Image for Primal Heart: Kimbra On Being Bold & Embracing ConfrontationPhoto: Micaiah Carter

Primal Heart: Kimbra On Being Bold & Embracing Confrontation

Written by Cyclone Wehner on October 9, 2017

Kimbra is somebody that you used to know – and somebody that you miss. But, despair not: the Kiwi electro-pop queen has just aired a powerful comeback anthem, ‘Everybody Knows’. It’s the lead single from her third album, Primal Heart, due in early 2018. Primal Heart captures a more daring Kimbra. Relocating from Los Angeles to New York, she’s shed the sumptuous, psychedelic electro-soul of 2014’s The Golden Echo for future funk and warehouse R&B. Imagine a playlist of Janet Jackson, Goldfrapp and FKA twigs.

“It’s definitely a record of a kind of maturity and courage,” Kimbra says of ‘Everybody Knows’, with the hint of an American accent. “I wanted to showcase a song as the first single that opened the doorway to the theme from this new album. I’ve moved to NY at the time of writing the new album and there’s a new boldness and sense of directness that I’m looking for as an artist. I think, in writing this song, I kind of uncovered some of that energy and wanted it to be the first message to the fans. The song is definitely about awakening to the light, in some way – or to some sense of truth and justice. For the first time as a musician, I’m confronting a lot of things in a more direct way. I used to write in a lot of metaphors and idealism and surrealism or escapism – and a lot of my imagery is based around that. But, for the first time, this album seems like it’s more confrontational than before. I’m grounded – which feels exciting, you know? It feels kinda liberating.”

Lately, Kimbra returned to her former Melbourne hometown to headline both 2017’s Supersense: Festival Of The Ecstatic and the inaugural National Gallery Of Victoria Gala (Kimbra strutted the red carpet alongside Nicole Kidman and Elizabeth Olsen). Kimbra also took the opportunity to shoot the “honest and real” ‘Everybody Knows’ video with her friend Guy Franklin – the Melburnian last directing the clip for ‘Come Into My Head’. They filmed around the austere, stony, cliff-lined Cairn Beach, Flinders, on the Mornington Peninsula.

Raised in Hamilton, New Zealand, Kimbra Johnson set her heart on a music career early. As a kid, she performed on guitar – her doctor dad chaperoning. Eventually, Kimbra migrated to Melbourne, collaborating with M-Phazes. In 2011 the singer/songwriter debuted with Vows on the back of her break-out single ‘Cameo Lover’. Kimbra duetted, too, on Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ – that viral, global mega-hit. It scored two Grammys – Prince presenting the pair with the distinguished Record Of The Year. Meanwhile, Warner repackaged Vows and it reached #14 in the US. Kimbra settled in LA’s hipster Silver Lake.

Next, she unveiled The Golden Echo – a riveting “prog-pop” opus with co-production by Muse associate Rich Costey. (Additional input came from the likes of Matt Bellamy, Thundercat and Daniel Johns.) In fact, Kimbra divined the avant ‘n’ B movement. However, she might have been too advanced. The Golden Echo was only moderately successful stateside. Today Kimbra admits that she approached her sophomore with “a certain stubbornness”. “I think I knew what people wanted me to do at that point – which was probably to make a safer record or something that felt that it was in the vein of what I had success with. But I felt really determined to do something quite maximalist and decorative and a tapestry of sorts – something that kind of delved into the breadth of my imagination. I mean, of course, I realised at some point that may not make it especially accessible. But I think there was just no other choice.” She’s “proud” of The Golden Echo. Indeed, Kimbra follows her artistic instincts – not trends.

Prior to The Golden Echo, Kimbra worked on the side with the neo-soul fave John Legend (she’s credited on his Kanye West-helmed ‘Made To Love’). And, in the downtime since, she’s actively pursued other writing gigs – Sia-style. “I was called into the sessions for Rihanna’s album,” Kimbra rattles off. “One of the songs I wrote got pretty close to making it on her record. There’s been another song that Ariana Grande has a hold on…” Still, when prepping her own LP, Kimbra recognised that she needed to be fully “invested” in it (and she did retain a couple of songs).

Late last year, Kimbra circulated ‘Sweet Relief’ – a wonky electro-funk jam she cut in London with Redinho. The soulstress says she experienced “a real urge in my spirit” to share music after Prince’s passing (she previously blogged a tribute to her hero). “He was always releasing material – even if people tried to stop him!” Nevertheless, ‘Sweet Relief’ isn’t on Primal Heart.

For Primal Heart, Kimbra booked John Congleton as co-producer. The Texan all-rounder is best-known as St Vincent’s long-term cohort – winning a Grammy for her 2014 foray. But his production discography this year alone includes albums by Goldfrapp, Future Islands and Blondie. Though Kimbra produces her own demos at home, she grapples with “objectivity” – and, here, Congleton helped. “His philosophy is very much about being very committed to the choices that we make and being very bold about it. We really didn’t want to have a myriad of options. We wanted to be very decisive and bold and ballsy about the kind of decisions we made. We wanted to show my audience a different side of what I do and strip it back a bit – to present a more raw and hungry version of the music, which I think is exactly where I was at as a person and as an artist.” Primal Heart has an industrial edge, broaching IDM, yet Kimbra’s expressive voice is at the fore.

Kimbra implies that Primal Heart is her response to America’s volatile political climate, but the most immediate influence has been New York – its gritty surrounds a stark contrast to indulgent LA. “This city demands a boldness of you – and a toughness,” she says. “It confronts you with reality, this place – it confronts you with all walks of life. It’s all happening around you.” Coincidentally, Kimbra is now again living in the same city as Gotye – who’s cutting the mythic follow-up to 2011’s Making Mirrors. “I was at his house just the other night, actually, because he has this studio in Brooklyn; in a house set up there,” Kimbra reveals. “He just invited me over with some friends and he showed us the new material from the record – it sounds AMAZING. So I’m always in touch with him – we’re very close friends.” Could the two reunite on a song? “We’re both pretty focused on what we’re doing right now and our own projects,” Kimbra laughs. “But, because we have such a close friendship, it’s not impossible that we would do something again. [But] we’re very aware of how much attention that would receive. We would wanna make sure it’s being done for the right reasons. So that would be the main thing we would think about!”

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