Kimbra Shares the Ideas and Inspiration Behind Her New Album ‘Primal Heart’
New Zealand singer Kimbra began playing guitar as a child, and quickly began performing. Eventually, she wanted to expand her sound, and transcend the traditional limits of a solo singer-songwriter, so she started experimenting with samplers to add layers and sculpt the sound. She has worked with some of the biggest producers in the industry, and her music is a rare example of ambitions realized.
The “Settle Down” singer released her debut album, “Vows,” in 2011. The record created buzz down under, that quickly spread on up. By her second full length, 2014’s “The Golden Echo,” she had proven that she is here to stay. Her new album, “Primal Heart,” is an impressive addition to her repertoire. Her previous work was often a bit of a sonic onslaught productionally, but in the best way. For “Primal Heart,” she teamed up with producer John Congleton, who has worked with such names as St. Vincent, The Roots, and David Byrne. Kimbra has always continued to play the occasional, stripped down acoustic performance, and knows the value of intimacy in music. The new album expands on this element, putting Kimbra’s voice front and center, letting her truly shine as a singer, while still dressing the songs up in abundant, colorful furnishing.
There are many definitions of “pop.” Some might say anything that isn’t atonal falls into the category. Kimbra’s pop falls into the most mainstream of the mainstream. It’s bright and beaming, immediate and engaging. But whereas most artists in this genre simply make hummable and disposable tunes, Kimbra’s has a profundity that is so elegantly cloaked in pop shimmer that it imbues the music with a depth without screaming for recognition. “Primal Heart,” captures the feeling of its title. Kimbra spoke with Entertainment Voice about the stories, inspiration, and perspective behind the record.
Your new album is titled “Primal Heart.” Usually, people use the word, “heart” to refer to anything intuitive or instinctive, which is already “primal.” What does the title “primal heart” mean to you?
It comes from a lyric, first of all, of a song called “Human,” and the lyric says, “I’ve got a heart that’s primal / ‘Cause I need your love for my survival,” and I think when I thought of the word, “primal,” similarly to what you said, I think of intuition. I also think of instinct, origin, the fundamental core of who we are, and where we came from. We are all animals, in some respect, that are evolving, and it’s a very raw part of ourselves. We’re connected on that level. And of course, to talk about a heart that is primal, and survives on love, I thought was quite an interesting concept. We need food to keep our bodies going, but our hearts keep going through relationships and through connectivity, and whether that’s divine love, or whether that’s love between you and a romantic partner, or a family. So to me, “primal heart” represents all those things that live within us, good and also bad. The “primal heart,” I think it talks to greed and envy and selfishness and all of these things that are also part of ours. You look at the world, and how humans have evolved. These things have been present all through our history as well.
Your voice is more prominent on the new record. It really shows off your chops as a singer. What led you to take this direction?
Well, again I wanted to showcase the more raw side of myself as a person and an artist. I think I’ve done a lot of decorative music in the past, stuff that was really imaginative. I think you just get excited to do something that you haven’t done as much of before, and I think I’ve been listening to a lot of music where the vocals are very present, and I’ve always felt like I wanted to make a song record, just something that you could sing from top to bottom, before and without too much production as well. I wanted it to be songs. It felt kind of time. And also, just the influence of the producer, John Congleton, wo kept challenging me to turn the voice up, and up, and he would just say things to me like, “I don’t care what the high hat is doing. I care about just the way your tone is” and I feel like that really helped me have the courage to, kind of, let myself be more exposed on this album.
Who are some of those musicians you’ve been listening to with louder vocals?
I think of the uncensored work of Frank Ocean on his most recent record, and Kendrick Lamar. They have a rawness to what they do, an uncensored kind of presence and intensity. I also like SZA. I’ve been listening to her music a bunch. And an artist called Fyse. He just makes his vocals really loud
You’re the third New Zealand singer to win a grammy, so people could say you helped put New Zealand on the map. How does coming from New Zealand influence your artistry? And is there anything in the sound of your new album that listeners can trace to Kiwi origins?
Yeah, I think my, kind of, leaning to the work: contemplation and stillness, and I can be quite introspective. I go inward for long periods of time, and need to be close to nature, and I think a lot of this comes from my upbringing in New Zealand. I started asking a lot of questions when I was young because I was around such inspiring scenery. And I dreamed really big, you know, because I lived so far away, so it, kind of, brought about this ambition in me. I think, yeah, that does come from being so far away (Laughs.) And just having such a particular influence, that of course comes a lot from America, but also from a lot of the islands that we’re surrounded by, and a lot of island music. Yeah, it all rubs off on you, I guess.
How has living in New York impacted the sound and spirit of your new album?
Yeah, I’ve been really, really enjoying it, especially with all the themes that I wanted to explore, like just rawness, and taking a close look at what it means to be human, all these things that live inside, the very core of the human experience, and wanting to connect with people on that level, and write songs that spoke in an uncensored way to all of those emotions. So I think New York is an amazing place to be living in, for that reason, right? You’re, kind of, confronted with all these kinds of lifestyles and people, and you’re forced to connect everyday because you take the subway, and because you walk around, and engage with people’s stories right in front of you. And I think it just made me more socially aware, and it made me more connected to my environment because I was engaging with it so regularly every single day, and I live in the heart of Manhattan, you know?
You worked with John Congleton and several producers, including Skrillex, on ”Primal Heart,” and you’ve had an impressive number of big name collaborations in the past. What were the most memorable experiences working with your songwriting and production team to create this album?
It was memorable when they did some tracking in EastWest Studios in LA. It was where the Beach Boys had done a lot of recordings, and Frank Sinatra’s personal piano lives there, and it’s a really iconic Hollywood studio, and he brought in Pino Palladino, who’s D’angelo’s bass player, played with Nine Inch Nails, and amazing musician. And I sort of remember Beck’s band. That was really memorable, bringing in musicians I had grown up listening to, and to have them play on my songs. It was a real trip. So I think that definitely stands out in terms of musical moments, where I had already done a lot of the production and songwriting, but then I had these amazing players come in and just add their flavor to it, which added a whole new dimension.
Do you have any interesting stories about any previous collaborations that you would like to share?
For sure. I think something that might be surprising to people is just how, sometimes, spontaneous these collaborations are. I met Skrillex, for example, backstage at Coachella, and then we were just backstage at his house, and he was playing me beats, and that’s when I first heard the rhythm for “Top of the World,” and then I started singing along with it, and then, to my surprise, he just started recording me on his laptop, like literally just pressing a button on the laptop, and I’m singing into the computer mic, and that’s the vocal that you hear on the track. People probably think that so much happens in a shiny, expensive studio, but it’s kind of cool to think that so many of these things are so organic. Like we just meet up, become friends… and then, singing into a laptop. And I think that’s kind of awesome, to remember how easily those things can happen.
That song, “Top of the World,” co-written and co-produced with Skrillex, has a vaguely tribal sound that makes it quite different from the others. What was the inspiration behind this?
(Skrillex) was playing me a bunch of beats that were lying around, and that was the one that I immediately started moving to. And I spent some time in Ethiopia while I was working on this record, and I’ve always had a love of Nigerian and West African music, and Ethiopian jazz. Rhythm is such a big part of how I write. I always really start with a beat, either a beat that I write, I program something on the MPC, or listen to a beat that someone else has made, and then start singing. So, yeah, I think there was just something insistent and relentless about that beat, and urgent, and it just made me excited instantly, you know? I really listen to my body when I’m listening to music. I see, “Does my body want to move?” and see what feels exciting.
What exactly is the “Good War,” that you sing of in your second song on “Primal Heart”?
I think the good war is more symbolic, I guess, of, (laughs,) the American dream, or some kind of dream that we all aspire to. I’m really fascinated with the way we, kind of, exclaim our intentions to the world. When you hear about wars that various countries are going off to fight, there’s always this sense of going off with a godspeed, and a nobility to what we’re doing, and fighting for our values and our future. But of course, there’s so much darkness in that as well, so much greed, and so many people that are actually running that game. And you end up in a situation that you never would have chosen yourself, and I think we see that played out in our world. But at the same time, we all want something to believe in, and we all want something to fight for, and again, I think it’s a very human desire, our need to be like tribes and stand for something we believe in. It’s a very integral part of human beings. I don’t know, it’s an inspiring song, but it’s also got a dark undertone because it’s questioning what does constitute a good war? Is there such a thing? Are we all just inventing some reality of a good war? These are the kinds of things I think about.
Songs like, “High Def Distance Romance” really put their finger on aspects of millennial culture. What are your thoughts on the whole zeitgeist?
(Laughs.) Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
In that song you talk about video chatting in a relationship. What do you think about our obsession with our iPhones, social media, convenient apps, etc?
Totally. A very prevalent theme on the record in connectivity: our desire to connect, that primal need that we have in our hearts. And I think more than ever, we’re all, kind of, craving that, and we’re seeking it every way that we can. The reason you get addicted to your phone is you get addicted to that sense of connection and validation and, I think, in romance. With what I do, if you’re sustaining a relationship, you have to do it over distance. That song is, kind of, this idea of reaching out to touch someone, and reaching out to connect with them, but being, kind of, constantly removed, which is often what life feels like when we live it behind screens. I definitely ask myself that a lot, like, what does it mean if we start, kind of, going down that road of AI and inventing partners and things. (Laughs) Is that still a human connection? If you feel all the same things, is it still human? Or does it become not human when you don’t have the physicality? I can’t answer that. But it’s something I think about a lot, because I have to do so much of my connection at a distance because my life is alway all over the world, you know?
Kimbra is an English name, but it’s a very unique one. It seems to fit your whole persona rather well. How do you feel having that particular name has impacted you and informed your artistic instincts, if at all?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think names are important, and many artist choose their stage names themselves, but I guess I just started going under my own name, and eventually it became just the first name, not the last name. And it happened organically, but I do feel that maybe it gives you more permission to be unique and original because your name also, kind of, gives you that permission to be different, you know? (Laughs) In New Zealand, there was only one other Kimbra that I knew of, who was an illustrator. So I think it definitely, maybe, means that you have a chance to, I guess, stand out a little more by having a name that isn’t generic, but of course there are qualms to that as well. Other artists have invented a name, and they can turn that off, go home, and be called a different name (Laughs.) There’s pros and cons to going by your own name, I guess, for your work.
Your fashion style is usually very colorful, and your music is also very vibrant and dynamic, with all types of sound candy flourishes and lively production. Do you intentionally dress in a way that is meant to evoke the same feeling of your music, or is this just a coincidence?
I think that’s really accurate. Even the fashion on this record has taken a different path and a different angle. This album isn’t, perhaps, as theatrical as previous records, and so the fashion has taken a more minimal tone. I’m more interested in asymmetrical shapes, and less, kind of, Disney character-esque dresses. I’m a little older now. I feel a different relationship with my body, and I want to express that with the fashion I wear as well. There’s a different color palette that interests me now, and I think that’s because I’ve changed as a person, but also because I think the visuals are a portal into the music. If people see an image, it can produce sounds when they close their eyes as well, so I want that to all feel very connected.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about the new album and what fans can expect when hearing you perform “Primal Heart” live?
Yeah, the live show is certainly very visual. It’s a very physical show. It’s very bassy. And even though there’s less people on stage than I used to travel with, it’s kind of a bigger sound than ever. What’s most exciting about these new shows is they feel very intimate at the same time. I feel like I’m getting up close and personal with my audiences, and able to show a different vulnerability that is kind of scary at first, but also makes me feel really connected with my audiences. So I really hope that people will come out to the shows because it’s a whole ‘nother way of experiencing the record.