She has been number one in America for the past eight weeks and was number one here for five weeks not long ago with the biggest selling single of 2012. But while you’ve certainly heard Kimbra, chances are you haven’t heard of her. Now the female voice on Gotye’s world-eating hit, Somebody That I Used to Know, is stepping into the spotlight on her own.
At just 22, Kimbra Johnson still can’t quite believe some of the odd statistics that now form part of her world. She’s on the biggest selling single ever in the Netherlands, for example, and this girl from Hamilton is the first Kiwi to sing on an American number one since Chris Thompson of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in 1977. Now based in Melbourne when she’s not living on a tour bus, her parents, a doctor and a nurse, send her all the cuttings celebrating her success from New Zealand’s newspapers.
“It’s the kind of publicity you couldn’t dream of,” she tells me, pleased with the way in which the Gotye song has crept slowly around the world for the past year, sneaking to number one wherever it goes. “We haven’t been smashing people over the head with it. It feels like people are discovering an interest in it for themselves, and now they’re organically seeking out my stuff.”
Her stuff is well worth seeking out. Her debut album, Vows, was released almost a year ago in her part of the world, where it went platinum and she won the Best Female prize at Australia’s equivalent of the Brit Awards. It’s only recently that she secured an international major label record deal with Warner, so the album is about to reappear with six new songs and a proper marketing push here. She’s got every chance of a hit of her own with Settle Down and its quirky mix of vocal rhythms and handclaps, or the breezy Motown swing of Cameo Lover — both big bold pop songs constructed entirely of sunshine. Then there’s Warrior, a synthpop winner written with Canadian DJ A-Trak and Mark Foster of top American indie pop band Foster the People for a Converse shoes promotion.
Don’t call her a pop singer though. She’s the type who refers to her “art” a lot and seems to be taking this ride extremely seriously but perhaps it’s that dedication that will secure her long-term future.
“When your intention is just always to be completely honest with your art and be truthful about it, that’s when you arrive at a distinct sound,” she says. “Making the album was about freeing up and letting go of my anxieties and just trying to get in touch with myself as much as possible.”
And there is more to her album than just big tunes. Come Into My Head is powered by squalling funk horns and hip hop beats. Posse slinks along with a deceptively sweet menace. She also covers Nina Simone’s Plain Gold Ring without sounding intimidated by the singer she has to match up to. “We recorded it really spontaneously at four in the morning and didn’t think at all about her version. I just channelled the emotion from a place of my own.”
She was aided by the producers François Tétaz, who worked on two Gotye albums, and Greg Kurstin, who has written songs with Lily Allen and Marina and the Diamonds. Kimbra approaches pop from a similarly leftfield place to those acts.
“I like artists who keep you on your toes about where they’re going to go next. The most exciting pop artists are the ones who don’t intentionally set out to be pop, and make quality music that penetrates an emotion. Gotye is a good example of that — his songs have a vulnerability and aren’t hitting you with a 4/4 beat. I definitely like catchy music but I don’t set mine up to fit a certain formula.”
Neither does she have the heroes you might expect. Currently touring the US supporting Foster the People, she’s been most excited about meeting Curt Smith from Tears for Fears (“I’m a huge Tears for Fears fan.”), recording with Deantoni Parks, the drummer from experimental heavy rock band The Mars Volta (“My favourite band in high school”) and co-writing a song with the arty Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks (“We only have a sketch at the moment. I want the time to turn it into the amazing thing he deserves because he’s a massive idol of mine”).
When we speak she’s in the middle of recording a new song with Prodigy and Björk producer Damian Taylor in Montreal, that she plans to submit to another man she admires, Tim Burton, for his forthcoming Frankenweenie film.
Although a relative veteran who started taking music seriously when she came second in a national New Zealand school music contest called Rockquest at 14, she’s enjoying the freedom to be a new act and experiment.
“Making a debut album is a chance to throw all the colours at the canvas, slosh them around and see what comes out. It’s a good time to push your own boundaries and see where you are as an artist. I tried a lot of things out and now I have a better idea of where I want to go next.”
That might be a move further away from pop. She doesn’t seem to think much of Madonna’s attempts to stay semi-nude and relevant at 53. “I think when I’m at that age it would be nice to get into different worlds of music — film soundtracks or musical theatre might be more appropriate.”
Today, though, with America swooning and a UK tour pencilled in for September, there’s a world to conquer with bright, hummable songs.
“There’s a great opportunity here. The momentum of this thing is picking up really fast.” This striking new star is proving herself to be much more than a sidekick.
Vows is in download stores now; a revamped version with extra tracks is released by Warner on July 23.