New Zealand’s Kimbra Lee Johnson, aka Kimbra, has been singing since she was a little girl. At 12, she sang her country’s national anthem at the NPC rugby final, and she had produced a hit single by the time she was 17.
The 22-year-old's debut album, Vows, was released last year. An eclectic slice of pop goodness, attention to the album has been bolstered by Johnson’s guest vocals on Gotye’s worldwide smash, “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
Warner Bros. Records re-released her album earlier this year, giving it global distribution. Ever since, the young singer/songwriter has been proving that her appearance on that one song was just the beginning.
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I spoke with the charming and gracious singer before she headed to San Diego for a sold-out show at House of Blues on Friday night.
Scott McDonald: How are you?
Kimbra Lee Johnson: Very well, thanks.
SM: Where are you?
KLJ: We’re in Germany, finishing up the last of our German dates.
SM: Travelling with a full band?
KLJ: Yeah, that’s the way that I usually play. They’re a big part of the show, but there’s still that integration of live looping that’s been part of the solo setup. That’s still a part of what we do, and it helps take the arrangements to another level. I’ll do the looping, and the band will come in around that. It heightens the experience.
SM: Been a crazy year for you, no?
KLJ: Yeah, absolutely. We never saw it coming. Definitely a big surprise. And I probably picked up on it a bit later than others. People would tell me just how big that song was getting, and I’d be like, "Really?" I’d be on tour and keeping busy with other stuff, and I don’t listen to the radio all that much or spend much time in shopping centers, where it was being played all the time. But then you get asked to Coachella or to play Saturday Night Live, and then you go on YouTube and see there are something like 300 million views of the song, and there were a few moments where I just laughed. But I’m usually one not to believe the hype much.
SM: When covers of a song are getting hundreds of millions of hits, you know something’s going on.
KLJ: [Laughs] Yeah, it doesn’t happen all that often.
SM: But it’s certainly given you some elbow room to do your own thing.
KLJ: Totally. It’s given me quite the platform. I was in Poland recently, and my album has gone into the Top 20 over there. And I know it’s gotten onto the Billboard charts in the U.S. as well, and I want it to be because of the quality of the record, but I also know it’s an amazing thing to have an immediate audience that’s already interested in what you have to say. That’s the hardest part for an artist: to break in and have people actually pay attention. And it’s wonderful to have that. But I also think there’s been a bit of a shift in pop music and people want to hear things that are breaking out of the mold.
SM: But I’d assume you’re looking forward to the next thing and having some separation as well.
KLJ: Of course. That’s a challenge that I’m aware of. Can that record stand on it’s own? When it’s not attached to something like that? I think both Gotye and I want to have careers that go farther than one song. But it’s a cool feeling to know that people are coming out to the shows and I can introduce them to my own sound. It’s a constant journey that I feel I was meant to go on, and one that I feel like I’ve found a place on. For me, I just want to keep throwing ideas and colors at the canvas and explore that all the way. But it’s kind of a hard thing. You ask yourself, "OK. What do I do now to follow up on that?" And I think that the only answer is to keep doing what you’re doing. It’s obviously a cornerstone to this journey, but I have to keep on it and stick with what feels right.
SM: At what point did you know you wanted to do this as a career?
KLJ: The catalyst was when my manager came up to me and handed me a contract. I have always wanted to be a singer, but that’s something that requires opportunity. I had dealt with record companies before and had a couple of songs on the radio in New Zealand, but I also wanted to go to university and study languages. I was driven, but there’s only so far you can go before you have to meet that person who can help you take it to the next level. But once I was given the opportunity, I took it. I thought it was a great way to have an adventure.
SM: How is it going home these days?
KLJ: Great. I mean, they see me up on those charts, and they’re very proud. And I get to play for audiences who have been there from the start, you know, ones that have seen me play for five people. So many people think it’s an overnight thing. But going back to New Zealand, it’s nice to have people who know how much work has been put in, people who have seen me play when I was 15, when it was just me and a guitar. It’s a nice feeling. And it’s cool that they’re stoked to follow the progress of the record. But it was pretty weird to go back to my hometown of Hamilton and walk through the streets with people who I’ve grown up with all of my life and stop to take photos or sign autographs. That’s a very strange feeling, especially in a town that you’ve lived in all of your life and know the streets inside and out. All of a sudden you’re not the same person.
SM: What’s next?
KLJ: I keep the creative juices flowing at all times. I try to write on the tour bus and keep inspired. But we’ll see. What I’m looking for now is a period of time where I can elaborate on those ideas and find that "stillness" that so much of my music comes from. But that time will come, and I’m really looking forward to the next album. And the next direction.