With ‘The Golden Echo,’ Kimbra Applies Lessons Learned from Gotye Hit: “There Are No Rules”

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The first time I visited the Wikipedia page of Kimbra Lee Johnson — known to most simply as “Kimbra,” the 24-year-old singer from New Zealand — I thought someone was trolling her. Not that Wiki is exactly a reliable source, but famous people’s pages are typically groomed meticulously by their fans. Under genre, though, Kimbra’s page read: “pop, indie pop, electropop, jazz, soul, R&B, progressive music, progressive metal.” Then I spent more time with her music. I’ll add now: they forgot funk.

Next week, Kimbra will release her second album, The Golden Echo, on Warner Bros (it’s streaming right now). The adventurous, live-band romp through pop and soul through the ages will be Kimbra’s first new album created (though not released stateside) after Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” became The Inescapable Song of 2012, thus launching Kimbra’s name to a level of cultural familiarity she had only known Down Under. As Kimbra tells it, the acclaim that accompanied the No. 1 hit cracked her mind right open when it came time to make a follow-up to her 2011 debut, Vows. “I saw what could happen with a song that essentially doesn’t hit the chorus until two minutes,” she said.

Flavorwire: You definitely pack in a lot of different styles on The Golden Echo, as exhibited alone by the guests you hosted during the album’s recording sessions: John Legend, Muse’s Matt Bellamy, Bilal, Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth, Van Dyke Parks, Michael Jackson drummer John “JR” Robinson, Flying Lotus, Omar [Rodríguez-López] from The Mars Volta, etc. This is a formidable guest list.

Kimbra: When we say “collaborators,” it makes it sound like they have this big moment on the record, where it’s like, “featuring Mark Foster and Matt Bellamy!” It was a lot more organic than that. I made a lot of friends on the road when I was touring. When I moved to L.A., I would immediately start that conversation: “I’m working on a record, you should come on, you should come hang out!” A lot of the time, it was the other people, like John Legend, who were interested in collaborating and reached out to me. When there’s that mutual respect between two artists, that’s a really great space to create a song that’s not just like a label putting you in a room together — it’s actually organically happening out of friendship. So it wasn’t so much an intention to be like, “Okay, how many songs can I have featuring different artists?” As you can hear, it’s not that kind of record at all.

For example, my co-producer Rich [Costey] works a lot with Muse, so he sent the song to Matt [Bellamy] like, “Hey! Check it out, this is a song that me and Kimbra are working on, if you have an idea, send something through!” Matt really liked the song, and did have an idea, and sent something literally the next day on email. Same with Mark Foster [from Foster the People], who said, “I like this song – can I come down tomorrow? I have an idea.” So it was this really nice magnetic thing that happened with this record, where it kept seeming to attract people. People just wanted to be a part of it, which was really an honor for me. I like the idea of trying different energies in the room. What happens when Thundercat is jamming with me in a room? Or when Daniel Johns from Silverchair comes down and we decide to write a pop song together? That’s interesting to me. It’s less about making a big statement moment for that artist and more about how can I have musician that every time they play something on the album — whether it’s the smallest thing or the biggest thing — I feel like it has personality. That’s what you get from people of that kind of caliber, and that kind of approach to music.

FW: Is there anybody who sticks out as being really surprising? Like, you didn’t expect that to come from them.

Kimbra: They all constantly surprised me, because you have it in your mind, “Okay, I’ve done this kind of music, this is what people expect from me.” Even the fact that all these people wanted to work with me was surprising. “Really? You’re into my music?” Ben Weinman from the Dillinger Escape Plan is playing on my songs? I find that so humbling. You can never prejudge a musician and what they like.

To be honest, a lot of the collaborations didn’t make this album as well. The song I wrote with Dave Longstreth [from Dirty Projectors] was this crazy kind of R&B-African jam. But that didn’t make it on — no one’s heard that yet, but it’ll come out someday.

FW: The main connective lyrical thread of the album I’ve picked up on is one of nostalgia, on a number of different levels, from the inherent nostalgia of “90s Music” to the personal look backwards on “Teen Heat.” Did you have this in mind at all?

Kimbra: I didn’t set out with a concept when I started the record, I just jumped in. Songwriting happens a lot in the subconscious. There will be themes that start popping up and you’ll realize, “Oh wow, okay, so I’m thinking about that!” You didn’t even really know that this subject was on your mind until the song’s finished. I enjoy that about making music.

It wasn’t until about halfway through making the record that I had quite a distinct dream, where the words “The Golden Echo” came to me. It was my little exploration of this particular flower, which is called Narcissus Golden Echo. There are two very strong images on the record, one that explores what it’s like to be wrapped up in your own head, and the other is very much about a sense of chaos and invasiveness. But the Golden Echo itself is the other part about that imagery, which is a sense of being pulled outward, a sense of being tuned into something beyond. I wanted the record to have an arc: nostalgia and being young like you said, then it goes into the crux of the self, and into the head, and then there are revelations and moments of enlightenment — what I like to think of as the Golden Echo.

FW: The first single, “90s Music,” definitely shows off the album’s most playful side. It’s also a funny song to me: the fact that it’s about the music of 1990s but doesn’t necessarily sound like ‘90s music.

Kimbra: Yeah, it’s pretty weird, isn’t it? Even I don’t really know why it’s like that. The truth is, we don’t remember what the music of our youth sounds like. It comes back to us slightly skewed because it’s permeated by experiences. It’s kind of more about how we remember it in our minds than the reality — the juxtaposition of those two worlds. Juxtaposition is a bit of a thread on the record as well, starting in one place and then being thrown into another.

FW: Is there any music from the 1990s that you’ve rediscovered in the last few years and had a different relationship with than you may have had at the time, as a kid?

Kimbra: There’s a bit of music I rediscovered that I never actually listened to at the time. That’s kind of why it was on my mind as well, listening to stuff from the ‘90s. Artists like Jane Child, who’s amazing but I never knew when I was a kid. Man, her song called “Don’t Wanna Fall In Love,” so amazing. Also, my band and I used to cover Bobby Brown [sings “Every little step I take, you will be there”]… so I kind of started rediscovering Bobby Brown.

FW: I want to ask you about the Gotye song, and the fact that what you’re doing here is quite a bit different. You go hard in funk and R&B influences, audibly channeling Prince. If American audiences only gave you a cursory consideration based on “Somebody That I Used to Know,” they will be quite surprised by The Golden Echo. Is that initial representation frustrating in any way?

Kimbra: I think I already kind of went through that when I was touring with my band. It’s not like it was the first thing I released to the world, being on that Gotye song. I had a whole album out in New Zealand. It was a record that went to a lot of different places and had already made a statement about the sort of artist I was. Once that song took off, I’d already been doing a different thing.

When my band and I went on tour with Foster the People, as well as our own headlining tour, I was aware that people would be coming down like, “Oh, she has that Gotye song! Maybe she’ll play it!” We’ve never played that song before in our lives. I don’t consider that to be my song, it’s very much a song that wouldn’t make sense to do without Gotye. So then you have this interesting scenario where people are coming along expecting one thing, and walking out with an unexpected experience. The important thing was that they walk away feeling that it was better than they expected. It became this whole kind of challenge. We really enjoyed it every night, like, “Okay, here’s a fan base that is expecting one thing, but we’re really going to throw something quite different out there.” It doesn’t mean there aren’t vulnerable moments, but it was kind of like a nice evangelism for my own music.

FW: Is there any downside to being featured on an indelible hit?

Kimbra: It’s funny, I definitely have been asked this a lot, but I do really have to say that I can only see positive things that have come from “Somebody That I Used to Know.” It changed my approach to going into the studio this time around. I was aware that anything is possible with music, that there are no rules. I sung the vocal track [of “Somebody That I Used to Know”] in my bedroom, and I thought, “Oh cool, this is going to be a nice ballad on Wally’s record.” I had absolutely no idea that it would be what it became, and it made me super ambitious. I literally went into making The Golden Echo the day after the Grammys [in 2013, where she won twice].

Even if there is a sense of expectation around this album, I kind of saw that as a positive as well — a good challenge to make a statement. I’ve been put in a position of great blessing in a way, and so now, I need to show what I can do and make a record that is exciting for me as an artist — and hopefully connects with people as well.