Kimbra: “There are a lot of parallels between quantum physics and music”

Kimbra wrote and recorded her debut album Vows in her flat in Melbourne and a tiny studio in North Richmond but – as you’d expect from a duel Grammy winner who has won praise from stars like Janelle Monae and Questlove – the follow up record is a more ambitious affair. TOM MANN interrupted Kimbra’s Thanksgiving Day holiday to get the lowdown on some of the very exciting collaborations that are set to feature on her new album.

We won’t get to hear it until early next year but Kimbra’s new album is shaping up to be one of the most eclectic and interesting releases of 2014. The very impressive list of musicians Kimbra has recruited to collaborate on the record includes pop iconoclasts (Daniel Johns, Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Neilson); abstract beat wizards (Flying Lotus, Thundercat); progressive rock heroes (Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Deantoni Parkes, members of Dillinger Escape Plan and Queens of the Stone Age); seductive soul singers (Bilal, John Legend); and the undefinable composer Van Dyke Parks. And just because that’s not quite enough musical prowess to feature on one album, Prince’s New Power Generation keyboardist Morris Hayes and John Robinson – the legendary session player known as the most recorded drummer in history – were also invited to drop by the studio.

Down the line from LA – and with an accent almost as difficult to catagorise as her music – Kimbra told FL about writing her new record and the thread that ties together all her collaborators. “What united all of the people I’ve worked with on this record is the love of a great song, the love of a great melody, the love of a potent lyric, or a hypnotic drum beat. Just basic kind of things and that’s what makes pop music great,” she said. “I’m super excited to get it out. I feel ready so it’s just a matter of tying together all those bits and pieces. When you’re chronic perfectionist you have to really work hard to slowly let go of your baby and let it be what it wants to be.”

There’s not a lot of information about your new record out there at the moment, but I saw on Facebook that you’d described it as “prog-pop”, so I guess the first question has to be: “What the hell is prog-pop?”

[Laughs] Uh, I don’t really know. I’ve always felt like the music I write definitely has catchy elements and a pop nature to it because I love timeless music that has a strong melodic content. But a lot of my time is spent listening to pretty experimental music and, I guess, progressive rock. My band comes from that background of a really interesting, more boundary pushing approach to music. Interesting time signatures, more experimental approach on it and so we always like to think that the music that we make live and also what I make on records is, I guess, a different way of approaching pop music. Prog-pop sounds kind of fun, right? I hate to put labels on music but it’s kind of the closest thing I could think of to explain what direction the record is moving in.

While Vows isn’t just a pop album that’s the world you’re usually thrown in, but the list of collaborators you’ve been working with are known for very experimental/boundary pushing stuff. How do you find the “pop” elements within the madness of prog?

I mean, this is stuff that obviously when you go into the studio with someone you try to push out completely because the moment you sit down and think, “Alright, we’re going to write a pop song!” or “We’re going to write a prog song!” you immediately start to put limitations on the environment and with everyone I’ve worked with on this record it’s been about, “Let’s create something beautiful,” or “Let’s walk into a space that hasn’t been walked into before, let’s find a way to juxtapose various worlds that we both come from and create something unique and beautiful,” without thinking too much about where that might fit in.

“I love timeless music that has a strong melodic content. But a lot of my time is spent listening to pretty experimental music.”

I guess I have an inclination to write pop melodies. What’s interesting to me is what you can throw against the wall and what you can put against that. The most exciting pop music has been against a landscape of something completely different. Prince is a perfect example. You’ll be singing the choruses all day long but when you break down the elements that are going on they can be quite hard to decipher and quite fascinating textures. It’s fascinating how surprising that process is sometimes, like someone like Dave Longstreth for example, we hung out and just combining together. I see him as quite an experimental dude, you know, but at the end of the day he is just fascinated with pop music and he loves it. He loves simple songs but his approach is to find a simple palette of sounds to execute a song in, but within that go to boundary pushing places and surprise people. But he’s actually really into simplicity and minimalism. At the end of the day what united all of the people I’ve worked with on this record is the love of a great song, the love of a great melody, the love of a potent lyric, or a hypnotic drum beat. Just basic kind of things and that’s what makes pop music great, it’s just starting a new way to do it, you know, to push that along.

I wanted to ask you about what you had written before you met up with all these collaborators. I read that you’d gone away to a retreat in country Victoria. What came out of that process that you took to the collaborators or took to the studios?

It’s crazy how many stages there have been. When I look back at this year, I actually had to go into my diary before to actually remember where I’ve been! It’s been all over the place … I was very much thinking about it pretty early on and on tour, collecting ideas and demos. I guess the first stage was going out to the peninsula in Melbourne for a bit. That was a place that I’d set up out there; a garage studio. Gotye – Wally [De Backer] – and I were hanging out at the start of the year and he lent me a bunch of amazing instruments as he was going out on tour so I had amazing, Critter & Guitari Pocket Pianos, Yamaha strings and stompers and crazy stuff that he collects and so created this really wonderful space to start writing.

There were koalas in the trees and it was super inspiring. I had my band out to the garage and studio and we actually wrote a whole lot of songs out there together and I just spent a lot of time putting together sketches and ideas because I knew I was going out to the States, firstly for the Grammys, and then to do writing sessions so I wanted to have things prepared.

I spent a lot of time writing, mainly beats. I became pretty fascinated with drum production this year and was really inspired by people like Flying Lotus and just wanted to go more into that world of production. I mean, I did a fair bit on Vows but this one I’ve been far more involved on that end of things. So I had all this wonderful percussion with me and just started making the basic backbones or sketches of percussion tracks and beats -and a few vocal landscapes, a few songs. I wanted to have a collection of starting points so that when I went into these sessions I could bring things up on my computer and say, “I have this idea … let’s ping-pong it.” That was the first stage and it was the perfect way to prepare, I think, before going into a whole lot of collaborative work. To spend some time to really working out what I wanted the palette to sound like and where I was going to look for inspiration. Digging deep before going to work with all these new people.

“Daniel Johns injected a bit of fearlessness into my writing”

The concert you did with Daniel Johns and Van Dyke Parks [at Adelaide Festival] was around that time as well, right? Was that important in the genesis of the new material?

Totally. It was kind of crazy. Everything you surround yourself with is going to have an influence on what you’re creating. We put that show together in three days with a 36-piece orchestra. I don’t know how acquainted you are with Van Dyke’s work – it’s pretty full on. He was teaching me how to sing Bulgarian scales. And meeting Daniel for the first time – obviously I know his music inside and out – but it was a real trip to be immersed in this psychedelic world for three days non-stop.

Me and Daniel spent two weeks before that show in a studio together. We figured it would be good for us to connect before the show and also to do some writing together. The record couldn’t have been off to a better start after that – it was like the perfect chemistry. We just had this crazy week together and wrote eight or nine songs. It was crazy, we both usually take a bit more time on things but the time just flew by and so much stuff was coming out of it. To have done that time with Daniel and then to go onto the Adelaide show, I was in a particular headspace and in a Beach Boys inspired world – ‘Heroes and Villains’ and all those really elaborate vocal arrangements that Van Dyke has worked on with Brian Wilson.

Of course when I went back to the States to get into more songwriting sessions that was where my head was at. I just wanted to get on harpsichords. But I was also listening to a lot of heavier music as well I really wanted to find a way to take this world that I was working on with Daniel and apply it to my record, but do it in a different way. “What happens is we put 808s in there?” It was really fascinating working with them and it injected a bit of fearlessness into my writing. There’s no limits after being with them for three days you can do anything! [laughs] Yeah, It was a good way to prepare.

So writing with Daniel was a very easy process – eight or nine songs in a few weeks – but we seem to have been waiting forever for that solo album of his. Is he just a perfectionist when it comes to actually releasing stuff?

It’s one thing to write a song and to be happy with where it’s at and another to bring it to completion for the world to hear. Sure, we came back with a lot of songs but both being perfectionists we felt that we had a lot of work to do on them. I took the songs away and fleshed out the production on them at my house here in LA and emailing him. He then took another trip over here to complete the songs with me and we wrote another three or four. Writing is one part and then the production is another, and an artist like Daniel is super involved in all that stuff as well. He’s not just about handing it over to someone to make it sound cool. The way we speak in the studio we’re very particular about guitar tones, we’re very particular about the exact synth we use on that part. All this is why there’s that level of depth to the records he puts out – and hopefully on mine as well. That’s the process that can take the time.

We’re both very passionate about the way we execute a song and the detail work. We’re not stream of consciousness writers – you know: write the lyric, cool, sounds good, done. From having worked with him a bit, we both like to let things marinate in the song and the melodies for a pretty good length of time before the lyric reveals itself. That might be another element of [the wait for the solo album] but I know he’s not far off! [laughs]

So rather than just writing together and then leaving it with you to complete he was really involved right until the end point?

He’s been in Australia, I’ve been over her so he hasn’t been super involved with every little bit of the production – I kind of took the handle more on that. But he’s been fairly crucial to the completing of them because they were in various stages and I was like “Damn, we need to do another session to see them through to the end and to redo vocals and stuff like that.” That’s why he came back to LA while I was working with Rich Costey at Eldorado [Studios in Burbank, LA] that’s where we pulled them into form. And worked on production and had him play on stuff. And sat down and thought “What is going to be the keyboard sound on this.” He’s very over that stuff and I just loved having him there as an energy to feed off.

With all of these collaborators it was never about – “Oh, you take this one for your album and I’ll take this one for mine.” We never approached it that way, we just wanted to make something awesome and we don’t necessarily think about where it’s going. Yes, I’m making a record and I have to think about which songs are going to make the tracklisting – but that kind of thought process … you don’t want to put limitations on things in the studio, you just want to think freely about where it could go. We were open to the fact that songs we wrote together may end up on his album or something collaborative that we do with Van Dyke. I love working that way; when you’re not sure where it’s going to end up. Songs could end up just being in a film – I did that earlier this year for a Tim Burton soundtrack Frankenweenie. It’s cool to leave the process open.

“Musicians like Omar Rodríguez-López take your songs to a place that you couldn’t have done with your grandest ideas.”

On the list of your recent collaborators Omar Rodríguez-López and the guys from Dillinger Escape Plan stick out. Do you think the work you’ve done with them is going to shock the fans who think of you purely as a pop artist?

I think Vows was able to show people that I was not purely a pop artist. I think there’s always going to be a pop element to what I do, but it’s about the way that you execute the songs to me that is interesting. Finding people to play guitar on the record that might not be expected and who are going to throw a different perspective on the track. When I listen to music and something enters the scene when you go “What is that? What is that?!”, when my ears don’t quite understand, when it’s challenging me, when there’s a sense of collision on the song or tension that’s what’s exciting to me.

Ben Weinman [lead guitarist with The Dillinger Escape Plan] first approached me about music. I’d been a huge fan and I never thought I’d end up working with him but Ben is super interested in new music and in pop music. He put out the feelers for us to hang out and look at making some music together. We sketched out a few ideas that we wrote together and I’d send him stuff – “Hey, do you want to put down a guitar part on this? I’d love to get your perspective on this.” That’s the thing; I know when I give something to Ben Weinman I’m going to get something that I could never think of myself or that no other guitarist could think of because he has such a unique perspective on rhythm. He’s fascinated by Latin rhythms and he can break down the riffs. He’ll draw them out for me on a table, but then he has to be able to write them out for the band. That’s another thing; you can think up the parts but then you have to find a way to get everyone to play your crazy timing. He works with rhythm and ways of working around a melody that you wouldn’t expect.


A song that might have more traditional instruments and my vocal and then with him coming in there that injects something totally opposed and that to me is something that takes the song up that notch in terms of timelessness. You keep coming back to that track to hear “that moment”. I want to have moments like that all over the record and that only happens when you have personality players. People who when they come on the scene of the song. From the word go you know an Omar part – “it’s Omar Rodríguez” – you can hear his personality, you can hear his guitar tones. At The Drive-In is slightly jagged aggression to the parts, but it’s his voice. It’s so exciting to be working with people who are going to take your songs to a place that you couldn’t have done with your grandest ideas. You need their specific take and it makes you look at things differently as well.

“Flying Lotus is super interested in learning to grow as a songwriter”

So you had beats that you had been working on that were influenced by Flying Lotus. Was it just a matter of thinking “Well fuck it, why don’t I just get FlyLo to do this himself?”

[Laughs] Well, yeah! We’ve become buddies over the last year or so. He’s been super busy with his own records; he’s very prolific. When I did first get to meet him I was quizzing him about his production. “How do you get that kick-drum sound!?” The beautiful thing about meeting people like that is that he’s super interested in learning to grow as a song-writer so he would be talking to me about stuff that I’m into and where I get inspiration from, and arrangements and structures that are more specific to song writing. Whereas I was interested in beat production and sampling and sound manipulation. It’s a really interesting thing when you can create that kind of dialogue with someone that you really respect.

We’ve got some sketches on the go and ideas, but he’s got his own record coming out soon and he’s doing a whole lot of work on production for other people. With a lot of these people everyone has such busy schedules and you just have to wait until your time aligns. If it’s meant to be then those collaborations will come into fruition.

You managed to work around that scheduling issue on the ‘Warrior’ collaboration with Mark Foster and A-Trak by working via email.

It’s not ideal. I really prefer being in the room with someone because there’s an energy to feed off. There are benefits [to email collaborations] because it’s very fast. I had that dilemma with the track I did with Bilal (pictured, left); I had the songs written and had him in mind. Initially I just thought he’d track it for me and send it across, but I started thinking about it a bit and decided that the song really required a sense of intimacy and that you want the listener to really hear the intention behind the words and that two people were in the room together as it was being sung.

With the producer I’m working with on this record, Rich Costey, we talk a lot about quantum physics in the studio and how there are a lot of parallels between those theories and music – now that’s a conversation for another time – but essentially things change according to what is observing the matter in the room. The people in the room affect the consciousness and the matter that you produce. It’s not bad to do music over email – there’s been fantastic collaborations that have been made that way – and I’ve done a lot of it on this record as well with tracks where I just need a quick guitar part. But if definitely believe in something taking place when two people are in the room together and looking at someone when they’re doing the vocals and getting that sense of intimacy. Bilal flew out from New York; I absolutely think that was the right way to go for the kind of song that it was. It’s different for every song. With ‘Warrior’ I did get time with Mark in the studio one-on-one when we were doing some more intense melodic work.

“I still totally believe in that idea of a record being a little universe that you step into”

It sounds like there’s a lot of material for this new record; how close are you to deciding which songs will actually make the cut?

It’s very hard. They all become like children. You create very intimate moments with people and so it becomes very difficult to decide which are the 12 or so songs that are going to give that snapshot of everything I’ve explored this year. Working with Ben and Omar – and Michael Shuman from Queens of The Stone Age – there’s this aggression that people have contributed. Not “rock” but progressive and definitely heavier as artists. And then there’s artists I’ve worked with who are far more on the R&B side of things. Bilal is my favourite soul singer – a few years ago I was obsessed with his album. And then people like Dave Longstreth and that more melodic side and the Van Dyke stuff, which is kind of opposed to the stuff that I’d do with the heavier artists

Picking a tracklisting of songs that is an overview of all the different worlds and finding a way to make is coherent is exciting. Towards the end of this process – round about now to be honest – I’m starting to see a thread through all of it. They don’t feel as though there’s a song all the way over here and another all the way over there. You start to hear a line of coherency through it all and even a palate of sound that is running through a lot of the songs. Even though there’s such a range of musicians there’s a sound palate that they all seem to reference in some kind of way. I try not to get too attached and treat the album listing as the be all and end all of what people will hear. My favourite artists are the ones that have continued to release new content straight after an album’s finished.

With the internet now I’ll do an exclusive track for Japan and people in Australia will have it the next day. When content is out there people will do what they can to find it. I have fans who own both the Australian and the American version [of Vows and the know all the songs on each. That’s super cool because I was worried about the American tracklisting. “Oh man, it’s not going to have ‘Call Me’ on it!”

Was it hard to cull those tracks? How did you decide on what to drop?

It just came down to creating a slightly fresher vibe from the album that I’d put out in Australia and something that had a sense of “exclusiveness” to the States. Some of my favourite collaborations were on that version of the record, interactions with people from The Mars Volta – their drummer Deantoni Parks – and also Mike Elizondo who did a lot of work with Dr Dre. So there are songs that I’m very proud of, but in putting those on the record I obviously had to cull some songs. But the stuff is going to get out there and I try not to get too attached. I don’t keep folders and folders of songs that no one ever gets to hear, I want to make sure that people get to hear all the stuff that I do this year it’s just a matter of how it’s all packaged and the order that it all comes out. That’s all being decided now. There are tracks for this record that were flying about for Vows but that then came to life for a new context. You approach them differently and they can come back to life. You just have to trust that they’ll resurrect when they’re meant too.

“I don’t keep folders and folders of songs that no one ever gets to hear.”

With all this music recorded and, like you say, an “exclusive track” isn’t really “exclusive” anymore do you still feel that it’s important to release an actual album rather than just releasing music?

Absolutely. I still totally believe in that idea of a record being a little universe that you step into where there’s a coherency and a thread. Maybe it’s not as deliberate as a concept record but it’s a body of work that from start to finish has a narrative. There’s a personality that runs through the whole thing and a story unfolding. To me there’s absolutely still a place for that. I think that’s what will determine the tracklisting. This record is slightly different to Vows and I do have a strong idea behind it, which obviously I’ll be taking about once it’s out. There’s a strong sense of imagery about it. When you come to putting together the songs [in a tracklist] I think it’s about working out which ones are going to tell the story.

And then the offshoots, which will come out in various forms after that or as bonus tracks, can kind of be peripheral to that world. I think people still want a record to be a little universe. I know everyone’s just buying the singles or picking the songs they love but I want to present a body of word that has that intention behind it. You put it on and you wait right to the end because you don’t want to break it up; you want to be in there with it. I can think of records this year that have done that. Flying Lotus is a good example and Thundercat – who has probably been one of the main collaborators with me on this record. Songs didn’t make sense without the ones that came after it, they illuminate each other. It’s a beautiful thing to create a body of work for people that’s a snapshot of a period in an artist’s life.