words by Troy Davis
Kimbra is an artist I’ve always considered to be criminally underrated. Sure, the first time I’d heard of her was her 2012 duet “Somebody That I Used to Know” with Gotye (which later went on to win her a few Grammy awards). And sure, and I didn’t think to look up any of her other music until years later. I’d be a part of the majority, considering her a one-hit-wonder and leaving her at that.
To be completely honest, I wouldn’t think of Kimbra again until a few years later when the all-girls acapella group at my university would perform “Settle Down”. It was a melody that would easily get stuck in your head, and it immediately started sneaking into every Spotify playlist I put together. I’d quickly fall down the rabbit hole, listening to Vows in its entirety, then digging through YouTube for live performance videos.
A big part of Kimbra’s appeal, to me, was watching Kimbra work live. She’d be the first artist I’d see use a looping pedal to layer her own voice, effectively making herself a one-woman choir. To add depth, she’d use voice modulators to bend notes and blur the lines between her a capella loops and backing electronic beats.
What REALLY got me hooked the fantasy she could create. The videos portrayed the world as picture-perfect, the melodies we’re upbeat and positive, and Kimbra’s voice was sugary sweet. You knew that nothing could possibly be so amazing and serene, but you could easily buy into the fantasy. It was Kimbra’s world and, for just a few minutes at a time, you got to live in it.
When I got the chance to get on the phone with Kimbra, it was months before she’d release her new album Primal Heart. She’d released the exciting new single “Top of the World”, which suggested a new era for Kimbra as an artist. There’s something raw and real about the beat, something that feels raw and dangerous. “It’s aggressive. Ego. It’s a warning”, says Kimbra when asked about the tone. She suggests it comes with a sense of confrontationalism, a new energy she’s tapping into. “I want to use raw aggression to tell my stories.”
There’s a running theme in Kimbra’s life. “Release a record, and purge all that energy. Then I’ll take time for myself and my spirit,” she says, when asked about her time spent since releasing 2014’s The Golden Echo. Creating the album was an intense process, only made more difficult by taking on the role of producer for the first time. So, she decided to follow some “lines of curiosity” and travel.
Adventure led her to an unlikely pair of destination: Ethopia and New York. Together, they would help find the conceptual grounding for the album. Kimbra found similarities between her destinations, citing the two both being “animalistic, in a sense.” Here, Primal Heart began to take shape.
“Primal Heart comes from the definitions of the two words,” says Kimbra. “‘Primal’ traces back to origin, instinct, the primordial. And ‘Heart’, it’s the crucial organ, the center of ourselves.” She calls the product her most soul-filled album, compact with “a lot of beauty, but a lot of greed and darkness.”
From the first beats of album opener “The Good War”, we get a feel for what happens when Kimbra’s signature electro-beats meet “tribal vibes”. Add in the off-kilter chord progression and nonsense vocals acting as their own instrumental layer, it quickly starts to feel like Kimbra’s peak creativity. “Everybody Knows” starts with an understated thump-beat, growing the most directly EDM-influenced track in Kimbra’s discography thus far. “Human”, the song from which the album’s title is taken, mixes distorted but dynamic vocals with driving beats and punchy synths. Then there’s album standout “Lightyears”, a song that would fit equally well in any pop superstar’s catalogue, from Carly Rae Jepsen to Lady Gaga (yes, really.)
Kimbra’s also called this her most personal album, something she wanted conveyed as soon as someone looked at the album cover. “It’s my first time looking straight at the camera on an album cover,” said Kimbra. “I was turning from fantasy and surrealism to my reality. And the artwork needed to convey that.”
She bring this emotional core to the album via “Version of Me”, her first song released with just a piano and string instrumental. In it, she pleas for a lover to forgive her. “We all make mistakes,” she said, “and I’m asking for someone to wait for me to become a better person, for them.”
As the conversation begins to wind down, I ask Kimbra if she’s nervous to release something to personal for the first time in her career. She says every release comes with a nervous energy, but this is the least nervous she’s ever felt. “I don’t feel like I have to construct this identity to go along with my music like I have in the past. It’s a comfort that’s come with age, but it’s also a comfort that comes with knowing your being authentic to yourself.”
Kimbra’s confidence shines on Primal Heart. It’s equal parts confessions and motivational. There’s no reason you can’t be personal while showing grit, and Kimbra makes that clear.