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Kimbra's Canny Breakthrough

The Kiwi pop singer-songwriter's debut follows her guest slot on Gotye's massive single hit

By Larry Gilchrist
Special to MSN Music

©Thom Kerr
Kimbra (©Thom Kerr)

It's ironic that a song called "Somebody That I Used to Know" introduced many American music fans to Kimbra. While the 22-year-old New Zealand native already chalked up a 2011 ARIA win -- the Australian equivalent of a Grammy -- for Best Female Artist for her debut, "Vows," it was this year's biggest-selling single thus far, Gotye's spring smash -- as well as her own lead single, the infectious "Settle Down" -- that signaled her arrival on U.S. shores.

Now, with the recent release of "Vows" stateside and nonstop touring with Foster the People and festival appearances at SXSW and Coachella, Kimbra is making quite the name for herself here. MSN Music recently caught up with the stylish songstress to talk about breaking through in America, her unique sound and the hit song that made it all happen a bit quicker.

MSN Music: Having already established yourself in Australia, what was it like bringing "Vows" Stateside?

Kimbra: It's been great. We're still in the process of doing that now as we start to tour around America. Of course, people have had a taste of music through the track with Gotye and now my own record with "Vows," but I think a lot of people are just about to see us live for the first time, which I think is an important part of what I do. I love to bring my songs to people one on one and showing them the live transitions, which are actually quite different from the record. But it's been fantastic to see the response from people that have followed the music from three years ago back when I was making it in Australia to people who are just discovering it for the first time. I'm proud that I've had the opportunity to go all around the country -- I am looking at the Red Rocks in Colorado right now. It's hard work, but it's a lot of fun as well.

How did you get your start in Australia?

Well, it's interesting because "Vows" was released in Australia and New Zealand quite a while before it was released in America. I made the record pretty much independently when I moved to Australia with my management [Outpost Management]. I didn't put the record out until three and a half years later purely because I wanted to make sure that it was right and I had management that was really intent on me developing a distinct sound. The frustrating part is that I wanted to put it out, but they made sure that I waited and then it was coming out around the time that I was doing this track with Gotye [whose real name is Wouter "Wally" De Backer]. Then I signed with Warner Bros. a couple of months before working with Wally, and that brought about the opportunity to put the record out in America through the help of Warner Bros., when I added a few songs to the record, with the intention of making it a fresher version of the album. It's been very staggered. The album doesn't actually drop in the U.K. till next week. So, I am reliving it all over again with the release of the record in different parts of the world. And it feels fresh every time because it's a whole new set of people, culture and influences that I can [draw] different things from.

More on Bing: Kimbra

You mention your distinct sound. How did you create it?

I think a lot of artists find a place where they vocally feel safe and, for me, I wanted to try and break out of that to discover if I could find different sounds to my voice that would help me to feel more unique -- I think that came from trying to challenge myself with as much different kinds of music as possible. I listened to all kinds of stuff, from the Dirty Projectors and Mars Volta to Miles Davis and Prince, and even heavier bands like Meshuggah and Nine Inch Nails. It's not restricted to genre for me; it's about the conviction, passion and excitement of the music for me, and I think you can take influence from so many different places. If you can find a way to create a fusion of all of those things and seal it off with your own experiences, then hopefully you can find something that feels fresh for people. I think the clincher for me was moving to a new country at the age of 17 and having all my comforts shaken a little bit. People introduced me to music, and that was the moment that I started to experiment a bit more and learn about production. Before that, all I had done was play guitar and just record songs on a little 8-track. Now, given the ability to sit with MIDI keyboards and arrange string compositions on Pro Tools, it opened up a whole other world for options to write with.

Earlier you mentioned Gotye and your collaboration with him. That song seemed like lightning in a bottle for the both of you. How did it come about

I worked with a producer named Francois Tetaz, and I wanted to work with him because I heard that he produced Gotye's second record ["Mixed Blood"] and I loved the sound of it, so I told my manager that I wanted to work with him. Through Francois, he introduced me to Gotye and actually suggested that I could be a good person to collaborate with. Gotye was looking for the right artist to sing on that song and he called me up. And we had met a couple of years earlier but really hadn't kept in touch, so it was a great opportunity for us to reconnect, and the rest is history.

What's it been like to witness the growth and success of that song?

It's pretty surreal. It's different for me because I don't listen to the radio all that much and I don't have much time as I used to to be online to see all the momentum that's been happening around the song, but there are a few moments, like Coachella, where when I walked onstage and I could hardly hear myself because the audience was singing so loud. So, there have been a few moments when I've just been baffled by how a song from such humble beginnings can fly to such heights, but I think it's really been a positive and exciting moment for pop music -- confirming that people are excited by hearing different kinds of music in the pop charts and emotions that are usually not touched on in No. 1 songs, in the last 10 years anyway. To see a song that's so reflective and that comes from such a vulnerable and fragile emotion, it's special that it's had the success that it's had because I don't think it happens all that much to songs like that.

What's next for Kimbra?

I've just shot a video for "Two Way Street," which will come out soon. I am currently working on a song for a Disney film, as well as a potential Tim Burton film. I just got some collaborations for an upcoming project, which is exciting. Obviously, that's going to require some time off from touring to actually complete it because it's challenging writing in the back of a tour bus. But the main thing at the moment is my live shows. We play the Montreal Jazz Festival with Janelle Monae in a couple of weeks -- which will be great. Then we go to Turkey, Europe and then a headlining tour here in America, which will be quite a big deal for me.

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Jul 22, 2012 2:30AM
I've had Kimbra's album "Vows" for a few months now. It is a very good album. However, if you get a chance to view/listen to Kimbra's sessions "Live at Sing Sing" you will truly be able to appreciate this young woman's talent. Go now, find it!
Jul 21, 2012 2:50PM
I am enthralled with Kimbra's unique style and fabulous voice! That fact that she's so darn cute doesn't hurt her any either. But she's correct when she says that perhaps we are ready for newer sounds and more honest, emotional songs.
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