Mystic Echoes, Kimbra Gets Candid
There’s that old tune about making or breaking it in pop music that comes with the release of a second album: the sophomore slump, they call it. Then again, many acts don’t make it past one-hit-wonder status—if they make it at all. But correlating success with radio play or placement on Billboard charts is less than empirical with the proliferation of digital platforms disrupting the music industry over recent decades. Creating and distributing music en masse is easier than ever thanks to the Internet; the same cannot be said for garnering massive attention. Kimbra—born Kimbra Lee Johnson before becoming New Zealand’s quirkiest mononymous pop princess—knows a thing or two about today’s idiosyncratic music model after being catapulted into the spotlight before having even released songs of her own. When she was 22 years old, Kimbra made a guest vocal cameo on Gotye’s to-be viral Internet hit, “Somebody That I Used To Know.” The single—a universally appealing pop ballad that called to mind the 80s synth pop of Peter Gabriel and Sting et al.—debuted to Australian audiences in the summer of 2011. It soon infected the blogosphere, then Top-40 airplay, in the way that cements a song’s place in decennary retrospectives of pop culture to come. Among other accolades, “Somebody I Used To Know” went on to win a couple of Grammy Awards in the U.S. and notched more than half a billion views on Youtube.
It was another artist’s hit single—one on which Kimbra doesn’t even appear until the final 90 seconds—a song to serve as her global introduction as a musician. “I’ve been on this whirlwind trip,” she remembers. “Being caught up in intense praise for something—and intense criticism—all of it gets projected onto you when you are in the spotlight.” And with that, her career begins.
In fact, it was just two months after “Somebody That I Used To Know” dropped that Kimbra released her own debut solo full-length, Vows. Likening her musical projects to “seasons of life,” she describes her first record as a snapshot into the expanse of her teenage years, and “all of the emotions that come with that.” The album’s most successful single, “Settle Down,” was recorded on an 8-track player, “as a joke song,” when she was just sixteen. After graduating high school and leaving her home in New Zealand for the big city (relatively speaking) of Melbourne, Australia, it took upwards of the next three and a half years for Kimbra to properly assemble Vows. Looking back on pursuing this teen dream, she insists that there was no doubt that making music was her calling, though, she often worried: “Is this thing ever going to be done?”
“I’m lucky that my parents supported me in that decision—and not everyone has that blessing. It’s an anchor. It’s the thing that keeps you grounded through tumultuous moments, the highs and lows,” she says.
Vows went platinum in New Zealand and Australia, and debuted at #14 on the U.S. Billboard 200. Following worldwide tours in support of the album, and high profile guest appearances alongside Gotye, Kimbra took a year off for a much-needed recovery. She soon found herself capturing new ideas as she toyed with off-kilter sounds in a barnyard studio outside of Melbourne.
Through two solo albums, Kimbra, like other art pop contemporaries in FKA twigs or Glasser, has become known as an obsessive in the studio. She leans on co-producers, collaborators, and a deadline-setting record label to draw a line, lest she tweak a mix to death. “As an artist, you’re always thinking of how to re-create the piece of art that you’re working on, right?” she muses. For someone who began editing songs with simple means—experimenting with delayed vocal takes on 8-track mixes—the infinite options of music editing software like Pro Tools is at once a blessing and a curse. Individual recording sessions during the making of her new album, The Golden Echo, churned out some 400 trackings at a time; the final product was cut from upwards of 70 songs to 12 (plus three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition). Kimbra is uncertain if her future in creating music should be contextualized by limitless possibilities. “I’m just not sure if it’s good for the sanity of an artist. I think sometimes you need boundaries around what you do,” she says.
Bounded is hardly the word to describe the Kiwi’s sophomore effort in the studio. The Golden Echo is a fully compounded pop album with a multitude of bells and whistles bouncing off the walls. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the lead single, “90s Music,” a track that features a pounding trap beat colored by shuffling wisps and zips. It sounds nothing like actual nineties music, but it’s not supposed to. Kimbra describes it, rather, as a psychedelic idea: a juxtaposition of youthful nostalgia and the palette of sounds she enjoys in this moment.
If “90s Music” serves to introduce fans to Kimbra’s more adventurous approach on the new album, it is hardly representative of the project as a whole. The Golden Echo is difficult to describe in terms of genre; each track covers a different space from the last half century of popular music. It wasn’t a conscious decision to depart massively from her early sounds, but playfulness and experimentation was a specific intention. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen a Kimbra music video (which espouse all the visual weirdness of Lady Gaga, but without the venereal gimmicks).
In fact, attention to optics might well be Kimbra’s underlying signature. Her songs are born of sonic sketches but remain underdeveloped until she begins to see a picture. “It’s very much visual. It’s color,” she explains. Sometimes she even plays old films and anime clips (but never outside music) in the studio for visual reference. Connecting disparate rhythms and melodies into a cohesive aggregation by way of seeing the tune come to form best explains Kimbra’s approach in the studio. “It’s not just technical stuff. The way you execute the song is super important for me emotionally,” she says.
Kimbra, then, found it liberating to follow illustrated storyboards to craft “With My Hands” for Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. Instead of navigating the depths of her own head, Kimbra was tasked with serving the scene. With a keen eye for film, she’d like to do more soundtrack work in the future. When asked for her WILD Wish, her eyes popped, face illuminated: “To live in the world of Dr. Seuss! So psychedelic and amazing and fun and joyful and imaginative.”
It was back when Kimbra was just learning the guitar and figuring the ways of songwriting that she connected sound with sight. “Do you want to see what my bedroom view looked like?” she asked me. Her mom had recently sent her a picture from back home in New Zealand. The surreal panorama looked like a still from The Hobbit.
“My tree hut would be there, and we would climb down the gully to get to the river. In summer, it’s all sheep and cows. Something about looking onto those views made me want to write songs.”
Her sense of mysticism remains today. She tells that the thematic idea behind The Golden Echo came to her through a series of coincidences and a dream. “If you have a thought, you have to follow it and honor it if it comes to you,” she insists. “I always leave a space open to capture the idea.”
As her story goes, the words golden echo crossed her mind in a dream. Researching the flower led her on a tangent to the myth of Narcissus, a story that Kimbra found more than relatable in today’s age of social media connection (or lack thereof). “We are all sitting, looking at a pool of water, but there’s this whole ocean underneath. Still, we see ourselves reflected back,” she explains. “I’m not making a criticism and I’m not trying to save the world—I see it in myself.”
She also cites the The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo by the seventeenth century poet and Jesuit monk, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Kimbra admires the structure of the prose, for which words are repeated to create an echoing effect when read. The poem opens with a question of how to keep beauty from vanishing away: Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
The idea of “giving beauty back” pushes Kimbra to let go of her art.
“It was almost as if it was divinely-inspired. I talk about it as if it’s not my own, but that it came into me—not to be too over-the-top about it, but, it’s less my own and more a message for people.”
Between recording sessions is Los Angeles and a cover shoot in Joshua Tree National Park, Kimbra was back on the phone with her mom when she noticed a single golden echo flower growing from the edge of a lake. She’d found the album’s title and knew then that her ideas had become whole.
“I guess I’ve made a choice in my life to believe in those things when they happen.”
Photography: Jaesung Lee
Styling: Sophia DeArborne
Make Up: Lucy Halperin
Hair: Sylvia Wheeler