Kimbra Lee Johnson was introduced to the world as the voice of Gotye’s Grammy-winning ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’. But her debut album Vows – released just weeks after the Gotye hit – revealed a multi-talented musician with ideas of her own, which she explores and expands with her second album, The Golden Echo. An intense fusion of pop, funk and electronica, the songs reflect Kimbra’s philosophical and sometimes mystical views on life. In fact the singer had just enrolled in a philosophy course at the University of Auckland when, at age 17, she was offered the recording and management deal that swept her away from New Zealand, and ultimately to her position today as one of the world’s fastest-rising stars. But Kimbra doesn’t feel she has missed out on an education.
You have to become your own student and I see myself as a student. Every day I wake up and think, okay what can today teach me?
Every songwriting session I’ve been to, every musician I’ve worked with, every time I sit down at the computer to work on something, it’s like you have to keep the mind of a child that’s there, ready to learn.
Pretty much all I read is books on schools of thought within religion, thoughts on philosophy, thoughts on science. There’s nothing more important or more interesting to me than, why are we here and how we got here, whether that be scientific or existential or spiritual. And I certainly don’t have the answers but I’m definitely searching and I’m very excited by it.
In what way does that search express itself in your work? I actually feel like my deepest moments in a philosophical sense come from melody and rhythm more than lyrics. Of course I think lyric is an amazing way to tell a story and a message, but where I feel I’ve transcended has been in musical moments. Just closing my eyes and a particular melody just hits the spot in such an incredible way. I fear that words cheapen an experience. I get nervous to write about things that are very dear to me because I know words don’t do them justice. If you have an experience that goes beyond language and material things it is very hard to communicate that stuff with words. That’s why you have Picasso and Michelangelo and incredible composers like Mozart and Bach, because these people are saying those things to us you can’t necessarily say with words.
Being an artist seems to demand a degree of vulnerability. One risks emotional exposure or demands it in a way other professions don’t. Does it seem like that you? Yeah, for sure. There are two very different lives you lead as an artist. One is quite introverted, well it is at least for me, the one of going into the studio and getting very in touch with your own emotions, very in touch with your feelings. You have to be vulnerable to write music and channel from that place. And then the other side of your career and life is output and external personality and my music has very charismatic colourful elements to it. And you do have to put some walls up in that kind of scenario, because people have connected with you because of your vulnerability and when they meet you there’s that sense that ‘I have access to you, I have access to your heart and your soul’. There’s a sense of entitlement sometimes, articles that are written on celebrity life demanding to know what an artist is doing every minute of the day.
I think you balance it by just maintaining a sense of normality in your life. Nature is amazing for that, because there is a real indifference in nature, there is a sense of just being part of a whole. That’s what keeps me not getting too carried away with it all, reserving space for myself so you don’t get drained. You leave it for the music, that’s the place I put it into, the vulnerability and all that, and the rest of my life has to have a little bit of a boundary around it, I think many artists do that.
Did growing up in New Zealand help ground you and prepare you for such demands? Of course, absolutely. We’re a relaxed culture, and there was a community feel to the way we grew up. I didn’t grow up on a farm but I was around animals a lot. And the Waikato river – I’d go down there every day, I’m so connected to that, I know what it feels like to be totally anonymous.
Do you think an artist or performer has a particular responsibility? It’s different for every artist. I personally feel a responsibility to speak from a truthful place, to speak from the heart and bring positive energy into the world. The essence of this album has a very strong sentiment attached to it, inspired by a dream I had. It was just those words, ‘the golden echo’, going around and around. I didn’t know where it came from and when I went on the internet to see what it was all about it led to the story of Narcissus, which had a lot of resonances for our culture – the projection of self everywhere and all that – and a poem which had the line: ‘How to keep beauty from vanishing away? To give beauty back.’ When I received that dream I took it on as a responsibility to follow through, not to ignore it but to think maybe this came for a reason.
Words by Nick Bollinger.