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Kimbra, the Mad Scientist Of Pop

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(Thom Kerr)

(Thom Kerr)

By Shannon Carlin

Love it or hate it, just don’t tell Kimbra you’re on the fence about her music.

“There’s nothing worse to me than people having a mediocre reaction to something,” she told Radio.com over the phone from Los Angeles. “Like, ‘I guess, I don’t know, it’s okay.’ No. Love it or hate it, nothing in-between.”

Kimbra (full name Kimbra Lee Johnson) must be quite happy then with the very mixed, but very extreme reaction her latest single, “90’s Music” has received over the past four months.

Look through the over 1,700 comments for that song’s video and you’ll find that while some people are very sure Kimbra is a member of the Illuminati, most others are struggling to decide whether the track is a “Lady Gaga rip-off” or a “manic feast of frenzy for the senses” or “an overproduced POS.” But the most common opinion from those who choose to publicly voice theirs is that they like the track, it just took some time to come to that conclusion.

“It’s definitely a polarizing song for a lot of people,” Kimbra said laughing. “But I think it finds its way under the skin.”

With shout-outs to Michael JacksonMariah Carey, R. Kelly, Nirvana, TLC and Aaliyah, the track’s lyrics focus on that not-so-bygone era we all seem to have a particular fondness for, but the sound is something from the future with Kimbra’s staccato delivery sounding almost alien as she questions nostalgia and its place in our memory.

“That’s the deeper side of that song,” she explained. “We change and we grow and we remember time, but we remember it completely differently, you know? We look back and it comes back slightly skewed and therefore we are changed by it and feel differently about things in our past.”

Kimbra says she chose the track as the first single off her upcoming album, The Golden Echo, because it sets up this record as one that’s not necessarily going to follow all the rules. “I wanted to introduce the idea of playfulness,” she explained. “I think of it as a statement song.”

A lot of the playfulness on her sophomore album — out August 19 on Warner Bros — stems from collaboration. Not much of a surprise being that Kimbra’s most successful work to date is Gotye‘s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” a collaboration that earned her two GRAMMYs in 2013 including Record of the Year.

Kimbra now lives on a farm in Silverlake, CA where sheep graze outside her window, but her gramophone statue still sits in Australia, packed away in storage like a lot of her previous apartment. “I don’t know where to put it, I don’t want to have shrine or anything,” she said. “It’s a bit of an awkward thing to work out. I’ll have to think about it and find a nice place when I get it back.”

On the follow-up to her 2011 debut, Vows, Kimbra teams up with The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodríguez-López, Daniel Johns of Silverchair, bassist Thundercat, Michael Jackson’s studio drummer John “JR” Robinson, Queens of the Stone Age‘s bassist Michael Shuman (playing drums here), Bilal, John Legend, Foster the People’s Mark Foster and Muse’s Matt Bellamy, who plays guitar on “90’s Music.” It’s an impressive list of names, but none of them overshadow Kimbra. This is exactly how the singer wanted it.

“To me it was like, I’m making a movie, right, and who are the characters going to be?” she explained. “I’m at the forefront telling the story, but who are these people around me, that come in and out? I want someone to come and play drums or bass, but not just anyone. I want someone who offers something super unique, even if they’re just playing the simplest part.”

The Golden Echo is straight from the brain of Kimbra, but the singer says she channeled two very different sides of hers while making it. One side is very technically focused, almost scientific, while the other acts as a playground. “Just pure fun and abandonment,” Kimbra explains. “It starts in that place of throwing things together and having fun, but then it becomes like a science-based thing where I go, ‘Here’s the idea, now we’re going to start the experimentation process.’”

While in the recording studio, Kimbra often feels like a mad scientist tinkering away at the lab, “diving into this cellular world of molecules and atoms.” The studio she worked in looked like a spaceship and made her feel as if she was always embarking on something bigger as she tried to find that perfect musical formula. “There is a feeling of ‘Eureka! I found it!’ when I do finally figure it out,” she said.

Kimbra’s 12-track album is all over the place, filled with twists and turns that warrant many subsequent listens to completely digest. On “Goldmine” she turns a poem she wrote as a teen into a drum machine spiritual for those looking for something to hold on to in this transient world, while the bass-driven “Madhouse” sounds like a long-lost Prince cut. “I can’t help but be influenced by Prince,” she said, “But I think I was trying not to. I don’t ever want to sound too much like an artist I love.”

That being said, her next single “Miracle,” which she just shot a video for in New York City, sounds like something Quincy Jones would have produced for the King of Pop. The track also has her mimicking a horn section using samples of her voice. A new foray for the singer. “I sound like an alien, but it’s so much more interesting than just getting a horn section in,” she said. “And cheaper!”

Somehow though, these different musical personalities never seem to clash or come off as schizophrenic. Instead, they work together to convey the journey of the album, which Kimbra says begins with the chaos of what it’s like to live inside your own head and ends with you coming out on the other side, only to find transcendence.

“It’s not just like, ‘Here’s a bunch of things that I like.’ It’s, ‘Here’s a bunch of things I like that help to tell a story that conveys a deeper sentiment,'” she explained. “And sometimes in order to do that, you need a lot of different colors to paint the picture.”

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