“I was a part of a song that was playing everywhere around the world and, you know, there were articles and photographs of me everywhere and that was quite confronting for me,” Kimbra Johnson tells MiNDFOOD from Echo Park, Los Angeles, a place she has called home for the last 18 months. “I felt very wrapped up in a lot of that and very sort of inwardly focused.”
She’s referring to being catapulted into fame thanks to a little collaboration with Australian artist Gotye. You may have heard the track: “Somebody That I Used To Know” managed to wedge its way into our heads after being played relentlessly on radio, TV, and in shops. The hit single, which topped the charts in 26 different countries, saw the Hamilton native claim two Grammy wins in 2013 – just before she decided to go bush for a while. It was in the company of sheep on a farm in Silver Lake, outside of LA, that she would write album number two: The Golden Echo (Warner Music).
“I had a dream one night and these words, ‘golden echo’, came to me. I looked into it and I discovered a flower called Narcissus Golden Echo that led me to discover a lot of Greek mythology, especially the story of Narcissus. I felt a strong connection with that story because I feel we are living in an interesting time, with social media and with the constant projection of self everywhere.”
True to her chameleon self, Johnson’s The Golden Echo is a layer cake of genres, sandwiching contemporary pop and R&B (“90s Music”) between ballads (“As You Are”) and sprinkled with rainbow-coloured experimental moments. Despite calling on a diverse group of musical friends (or as she calls them, “characters in the film”) the album – while bold and genre-breaking – is still, at its core, all Kimbra and all pop.
“I think there’s been a lack of creativity in pop music in recent years and I feel somewhat of a responsibility to challenge that a little bit,” she says. “Pop should be the genre where there is the most creativity and a chance to borrow from all the genres. The language of pop music is that you take these ideas and you make them accessible by having hooks and moments that people can sing along to. But I also love dimension and detail and being surprised. My only disappointment with pop music nowadays is I kind of know what’s coming at each point – it’s become formulaic.”
Among the throng of musicians who make an appearance on the record are Muse’s Matt Bellamy and former Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns. “Daniel was a very important collaborator on the record because he was so encouraging. He really believed in me when we first met. I remember him saying that he felt like the world really needed to hear my music. I remember being like, wow – that’s the greatest honour you can receive as an artist, to be told by someone you respect so much that what you are doing is important.”
Like most artists today, Johnson has been forced to navigate the dizzying world of social media to find a balance between maintaining – and to an extent informing – her public persona, while not losing her sense of privacy in the meantime.
“I think it can be a great vehicle to share things that you’re inspired by and connect with your fans, but this culture of constantly needing to project images of yourself is tough. I feel it can mean that we put out an idea of ourselves that is maybe not real. So I keep trying to connect again with nature, just to connect with something greater than the idea of who you are.”
Referring to herself as a “creator”, it’s impossible not to mention the visual aspect of Johnson’s art, most notably her fashion sense. The 24-year-old has gone against the rock-chick look, opting for flouncy skirts, eclectic prints and mod-retro dresses instead, with her brand of pop-coloured op-shop cool catching the attention of local designers (who she makes a point of supporting) such as Australia’s Jaime Lee and Desert Designs, and New Zealand’s Kathryn Wilson.
“I don’t really know too much about high-end fashion – I never used to spend over $10 on clothing when I was young, and I kind of still don’t,” she laughs. “I still go to little op shops and buy clothes that I can adapt at home. Fashion is like art, so to me it’s less about emulating someone or finding a muse that dictates your style than it is about connecting to your own sense of self.”
The aesthetic feast doesn’t stop at fashion; Johnson’s album artwork and music videos prove that it’s a tangible, audible, visual world she’s inviting fans to lose themselves in.
“I’ve always thought of the fashion and art aspect as being like the hands and the feet of the music. They’re like the extra limbs that help it reach out to people … When I’m writing a song, I’m doing mood boards of imagery at the same time. The music is just like another language to help communicate the ideas.”