Kimbra on the ups and downs of fame: ‘Always having to look like a pop star is exhausting’ | Music
Kimbra has been thinking about her anxiety lately. It’s something she’s struggled with for a long time, but has begun to take more seriously as an adult. “I have a really challenging career, so sometimes I [feel like], why me? Then I’m like, well, it makes sense,” she says, her native Kiwi accent dulled by years of living in the US. “Any young woman thrust into the new spotlight, who has to think every day about how they look, be scrutinized, and there’s a lot of people putting money into their careers – obviously, I’m going to be sensitive to anxiety . .”
Kimbra Lee Johnson, who you probably know by her mononym, has been in the public eye for most of her life. She started performing and making music at age 11 (watch the adorable clip of her declaring “one day, I’d like to be a pop star” on a children’s show in New Zealand). At the age of 17, she signed a management deal with funding, part of a long game plan to get her ready to launch as an artist, “which is a huge privilege, but also a nasty pressure”. By the time she was 21, she had achieved the kind of success most musicians can only dream of when she appeared on Gotye’s 2011 hit Somebody That I Used to Know, which topped the charts in 23 countries, was awarded two Grammy and now ranks. among the best-selling digital singles of all time. Her debut album, released soon after, went platinum in Australia and New Zealand and proved her knack for crafting interesting, left-of-center pop songs that are more Björk than Britney Spears.
Now 32, Kimbra is preparing to share her fourth album, A Reckoning. It’s her first release as an independent artist, which feels significant given her early years as a major label darling. She got her childhood dream of becoming a pop star, but can now reflect on the good and the bad it brought. The Hamilton-born artist loves to perform and believes music is her calling. But success has also meant challenge and sacrifice.
“I don’t like how narcissistic fame is. I spend so much time looking at myself; it’s really boring’ … Kimbra. Photo: Cybele Malinowski/The Guardian
“It’s a pretty lonely life,” Kimbra says, before settling into one of the long pauses she’ll take during our conversation, choosing her words carefully. “Not many people can really understand the pressure you’re under. And I think loneliness is responsible for a lot of things. When you’re lonely, you get into your own head more and then your sanity goes out [the window].”
I don’t like the transactional part of fame where I exist to be an accessory to your Instagram picture Kimbra
Of course, Kimbra couldn’t have known what she was signing up for when it all started. At 17, fresh out of high school, she moved from New Zealand to Melbourne to begin work on her debut album, expanding on songs she wrote when she was 15, including Settle Down and The Build Up. Suddenly, she went from being a “fairly normal” teenager with lots of friends and hobbies to being alone in a new town, her life revolving around work. It was a difficult transition, but in 2010 the hard work paid off and she signed with Warner. The deal was brokered by her then-manager Mark Richardson, an industry veteran who had flown to Auckland to meet Kimbra and her parents after hearing a demo on her MySpace page.
Richardson had her in the studio with producer François Tétaz to work on the album. At the time, Tétaz was also working on the next album by singer-songwriter Wally de Backer, AKA Gotye. The duo asked Kimbra if she would be interested in singing on a quirky Gotye song they were trying to find the right guest vocalist for – Somebody That I Used to Know.
“She put that vocal down in her bedroom with Wally and the rest is history,” Richardson recalls. “It just exploded.”
Suddenly, Kimbra was everywhere. Vows, the debut album the 21-year-old had been quietly working on for years, was released a month later. But the success of Somebody That I Used to Know was “challenging” for Kimbra, Richardson thinks.
“It’s like a massive adrenaline rush,” he describes. They were in the process of developing Kimbra as an artist, who had been going at a good pace before Gotye. “And then the next minute, she’s on stage accepting a Grammy from Prince… It’s hard to deal with that. Because suddenly everything is given to you, instead of earning everything slowly, progressively.”
Kimbra wished she had enjoyed or even remembered that time more instead of constantly thinking about the next thing. “But these are things you don’t really know when you’re 20,” she says. She learned how nonstop touring and her “all-out” focus on music could cut her off from friends, and that fame could be a double-edged sword.
Gotye, Kimbra and Prince on stage during the 55th Grammy Awards in 2013 in Los Angeles. Photo: Kevin Winter/WireImage
“I don’t like the transactional part of fame, where I exist to be an accessory for your Instagram picture. I don’t like feeling like a product. I don’t like to keep a fantasy going all the time,” she lists. “The expectation to always look like a pop star is exhausting. And I don’t like how narcissistic fame is. I spend so much time looking at myself; it’s really boring – in the mirror, approving promotional photos, creating things on social media. There is a self-absorbed part of fame where you always have to be alert. It’s a price I’m willing to pay… I just wish it wasn’t so ‘me, me, me’. Because I really mean it – it’s really boring to only think about yourself, and fame does that. It just creates an echo chamber.”
By 2014, Kimbra pulled the brakes. She began working on her second album, The Golden Echo, in Los Angeles. It was the turning point in her career. Richardson says there was pressure from her label behind Vows and Gotye to deliver a major follow-up album; a desire that sometimes conflicted with Kimbra’s own vision. “She was trying to push the boundaries of music,” Richardson says. “She didn’t want to be modeled after the next Katy Perry.”
Excited by her new access to artists whose work she had long admired, Kimbra filled the record with big ideas and big collaborations with John Legend, Daniel Johns and Thundercat. “There was no organic flow to it … and I think it just got a little lost, to be honest,” Richardson says.
‘I want to do shit that will matter when I die’ … Kimbra. Photo: Cybele Malinowski/The Guardian
Golden Echo divided critical opinion and did not repeat the commercial success of her debut. Kimbra was happy with her decision to get “weird” with the album and is tight-lipped about how it went. “Maybe it wasn’t a smart commercial move, but, oh well. I like it,” she says.
Richardson and Kimbra broke up after that. She moved to New York and four years later she released her third album, Primal Heart. There were “always hopes that I would have more pop success,” says Kimbra. But it didn’t chart well, and soon after she walked out of her record deal with Warner, feeling that she and the label were no longer on the same page.
“I was on a six-album deal and they wanted to expand it to eight albums and pick my next producer. No,” she says. “They want to sign SoundCloud rappers — it just wasn’t the right fit anymore.”
In the years since that breakup, Kimbra has gone through an intense period of personal challenges that include the sudden death of her best friend, breakups, and navigating New York during the apocalyptic early days of the pandemic. She’s had to deal with how she processes big, heavy emotions and the “scary things” that live inside her, including the destructive ways she says her anxiety can sometimes manifest. She began to think more about the afterlife, plunged deeper into spirituality. All of this poured into her fourth album – an album that is more stripped-down than her previous work, with many darker, more introspective songs such as the lead single, Save Me. His writing was a cure.
“I’m very grateful to God that I have music, because I don’t know how else I would escape that tension, that chaos,” she says. “I have a lot of internal dialogues, and they’re not always kind.”
When she’s at home in New York, Kimbra enjoys simple pleasures: yoga, watercolor painting, walking her dog, and watching “dirty reality TV like everyone else.” And now she is an independent artist, she feels “liberated” in her work; she no longer has to deal with a label’s expectations of what her music should sound like.
“I just want to make music that I like,” she says. “I can’t go and sell something I don’t believe in… I’m leaving a legacy. I want to do shit that will matter when I die.”
After going through the main tag machine and coming out the other side, Kimbra sees positives and negatives. The music industry can be exploitative, patriarchal and “very questionable in the way it’s set up,” she says. But she also knows she owes a lot of her success to the people in the industry who believe in her. She has started producing for other musicians – something that provides her with a healthy sense of detachment – and wants to mentor more young musicians.
Looking back, “it’s crazy to think how ambitious I was as a kid,” she says of those early days of her career when she threw everything into music. But everything that happened along the way seems to be leading him here.
“[Without it], I wouldn’t be able to help other young women through the anxiety and pressures of the music industry. I wouldn’t have all these things to offer. You know how if someone’s been married to the same person their whole life, and they’re trying to give you relationship advice — you’re like, well, you don’t really know,” she says. “So I wouldn’t change a thing.”
A Reckoning comes out January 27th. Kimbra is touring Europe throughout January, and North America in February and March