and learn­ing she can man­age el­e­ments of her ca­reer as well as any­one.

And while the world has been watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to Hol­ly­wood fi­nally ac­knowl­edge its ghosts and the role women need, want – and must – play in the in­dus­try, Kim­bra has been pro­cess­ing what her own part is in all that.

“[Some women] have peo­ple telling them how to be styled, what to wear, they are given songs for an al­bum. I’ve done a lot to make [my mu­sic] turn out the way that it has, but at the same time, I’m very blessed to have peo­ple be­lieve in the vi­sion and let me run free with that for a lot of my ca­reer.

“But I feel a lot more own­er­ship around this stage of my ca­reer, and em­pow­ered through that courage. In the past, you maybe just flowed with the river, but it’s nice to build your boat, get in and de­cide what you are go­ing to get out of it.”

So far, she’s got in­ter­na­tional glory, two Grammy Awards and a cou­ple of well-re­ceived al­bums. Along with Aus­tralian singer Goyte, she was thrust into the spot­light with Some­body That I Used To Know. In 2013, the pair won those Gram­mys (one was handed over by her idol, Prince) and for a mo­ment in time, Kim­bra was in­escapable.

She says fame and for­tune were never the ul­ti­mate goal, but at the same time, she knows she’s work­ing in an in­dus­try that mea­sures suc­cess by record sales, award wins and mag­a­zine cov­ers. It could mess with your head, if you let it.

“Stand­ing in front of Bey­once and go­ing to all of those par­ties is def­i­nitely a lot of fun, but there is noth­ing in that world for me that I have any de­sire to chase af­ter. The me­mories that re­ally stick with you are so much more about hu­man in­ter­ac­tions with ev­ery­day peo­ple than meet­ing celebri­ties and all that. It’s why I love be­ing a Kiwi, be­cause we just don’t take that s... se­ri­ously.

“We are all spe­cial in dif­fer­ent ways and celebrity and fame does kind of put you on a pedestal [and sug­gest] you are kind of dif­fer­ent to ev­ery­one else and although I am very grate­ful that I have gifts to share with the world, so does my fa­ther – he’s a doc­tor, he’s saved lives with his gift.”

Fam­ily is a pow­er­ful thing for Kim­bra. Her brother, Matthew, is one of the first peo­ple she shares her mu­sic with, and her dad bought her first gui­tar. But writ­ing songs from the age of 10, mak­ing her first mu­sic video in her early teens and then leav­ing Hamil­ton for Mel­bourne as a 17-year-old with a man­age­ment deal and stars in her eyes, means life has been pretty dif­fer­ent to what many of Kim­bra’s friends and fam­ily know.

“I’ve al­ways been a lone wolf and spent a lot of time alone and haven’t re­ally been able to ex­plain the chal­lenges of my life. There is a lot of iso­la­tion in that, but it’s not some­thing I have ever re­gret­ted... I don’t think I’ve missed out on any so­cial con­nec­tion.”

Want­ing to be close to peo­ple was one of the rea­sons she moved away from the in­dus­try’s epi­cen­tre of

“In the past, you maybe just flowed with the river, but it’s nice to build your boat, get in and de­cide what you are go­ing to get out of it.”

Los An­ge­les to New York a few years back. There, she has been con­fronted with a new re­al­ity.

“You’re right in the heart­beat of hu­man­ity re­ally; you see fear, greed and self-preser­va­tion and you also see in­cred­i­ble am­bi­tion, tran­scen­dence and striv­ing. Liv­ing amidst that dy­namic has been re­ally in­spir­ing for me.”

Like re­la­tion­ships, Kim­bra has searched out her own ed­u­ca­tion – partly sat­is­fy­ing the day­dreams of what it would be like to go to univer­sity and learn and live like her peers. Among the in­stru­ments and equip­ment scat­tered around the stu­dio she has built in her apart­ment is a li­brary of books lin­ing the walls.

She reads a lot about phi­los­o­phy and re­li­gion – El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert’s Big Magic, and the work of Thomas Mer­ton and Rainer Maria Rilke are among the favourites – and turns to their words when maybe her own aren’t com­ing as freely.

“I fight a lot with my cre­ative self and there can be dark mo­ments, re­ally dark mo­ments. You have some­thing in­side you that wants to get out, but you are hit­ting walls time and time again. I just try to re­mind my­self that ev­ery artist has been in this sit­u­a­tion, we only see the pro­duc­tiv­ity of their discog­ra­phy, we don’t see the left­be­hind scrib­bles. The truth is I al­ways get there, I al­ways end up with an al­bum at the end of the day.”

It’s true. Her third al­bum, Pri­mal Heart, is fin­ished, or at least it was. Re­lease dates have chopped and changed, now April looks likely. Per­haps those walls have been get­ting in the way.

But just like those gilded ho­tels she once hung out in, the the­atrics are gone. For now the wigs and char­ac­ters have been put back in the box and, as Kim­bra puts it, Pri­mal Heart is about grow­ing up and be­ing “a lit­tle more set in the world, rather than float­ing above it”. But all change comes at a cost.

“It is a lit­tle scary, be­cause there is more of you out there, but you can’t re­ally deny the pay­off, which is this con­nec­tion with your lis­ten­ers. Every­thing is cause and ef­fect.

“[Those hard mo­ments] make you won­der, would I want to do this for­ever? And of course I do. It’s what I have to do. The one place in the world I re­ally feel free, is on stage per­form­ing my songs for peo­ple. It’s the one place I feel like I have some­thing real to con­trib­ute to the world. It’s the place I can re­ally em­pathise with what oth­ers feel and give them per­mis­sion to ac­cess some­thing in them­selves.

“What more would you want to be able to do with your life than leave a mark on the world in a pos­i­tive way?”

“You’re right in the heart­beat of hu­man­ity (in New York). You see fear, greed and self­p­reser­va­tion and you also see in­cred­i­ble am­bi­tion.”

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