Once upon a time, Kimbra was not exactly a household name.
Born and raised in New Zealand, she started honing her incredible vocal chops as a child, and at 12 years old, she started writing her own songs. Then came her big experimental jazz-pop debut record, "Vows," in 2011, which spawned four singles and found her snatching up award after award in her homeland across the sea.
But all that was before Gotye.
"I do say 'no' to a lot things," Kimbra (who headlines the Observatory North Park on April 8) told me over the phone, laughing. We're discussing her ever-growing catalog that nowadays includes collaborations with Big Data (her latest -- hear it here), Mark Foster (from Foster the People), John Legend, As Tall As Lions, Mew -- the list goes on and on. Of course, there was also that one song. You know, the one that won her a Grammy: "Somebody That I Used to Know" [watch it here].
"After I was featured on that Gotye song, it was the color of my voice that people wanted," she explained. "There were a lot of things that I didn't feel right about though. I wouldn’t respond to something I felt that I didn't have an emotional connection to -- like, if I couldn't honestly bring a convicted performance to that track, I wouldn't do it. But a lot of the songs I do, they are by people that I like hanging out with anyway. And it keeps me growing as an artist. It gives me a break from my own world. It can be refreshing to be part of someone else's vision."
Those visions aren't the only ones she's a part of though. She may have received a slight bump in worldwide fame from "Somebody That I Used to Know," but she hardly needed it. In August of last year, she released her sophomore studio album, "The Golden Echo," which bypassed some of her debut's experimental jazz work for a decidedly more upbeat pop tone [watch her video for "Miracle"]. She doesn't really see it that way though.
"I see this record as even more experimental than 'Vows,'" she said. "I think 'Vows' stayed relatively safe. I wanted to explore deeper, and I took all the ideas even further than before. My influences are always changing -- I listened to gospel for a long time, and I went through a big disco phase ... I wanted to bring in instruments and sounds that were outside of the typical pop realm but still use pop structures. I also think that as you get older, and you refine your sound, you start to focus on different things, and there's not so much of a drive to do everything at once. My first album, it was all about 'How far can I push this?' Prince, Bjork, Rufus Wainwright -- they're very free and experiment, but they have their own sound. Of course, there's always discovery, but it becomes a bit more focused. I'm just led where I feel excited."
Even though there's a lot for Kimbra to feel excited about these days (heck, she's got her own Friday slot at Coachella this year for those heading out to Indio), it's almost got to pale in comparison to how her fans feel about her work. It seems that cover versions of her own songs pop up daily on YouTube, and even though she admits that she's unable to view every single one, she's always flattered.
"It is a real honor. You get to see the song through their eyes -- and even the way they emote certain lyrics, you go, 'Wow!' I see it, how they perceive that moment. And they know the ins and outs of the songs -- they'll even do the same ad-libs as I do [laughs]! I put so much of my heart and soul into my music that it feels amazing that they've let it sink in, that they got involved with the tapestry of the songs."
And what a tapestry she has woven. "The Golden Echo" is a mighty piece of work that finds Kimbra at possibly her best and most confident to date -- a record that sounds ever reaching while anchored in accessibility at the same time. In a way, it's a mainstream record for folks that hate mainstream music. All that aside, she just hopes it's truly appreciated as "art" vs. a series of random 99-cent downloads on iTunes.
"I really wanted to make this album as a start-to-finish body of work," she explained. "It's important to take time with it. It's all about creating a conversation with your fans. [The listener] is the one unveiling the story -- you can listen to it once or really live inside the album. It's up to you how deep you want to go."