Thursday, September 1, 2011

AMR and Kimbra re-united

Well Vows releases nationally today, and I'm assuming you've already headed to your local record store and picked up a copy; or you could just download one of the editions available on iTunes from the comfort of your net cave. Either way, to celebrate its release, here's an interview I conducted with Kimbra a couple months ago in the lead-up to its release in which we discussed its long gestation, her writing process and some of the records themes. Enjoy!
AMR: Firstly, congratulations. Even last we spoke, way back in March last year, even then it was touted that your debut was ‘just around the corner’ and now it’s finally being released. I've been excited to hear it, so I can only imagine you're ecstatic. 

Kimbra: Absolutely, the most exciting thing is to just start seeing reactions from people, because for so long it's felt like an internal process.

AMR: How has it been waiting three-and-a-half years to deliver your debut?

K: Yeah, I think just because it’s a debut record, you have this expectation looming on you. That it has to be a great reflection of your work and something really memorable as your first glimpse for people. So I think even at times when I did think it was finished, my manager [Mark Richardson] and I would go back and be ‘can we make this better? Can we add a song?’ Because I still write a lot through the album process, I would start writing songs on the side with a second album in mind and think ‘oooh, that should really go on.’ So there were a few songs like that which made it on in the last few months, which obviously slow the process but I think in the long run it’s good that we continued to take that time on it. 

AMR: Has that extended time been a positive thing or has it been hard waiting so long?

K: Well, I’ve been really blessed that I’ve been allowed the time to just work at it, the finance to work on it. I haven’t had many restrictions on me at all. So it’s a good thing in the sense that I haven’t been rushed and forced to meet a deadline, but sometimes you do need restrictions and deadlines to work towards. You could go on forever, I ended up telling my manager, ‘please give me a deadline’ because otherwise I won’t stop. So for the first album it’s definitely a blessing, but perhaps for ones down the track I’ll need a few restrictions so I don’t just wander off for years…

AMR: Perez Hilton mentioned you on his blog, NME featured you,American A Capella acts have performed Settle Down, how do you feel about the overseas buzz - before your album is even out? 

K: It’s awesome that so much happened from a couple of singles, and it’s a really good sign that people are feeling like it’s something fresh, and new. That’s the most exciting thing, it’s really flattering. You have no idea how things are going to pick up, you might have certain expectations for it, but it’s a really buzzing feeling when singers from New York, the other side of the world, are covering your song and knowing that they’ve dissected it, with such analysis. The fact that they got all the harmonies so perfect, and studied the progressions, and understood the song. All that hard work feels like it’s paid off when people get that much out of it. 

AMR: Can you talk about some of the turning points in the writing process, coming from your background of writing on just guitar - to these colourful arrangements?  

K: Well, even if you go back to my childhood, when I was in first year of high school I got an eight-track from school. They had a little one at the music department, and I borrowed it and took it home. That was the first time I went from playing songs on guitar and singing to actually sitting down and, this is how I wrote Settle Down for example, just singing the line that I heard in my head. Then having these eight tracks to start layering my voice, that was a turning point because I realised ‘I can put a harmony on it, or a counter-melody there’ all of a sudden it opened up this new world to create a song completely a capella. Capturing and structuring it. Similarly when I got ProTools, it was a new turning point, because all I’d been working on in New Zealand was that eight-track then I moved [to Melbourne]. So given this ProTools rig and mic at home, that was the point when I started to expand and arrange.

AMR: Then you began working closely with producers François Tétaz and M-Phazes...

K: The process with Frank, I’d take him my [home-produced] demo and be ready with all the melodies and arrangement and we might work on the lyric together, but for the most part it was refining sounds. For instance, him taking a synth part I had and getting really quality strings or replacing snares. Which is not my field, I know what I want, and I know what I hear but I do need that guidance. He taught me so much, so that was a really cool collaborative process. Then later I worked with M-Phazes for a whole new perspective and with him it was a similar process of refining sounds, but at that point I was a little clearer of what I wanted. Replace drums or get a little more bass-heavy, his hip-hop background allowed me to get a little more aggression from the mix. 

AMR: When last we talked about your work with Frank, his focus on imagery and tactile meanings in a song - you said it was 'treating the album like a film, from scene to scene.' If Vows is a film then, what is the film about?

K: That’s a really good question... [much pondering and concentrated looks] I guess it feels a bit like a period piece, in the sense that it’s got a romantic element, maybe slightly film noir in moments – that smoky soul feel. I also hope that it has a timeless quality, that it’s not too concerned with referencing a period or a genre too heavily. It’s an evening album, it’s something you have to digest at dark, there’s a lot of layers to it.
I’m thinking warm tones, smokiness, intrigue. Maybe a movie like Black Swan, there’s a lot of different layers to it, you might think you have it all together in the first glimpse, but hopefully the more you watch it you see different more manifestations coming through the film, more of the different characters. In a way, Vows is like that, there’s the conscious side but also there’s darker moments, reflective. But also triumphant and happy moments, I like to think it’s layered like that. 

AMR: Chinatown meets Marry Poppins? 

K: [laughs] you know what, I’m really inspired by a lot of Disney films, so I’d like to think that my own record would reflect something nostalgic and playful, films like Mary Poppins have those dark moments but they’re still so playful, beautiful and colourful. I like to think it’s a colourful album. 

AMR: There’s an arc to the record too, it feels like the album is front-loaded with the familiar material, obviously the singles too, then from Call Me onwards it feels like ‘the new stuff’ – is this accurate? Was that the intent?

K: I definitely agree that it there’s almost a turnaround half-way through, it’s appropriate too, that’s the point I started to produce by myself, then the songs towards the end – songs like Wandering Limbs and Withdraw – they were produced exclusively at home with a slightly different feel, to the cleaner sounding productions. I did want to do that intentionally, an album should be a journey, tell a story. Vows isn’t a concept album, but it is an exploration of the last three years of my life. Think about seventeen to twenty-one, it’s a lot of growth a lot of 'err' [motions clockwise finger crazies to her temples], a lot of stuff going on and the themes to do with promises. You start with some stability in the themes of the lyric, then there’s a point where doubt starts to come in – Plain Gold Ring for example plants that seed, then Good Intent – a lot of mistrust and betrayal. Then from that point onwards, some of the more heartfelt moments like Withdraw. Limbo a song about redemption, coming out of heartbreak and giving things a second chance. I did deliberately want to create a turning point, where it gets darker and more reflective, internal. It felt like a natural order to tell the story and what I wanted to convey. 

AMR: Can you talk about the interludes? The ‘there’s someone sleeping downstairs’ after Old Flame and the Settle Down Reprise? Was that a way to make it feel more coherent or snatches of new material? 

K: Well that's interesting, when I was around 14, I would have got the eigh-track and wrote Settle Down, there were fifteen to twenty songs like that. Featuring only vocals with really strange lyrical ideas, doo-wop lines that don’t necessarily make sense, they’re a bit quirky, but I just wanted to do something theatrical. Someone’s Been Sleeping Downstairs was one of the very first things like that, I remember I had it in on the MySpace when I just starting and everyone dug on it, even the boys from the band suggested it would be cool to include those older things. They’re almost a dirtier side, older, crackling vinyl. It’d be cool to bookend the album, or reference the older material. That’s how a lot of people knew me back in New Zealand, from those lo-fi demos. I just felt it was a personal thing, a nod back to where it all came from. Also it acts as a segue into Good Intent, I’ve always liked records that lead you in a little. Introduce the world.

AMR: It’s obviously something you can only do with the full canvas of an album 

K: Yes, little surprises and moments that keep it unique. We’re so quick-fix nowadays with downloads and everything, it’s the world that we live in now but you still want to make an album special. 
The idea of the Settle Down Reprise? Well most of my favourite albums have recurring melodies through them, like Camille or Janelle Monaé – you’ll have these codas, or little melodies. All they do is throw your head back to the previous tracks, it keeps it consistent and reminds you of previous things, putting it all in perspective. Settle Down, although it’s quite a niche topic, it’s still a big theme throughout. About doubt, commitment and promises, so coming back to it later is still relevant. 
Settle Down itself, had so many different manifestations, I knew I wanted to put a different version or incarnation of the song somewhere. Honestly, there’s about ten different versions and I’ve always liked putting that on the record. 

AMR: Your voice centres the album, we go to these different places and styles but the defining point and what keeps it together is your singing, it's recognisably you - with little treatment

K: It was really hard for me when I first started working with Frank because I wasn’t used to putting my voice at the forefront, any singer will say if they mix their own stuff they put their vocal way back – covered in reverb and effects – and I was very good at that. So when Frank, in something like The Build Up which we did quite early on, would give me nothing. Not even a bit of reverb, no EQ, it was really scary. I’d think, how can this be on the album, me singing like that? But I listen back to it, and the sparseness of everything, this frail voice – what he was trying to get out of me, which I’ve learnt through that process of vulnerability, people really respond to vulnerability and just being real and right there untouched.  

AMR: There’s a real distinction between your recorded material and the live show, which is something that developed after recording the majority of the album. How is that going to affect what happens next? Touring the album now it’s actually out? 

K: Well when people come and see the live show now, they’ll have hopefully had their moment with the album. It’s hard because some people are really familiar with the live versions and may think ‘this doesn’t sound like that.’ But I’m hoping that they’ll understand it’s a different entity. I personally find when bands try to capture their live sound completely to the tee on record, it can be very hard to measure up. When you do different translations, and the live show is a different experience, you can dodge that criticism. So the live show is about having a good time and party, but the album is more personal and involved. I wanted them to be separate. 

AMR: Well on a personal note, as a big fan who's followed your journey – when Settle Down was just coming out – to now, it’s really awesome and exciting to see the album coming out and your profile just blowing up. Looking forward to the response it receives. 

K: Yeah, once the album is actually out and I can talk about it. Like you know, I can say Limbo and you know what I’m talking about. It was talking about this thing that didn’t exist for ages, and now everyone’s on the same page. 

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