Kimbra Embraces Life's Many Reckonings

Kimbra Embraces Life's Many Reckonings

Throughout history, the emotions of women were branded as a series of harsh, clinical words. Hysteria was most prevalent, serving as a diagnosis for sexually active, irritable and/or anxious women. When existing within society's margins, every move is pathologized.

For Kimbra, an unraveling was brought on by the pandemic, when she exited her massive deal with Warner Records and heartbreak propelled her into a period of self-examination. The signs of life that emanated from New York streets in the dead of lockdown eventually morphed into a more cautious but nonetheless bright-eyed community of people looking to reconnect with art, their peers and the world around them. It was a period of reflection that the New Zealand-born artist desperately needed after a decade of standard industry fare.

Kimbra's contribution to Gotye's 2011 smash hit "Somebody That I Used To Know" crystallized after she signed her Warner Records deal. While tinkering with songs she wrote throughout her teenage years and making new ones to eventually land on her debut album, Vows, she struck gold on the song. It was an unexpected hit that took the world by storm in the midst of the early '10s obsession with electro-pop, folksy stomp-clap anthems and bubbling Soundcloud rap.

Instead of relishing in having one of the best-selling digital singles in history, it was on to the next thing. Kimbra's subsequent albums following Vows highlighted the conflict of artistic freedom and the pressure to follow up a hit with an even bigger one. Nonetheless, she took advantage of the wealth of resources to check off dream collaborations and experiment with new sounds, even if it didn't always spell a commercial hit.

Reinvigorated by her independence and a close working relationship with Ryan Lott, best known as a member of Son Lyx, Kimbra channeled these emotions into her music – both visible and invisible. She wrote songs that never intended to see the light of day and wrestled with inner conflict. Inspired by near-universal experiences such as the strange urge to stare at your reflection a bit longer after a good cry, a split-second thought of violence while in the face of adversity and the primal urge to thrash and shriek, A Reckoning was born, putting sound to emotions without a proper name.

Kimbra is free, her voice reaching soaring highs and sultry whispers over Lott's textured production. Punk, hip-hop, electronic and R&B tumble as she writhes around in a state of ecstasy. There's an almost orgasmic quality to Kimbra's work, capturing tragedy, sensuality and release in a multi-sensory overload. In her world, there's no such thing as the tragic female lead, irrationality, hysteria or subtlety. It reassures the ugly parts of humanity that are pathologized, mocked and dismissed through a uniquely feminine perspective.

Read on for PAPER's conversation with Kimbra about A Reckoning, what it means to capture uncomfortable emotions and life's many taboos.

What has changed between your last album and now that informed your headspace?

I already had a lot of songs floating around by the end of the last album. I knew that I wanted to write a lot of new material, especially because I've gone through a lot during the pandemic, like the end of a relationship in 2020. So I was committed to sitting down at the piano every few days, my Wurlitzer at home, really trying to write some very heartfelt ballads. When songs like "save me" and "i don't want to fight" emerged, it became clear that I was going to be touching on some really big themes. One of them was the theme of conflict and anger. Where do these parts of us live and how do we find healthy ways to express them? How do I lean into the ugly stuff? I'm like, I don't want to look at my own rage and I'll probably have to if I'm going to evolve.

When I had that theme in mind, I started collecting photographs of people about to break. I love those four seconds when you watch someone and they're deciding whether they're going to react or respond kindly. I wanted to capture that moment of reckoning with yourself, facing yourself and deciding how you're going to move clearly. That was the inspiration. So then out of that, I brought back songs like "gun" that I had written for Rihanna at a songwriting camp back in the day. She never picked it up so I brought that back.

Then I wrote "replay!" and I was like, Wow, this is about a woman really reckoning with a lot of her difficult emotions and trying to break cycles. I'm really interested in loops. I've always been interested in looping cycles, circles, patterns. I think the way we evolve as humans is often to witness those loops, see the habits we have and then work to soften them and break them. That's kind of where it all came from. Then I picked my co-producer Ryan Lott from Son Lux. That was my person that was going to sonically present these characters. I had the vulnerable softness of a woman surrendering and then the fighter, the warrior, the aggression. So his role was to be like, How do I make characters out of this? How do I make synthesizers that sound like knives?

One of my notes is about the textures on this record. The sounds are almost tangible.

I want my songs to sound like my internal landscapes. I have these inner worlds. Some of them are calm and controlled, and then some of them are schizophrenic and claustrophobic and the way that I keep myself in check is to make music from that place. What does it sound like in my head today?

Do you feel that making music to let these feelings out is healthy for you, or do you have other outlets?

You gotta have other ones. If your life is only about music, it can become a bit single-minded. I try to do yoga and run and do things that are physical. I like to do watercolors and express myself, but the impulse to create is to bring clarity out of confusion. When I'm confused about what I'm feeling, it's a very scary place for me. I sit down and make a beat that sounds like my internal rhythm and sing a melody that sounds like the longing or the regret or the fear. If I make that melody, then I relax like, Ah, I made something invisible, visible.I made something that was abstract and scary into a tangible thing that can now help someone else and turn suffering into joy.

How does that process work, to create something that intuitively feels like something invisible?

It's an act of faith. You don't know what's going to come out and it might be shit, right? And you're scared of that! If I lean in, start tinkering and playing chords, I might strike on something that needs to come out. It's kind of like a dance with the subconscious. You're trusting that something in the subconscious is going to emerge. If you just stop trying to control it, you have to be out of it. You have to be like a child. And when you're playing, guessing, stepping into the dark, then you land and are like, "That sounds like how I feel." You see how that's fate? You're not controlling the process. You're leaning into something more divine and you're hunting and smelling around to see something.

Going back to the fear of something sounding like shit, is that something you are still conscious of?

Of course! That's the risk you take every time you try to create because you're immediately face-to-face with the inner critic who's going to sit there and go, that's not good enough, you should be making better music. You're gonna have to wrestle with the inner critic. It's faith that you'll create something that is meaningful even when you're scared because creatives are scared.

There's an illusion that an artist just walks into a creative space and unfolds something beautiful. No, they're scared that it's not going to be good enough. For example, "save me" was a song that I wrote because my therapist told me to write something that no one would ever hear. So in that sense, it took away the inner critic. Now I decided to put it out, but initially, no one's gonna hear this so it doesn't matter if it's shit. I'm just gonna make it for me. A really great way to write something is if you take away the audience and the witness altogether. You might find that you want the witness later. But for the moment of creation, you're trying to get rid of that voice of where it's gonna go and just do it purely for the sake of expression, with no outcome with no life span. Just pure expression in the moment.

It must be strange to make music without the intention of anyone else hearing it after spending so long doing the exact opposite, creating with the purpose of eventually releasing it and having an audience always in mind.

Of course. It's been a lot easier on this record because it was just me and the co-producer the whole time. We didn't have any record labels assigned to the record. I parted ways with Warner Brothers so I didn't have people in the room saying, "Make the chorus bigger," or, "This isn't commercial enough." I just made the record I wanted to make. I made what I wanted to listen to. It is easier when you remove the industry voices because that adds a lot of pressure.

You can really hear the difference between a squeaky-clean record and one with more freedom, although it may be my own bias. I'm guessing working so intimately with one other person definitely helped rein in some of the ideas.

[Ryan Lott] oversaw a lot of the final ideas. Of course, I'm at the center of a lot of sound design and coming up with arrangements and stuff, but it was always me and him. Even though there are other people involved, it was always me and him aligning our vision for the ultimate sound, which I think creates cohesion to this record and a feeling of not too many cooks in the kitchen, which can make a record sound confused sometimes.

It's also a shorter record! I think albums are getting longer and I kind of enjoy a journey from start to finish. It's very focused and takes you many places, but I lean toward a slightly conceptual idea. And I like the number 10! It provides such symmetry to an album. You get a middle point and then you get act two. Those were the 10 [songs] that told the story for me. Of course, there's plenty of others, but I just wanted to make a statement that didn't have filler or songs that were there to bulk it up. I wanted every song to be very much a side of the central theme. To be fair, I have a lot of work ready to go up to this. I've been piling it up for shorter releases rather than one long one.

I love that you're talking about an almost universal taboo about female anger and the label of the "hysterial" woman. What was it like to embody those emotions?

I would say they're all different sides to the experience of conflict, rage and anger that lives within us. It's confronting. It's almost difficult to live inside these songs because I'm having to get so intimate with the parts of myself that are difficult to look at. When I'm making whimsical fantasy music, I get to escape myself. For this record, I went into myself in a very direct way, so sometimes I have to take a breather. Even the music videos are exhausting. The work is exhausting, because it is. It's very raw in terms of the things that I feel within, but this is what I do as an artist. As I say to my audience, I'll go there so you can join me too and feel less afraid to go there. It always helps when you've got a hand, someone to lead you through the darkness or into the fun!

There's a lot of fun on this record. There's a lot of playful sexuality and discovering your womanhood in these really cool, exciting ways. You can only do that when you go through the hard stuff and see what's really there. It's scary, but then it opens up all these other parts of yourself and you can let go of shame and regret. There's a whole multifaceted experience of being what I identify as, which is a woman. We're scared to look at all these different sides of ourselves. We put people in boxes and for me to break out of my box, I have to first take a good look at what's in there. That helps me expand. And like I said, there's a heaviness to the first half of the record and then it's a real freedom that emerges towards the end. Songs like "GLT" and "new habit" are about the other side of anger. And when you move through that stuff, you get to see all the beauty that is there too.

Did you feel like you were going through this process of rediscovering yourself, your womanhood and sexuality when making this record?

Yeah, for sure. I express myself in new ways. You know, I think part of looking at the emotion of anger is that it's tied to your life force. Your life force is also erotic and sensual and sexual, and so when you look at this emotion and its deeper root, you find all of these other expressions of vitality. They are all good things for our world. Protest is fueled by the same thing that makes us violent. I think I've grown into my own skin and my own body. I've wanted to embrace my physicality in new ways and incorporate dance and movement more into things.

I'm contemplating motherhood now that I'm in my 30s, so there's also that strong female experience of realizing that you're wanting to think about being a creator, a mother. I think there's a real strength in seeing your body as a vessel for life. It takes time for everyone to feel comfortable expressing themselves on those different levels, and that's the journey of an artist! You're accessing yourself in different ways. Sometimes I do it through escapism, sometimes I do it in this really grounded, bodily way. This is why it takes four to five years to make a record because you live with yourself for a bit.

It seems that even while you were at a major label, you were able to work on your own artistic timeline.

Right. I tended to push back on that. I think there's always that pressure to deliver sooner, but I tended to be quite forthright about needing time and I'm glad that they were understanding of that. And often, I just want to wait until I actually have something to say that's worthwhile. There's a lot of music out there. There's a lot of female pop artists. What do I have to contribute here that is authentic to my experience, and is going to be helpful to other people?

Are you nervous about bringing these songs on tour when they are even more vulnerable than usual?

I'm mentally preparing. What gives me life is looking into the eyes of other people and seeing them reflect back the same emotions and feel the same things. It makes me feel safer to say these things out loud because there's other people in the room. It's like the beauty of an AA meeting. When people come together and all share their experiences, everyone goes, "Thank you for sharing. I understand that." It's a lot better than me sitting alone in my apartment going through it on my own.

The community that comes from live performance is very healing for me because the music basically has a second life after you release it. I've lived with the songs and I've cried to the songs and I put them on my headphones and I've gone, "Fuck yeah, this is exactly what I want to say." But now they're yours. Now they're someone else's. I'm on to the next thing! It's like a service that you are giving. You're now allowing for the songs to unfold in the lives of others, and I look at that as my offering.

On "gun," you open with the line, "I earned the right to talk this way." I think that was when the album really started come together for me and communicated that internal conflict of anger and femininity.

I've spent a lot of my career and time in my life giving my power over to other people, so there's a reclamation of finding yourself again in this record. And sometimes you forget your sense of self in this industry. "gun" is really realizing that a lot of the words that people spoke over me which were meant to free and empower me were actually like a gun to the head. They're actually trapping me. Sometimes you think that you owe a lot to other people but at the end of the day, you're the one that turns up for yourself. You're the one that gets you through the hard times. I wrote those words for Rihanna, so I wrote it for a woman that I felt was stronger than me. I think there was that reclamation of like, Why can't I say that? I need my music to be my strongest self because sometimes I can't speak like that. I am shy, I get nervous, but in my music, I get to say those things like, "I earned the right to talk this way."

Was there any emotion that felt particularly difficult to create?

I think "la type," which is a song about my experience dating in LA and just some of the bullshit that comes with a city that's built on entertainment. That one was hard because I had so many different versions and approaches. It's a tongue-in-cheek song. It's obviously having a bit of a laugh. I love LA and I'm not bagging on it, but there's also a culture that I'm talking to that is very distorted and superficial, right? But it was hard to capture the nuance of that.

I wanted some sparkle and that Hollywood feel, but I also wanted it to be sassy and feel like Betty Davis. It had to shine. That was the hardest one to finish. And the final icing on the cake was actually getting Questlove to play drums on the track! We cut that at Electric Lady. So he played on that song and it suddenly had just the right feeling of pocket and groove and throwback, because the thing is, I'm always nervous to do throwback sounds — I don't want it to sound derivative. For "la type," I had to make it feel modern but also had to throw back to stuff that I loved. It's hard when you have a Prince-inspired song to not go full Prince. That's why I lean into juxtaposition and duality because that's when you get something original. When you mix regret with sexual desire. When you mix guilt with pride. That's where originality comes in. I like to find the paradoxes in me.

Have you written a lot for others?

A little bit! I do get called in to write for other people. I think there's a cool thing that happens when you step outside of yourself and your own insecurities and you write it for someone else to sing. You're not overly attached to whether or not you mean it from the bottom of your heart. It's for them! You imagine a different character, like the version of Kimbra that walks into a room and says, "I earned the right to talk this way." What's that version of me that can say that? And then when I take on that character, I get better at living it out in the real world. It's like my practice. What does it feel like to speak like that in industry meetings when I speak to men who make me feel small?

It has now been over a decade since "Somebody I Used To Know." Do you still feel bound to that song and wish for that not to be the main focus of your catalog?

Probably. Luckily, I love the song and the world loves the song and it's a great song. So it's like, I'm proud to be associated with it. It's not a moment of my career where I'm like, Oh, that was embarrassing. That was an amazing moment. There's a little bit of a punk in me that says I'm gonna make something totally different. I just want to say I like to subvert expectations. That song gave me a lot of faith in pop music that you don't have to conform. It's a pretty weird pop song and it's not traditional. It made me dream big about what I could do as an artist, and if that's what people can connect with, it's just raw emotion not presented in the Top 40. It made me really ambitious as an artist, rather than shrinking and thinking that I have to play by all the rules.

So have you always wanted to be a pop artist?

Well, I like pop because you get given this format of verse one, chorus, verse two, chorus, bridge. But then within that, you can kind of do whatever. Look at artists like Prince and Michael Jackson. They made weird shit poppy because they put a hook on it and they performed it with theatrics and entertainment. I like the theatrical aspect of pop and the way that you can make it larger than life. I think that's cool! Pop has the potential to reach so many people. I like the challenge of making a pop song while integrating stuff that would not normally be pop, like listening to Brazilian music for a month and then sampling something Brazilian or taking a vocal technique from that style and making it palatable and understandable for people that might be intimidated by that kind of music.

The pandemic must've allowed you to sit with some music that ended up really impacting your process.

Yeah, we had to face ourselves. I was thinking a lot about how certain artists use danger in music to shock people and wake them up, like a Kanye West record. It just subverts. There's a Nina Simone sample and then a symphony! It reminds me of waking people up! I didn't want my contribution to just be flat. I wanted it to be really dynamic. So for A Reckoning, it's a fucking direct conversation record. Artists like, I think Rosalía came into the scene at a really exciting time. She had this slap-in-the-face attitude and I love the nature of power in that work.

It's an exciting time for pop music. Think of Chloe x Halle! The R&B artists coming out of this time were just very different. You know, James Blake and other great songwriters were doing these weird sonic worlds that are so haunting. Stuff that's memorable while also trying some more simplicity at times. I can hide sometimes behind a lot of vocal effects and ethereal production and I wanted there to be a directness to this.

You're a hip-hop fan, and with this record, it feels like you're really finding the confidence to approach that space more.

The project I'm working on is going a lot more in that direction. I'm always making a lot of collaborative stuff and rap is one of the biggest influences on my sound world and rhythm. Rap has so much punk in it and so much rebellion and exciting rhythmic information — Kendrick is still probably the most influential artist for me as a songwriter because he can make his voice sound like so many different characters! It's so jazz to me. It's totally jazz, which is protest music, right? Jazz is nonconformity, so I think integrating rap more into the work featuring rappers I love feels very natural to me because I take so much inspiration from the rhythmic world of rap and hip-hop. 

And yet, there have been many collaborations that I've been working on that haven't felt quite right for this record, so I've continued to keep them aside for an eventual new release that will be very focused on some of these bangers with rappers and venture into just exploring that side of my influence. I grew up with so much '90s and '00s R&B and hip-hop and my work as an artist is keen on unfolding the little pockets of who I am because that's all I've got to work with. It's the raw material of my life and my influence. You're taking from the world around you, but I believe that you first have to go within to be able to make comments about the outer world. Each project is a way to search for something within. What do I want to say with this and what pocket have I not yet discovered inside of myself? What have I not looked at yet?

Is there a specific moment on this record that you're attached to?

"the way we were" is a song where the melodies have a really classic feeling about them, especially the chorus. I really like when I write melodies that feel like you've heard them before, but you've never heard them before. You know, that feeling where it's like the song has always existed. It almost reminds me of some of the '80s anthems that I love where the chorus just soars. I'm proud that I was able to achieve a moment that really reflects what it's like to miss someone and the longing for the way we were. It's great when you nail an emotion you're trying to convey.

What dualities are in this record and what are these central characters?

I think the two characters are chaos and energy or vitality. And then there's contemplation, reflection, peace, surrender. It's true of my life! I live in New York, but I also come from New Zealand. I come from this contemplative, peaceful land where there's only four million people. I go and I meditate and be quiet and sit with the trees. Then I come back here to improvisation, collective jazz punk, stimulation, anxiety. I have a lot of anxiety, but I'm always going back and forth between this very controlled calm state. Instead of trying to annihilate that, I'm gonna just try to accept that and make it my gift to the world.

Do they work together? Yeah, because they live in me and they live in all of us. They do work together. We can't have one without the other. Also, the record is a woman trying to wrestle with something that is misunderstood, like rage. We've been told that it's mania. We've been told that when you're angry, you're having a breakdown instead of a breakthrough. That's reframing. It's looking at what is beautiful about the original emotion. There's something really powerful about vitality and people feeling the urgency to act. It's an important emotion, you can't shut that down. You've just got to find healthy outlets for it.

What do you get from going back and forth between New York and home, especially emotionally and creatively?

I think of it as an inhale. New York is an exhale. It's an output. But when I'm there, I try to be very present to my family and to the trees. I get a lot from being in a forest. It's really about input. It's really about quiet and just being around other people's lives. My life in New York is very self-focused. I spend a lot of time looking at myself, and when I go to New Zealand, it's a time to be focused on the people I love and go inward a little bit and realign with the self that isn't a musician.

Do you feel like people can't separate the watercolor and yoga Kimbra from the performer Kimbra?

There's always going to be that disconnect because of social media and the ways that people see you on the outside. They make assumptions about who you are and your day-to-day. You must be so glamorous and confident and extroverted. Not at all, but it's nice to keep that for yourself and have a world that looks very ordinary and just hang out with my dog and make food and just watch dumb reality TV and all those things. I really hang on to my community of friends who see me as just Kim. That's very grounding — to not have people consistently viewing you through the lens of your career.

Photo courtesy of Spencer Ostrander