After his second album made him one of Australia's biggest stars in 2006, Gotye holed up in a barn on his parents' 13-acre farm outside of Melbourne and spent the next two and a half years recording alone with a laptop. "Cars would drive past at 100 kilometers per hour, crows would land on the roof and scratch, and temperatures were up and down with no heat," says the indie-pop singer, 31. "In the dead of winter, I'd be jogging in between takes to keep warm."
Gotye's time in the wild paid off: His U.S. debut LP, Making Mirrors, has been lodged in the Billboard Top 40 for seven weeks, and lead single "Somebody That I Used to Know," a supercatchy, xylophone-powered kiss-off, has been getting heavy airplay and racked up more than 85 million YouTube views. "As soon as we saw how many hits the video was getting, we put it on," says Dennis Constantine, programming director at San Francisco's KFOG. "The response was phenomenal – we couldn't play it enough."
Born Wouter De Backer in Belgium, Gotye – it's pronounced like "Gaultier," the French version of his first name – moved to Australia with his family at age two. He grew up obsessed with Sting, Depeche Mode and Peter Gabriel, his most obvious influence. Around 2002, while drumming for an indie-rock band in Melbourne, he began teaching himself how to build tracks out of sampled world-music fragments and his own field recordings. "Anything that allows you to not approach a particular instrument or software like you have before," he says, "that's usually what I'm trying to do."
Gotye crafted the driving bass line of "Eyes Wide Open" by messing around with the Winton Musical Fence, a playable art installation in the outback. "I was like a kid in a playground, running around hitting things and recording them on my sampler," he says. The stoned dub groove of "State of the Art," meanwhile, came together on a vintage Lowrey Cotillion organ his parents bought him at a thrift store for Christmas. Adds Gotye, "I like to see what happens when you collide certain things together."
Gotye will hit the U.S. for a short tour this month, including a stop at Coachella, and he's planning a more ambitious tour for later in the year. "I want to keep developing new ideas," he says. "'Somebody That I Used to Know' has changed what I thought was possible."
This story is from the March 15, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.