Even though 22-year-old New Zealander Kimbra Lee Johnson has spent a lot of time recently in the upper realms of the American pop stratosphere—her duet with Australian crooner Gotye on “Somebody That I Used to Know,” in which she belts out a 30-second guest spot, had been at No. 1 on Billboard’s charts for eight weeks at the time of this writing—people stateside are still just getting to know her breadth. “It’s been really cool watching people be able to put a face to my voice,” she says on the phone from Chicago, where she is currently on tour with indie-pop act Foster the People. “I would rather have people be familiar with my voice first, actually.” And what a voice it is: At times husky and raw, at others sweet and childlike, Kimbra injects a brassy theatricality into her vocal inflections. Typically—as with her first single, “Settle Down,” off her debut album, Vows (Warner Bros.)—she’ll leapfrog between soulful R&B harmonies, scat a cappella, and jagged, percussive yelps. It’s odd, but in a definitively pop way, as if Katy Perry had taken singing lessons from Björk.
Kimbra’s impassioned, impromptu approach to pop music is the result of listening to a broad spec- trum of American artists that range from soul legends like Sam Cooke and Minnie Riperton to St. Vincent and Grizzly Bear. The goal, she says, is to “be pretty self-aware of all the different influences, but create something no one has heard before.” Her lofty ambition seems to have paid off: Vows debuted at No. 14 when it was released in May, and will no doubt be on heavy rotation as the onslaught of remixes of the Gotye collaboration continues.
Born in Hamilton, New Zealand, Kimbra first began writing songs at the age of 10. Two years later, she learned how to play the guitar and started recording her own music on a tap recorder cribbed from her school. “I’ve kept most of them,” she says. “A lot of those early songs I still use as sketches for the music I’m performing now.” She proudly admits to placing second in a national school singing competition when she was 14, and credits a high-school boyfriend for turning her on to Miles Davis and Nina Simone. But the biggest break came five years ago when she decided to skip college, move to Australia, and sign with manager Mark Richardson. “That’s when I first started looking at music as a big, complex project that was bigger than just me,” Kimbra says. Much like Kimbra’s music, the zany art-school visuals she concocts on stage and in her videos take cues from a warped, irreverent interpretation of Americana. She is often clad in ruched, thrift store–esque party dresses that appear borrowed from the wardrobe department of a John Hughes film. But Kimbra still has plenty of nationalistic pride, pairing her getups with a splattering of body paint that recalls the geometric patterns of indigenous art from Australia and New Zealand. “I like to think of my body as a canvas, and it’s part of the performance whether I am on stage or making a video,” she says. “But at the end of the day, it shouldn’t distract from the music.”
PHOTO: KIMBRA IN NEW YORK, MAY 2012. DRESS AND GLOVES: DIANE VON FURSTENBERG. TUTU: LEG AVENUE. COSMETICS: M.A.C COSMETICS. HAIR PRODUCTS: ORIBE. STYLING: SARAH ELLISON. HAIR: HOLLI SMITH FOR ORIBE/TOTAL MANAGEMENT. MAKEUP: PEP GAY/STREETERS. SPECIAL THANKS: TEN TON STUDIO.