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.
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.”