Kimbra: The 13th Floor Interview

Kimbra’s much-anticipated third album, Primal Heart, was finally released on Friday after a three-month delay.

The plucky New Zealander has collaborated with the likes of Skrillex, John Congleton and Natasha Bedingfield to create a collection of songs that will take her to the next level.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Kimbra the day before Primal Heart’s release date, with the singer calling in from the heart of New York City.

Click here to listen to the interview with Kimbra:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: It must’ve been quite a busy week for you, I assume, with the album finally coming out here on Friday [April 20]. What have you been up to? What’s been happening?

K: Yeah. Yeah, well my big album release show is tomorrow night, bit more of an industry and friends thing, I’m just gonna keep it small and celebrate with people I love. But um, two nights ago I played at Rough Trade, which is a really iconic record store in New York, and it evolved into … for fans that wanted to come for a signing as well, I got to really interact with all the people that’d been buying my records for years, it was really amazing. Like, hearing the record through the record store, seeing the vinyl for the first time, laid out on the storefront. It was really emotional actually, it’s been quite a while since I had that moment. I’m feeling good!

MD: And it’s just in time for Record Store Day, which is on Friday so, or Saturday, rather. So, obviously the record’s been in the pipeline for quite a while, and was supposed to be out a few months earlier, so what had to be done between January and now to get the record out, finally?

K: It was really … around, you know, release things, like obviously putting out an album is a big ordeal. There was a campaign that has to come with that – and it had a few subjects that I wanted to get done before the release of this record and it was important to me that I had a bit more time, and also for my label to kinda set things up right, and I made the promise to my fans that I’d put a single out each month leading up to release, and I was able to pull that off! Well, that was scary.

My hope with Primal Heart is that people come to see that beneath the surface, we are all dealing with the same things.

I don’t regret it at all, because I think it’s just given us – everyone – a chance to connect a little bit more with the heart of this record, the core message. And you know, gain a wider audience so that when this album drops there’ll be people out there listening… with a freshness – but also with a deeper acquaintance of what I do, because there’s been about five people […] before the record. So that’s a different way of doing it, but I’m quite into it.

MD: So you mentioned a core message. What would you say that message is, that people would get from this record?

K: I think I’ve talked a lot about connectivity, and especially through vulnerability. You know, it’s like – people have talked a lot about the music kinda exuding strength. But the way in which I found that strength, that sort of boldness on this record, is through confronting hard things and then painful things. And I think that suffering is the kind of teacher in life that leads us to find our new, refined confidence.

Yeah! So I think the trick was that I wanted to present a different side of myself. I wanted to emerge from all the layers and present something that was very honest and confessional at times, you know, and kind of spoke to growth and maturity. Like you know, becoming a 28-year-old woman, and the things you go through, that whole surrounding identity with that. So my hope with Primal Heart is that people come to see that beneath the surface, we are all dealing with the same things. And living in America at a time like now, it can be so easy to just see division, and not much unity. And so people judge. But… I hope this record kind of opens up some of that conversation and connects people to one another. That’s my deep desire.

I’m concerned with it being a soulful record, and if it means that you have to take electronic programming to actually translate the soulfulness of the songs then by all means, I’ll do that.

MD: Uh-huh. And there’s been a lot of comment about the importance of this record as far as your career arc, and how much this is the one that will put you over the top, etc. Have you put much pressure on yourself as far as that goes? What are your expectations for the record?

K: I worked pretty hard at removing myself from expectations. I mean, I have plenty of expectations for myself, but that’s enough to manage on top of a record label and, like, people. But I’m looking forward with each record, and always looking to expand – the audience, of course! I’m also looking to deepen the connection of the music. I think a lot of my, some of my favourite artists haven’t really like, broken, exposed their vulnerability … sometimes until their like sixth album. And I think that’s amazing, you know, because they’ve set up such a trajectory.

But I guess that this album has something special to it, that maybe my other records didn’t. I think I’m sharing something perhaps a little more timeless in my work, I think my songwriting’s stronger. But more than ever, I think it’s the funnest record to play live, you know, connecting in a really deep way with the audience in the live context. But yeah! You can’t have too many expectations for things, cause what I’ve learnt in this industry is that the thing that you least expect to connect might be the very thing that really does it. So it’s always a kind of beautiful mystery.

MD: And, listening to the entire album, it’s pretty obvious that quite a variety of styles and production techniques and whatever  involved with the thing. Were you concerned about trying to make – is that what you wanted to show? A diverse range of what you can do? Were you concerned about it being consistent? How did you approach that?

K: Yeah! I mean, it’s funny, cause I think it’s definitely the most focused album  I’ve made. If I look back at Vows and definitely The Golden Echo I see a lot of dancing in the genre. It’s funny when people talk about that, because it’s just not something I consciously think about. I do what I do and I draw from sounds that inspire me. But I’m never really consciously aware that it’s this genre-bending. It’s just I have eclectic taste, you understand, an eclectic skill-set with production.

So I do like to draw from things that come from various genres, but it’s not – you know, I think, really I’m concerned with it being a soulful record, and if it means that you have to take electronic programming to actually translate the soulfulness of the songs then by all means, I’ll do that. You know, I don’t restrict myself and say, “Oh no, this is an R&B record, so I’m not going to put … live drums or something in it.” Or for example you know, “I’m going to make this an acoustic record, so I’m not going to use electronic equipment” – you know, it’s just not, that doesn’t serve the song for me. I wanna do what it needs. But yeah! I think what makes the record consistent is my voice is a very big feature of this album. And in the past I used to put that a bit further back. You know, I would be more, about bringing other things and yeah, I think on this album, both me and the co-producer wanted to make the voice and the emotions essentially focus – [Fire engine siren drowns out K’s words] Sorry about that.

MD: [Laughs] Sounds like New York City in the background.

K: Sorry, I –

[Fire engine siren gets louder]

MD: Man, that’s loud.

K: Yeah, well, sorry.

MD: That’s alright. Speaking of the … one song or the track that I wanted to discuss as far as the production was Past Love, because it seemed to stand out among the other ones, as a kinda more traditional approach, I guess. And you had Joey Waronker and Roger Manning on it as well, so. Tell me about that.

K: Yeah, that’s right. Mmhm.

…Yeah! So, I mean. That song happened in such a fast way, in terms of how it was written. It kind of, it felt like something really timeless and familiar. You know, I love the idea of writing a song which felt like you’ve known it all your life… but it’s the first time you’re hearing it, you know.

I think an album is a journey. You don’t need to keep it at the same tempo the whole time. I always like my records to start to come down in the evening at the end of the record.

And I remember coming back from the writing studio, and there’s one other guy inserting instrumentals on it, working on just those chords and the drumbeat, and it sounded kinda Motown anyway. And I remember I just wrote almost the entire lyric that day, and all the vocal melodies and… it was just very surreal, how it happened. It felt like quite a meant-to-be song.

Quite classic and… again, when you’ve got a song like that, it always doesn’t make sense to try and turn it into something that it’s not. It wants to be a lovely slow burner, and you know, we had a 50s doo-wop reference on it, wanted it to feel warm and sexy and organic. You know when the song is begging to be tuned up that way, it’s nice to kind of not limit that – I think, like, “Oh no, you have to make electronic, like this song”, you know?

And to me, I do think it fits with the rest of the record because I think an album is a journey. You don’t need to keep it at the same tempo the whole time. I always like my records to start to come down in the evening at the end of the record, you know, turn a little more soulful, a little more inward, introspective. So… I think that there’s something about that, that song has always felt like it’s a part of the record, even if it didn’t necessarily sound as polished as some of the others.

MD: Introspective… I’m just looking at my notes for the song Real Life, which is the last song, that’s exactly what I wrote down, so.

K: Well, cool. Yeah. Well that song was a demo, like a…that I had mixed myself, added at the very end. Literally you know like, it wasn’t intended to be on the record initially. We wanted to make the album a little longer, and in the end we had that one lying around and thought that would be the final closer. And to me it does represent that final moment – like life, it doesn’t always resolve, does it, with this kind of perfect neat song at the end. And I think Real Life leaves the listener kinda teetered on the edge, of the resolve, and I think, yeah, that to me is Primal Heart. That is the human experience, we’re not really entirely sure what we’re doing, but we work it out as we go.

MD: Right. And you’ve got some acting that you’re going to be doing. What is this, where are you as far as the Daffodils thing? Has that happened, or, is it happening?

K: It’s happened! Yeah, no, shooting’s already happened, and I was in New Zealand for three weeks. I was up in Wellington. It was great to totally shift gears. So much of my life is so … inward-focused, I guess, because you spend all your time approving photos of yourself, doing mixes of your own voice, it was just so nice to work with another character. Really plant myself in someone else’s vision, be an instrument for their symphony, you know? So I loved it. I think it’s gonna really, a really meaningful film, and I think it’ll come out sometime next year.

MD: Very good. So, do you have plans to come to New Zealand and do some performing at all in the near future? What’s going on there?

K: Yeah. I mean, it’s always top of my list, obviously, to get back there. I’m talking with my agents for some kind of Australia-New Zealand tour. This year, I can’t confirm dates, but I’m definitely talking about it. I’m hoping to be back out there to showcase this record when it’s actually out. So yeah, I’m sure it’ll happen soon.

I’ve really gone very deep into the visuals for this album and for the live shows, so it’s all been designed by people who have been a part of the record since the start of the visual and yeah! I’m so excited to share it with people.

MD: I think the last time you were here, I think it was – you played at the Powerstation, is that right?

K: Mm-hm, yeah, that’s right.

MD: I was there, it was an excellent show.

K: Oh, cool!

MD: How do you … What will people see differently about live performance between – obviously, different songs? Is there anything else that stands out for you as far as how you approach the live things these days?

K: Yeah! I mean, I think it’s actually a pretty different band, in terms of setup. I mean, we are going a lot more electronic, with interpretation. But interestingly it’s more intimate than ever, I think, because there’s three people on stage, as opposed to like six or five in the past that I’ve had, a loud drummer, and… now, I’m actually doing more beat work on stage, so I’ll trigger off programmed beats from the record and then I’ll manipulate them live, and kind of … I have a spaceship, basically, that allows me to be quite improvisational. And every night is different, you know, we’re working on this electronic programming, everyone on stage playing synthesizers and kind of – helping to treat the sound and add parts. But it’s a very kind of… bass-heavy performance, it’s very visceral, very physical, very primal, I guess, you really feel everything that you do. I think, again, there’s a lot more space for the voice. Without using a live drummer, you kinda open up a space to make it a little bit more intimate for people. But it’s not stripped down. It’s hard to explain.

And it’s a lot more visual. You know, I’ve really gone very deep into the visuals for this album and for the live shows, so it’s all been designed by people who have been a part of the record since the start of the visual and yeah! I’m so excited to share it with people.

MD: Oh, okay. Well maybe we can just touch quickly on the lead single, which was Everybody Knows. Which kind of generated a bunch of interest – it seemed very timely. Did it get the reaction you were looking for? What was your intention when you wrote that song?

K: My intention was just to… release a song that would give a good portal or doorway into what the spirit or the tone, what the mood of the album is. Of course I said that the album covers a lot of different things, but I think one thing that does come across is this kind of boldness and probably a little more sense of directness and of showing myself more. I’m sharing from a deeper place, and I wanted to find a single that would really speak to that experience, and show that maturity in myself to the audience.

Everybody Knows felt like it had this energy to it, the drop, the punchiness of it, but it was also quite vulnerable, you know. So that was the intention when releasing it, but then of course, things take on a different life when you put them into the world, so. People started drawing parallels to other things that were going on culturally, socially, and of course, as an artist, you welcome that. You go, look, if this means something more than what it meant to be, then yeah, let’s work with that. Because here’s the thing, Primal Heart is about the idea that beneath the surface we are all struggling with various forms of oppression, and some have suffered in much deeper ways than others, but it doesn’t invalidate that “everyone knows” pain, knows what it feels like, to have your faith lost in someone, or feel that they’ve been taken advantage of.

So when people used that to represent a bigger cause, I feel that it’s a positive thing. That if that song could speak to a larger issue, then I view that as a good thing.