It’s an exciting time to be Kimbra.
She’s just dropped a chaotic yet ebullient slice of future pop that heralds her new album, the star-studded follow-up to her 2011 debut Vows. The one she’s been holed up working on over the past year in an LA studio with mega-producer Rich Costey and a roster of big name artists long and grand enough to make even Dave Grohl blush.
There’s further cause for thrills too, as the 24-year-old New Zealander is speaking to Tone Deaf the day after her flight has arrived in her adopted hometown of Melbourne in order to kick off The Golden Electric Tour, a co-headline trek of Australia with like-minded musical matriarch Janelle Monáe.
The two aren’t just sharing a bill or a knack for genre-bending neo-pop, there’s a much deeper connection between them, as Kimbra explains, which all started with a chance encounter in a dressing room at the 2013 Montreux Jazz Festival.
“Man, I remember being such a geeky fan girl,” Kimbra admits. “I was, seriously. I went up to her musical director and said, ‘it’d be so great to meet Janelle, do you think she’s got a moment before the show?’”
Luckily she did and the two shared “such a beautiful connection – instantly,” Kimbra recalls, bonding over “so many reasons why we make music and our values with it and what we gravitated to as artists.”
“We’re both very interested in production,” she continues in a contagiously positive pace, “… very concerned with the micro-events of everything. It’s rare to find other female artists sometimes that you have that real solid understanding and friendship with and that continued throughout the year.”
The pair swiftly became mobile phone BFFs and “continued to text and share our thoughts … of potentially working together and doing shows together. So it was all really kind of organic and just happened out of a mutual friendship,” she details.
“I went from being – like I said – just a fangirl that had been following her work to ages to seeing a freaking poster of us co-headlining together; it’s been really crazy for me!”
The Golden Electric Tour not only marks Kimbra’s first Australian shows in nearly two years and Janelle Monáe’s first headline tour of the country, it will also bear witness to the pair sharing the stage together as they team up for a closing 45 minute set at each show.
Kimbra obviously doesn’t “wanna give away too much, it’s kind of a surprise,” but expect the spectacle of “a hundred musicians on stage, all jamming” and “songs that we (both) love, some covers;” chiefly in the vein of the Aretha Franklin/Michael Jackson rehearsal mashup that’s been used as a video to promote the tour.
The tour also offers the chance to hear material from Kimbra’s new album, including curious new jam ‘90s Music’, a sonic puzzle that blends her trademark vocal layers with a hyperactive palette of cacophonous sonic tics. Written while Kimbra was on a sonic diet of Deerhoof, Battles, and J-pop – and it shows. Progessive pop? Definitely. Radio-friendly fodder? Certainly not.
“Look, I was very aware that it’s the kind of track that people are going to take some time to fully digest,” Kimbra replies when quizzed about the response to the track. “But all my favourite music is like that;” name-checking well-respected favourites The Mars Volta, Jeff Buckley, and Björk in her defence.
The track also features contributions from Muse’s Matt Bellamy and Mark Foster of Foster The People, just two of the names on the dizzying roster of all-star guests that aided Kimbra in crafting her second studio album taking her long-evident spirit of collaboration (eg. her Grammy-winning role with Gotye) to the next level.
There’s Neo-soul singer Bilal, Dillinger Escape Plan guitarist Ben Weinman, Prince’s NPG keysman Morris Hayes, producers Keefus Green and Taylor Graves, legendary session drummer John ‘JR’ Robinson (last heard on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories), and John Legend (returning the favour after Kimbra added vocals to ‘Made To Love‘), but that’s not all.
Before Kimbra goes into juicy detail about the artists she’s worked with, she offers a short disclaimer. “Not all of the people I’ve worked with over this year are all going be on the album,” she warns. “All the tracks I’ve done with different people are going to come out over time, but it may take a while for it all to get out there – so just a heads up.”
That being said, each played their part – from perfunctory to significant – in impacting the finished result. Roll out the red carpet and meet the collaborators (complete with some sneaky photos taken at recording sessions from Kimbra’s Instagram).
Muse’s Matt Bellamy
Costey,“a long-time producer of Muse records and an amazing mixer” simply sent the song to Bellamy one day, “and said ‘hey man, what do you think of this?’ Matt really liked it. Literally the next morning Matt sent back a recording of a guitar part on the chorus, he just chucked it down while he was on the road, I think.”
“We were like ‘man, this is awesome!’ It’s very simple, you know – but anything like that can just change the course of a song dramatically and as soon as he put that on we just had a bunch of new ideas.
“He also came down to the studio and checked out the jam when I was finishing it off as well, it was cool to meet him and be able to involve him. Because (2003 Muse album) Absolution was a massive record for me when I was in high school and it’s just rad.”
Foster The People’s Mark Foster
“He also came down to the studio when he heard the song (‘90s Music’) and he had an idea as well so he jumped on for parts of the chorus and played some synths and it became this song that kept evolving as more people had thoughts for it.”
Silverchair’s Daniel Johns & Legendary Arranger Van Dyke Parks
Initially working together for a one-off Adelaide Festival concert in March 2013 sparked an interest between Kimbra and the Silverchair frontman. “That’s what made Daniel and me go ‘ahhh, there’s something here, we’ve got to write together’.
“It was my first time with a (36-piece) orchestra, singing songs with Daniel and Beach Boys material and Van Dyke’s work. It was iconic stuff and feeling like we made a little bit of history together.
“For that reason, I really liked the idea of recreating that collaboration on my record, so there is a song that will come out on the album with arrangement from Van Dyke Parks with Daniel Johns.
“He sings on a few songs actually and to have him involved was really amazing. I don’t know how to explain Dan… he has this beautiful youthful spirit where there’s no boundaries on the way he thinks about anything. He’s very spontaneous and he really inspired me to not put restrictions on myself as a writer, to just go where the energy takes you. [It’s] just crazy… [Silverchair’s 2002 album] Diorama was a life-changing record for me…”
Bass virtuoso Thundercat
Bridging the gap between jazz, funk, psychedelia, and instrumental hip hop is Stephen Bruner aka Thundercat, who provides the lion’s share of bass-work on Kimbra’s album.
“Once I had him play on one song, I was like ‘man, we need you as a colour on everything!’ [There’s] something about the way he plays: a sense of urgency about everything and kind of otherworldly force.”
“He’s like a brother now it’s crazy. We hang out all the time…we speak a similar language with music and that’s really exciting, when you find someone like that where you don’t have to… explain anything – he just gets it; that instant connection.”
“Thundercat’s album (2011’s The Golden Age Of Apocalypse) was huge for me, and Flying Lotus’ work as well, so to be able to now call these people friends and future collaborators is really exciting.”
Queens Of The Stone Age’s Michael Shuman
“I’ve become really good friends with Michael, who plays bass in Queens. He has a band called Mini Mansions – ughh, they’re amazing and they’re about to put out a new record as well that they’re working on at the moment. So I became a huge fan of Mini Mansions and I would go down to their shows and watch them play and became friends with them and then we did a whole lot of writing together.
“We have like an EP’s worth of material that we did but one song in particular has made it on my album that I’m really excited about. Michael plays drums on it, he’s actually an amazing drummer when he’s not playing bass in Queens. Yeah, getting to spend time with that whole band and Michael as well has been really inspiring because Queens Of The Stone Age are one of my favourite bands of all time!” (Noticing a trend here?)
Omar Rodriguez Lopez of The Mars Volta, Bosnian Rainbows, ATDI et al.
“He’s amazing you know and just being in the same room as someone that’s been so influential to the way you listen to music and the way you think about melody.
“Just the ideas and the tones he would be coming up with – no one else can do that. That’s what I love about it, it’s not just playing guitar, he possesses his instrument in a way I’ve never seen before. And getting to guide someone that you already know their style so well…
“He was so wonderful with being pushed. I’d be like ‘man, I feel like you’re holding back a bit I wanna see you really let loose’. I’m saying this to my guitar idol! Over time, he would start to loosen up and get into it and then it’s like this beast is unleashed and he starts to just go into the crazy At The Drive-In style stuff where the wah pedal distortion, revving up [sings guitar part] all that stuff that you know so well and he’s doing it over the song you wrote it’s like the most trippy feeling.”
“[However, the] song in particular I think I’m planning on releasing as a bonus track, because it didn’t make the final cut. That was the hardest thing for me, man, picking the tracklisting…”
Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth
“One afternoon I got an e-mail saying that Dave had been reaching out and would like to write with me and I was like ‘oh my god!’ This is crazy because he’s the kind of person I would try to hit up to get together with, but I’m like ‘oh, no way – he wouldn’t work with me..’ so when he reached out to me!
“I think he’s going through a period where he’s really excited about collaboration and learning from other people. And he – of all people – we have super different processes.
“Just to see the way he works on things – I learnt so much. It’s interesting because my process is often to chuck so many ideas into something and learn how to strip it back. For me, I have a hundred sessions in Pro Tools and I’m excited by throwing as many things onto the painting.
“But Dave works with quite a limited palette. Although the music has a sense of chaos of course, it’s actually quite minimal the way he approaches things and really likes to sticks to four or five things going at once, even though they may be syncopating in crazy timing.
“Unfortunately the song that we worked on together, I’m crazy about it, but we never got it finished because Dave had to go to Africa with Solange and start working with her. And so our time schedules didn’t allow for us to finish the track but I really want people to hear it because I’m super-excited by what we started together.”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Neilson
“He came down the same day I was working with Dave as well. We just got in a room and threw around some ideas. Ruban’s just been a friend for a while because he’s from New Zealand as well and there was a point where we were gonna have him play a song … but his touring schedule was pretty crazy as well, so we put some ideas down on something but it didn’t make the final cut but I think there’s every chance that Ruban and I would collaborate in the future.
“But it’s kind of finding the time to make this stuff work. You know you can start an idea, but finishing it? That’s a whole other game. I have so many started sketches, if you could see – but to actually pull them into finality is a harder thing to manage.”
“No, we decided to do this tour and everything once I was finished with the record so… I mean I’m already working on new stuff. I’m thinking about the next album. Seriously, this [album] got mastered in February so I’m already thinking about the next… it makes me definitely start thinking about possibilities for us, obviously the best way to see if you click is to do live performance together and we already know that we kick it off in that way, so who knows, the sky’s the limit.”
Janelle Monáe & Kimbra Australian Tour 2014
Saturday May 17 – The Forum, Melbourne
Monday May 19 – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Wednesday May 21 – Convention Centre, Brisbane
Monday May 26 – The Plenary, Melbourne
Tickets and info at www.livenation.com.au