Kimbra discusses the unusual influences behind her second record The Golden Echo, why songwriting is like making a tapestry, and the importance of balancing the technical with the creative.
So I was able to go to that art gallery thing a couple weeks ago. I thought that was a pretty cool idea.
Oh, right! You were there? Awesome, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I was curious but how much do visuals play a part in your songwriting process?
They play a huge part. I think that was the reason for incorporating artists in the release of the album. Very often, right up to the mixing process, I use visuals to write, whether it’s drawing inspiration from looking at different books and paintings. Even when we were mixing, me and Rich Costey would have films on the screen just to help align the mood when you’re finishing off a record, just bringing new inspiration.
I was interested to see that artists are the same. Music is a very big part of their process when they create, so it was nice to create a dialogue between the two mediums.
One of the things I thought was interesting that you brought up was how you were influenced by Greek mythology and specifically the story of Narcissus, which isn’t readily apparent from just listening through the album. Can you talk about how that made its way into the album and influenced you?
Yeah, I really found a resonance in that Greek myth. Of course I knew about it, but when I had this dream and these words “Golden Echo” came to me, I was really inspired to find the flower also had the name Narcissus in it. That took me to read more about the story and it struck a chord. I was like, man, this sums up our world at the moment. We are constantly bombarded with projections of the self. There was something beautiful and helpless about this young boy who sits staring at the water. There’s this incredible world of imagination and infinite potential beneath the water, but all he can see is the surface.
So often I feel like we as human beings live between those two worlds, being very wrapped up in self and also having the capacity to be very outward and engaged with the world around us. It became a little bit of a theme on the record. It might not be a super obvious theme, but I think for the people who take that time to dig deeper, they will see it littered throughout. Of course in the imagery, that was a big influence as well.
I thought it was really interesting too how you tied it in with the poem “Golden Echo” that the seventeenth century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, which is pretty obscure. Is that something you found out after you had that dream and were able to work that in as well?
Yeah, nice! It was very serendipitous. After that dream, I did as much research as possible. I was like, man, I bet there’s an album called The Golden Echo, because it sounded so pretty to me. I was going on Google, trying to find if there was anything already out there with this concept, and then I came across these poems, “The Leaden Echo” and “The Golden Echo.”
I found it so beautiful, and again relevant to our day and age. We’re trying to work out how to live forever and how to hold onto our beauty. The poem kind of goes into that a little bit, and when it had that quote about giving beauty back, to me that was like, wow. There’s something in this that is very relevant to the record.
You toured a few years off the last record and it was very much a different experience than the recording. It was a lot more rock and louder. Do you think the touring had any effect on this album?
Definitely, yeah, probably the biggest effect. I think coming off the road after almost two years of playing with my band, from Red Rocks Amphitheatre with Foster the People to headlining Webster Hall. We were jamming with some of our favorite musicians, getting to see a lot of live bands and getting to explore our capacity as live musicians.
When I went into making The Golden Echo, I was like, “OK, I really want to incorporate this live energy more.” There’s more live musicianship on this record than Vows, definitely. There’s more live drums. There’s more heartbeat to it. I think there’s more aggression to it probably, because I was finding that there was a little bit more toughness and even masculine energy to the music that we were playing live. I think I wanted to try and explore that a bit more on this record.
Have you been able to rehearse the new songs much?
Yeah, so we did one show back in Australia, which was part of the tour with Janelle Monaé, but it didn’t end up happening. She fell sick, so we only got to do one show, but in that show we played “Goldmine,” “Miracle” and “Everlovin’ Ya.” It was sick. It sounds heavy live, really exciting and explosive. I’m so excited to bring these songs to people live in October now.
On the first album, you had a bunch of ideas and styles going on, and that carried over into this album where you also have a bunch of different things going through the record. Did you find going through that first experience allowed you to have more of a vision and grasp on what you wanted to do on this one?
Yeah, I did. I definitely had a stronger vision. I had a stronger sense of commitment to things as well. I was not scared to make a song. “90s Music” is very different than what I would usually do. Running through the whole song can be quite jarring, the different elements. I just kind of went with that. If it felt good, then I went with that.
That kind of confidence I didn’t have necessarily on the first album as much. I might have tried to water it down a bit, or just touch on the idea and not fully go there. On this record, I let the songs be what they wanted to be. “Nobody But You” is a straight up pop song with a really romantic feel, and then of course at the end it starts to get pretty psychedelic. At the time, I wanted to let the song tell its story. I think that took more sense of vision, and good collaborators who supported me in that as well.
You mentioned “90s Music,” which was the first song you released off the record, and it’s very much a different song than any other song on it. Do you think that set a good tone for what people expected on the album?
Well, not necessarily. I don’t think the single necessarily has to even do that. I think a single is a doorway for people to take notice. It’s a chance for them to be like, “Oh, OK.” Their ears perk up, and they’re aware that you’re making music again. It’s a chance to excite people and get them interested and maybe intrigued.
I think “90s Music” is that kind of song. You might even be confused at the end of it and not even sure what you think, but I can feel confident people will go back and give it another listen. With time, I think it starts to unpack itself for you.
At the same time, it’s a playful song that has an element of experimentation to it, which I think is a good example of what the record is all about. So sonically it might not be an exact representation, but in the spirit where that song comes from, it definitely represents a lot of the values I had when I was making the album.
You’ve been talking about how one of the record’s big themes was this theme of juxtaposition. How difficult was it to balance that juxtaposition and not let it end up being this jumbled mishmash of competing ideas?
That’s right, you’re riding that line every moment [laughs]. To be honest, a lot of these songs had way more sounds than what you hear on the record now when they were first being put together. I go into a sea of textures when I’m working. It’s like a tapestry. You’re sewing and embroidering this huge tapestry.
With the help of Rich Costey, I stripped a lot of it back, which was hard for me, but they were much fuller. For that reason, I started to decide what are the important elements. What are the moments that actually need to be there? It’s all about serving the mood. I wasn’t trying to just be purposefully juxtaposing. I wanted to embrace tension.
That’s what’s exciting to me. When something goes from major to minor really quickly, or when it goes from feeling really happy and cathartic to being quite melancholy, it’s all in the purpose of serving the message. It’s not just to be trippy. It’s to actually help tell the story and convey an emotion.
What does a typical day of writing look like for you?
When I was working on this record, I spent half the time living in this urban city farm. I would wake up in the morning and get eggs from the chicken coup. I would cook breakfast in an outdoor kitchen [laughs], and I would sit with my guitar outside and work on songs. I would sit with my laptop and program beats outside and work on lyrics.
For the second half of making the record, it was all spent with Rich Costey at a studio in Burbank. So a day would be going out there at 9 a.m. and starting the technical work in the morning. I would be pumping up takes from the night before or pumping up vocals from the night before, maybe doing some kind of beat work on something. Then in the later half of the day, it would be about getting some of the many musicians who were working with me out to the studio. The creative space would happen. We would be there until like 2 a.m. in the morning, or 3. Long days, for sure.
How long did that process take?
I worked with Rich for six or seven months. In the process of writing at the farm and little house, that was probably another six months. So yeah, this record has been a year-and-a-half in the making, or roundabout.
I read when you were done you had something like 70 songs. How were you able to sift through all those?
It was tough. You just have to trust the people that you have around you. I would show my band a lot of stuff. I’d be like, “Can you guys choose your top 20? What do you think? What are the ones to focus on?” I would ask Rich. Obviously the label, I would ask what they thought. I was interested in getting all the spectrum of opinions. Someone with a commercial brain, someone who is just interested in the artistic element.
Of course, I’m the one that makes the final decision, and I chose the track listing I feel the most strongly about. It’s really good to hear all the different opinions and weigh all that up. I kind of took the opinion that all of them will get out there somehow. I really believe that. There’s so many that were so hard to say goodbye to, but at the same time I wanted to put out a body of work that was the best of the lot and not just all the songs that I had an emotional attachment to. They’ll find a home somehow.
You kind of touched on this a little bit, but I came across you talking about how there’s two sides to you. One is the technical-scientific side and one is more of the fun side that likes to experiment. How do you make those two sides work in tandem with each other?
It’s a fine balance. If the over analytical side gets too invested in the art, then it can become all about technical stuff and I get lost in that. I’ll freak out, like, “Where’s the song gone!?” It’s a fine balance, but I need that side with the creative thing as well and that attention to detail. That’s one thing I really love about being a musician and a producer is you get to create a tapestry, a real layered landscape for people. I think both aspects are really important to my process. I wouldn’t give up one.
I guess I’m learning every day how to balance those two sides. Whether it might be putting in time when you’re doing technical work and then taking a break and going for a walk, keeping the other side of the brain alive, which is just pure expression, with no thoughts about waveforms and EQ. It’s all about being like a child, walking through a forest and singing melodies. That’s really important, to keep that side alive as well.
One of the differences between this album and the last was you had a lot more collaborators and friends who would pop by and contribute here and there. As a whole, what did you like from that experience?
Oftentimes I would hit walls with songs. I would feel like I’d exhausted my ideas on them. I’m like, “I just don’t know where to go now. There’s something missing. Something is not there to serve the emotion.”
In order to find that missing piece, I would be like, “Well, what happens if we bring in Daniel Johns? What would he do if he was working on this? What would Matt Bellamy do if he had an idea for the song?” People that I respected for their particular, unique perspective, and then it would help me find new inspiration for the song. That’s the beautiful thing about collaboration. It serves as a way to redirect your thinking.
Is there anyone you wanted to do something with and it didn’t work out for whatever reason?
Yeah, there was a ton. I worked with a lot of people who, for one reason or another, got busy and we weren’t able to finish the song, or I started focusing on other ones. I worked with Cornelius for a quick minute. He’s an amazing producer from Japan, probably one of my all-time favorites. We started this song over the internet together. I was really excited about it, and I hope we still get to finish it, but it was so hard working with him in Japan and I’m here. It just ended up not being one of the top-listed songs. There’s songs like that that I see myself bringing back to life at some point, for sure.
You mentioned the Janelle Monaé tour that ended up getting canceled. I think you two are such complementary artists. Do you think maybe one day you two will do a song together?
I hope our paths will cross creatively. I think there could be a really special moment out of that. It was really sad when the tour was canceled. I definitely think you’re right that we complement each other, so I hope there’s a chance we can work together in the future.
One in particular I’m interested in how you liked working with was John Legend. I’m a huge fan of his and he’s a lot more traditionally trained, I guess you could say. What was it like working with him, doing “Made to Love” on his record and then reworking “Nobody But You” on yours?
It was great working with him. He’s such a kind soul and he’s such a focused musician in the studio. He’s so mature in his craft and would jump straight onto an instrument and totally kill it. It was like, wow. I was playing guitar, he was playing piano, and it was very natural, all the movements that we would jump to. It was like we both knew where to go, and it was really exciting.
It happened very quickly. He works much faster than I’m used to working, which was a good challenge for me. I would definitely be open to that kind of thing again because it was a really different experience. I love the songs we came out with.
Back in the day when you were first starting out, did you take music lessons and stuff, or were you more self-taught?
In terms of the production stuff, that was all self-taught. I took guitar lessons. That was my big thing when I was young. I was really into guitar. I wrote all my songs on an acoustic guitar, and then got into electric. I still play it a fair bit, not as much on my records, but I like to write still on guitar.
I didn’t study music or anything like that. I didn’t really like it at school. I wanted to write music. I didn’t want to learn too much about the reason why something was in triad. I just wanted to do it.
So you have the big tour coming up in October. Do you have anything lined up after that?
Yeah, we’ll be going back to Australia and New Zealand after the U.S. tour. We’ll show some love back Down Under. The next year we’ll definitely be focused on touring as well. We’ll keep bringing the songs to the people [laughs].
Looking ahead to the future, is there any particular challenge you’d like to take on or tackle next?
I’d love to compose for films. I think that’s a big aim or goal of mine is to be able to one day help a director in their vision, to make music for a visual. But, we’ll see.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk