Keeping Up with Kimbra


Kimbra Johnson has had a whirlwind of a year. From a hit single with Gotye (“Somebody That I Used To Know”) to playing her first shows in the US, Johnson has been on one wild ride. The 22-year-old New Zealander is releasing her debut album, Vows, Stateside with five new tracks today. Johnson has been making music since her early teens, but really came into her own when she had the chance to move to Australia, where she continued her musical pursuits and was able to produce music that is funky, soulful, and full of fun. Besides the ubiquitous Gotye duet, Johnson has recently come out with another collaboration, this time with Mark Foster (of Foster the People) and A-Trak, in support of Converse: “Warrior,” which ties nicely into the tour that Johnson will be embarking upon with Foster the People this summer.

We spoke with Kimbra Johnson about her signature style, creating an album based on promises, and being naked and covered in body paint.

ILANA KAPLAN: How did you meet Wally (Gotye)?

KIMBRA JOHNSON: I met Wally through a producer called François Tetaz. I was working with him on my record at the time, and so was Wally. I was a really big fan of his work, and François introduced me. We didn’t keep in touch for a few years, until he called me and asked me to sing on the song with him. Obviously, that was a really exciting opportunity for me. I jumped at the chance to work with him, and it’s ancient history, as they say.

KAPLAN: Your album is coming out very soon. What were some of your influences on it?

JOHNSON: Oh, they range all the way from Prince and Michael Jackson to Minnie Riperton. I also listen to a lot of Stevie Wonder and Rufus Wainwright. Also, on a more modern tip, I’ve been influenced by the Dirty Projectors and tUnE-yArDs for their uses of amazing vocal work and layering. I also love the Japanese producer Cornelius. A lot of films as well, that I was watching at the time.

KAPLAN: You were touring with Gotye. You’re about to embark upon a tour with Foster the People. What are you most looking forward to on the tour?

JOHNSON: Yeah that’s right. I’m looking forward to playing some pretty iconic venues like Red Rocks and Merriweather Post Pavilion. These are places that I’ve watched live DVDs of some of my favorite bands playing. That will be great. I’m looking forward to hanging out with those guys more because they’re so much fun. I think it’s going to be a fun, little touring group.

KAPLAN: Did you always want to be a musician, or did it just kind of happen?

JOHNSON: I was doing it from such a young age. I was writing songs and picked up a guitar at 13 or 14. So, it was always a thing that I had loved to have done, but I didn’t necessarily think I could do it. I prepared to go to university. I didn’t know if I would have the opportunity, but then I got offered this amazing management contract with my manager, who is now one of my best friends.  We started working on my record, and at the age of 17, it was a chance to move to Australia and get into it. I think that was the point where I realized, “Wow, I might actually make this a career.”  It sounded very cool to pursue it; to do something really good with the thing I love to do most.

KAPLAN: Which tracks are your favorites from your upcoming album release?

JOHNSON: There are five very new songs that I wrote specifically for the American and the European release. There’s one I’m kind of excited about—a track called “Come into My Head.” It has more of a funk reference on the record. It has heavy drums. The drummer from The Mars Volta played on this record. I think it’s an exciting new direction for me to explore. It’s kind of about the way that men and women communicate and how we can get so lost in translation a lot of the time. It’s a song that is going down really well live at the moment.

KAPLAN: Why did you choose Vows as your record title?

JOHNSON: I listened back to a lot of the songs and realized that a lot of them referenced the idea of promises or attachment, or also breaking promises or detaching yourself from something. So, it was kind of this duality of making commitments to either yourself or something else and how complicated that can be. Vows felt like an appropriate title because it was a word that summed up a lot of things on the record.

KAPLAN: You are obviously a very stylish musician. Where do you get your style inspiration from?

JOHNSON: I don’t follow the runway or anything, but as a kid I loved odd-shopping. I loved going into a vintage shop and picking out an outfit that felt really exciting, different and colorful. There’s something about the shape of the ‘50s that I really love, that kind of theatrical look of a full-bodied skirt. I watched a lot of Disney films as a kid, and I think that idea of fantasy, whimsical and escapist costuming, is exciting to me. It’s really quite simple, but I know what I like. It’s not so much about following any kind of trends, if that makes sense.

KAPLAN: What was it like being naked and covered in paint in the “Somebody That I Used to Know” music video?

JOHNSON: It was really a crazy experience. I had experienced body-painting before, because of my album cover art. That was before I did the Gotye video. I knew what it entailed, and I was sort of used to it. It was a whole other experience because of how long I had to stand there. And obviously, being naked in front of people who you just met. At the end of the day, we were there to make a piece of art, and I think that is the drive behind it all.

KAPLAN: What does it feel like to have this song (“Somebody That I Used To Know”) blow up around the word?

JOHNSON: It’s pretty crazy. I only started to realize how big the song is in the last six months because I’ve been so busy and so has Gotye. It’s not like we go online and check where it’s at every day. It’s more people telling us. You kind of get this feeling of, “Wow, this is really taking off.” I think the moment where I realized that was at Coachella. We went out to sing that song and I literally couldn’t hear myself sing because people were singing the song so loud. It really hit me that this song is connected to people in a way that a song maybe hasn’t in a long time. I feel pretty blessed to have been a part of it: that whole journey.