Kimbra Johnson was earmarked for stardom early. There are videos online of her singing as a pre-teen, while she placed second in New Zealand’s national secondary school rock quest at the age of 14. But after a generic debut single ‘Deep For You’, she took time out and became more interesting. Kimbra’s big break came just before the release of her debut album when she guested on Gotye’s Peter Gabriel-style hit ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, covered in paint and providing duet vocals.
The adult Kimbra is something of a conundrum, veering between R&B-infused pop and more experimental fare. I probably wouldn’t be aware of Kimbra if it wasn’t for her New Zealand origins – she was born in the same city, Hamilton (also colloquially known as Hamiltron, city of the future), as my wife. But she’s well connected, touring with Janelle Monáe and collaborating with Carly Rae Jepsen.
Given Kimbra’s range of interests, it’s perhaps not surprising that she hasn’t made a fully satisfying album yet. But all three of her albums have some great moments, and she’s an accomplished vocalist, able to deliver smooth pop or more characterful, rough vocals.
Kimbra Album Reviews
After going through the usual New Zealand steps to success – placing in the Smokefree Rockquest, singing the national anthem at a rugby test match – Kimbra was taken on by a major label at the age of 17, moving to Australia. She recorded her debut album between 2008 and 2011, drawing on a range of influences – there’s a Nina Simone cover, while R&B, pop, and vocal experimentation are all present. The album’s opening track and lead single, ‘Settle Down’, is a daring choice, a multi-tracked, a capella chorus of Kimbras that showcases her vocal and studio skills.
My favourite track though, is ‘Call Me’, a horn infused piece of R&B where Kimbra utilises her lower register. ‘Cameo Lover’ seems like the more obvious choice for a single, with its “open up your heart” hook. Unusually, I prefer the bonus disc on the deluxe edition, where, instead of genre-hopping, Kimbra solely inhabits the space between R&B and electro-pop, and songs like ‘Come Inside My Head’ and ‘Warrior’ are more punchy and immediate than the songs featured on the main album.
Vows isn’t a flawless debut, but it’s a diverse record that showcases Kimbra’s vocal chops and suggests intriguing possibilities for her future.
The Golden Echo
After launching her career with Vows and Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, Kimbra took some time out at a sheep farm in Los Angeles. While I’m uncertain as to why a New Zealander would need to travel all the way to America to find sheep, Kimbra viewed it as a time of creative recharging. Perhaps the time with the sheep was over-stimulating; The Golden Echo is an over-stuffed record full of guest stars. In retrospect, Kimbra stated “I was an excited kid in a playground. I wanted to throw everything at the wall and I’m really glad I got to do that.” The diverse array of guest stars includes Muse’s Matt Bellamy, Van Dykes Park, bassist Thundercat, and the Mars Volta’s Omar Rodríguez-López.
There’s a lot to take in the cut and paste of The Golden Echo, but there are some immediate, pop-oriented tracks. The album’s first single, ’90s Music’, is gimmicky, but it’s followed by a brace of poppy, accessible singles. The rhythmic, harmonised ‘Carolina’ is my favourite piece here, ‘Goldmine’ is quirky and endearing, and ‘Miracle’ is a straightforward piece of R&B. The record drags more in the second half as the slower, more contemplative tracks are less suited to the dense sound, but ‘Madhouse’ is fun and ‘As You Are’ is left relatively low-key and simple.
It’s over-stuffed and over-stretched, and requires work on the part of the listener, but The Golden Echo is often interesting, a valiant partial success.
After the throw-everything-at-the-wall approach of The Golden Echo, 2018’s Primal Heart is the streamlined record that Kimbra needed to make. It’s both more personal, on songs like ‘Recovery’, and more commercial than either of her previous albums. Kimbra recorded Primal Heart in her home studio, and her main collaborator was experienced producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Lana Del Ray) who encouraged her towards a more accessible mix with the vocals out front. There are more experimental tracks – ‘Top of the World’ features Skrillex – but the meat of Primal Heart is classy adult pop.
The over-stuffed The Golden Echo disguised how strong Kimbra’s vocals are, but she sounds glorious on the smooth, beautiful ‘Right Direction’. The dramatic ‘Lightyears’ is a great pop song; its idiosyncrasies recognisable as Kimbra, but placed into a pop framework with its rhythmic pulse and lovely synth programming. ‘Like They Do On TV’ has characteristic moments of oddness, but with a likeable beat and memorable, catchy chorus, it all hangs together beautifully. While The Golden Echo was detached, there are much more personal, relatable moments here; while ‘Recovery’ is the most obvious example, the line “‘Cause you’ll only really see me when the Sun goes down” from ‘Black Sky’ is the most revealing.
The commercially oriented, synth-pop sound doesn’t bury Kimbra on Primal Heart – it enhances her.
New Zealand’s Kimbra Johnson is best known for a moment from before her debut album was released – the duet ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ with Gotye. The single topped the US charts and also featured an iconic video with the pair in body paint. In her own right, Kimbra’s a creative spirit who’s enjoyed an interesting career while never quite finding her niche as a solo artist. 2014’s arty Golden Echo was almost impossibly over-stuffed with ideas, while 2018’s Primal Heart presented Kimbra as a classy adult pop singer.
On her fourth album, A Reckoning, Kimbra’s free from the constraints of a major label for the first time. Her main collaborator is Son Lux’s Ryan Lott, who helps to furnish her with a moodier and artier sound. Kimbra’s talked about enduring a tough time over the past few years – her best friend passed away suddenly, while she was in the US during the George Floyd protests.
It’s an unfocused album, which goes in three different directions. There are piano ballads, often excellent like the Radiohead-like opening track ‘Save Me’, and particularly a contemplation of motherhood on ‘Foolish Thinking’. There’s electronic material that’s more like Son Lux’s work – like ‘Replay’ and ‘The Way We Were’. And there are forays into hip hop on ‘GLT’ and ‘la type’ – Kimbra’s able to hold her own as a vocalist on the latter. ‘Gun’ originated from a writing camp – narrowly missing the cut for a Rihanna album, Kimbra reclaims it as an empowerment anthem.
A Reckoning is fascinating, but it doesn’t entirely play to Kimbra’s strengths, with not enough emphasis on her hook-writing or vocal prowess.
Ten Favourite Kimbra Songs
Come Inside My Head
Like They Do on the TV
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