“I’m just making the shit I wanna do, and I sense that freedom in the record,” Kimbra tells me of her latest album during a Zoom chat earlier this month. That record is A Reckoning, the New Zealand art pop musician’s fourth LP and first to be released independently. The album — her first since 2018’s Primal Heart – is set to drop this Friday, January 27th. Last week Kimbra kicked off a short European tour, but February will have her back in North American for more than a month of dates, including her return to The Music Hall at World Café Live on Valentine’s Day (2/14). I recently got a chance to chat with the singer/songwriter about her latest work, playing live, and how she’s planning to spend the foreseeable future.
Izzy: First of all, since this is a Philadelphia-based publication, I have to ask your thoughts on the city, as you have played here a number of times. Any favorite memories, whether shows you’ve played or just experiences around town?
Kimbra: I just love the vibe of Philly. That’s the thing I get most excited about, just walking around. It’s got such great energy and architectural personality. I feel like it kind of stands out as a city in America. And I do remember crowds being very, very welcoming in Philly. And I have such a love of the East Coast, so it feels very much like being in that world, and not far from New York. I can’t wait to come back! It’s been too long!
Izzy: You’re releasing your latest full-length, A Reckoning, in the very near future. How do you think the album compares to previous LPs, both in terms of sound and just the process of writing and recording it? I know you first began working on the album all the way back in 2018.
Kimbra: Oh, yeah. I mean, I’m working on the next album as soon as I am mixing the current one. In fact, I already have two-to-three records that I’m working on right now for the next releases. So, it’s just kind of the way my brain is functioning.
But yeah, there are songs from even further back that just never got finished. There’s a song on the record that I wrote for a Rihanna songwriting camp. I was asked to come in and write for her album and it got close, but didn’t get picked for the final record, so I pulled that out of the iTunes folder from, say, ten years ago or something and reworked it for the album. It’s fun, moments like that. But then most of it, honestly, was written either 2018/2019, or right in that pandemic space, being alone in my apartment, with a Wurlitzer piano.
I tend to write with beats… I start with beats and production, and then I write, but a lot of these songs started just me on a piano, trying to access some very personal stuff. It’s a personal record, of course it’s called A Reckoning, so it’s really about facing yourself. There are some ballads that are some of my most tender work yet. And then you get a real confidence in this record, like a real sort of sense of coming to terms with everything that lives inside of me, and not being afraid of it.
It’s different from my other records in the sense that it exhibits a real strength and a real confidence. I think that working with Ryan was so effortless. It was just so much fun to begin with. We weren’t working with a label. I was with Warner Bros. for ten years and I’m no longer with them, so there’s a real artistic freedom. Like, I don’t have to give a fuck what the A&R dudes are saying, I’m just making the shit I wanna do, and I sense that freedom in the record, an artist just being like, “Yo, I love this shit!” So, I think there are just less people in the room, so that’s exciting to be so behind this record, because I know that it’s just stuff that I really needed to say, like for my own growth.
Izzy: Have you gotten any favorite early reactions to the new music? You’ve already released a couple of singles and I know you did a short Sofar Sounds tour to preview some of it back in 2021.
Kimbra: There are certainly people that remember me playing this stuff on that little tour who — when the singles came out — were like, “I’ve been waiting for this ever since you played it in that little bar!” So, that’s been really cool that it stuck with people even back on that pre-preview tour. I think the reactions have… Honestly, I won’t know… This is the funny thing about the internet, like it seems like people really like the work. I’m getting great emails, comments, whatever. But it’s not until you’re on the road that you can really tell.
When I played those tracks last time they weren’t released. So, now it’s like when people have been living with it, that’s when you really get to see the impact of the work. It’s just not the same with social media; I have no idea of how it’s connecting. But the general feeling has been great around this record. It really feels like the things I’m talking about are really relevant for people, with being through so much, and we’re having to face sides of ourselves that are scary to look at. We’re having to face truths about our world and our Earth and our climate and our social systems and our politics. It feels like people are like, “We need to hear these songs!” So, that’s a really encouraging feeling.
Izzy: Last year you released a really cool music video for “replay!” How did that video come about?
Kimbra: I knew that the song was about loops and circles and just the mania of being caught in the same thought pattern, or not being able to let go of a lover, and you’re obsessive. So, I wanted to find the right director, who could capture that kind of claustrophobic feeling. I found this director in France, and I was like, “I’ll just try to Instagram him, he probably won’t write back.” But it turns out he’s been a fan since like Day 1. Once we started talking, we just connected over this idea of like compulsive thinking and we were like, “Okay, how do we portray that?” And so that’s what gave us the idea of putting me in the middle of this large studio and having me play out different performances and kind of looping it and having it change. We started taking that idea of a loop and someone fighting with themselves, and then we put that into this very visceral performance. And we decided to use movement to do that, like, “How can we portray loops through the body?” Like, “How does the body escape?” And the fashion was very about that as well. It started with that lyric of, “All I see, all that stays; Pictures of us on replay,” and then the video concept sort of came out of that energy.
Izzy: Can we expect more music videos in the near future?
Kimbra: Yeah, real soon. I just finished one for the third single, which is totally different to the last video. It’s tender and quite narrative. I believe that comes out right around the record.
Izzy: On a related note, I’ve had a bunch of people asking me about the album art and how you came up with that concept. How do you come up with the ideas behind the visual aspects of your work in general?
Kimbra: I’ve always been quite colourful – Well, I don’t know if colourful’s the word – but I feel like this record cover’s really different for me. It’s just me in black and white and quite revealing, and it’s a very strong, direct look into the camera. It’s just meant to be super raw. I mean, it’s called A Reckoning, so it’s just really me putting myself out there. As I’ve gotten to know myself better, I think I’ve come into my womanhood in a new way, and even my understanding of sexuality and sensuality. I also felt a lot more comfortable in my own skin, in my own body. I think I wanted there to be a physicality to the front cover, and for it to feel really feminine, but also really tough, like, “We’re doing this, we’re going in! And it’s gonna be a strong conversation.” I guess, when you think about artwork, you’re just thinking about, “How do I really embody what the real feeling and mood of the record is?”
Izzy: The album features a number of collaborations. I know you worked with Ryan Lott on a lot of it, and Erick the Architect’s on there. And you’ve collaborated with a lot of really cool artists in the past, as well. Is there anyone that you dream of getting the chance to collaborate with?
Kimbra: Kendrick Lamar. I mean, I think he’s like the most important artist that we probably have right now in terms of pushing genre. And I get so much inspiration from his characters, like the shit he creates in his music. I don’t know, that would be like a crazy dream [laughs].
Izzy: And not to detract from your music, but in 2019 you made your big screen debut in Daffodils, so I’m curious how that opportunity came about and how that experience was working in the medium?
Kimbra: It was really different. As a musician, I put all of this work into this one moment, and it’s an hour-and-a-half, like a show, and I go hard, and then I turn off. Acting is like, “On, off, on, off, on, off,” and that was very new and challenging. So, it was a good learning process of how to manage your energy in those different ways, when it’s so different from what a music artist does. I got to really connect with my homeland in that film. It was set in the town that I grew up in, so I think that was really special. And also just dipping my toe in that water. Like, “Could I express myself in that way in the future?” And I think I’m open to it. But yeah, it’s a completely different headspace for me! I didn’t think it was gonna be so different.
Izzy: You’re about to kick off a pretty extensive tour of both Europe and the US. Are there any shows you’re especially excited to play, or even just cities you’re especially excited to visit or revisit?
Kimbra: Yeah, I have my favorites! I mean, I love Amsterdam in Europe, that amazing architecture. I think some of my favorite cities to play are the ones where I know I have the craziest crowds, so I’d say Philly’s one like that, Atlanta for some reason just goes off, and Dallas… It’s not even so much about the city, it’s just remembering the particular kinds of people that come to certain shows. I think that’s mainly what I think of, the energy of remembering past shows.
Izzy: You play a pretty wide variety of venues, from festival stages to nightclubs to theatres and even listening rooms sometimes. Do you have particular favorite setting to play, that you feel is most conducive to your sound, or do you appreciate different aspects of each of them?
Kimbra: I think there’s something very sacred, almost church-like when you get to sing in small theatres — and, actually, I do perform sometimes in churches and synagogues – and that feeling of hearing a pin drop is so special. But, I love when I can achieve that in a rock club. That’s my favorite! Being in a rock club, and it’s kinda dirty and it smells like beer or whatever, and then we can like go somewhere. That nice, sort of 500-1,000 venue. That’s my sweet spot, or even that 300-500. I think you just have all this potential to get super loud and crazy, and then it’s also such an achievement when you can get the crowd in a space like that to just be so quiet. My ego gets like, “Oh! I did that!”
Izzy: On a related note, since you have done a lot of touring over the years, have you developed any significant touring rituals, whether certain types of places that you always make a point to stop, or just certain things you like to do to pass the time during the long drives?
Kimbra: Totally! It’s so important to have rituals on tour. Otherwise, there’s nothing that’s grounding you. Like, you’re just moving every day. So, I have random things, like I’ll just find the nearest bookstore; I just love going to old bookstores. I look up bookstores, I look up Ethiopian food. I love Ethiopian food, it’s like my great culinary love, so I’ll look up, like, does Philly have any Ethiopian communities, and then I’ll just go there for the day. And, maybe a park? It’s very hectic on the road, so if I can just find a little green, I’ll try go there and like paint; I do watercolors and shit.
Izzy: What can be expected of the live show when you return to World Café Live next month, in terms of setlist, production, and just the general vibe of the evening?
Kimbra: Well, I have a drummer that I haven’t taken on the road so much. He’s insane. He’s from Boston, so he’s an East Coast guy. He’s just a huge, amazing drummer. I was touring for a while with just beats, like beat machines, which was cool, but I miss having a drummer go off. I think I’ll be going back to early performances where we really just rocked out. And my keyboardist plays bass, as well. It’s small, it’s just my two boys behind me, but we’re gonna pack a punch.
It’s gonna be very focused on the new record. I think we’re playing every song from the new album, so people can expect to turn up and hopefully they’ve heard the record a lot. And hopefully they get to experience the full album in a live setting, get to hear the songs sung legit from my mouth. ‘Cause I want people to go home and then hear the record in a new way! It’s gonna be really fun, a lot of energy.
Izzy: You’ve been doing this for quite some time and have quite a big catalogue. How do you go about choosing what older tracks you’re going to incorporate into your setlist? Is it based on whatever you’re currently most enjoying, or is it more based on what you think your fans want to hear? Or, is it a bit of both?
Kimbra: It’s a little bit of both! You try to put yourself in the shoes of the old school fan, who’s like, “I hope she pulls out ‘Cameo Lover!’” Or the ones that maybe they have all this nostalgia with. But if I’m bored of that song, I’ll be like, “Okay, how do I make it vibey now?” So, I’ll often like redo the drums, redo the synths. And then sometimes I’ll just throw something in that I feel has a special significance to me, or the one that I notice everyone’s singing along to at the shows. And that might be more of a deep cut. I’ll often put it in just because I feel like people have a special connection to that one, even if it wasn’t commercially successful. That’s the cool thing about live. You get surprised. You’ll be like, “Everyone’s connecting to this one! This wasn’t even a single!”
Izzy: You’re touring the US with Tei Shi, who I’m also a big fan of. How did the two of you get hooked up, and what are your thoughts on her music?
Kimbra: When you’re going on tour, your agents and the people you work with will put forward names, and I’m pretty fussy – sometimes I’ll listen through and be like, “Nah, I don’t like it.” – but with Tei Shi, I already knew of her work, and we already had mutual friends, and I checked out some of her newer stuff and I was like, “This is sick!” And it feels like it matches. We both have a strong energy onstage, but we’re kind of doing pop, but we’re doing it a bit different. So, I think it’s nice when people come in and they feel like they’re getting a cohesive bill. I don’t know her that well, personally, but we’re gonna be on the tour bus together, getting to know each other!
Izzy: Your Philly stop is actually on Valentine’s Day. Anything you’d tell people to encourage them to come and spend the holiday with you?
Kimbra: I guess I would just be like, “Bring your boo!” Totally! I feel like my music is very romantic, honestly. I write a lot about love. Probably every song is either about spiritual love or physical love, so I would love for it to be a night where people really celebrate their person and come to see music that is really focused on that.
Izzy: Finally, what’s next for you, after these tour dates wrap? How are you hoping and planning to spend 2023?
Kimbra: Like I said, I have a couple of projects that I’m already working on. One that is very close to being done. And I’m pretty pumped to get another follow-up thing happening pretty soon, just because COVID, and I’ve had so much material. Like, I don’t want to sit on it for years. I kind of want to start cranking out stuff. So, that’s kind of my hope, to be quite prolific for the next few years in terms of releases. And I released a podcast last year, and I’m continuing to release episodes from that. So, maybe I’ll get back into Season 2; I got picked up for Season 2 from Talkhouse Productions. And definitely focused on continuing to tour a lot. Like, it’s exhausting to tour, but it’s been so long since I’ve been around the world. I wanna get back to Latin America, to Japan, to where I’m from, New Zealand, and part of Down Under. So, I think it’s gonna be a couple years of stuff, but I’m just gonna always be working on music that whole time, and just finishing all the stuff I have. Because it just pains me when stuff is unfinished, just like, “I wanna get it out!”
*Get your tickets here.