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Not Settling Down

Nov 27th 2012 | Robert Townsend

After a whirlwind year for Kimbra, rounding off with a few big festival appearances, what comes next? Pakistani Qawwali music, of course. Robert Townsend finds out more.

"I love being outside amongst nature, looking up and seeing a whole crowd and the sky above,” the enigmatic Kimbra offers. “I think that is something so beautiful – sharing music together outdoors.”

A resplendent stage presence with an incredible voice and catchy-as-hell hits that dip in and out of disco, soul, funk and pop, Kimbra Johnson ticks all the right boxes as far as must-see festival acts go. Anyone who witnessed her at last year's Homebake or at Big Day Out in January will testify to that. So only the most foolhardy attendees of Homebake, Festival Of The Sun or Summadayze over the next few weeks would miss her show-stopping turn. “Festivals have a very distinct energy about them,” she says. “Sometimes it is a chance for the set to go a little wilder than normal.”

Things have certainly gone pretty wild in the life of the New Zealand-born Melbournite over the past year or so. Having broken through by being the female vocal on that Gotye song, she has gone on to become a big star in her own right. On the back of her critically-acclaimed and mega-selling debut album, Vows, she has played over 100 shows this calendar year alone, with two tours of the US and three of Europe. While she admits that being in a different city every day takes a lot of getting used to – and that it's strange to get recognised when grocery shopping – the 22-year-old has a very level head on her young shoulders. “It has been crazy and moved very quickly, but the lead-up to it was quite slow. I'm speaking to you from the same bedroom that I've had for almost three-and-a-half years. I'm still with the same band I was playing with in bars at sixteen. In that time, you prepare for what it will be like when the momentum hits, if it hits. I was lucky to have a lot of guidance in that time and people reminding me not to get carried away with the hype, because it can be given to you and taken away in an instant. So I've just tried to stay focused on the work and the music.”

There are, though, still surreal moments at every turn. Like hanging with bands she used to dig as a teenager. “I'm getting the chance to work with so many people who have been so inspirational to me and that I used to listen to in high school, like The Dillinger Escape Plan and The Mars Volta,” Johnson says. “I never would have expected that, especially because they aren't in the same sort of genre. Even getting to know people like Mike Patton, becoming friends with them and talking about music; it's fascinating and full-on, but then you remember they are also just people.”

Her extensive travelling and encounters with new, creative friends has led to the fact that her highly-anticipated second album will “inevitably” diversify a little from her first. As her experiences and influences grow, so too does her desire to push herself creatively. Johnson talks with passion about the “niches and genres” of music that are inspiring her, some of which might be a little unexpected. “Most recently it's Pakistani Qawwali singing,” she enthuses. “I'm so inspired by the mantra-like repetition and the simplicity of their music, but also the underlying harmonic complexity. I'm excited at the idea of taking something like that and putting it in a Western context.”

However, as keen as Johnson is to expand her already brimming soundscape, the songwriter won't be throwing the kitchen sink at her sophomore recording. “Vows was definitely quite an eclectic record and had a lot of different moments production-wise and songwriting-wise, so there might be a space on the next record for me to try doing things more minimally,” she explains. “I'm interested in the idea of exposing my voice a little more and varying from my tendency to layer and layer and chuck every sound in there. It could be a nice challenge for me to try and keep things a little sparser.”

The ebullience with which she speaks of her next long-player makes it hard not to want to listen to it immediately, but, because life has been so hectic for Kimbra, we'll have to wait a little while yet before it hits our ears. “I write all the time, and on tour I've been lucky enough to have a few moments here and there to sit at the back of the tour bus and put down little ideas. They are pretty rough at the moment, just sketches, so now that I'm back in Melbourne I'll start trying to execute those ideas. I plan on doing a lot of the writing process here in Australia; finding my stillness and connecting again with that quiet place that the music comes from. Then I'll also spend some time in the States working with producers. I think it will be good to have the big studio influence as well as the organic bedroom songwriting process.”

Of course, with the success of the first record comes a weight of expectation upon the follow-up. While acknowledging this fact, Johnson is doing her best not to think too much about it. “I really believe that you have to create a safe place for the music to come from. If you start letting those pressures get to you they can really stagnate the whole process.” She goes on to explain that the creation of her music has a lot to do with instinct. “If something is exciting, then I know whatever comes out of that will sound convictive, passionate and connected to the listener. If I try to do something that is contrived or trying to meet someone else's expectation or pressure, I can usually tell that it doesn't sound exciting or convictive. I have faith in the work and that it will come from a place of freedom, and not from having anxieties of trying to meet some essentially invisible ideals.”

So, while we await the new record, we will have to be content with catching one of her dazzling festival shows. And, although her new compositions aren't yet ready to be performed live, there will be some unfamiliar treats in her set. “We released a slightly different version of Vows in the States, so we play a lot of those songs,” Johnson tells. “Most people won't have heard the live versions and maybe not even the recorded versions, so it's quite a new set for us.” Meanwhile, the songs that Kimbra and her band have played a zillion times might also take a different shape than expected. “We change them every couple of tours. Settle Down, for example, is on its fourth or fifth incarnation. There are similarities between each version, obviously, but we try it with a new groove or a new intro. We're even doing quite different interpretations of songs like Cameo Lover now, so changing slight elements can help to keep us inspired. I think it means the set continues to evolve for people who come along and see us more than once.”

Kimbra will be playing the following shows:

Saturday 8 December - Homebake, The Domain, Sydney NSW
Saturday 15 December - Festival Of The Sun, Port Macquarie NSW
Tuesday 1 January - Summadayze, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 5 January - Summafieldayze, Doug Jennings Park, Gold Coast QLD
Sunday 6 January - Summadayze, Patersons Stadium, Perth VIC


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