Kimbra is starting over with her revelatory fourth album, A Reckoning. The Kiwi singer, songwriter and producer has signed a new global distribution deal with Inertia Music, having left Warner after three albums. A Reckoning is Kimbra at her most emotionally naked – but she’s in control.
Originally from Hamilton, New Zealand, Kimbra Johnson became an international pop star when she united with Gotye for 2011’s mega-hit ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, which won two Grammys including Record of the Year. A month after its release, Kimbra released her debut album Vows.
Gotye later retreated from the spotlight, while Kimbra moved to Los Angeles and focused on creating ever more ambitious music. Now based in New York, Kimbra has been relatively quiet since releasing her socio-politically-themed third album, Primal Heart, in 2018. During the downtime, she acted in the musical drama Daffodils, judged NZ’s rebooted reality show Popstars, and launched the podcast Playing With Fire.
For A Reckoning, Kimbra revels in maximalist art-pop, traversing contemporary classical, ’80s funk-pop, German microhouse and trap soul. Rappers Erick The Architect (from Flatbush Zombies), Tommy Raps and Pink Siifu all make cameos.
On the Björk-ish lead single ‘save me’, the alt-trap ‘replay!’ and the futuristic ballad ‘i don’t want to fight’, Kimbra delves into her own psyche, ruminating on broken romance and mental health struggles (which she disclosed in a since-deleted Instagram post amid the COVID-19 pandemic).
Kimbra began A Reckoning pre-Covid, having bonded with collaborator Ryan Lott of Son Lux on the road in 2018. Hunkering down in Upstate New York, she sent vocal demos to Lott, whose role resembled that of a remixer.
“A lot of the time, his job was to throw something at me that might shock me,” Kimbra says. “We wanted to do something that was going to be bold in its decision-making.”
Music Feeds caught up with Kimbra to discuss A Reckoning ahead of North American and European tour dates. The singer, who’s acquired a North American twang, peers into the Zoom camera, all striking blue eyes and dangling earrings. Although the connection occasionally glitches, nothing can halt Kimbra (who recently returned to Like A Version to cover Beyoncé’s ‘BREAK MY SOUL’.) One lingering question is when Kimbra will next tour Australia, after opening for David Byrne in late 2018.
Kimbra – ‘save me’
Music Feeds: I wondered where you’re based now. Are you still in Upstate New York or have you been attracted back to the Big Smoke?
Kimbra: I’ve been attracted back to the Big Smoke. Yeah, I think it was perhaps a little too quiet for me and I found my way back to the stimulation of the city. But, you know, it was a very important time to isolate up there. I think it was crucial to the making of the record.
MF: A Reckoning has so many twists and turns. I can’t categorise it. What was happening in your life as you started it?
Kimbra: A break-up. I had already begun writing some songs. But I’d also begun to conceptualise what I wanted to say. I was reckoning with a lot of frustration and anger inside myself and finding that that was coming out in ways that I wasn’t proud of sometimes in relationships. There was an explosive quality in my life that I wanted to understand better, because it’s also the source of my energy and the great parts about me, right?
Some of the earliest songs I wrote were ‘i don’t want to fight’ and then ‘save me’ – songs from a real place of being quite broken and really wanting to shift certain things. Then, of course, Covid hit and it was time to really do the work, really take a look at myself. And it’s my belief that, when you try to annihilate parts of you, they just get stronger, you know? So, instead, I wanted to sit and listen to them and embrace the chaos and embrace the contemplation.
MF: A Reckoning is so hybridised – there’s not any one strong sound coming through. I might hear a bit of trap then a bit of classical. What is inspiring you in the current pop landscape?
Kimbra: Oof. Well, I think there’s been some really exciting new artists to break through, like ROSALÍA – you know, the kind of fighting nature of not really quite knowing what the sounds are. They feel modern, but they also feel kind of organic and physical.
I love Frank Ocean and James Blake and a lot of these artists that are very much pop but also playing with texture in a way that’s just not what you’ve heard before. You mentioned classical music – I do listen to a lot of Philip Glass and really, like, contemplative, soft piano music.
I think I wanted there to be a tenderness to some of the songs, like a rawness to the writing. So, at times, I would lean into that. You’ll notice that anytime the piano’s on the record, it kind of gets warped. A lot of the instruments, and the voice as well, they’ll start very organic, but then they’ll get morphed into sounding otherworldly – which was important to me, too; that nothing ever landed in a predictable space.
I like to find the nuance in emotions. Things are never really singular. There’s always layers to emotions and to feelings and to loss and grief and anger and violence. So that’s why I like these instruments to kind of distort and contort at times, because that’s more realistic to my experience.
Kimbra – ‘foolish thinking’ ft. Ryan Lott
MF: This record is very personal. How do you protect your privacy as an artist, given that music is therapy for you in some ways?
Kimbra: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I sacrifice a certain kind of privacy as an artist – I guess that’s what I’ve walked into. I will use the fabric of my own life to tell the story and therefore I feel naked and exposed sometimes. And I have to take care of myself and be kind to myself and try to have good boundaries around what is just mine and what is for the world.
I don’t hold anything back in a live show, but that means I’m very exhausted after – so I’ll probably retreat and go quiet, not talk much and protect that fire. It’s true that if you just give everything away, there’s nothing to [keep for yourself]. So, you’re talking about a very real thing for artists. We’re not always successful at managing that balance.
Music Feeds: Is there a song on the album that is really emotional on playback; that you might find hard to listen to yourself?
Kimbra: I think the last song on the record, ‘i don’t want to fight’, is just a very big statement. I spent a lot of my 20s trying to change things – people, causes; you know, “Rah, I need to fight” – then sometimes you reach moments where you actually just need to let go and there’s a resignation and a surrender.
I do get reminded of how difficult it is for me to touch these tender places, because it’s tempting to want to always show yourself strong in your music. But then [when you listen] back and you hear yourself really at a breaking point, I have to care for myself like a mother in those moments, right? I have to be like, “Yeah, just remember that that younger self is processing.” I have to have a lot of tenderness for it.
It is hard, though. I feel like I’m doing therapy every day when I’m listening to these songs and talking about them. But it’s so much better than putting [those feelings] away and suppressing and denying. I think what’s responsible for so much pain in the world is when we don’t face ourselves.
MF: I wanted to ask about Aussie tour plans. Will you be coming back this year behind the album?
Kimbra: Nothing is locked in, but there are definitely already talks about it and rumours of it happening. Yeah, hopefully the first half of the year. It’s a big priority for me to return to the places that I came out of, you know? Like that’s where so much of my biggest support is. So, yeah, I can confirm that there are talks and hopefully announcements to be made soon.
A Reckoning by Kimbra is out now.