• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

How Kimbra's Primal Heart was shaped by New York and Ethiopia

Kimbra. Photo/Micaiah Carter

Kimbra may be a pop star, but that doesn’t mean Primal Heart is created from froth and bubblegum.

28-year-old Kimbra Lee Johnson skyrocketed to stardom off the back of her 2010 cutesy coming-of-age single Settle Down – which she’d originally composed as a 16-year-old at Hamilton’s Hillcrest High School – and the 2013 Grammy-winning cameo on Gotye’s global hit Somebody That I Used to Know. But when it comes to the third album, Primal Heart, stand by for serious intensity.

This is a woman who crafts essays on social media in which she quotes CS Lewis (“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to”) and explores her battles to be taken seriously in the music industry: “I have experienced assumptions made that I am just the ‘singer’ and had to work twice as hard to gain respect as a credible technical voice in the room.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

This is a woman who has twice travelled to Africa to work with Tirzah International, which helps women and children living with HIV, and who gained creative inspiration from the three-million-year-old remains of Australopithecus afarensis – the jumble of bones best known as our earliest ancestor “Lucy” – at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa.

“I don’t think music is enough for me,” she says during a brief trip back to New Zealand to shoot a video for her single Human, the title of which comes from the lines “Got a heart that’s primal/This is what it means to be human”.

“So I got on the plane to Ethiopia with just three or four other women and a couple of guys I hadn’t met before – and it felt really good to remove myself from my comfort zone and not broadcast it in a really big way.”

The result of that first trip was Kimbra’s decision to up sticks from Los Angeles and set up a home studio in New York. There, she started to produce lyrics and music that are “a lot more to the point”.

“I liked escapism and imagination on my last records, and LA really encourages that because you go into bubbles of disconnecting from the world,” she says. “But on this album and after visiting Ethiopia, I decided I needed to be around that energy where I could feel vitality all around me.”

And Primal Heart reflects that. Where 2014’s sprawling, cameo-rich The Golden Echo explored the edges of art and pop, the newly focused Kimbra surrounds herself with synths and pure melodies embellished by the occasional African beat and lyrics that deal mostly with honest self-appraisal and the age-old topic of lost love.

When she does break the formula, the results are mostly outstanding. Top of the World uses a tribal beat and an African choir chanting a hook about “hustling hope for dollars” to back a triumphant, breathless semi-rap in which she drops lines about feeling “like a god” and talking “like I be the messiah”.

And then, towards the end, comes the aching R&B piano ballad Version of Me in which, over swelling strings, she pleads, “If there’s a better version of me,/Would you stay for the person I’ll be?”

Kimbra’s still creating pop, but having explored a little more of what the world has to offer – its pain and its emotional turmoil – she’s creating a more refined and mature version. It shows that, musically, she’s not about to settle down just yet.

PRIMAL HEART, Kimbra (Warner)

★★★★

This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.