In April, Kimbra released Primal Heart, a slick electronic pop album teeming with sharp hooks. She’s been tinkering with the results ever since.
She took “Version of Me,” a brooding, self-castigating ballad from the piano-and-microphone school, and reworked it with simmering harmonies from the singer Dawn Richard. “Top of the World,” a thunking, sing-song record co-produced by Skrillex, was re-released with a new rap verse from Snoop Dogg. On Friday, Kimbra also releases a new EP that takes four other Primal Heart tracks and whittles them down to acoustic murmurs, while a forthcoming remix EP will subject her songs to the whims of artists like Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson.
Rolling Stone spoke with Kimbra about Primal Heart and why she wants to keep “peeling the curtain back a little into the ways in which the song can be heard differently.”
You’ve spoken in the past about how you wanted Primal Heart to be more direct than your last album — can you say more about that?
I think you want to write from the place where you’re at, and I think I was living in a world of a lot of abstractions when I was in Los Angeles writing The Golden Echo. It was just a bit of an imaginary space that I inhabited. I was living on a farm in Silver Lake. It was just after the Grammys and living in this old Los Angeles dream world, which inspired me to collaborate with so many incredible people and become like a kid in the playground using every toy at my disposal.
Then I moved to New York and I became more of a direct person, even in the way I engage with people and the things I wanted to talk about lyrically. I really see myself here for a long time. I think it’s because there’s enough chaos in my own brain — the external chaos of New York pacifies the inner chaos. Does that make sense? Like they kind of cancel each other out, and you feel like you’re with your people.
With maturity comes the ability to maybe hold yourself with more simplicity and look for the audience or whatever. I just had more interest in conversational music that is the equivalent of eye contact in conversation, rather than gesticular [music]. I’ve been a very gesticular artist for a long time. I’m very interested in how can I maximize that moment of connection where you see yourself in me and I see myself in you, that empathetic moment of connect. That’s what I think of when I see Primal Heart. It’s like, at the DNA level, that deep unity that we have with each other, which is hard to come by until we really let some guards down and let things lay bare.
Primal Heart, for me, was a very revealing album and a journey of becoming more confessional with my audience. If I’m in a chaotic space, where everything feels like it’s going a million miles an hour, then it would only feel truthful to make a record like that.
Musically, how do you aim for that eye contact rather than the gesticular?
The first step is choosing a co-producer like John Congleton, who from the outset was very strong-willed in his approach with me by saying, “I’m not interested in the myriad of options. I want to be very intentional, and I want to bring in a small amount of people to be the cast of this record, and I’m going to tell you when I feel like a production is distracting from your voice. I want this to be about you and I’m not going to put a ton of reverb and affected vocals on this thing.” Things like that.
Also lyrically, the kinds of songs that I picked to make the record, they spoke more directly to my own experiences. I think in the past, I’ve written a lot about ideals, kind of aspirationally. There’s been a lot of whimsy in my music that was very tangible and tactile.
Then of course the decision to go further and make this reimagined EP was really less about re-evolving the songs then deconstructing them. Of course, most of the songs were just written on a piano a lot of the time. To me, that’s really related to the Primal Heart story, which is how can we speak to each other in that most human way or on that level where nothing distracts from the conversation. The idea of the reimagined EP was like, “OK, what happens when I take away the spaceship, the technology?” As much as I talk about Primal Heart being a stripped album, let’s be honest, it’s still a really produced album.
Is it daunting to remove that layer?
Yeah, and not only that, I mean I’m taking this incarnation out on tour. All through December and potentially out in Europe in March as well and it’s one thing to do it in the studio, to take away all that gear, but to go out on the road when my whole kind of personality as a performer is my engagement with technology … Most people know me for the looping and all that stuff, right? To be like, you know what? I’m just going to be a singer, and I’ll play guitar — I am nervous, ’cause I get those insecurities of, like, can I hold a show down that way? Can I keep the dynamic? Can I keep people engaged?
But you want to challenge yourself, and for me right now, the discomfort doesn’t come from taking a new piece of equipment and working on how to use it and getting up in front of thousands of people with that piece of equipment. The discomfort for me comes from taking all that equipment away and standing, like, just in this outfit and just singing. You got to go the place that is scariest.
You’ve got four more reimagined songs coming, plus another remix EP, and you did song reworks with Dawn Richard and Snoop Dogg — it seems like you’re particularly interested in revisiting this material.
It’s always been an interest of mine, like from the start. I mean, “Settle Down” I wrote when I was 16, right? And then it turned into the version on the album, and then of course live I would play it a different way every time and every live version that is on the Internet is like a completely different arrangement. It’s just being more about maintaining freshness, continuing to stay inspired by arrangements, but also opening the process to my fan base, because the music you deliver is one thing, the front door of the house, you get that, but behind the door, there’s the way in which an artist comes into fruition with a song.
It could be up to 10 versions of a song with different production styles that I’m actually considering as the final version of the song. And then there’s a moment with the co-producer where you go, this is the one that translates the song best, but it doesn’t mean that all the other versions aren’t really valid to that final product, you know what I mean? So I think there’s something really fun about just opening up the curtain. What do you say … like peeling the curtain back a little into the ways in which the song can be heard differently, you know? Maybe someone who considers the lyric in a whole new way from hearing it just with no drum beat, or something. In terms of involving artists like Dawn or Snoop, or whatever, it’s clear from my career that I just love to work with other people.
From your Instagram, it seems like you’ve been working with Hayley Kiyoko and Mitski.
I’m just starting to write and fill back up. Meet new people. Mitski was one of the first artists that I recently was just like, how did I miss this girl? She’s a force of power. Tour de force. She’s amazing, and Hayley’s such a freakin’ sweet girl and so talented at what’s she’s doing, with the, like, full pop vibe. It’s super inspiring to me ’cause I love pop music and consider myself a pop artist, but I probably also don’t have the gift of simplicity that she has in a way.
Me and Mitski was a really interesting collaboration, because I’m very, like … every idea is worth something, and she’s like, one idea out of a million is worth something. I don’t know where that stuff will lead.
Everyone is just shooting out albums now like there’s no tomorrow. Do you feel that pressure?
I’m trying to channel that pressure into thinking more about releasing music as opposed to, I must as the artist Kimbra be consistently delivering album, album, album, album, album every year. Because A) I don’t know if that would be maintaining quality over time, if you’re rushing all the time. B) I don’t think I have the kind of fan base that are like that — we are not going to be fans unless you deliver something all the time. For me, it’s more about, OK, we have a platform, where if I want to be prolific, which I am, I mean I write a lot. I have an outlet to be able to keep releasing things. Now do I want to do a solo album every year? No, not necessarily, to be honest. Do I want to put music out every year? 100 percent. So how do I keep inspired with collaborations, with side projects, with alter egos, like that’s where it gets fun, right? It’s the kind of era where that seems totally possible and doable and I get excited more about the kind of side projects I can start punctuating between my records.