Kimbra On 'The Golden Echo,' Developing Natural Collaborations
Explore the ins and outs of collaboration with GRAMMY-winning pop artist Kimbra. The New Zealand native recently released her second album, The Golden Echo, after her successful debut, Vows, and a star-making turn in Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”. While in the studio with producing mastermind Rich Costey (Foster The People, Interpol, Muse), she wrangled the help of some top-notch musicians to help her along the way — including Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (The Mar’s Volta), Matt Bellamy (Muse), Jonas Bjerre (Mew), and Thundercat.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Kimbra who walked us through her latest batch of collaborations. She also talked about her role in the production and her budding interest in the mixing stage of post-production.
You recently released The Golden Echo. How does it feel to release your second album?
It’s super rewarding for me to see the fans writing in and saying how they feel about the music and hearing about people’s favorite songs. It feels like a bit of a weight off the shoulders. It’s out there now. I can’t change anything, which is really rewarding. And finally, I get to share the whole story with people, rather than little glimpses.
Tell us about the production process.
I start off doing a lot of pre-production in my bedroom. At one point I thought I was going to produce this myself but I ran into some restrictions and wanted to have someone else work on the album with me. So that’s when I went in with Rich Costey. We had about 6 months together in the studio in Burbank and that was completely opposite of the bedroom. It was stacks of modular synths and amazing hi-fi kind of gear. It was the juxtaposition of working out of my bedroom for half of the process and working out of an amazing high-end studio for the rest of the process. I think that’s what makes the record special is it’s the best of both worlds.
What kind of software do you use?
Pro Tools is my main production tool. I use it kind of like an instrument. A lot of the times it’s about creating sample libraries from a bunch of instruments. So I’ll take some percussion and sample it in, cut it up, and create drum beats out of that. It’s the way that I’ve come to be most efficient. And as soon as you have the bones down on Pro Tools or Ableton, from that point I’ll start layering on top of that and maybe getting real live drum tracks or other instruments on top of that. I think there’s something special about being restrictive in a way though — only having a few instruments to tell the story. And once you’ve got the bones, you can develop it in a bigger studio.
Tell me about the collaborations on this album. How did you go about setting them up? And did you work in the studio together or remotely?
Pretty much all of them I worked with in the studio, apart from one of the singers on “The Magic Hour.” He’s from Denmark and is in a band called Mew, so we would just send vocals to each other over the Internet. And Matt Bellamy also put down a guitar part while he was on tour but I did get to meet him while we were making the record. A lot of the collaborations just came out of meeting people in LA or meeting them out on tour and saying, “Hey. We should do some work together you know?” Thundercat, I just became friends with him organically and also Daniel Johns. Michael Shuman who plays in Queens of the Stone Age and Mini Mansions – I had them support me in America and then we started hanging out and decided to work on songs together so “Carolina” came out of that session. It wasn’t really about sitting down and setting up sessions and that happened quite naturally. And if you walk in and are open-minded about that, it’s amazing what comes out organically.
How do you communicate what you’re looking for in a specific collaboration?
With the kinds of musicians I was working with, I never wanted to dictate to them what I wanted them to play. I would try to just tell them the mood that I was searching for. So “This is what I want to evoke with this song.” I would say, “What I’m looking for is a juxtaposition of some sort.” Or I’d say, “Let’s bring a tension in.” Or maybe it’s even a character. Maybe it’s an obnoxious child that comes in halfway through the song that is going to throw a tantrum in the place. Or maybe it’s a beautiful butterfly that has to come in. I try to think more openly like that and give them an idea of what I was searching for emotionally and they would respond in that way. And a lot of the time, I just recorded everything that they’d do because I just wanted to see where they instinctively left. And once I left the studio, I’d cut up the parts and grab what I thought reflected the right mood.
How involved are you in the production process?
I’ve always produced my records. [With my debut album] Vows, I had a pretty strong hand in it but with this record I think I was much more involved technically — getting into the engineering side of things and learning how you can press something to kind of give a different effect and how you EQ things and really getting into the bones of producing and engineering. To me, that is inherently linked with how someone listens to a song. If you choose to pan a vocal off to the left or right of the headphones and you put a bunch of reverb on it, it’s a very different approach to drying it up and putting it right in the center with a lot of top end. It was all geeky stuff but to me that stuff is kind of part of the songwriting as well. I feel that there’s a very strong emotional link to the way you produce something or what instruments you use on the song and how you mix it. Mixing to me is a huge art form. Rich [Costey] is very well known for producing panoramic records so we collaborated a lot on the technical side of things and I just learned so much from being around him. I realize that although I was going to produce this album myself at one point, I really benefited from having him there to help me — to know when to turn things off and also to help me create a much thicker and much more dimensional song for the record because he’s so incredible at making those massive soundscapes.
You seem to be very involved in putting your music videos together. Tell us about that process.
I think about the visuals from the very beginning so they are a part of the writing process. As soon as I start writing a song, I have to be able to close my eyes and see the music video. I feel like that helps me to complete the song, if I can imagine the visuals that are attached to it. Making the videos is a very collaborative process because it's a very important part. It’s the face that you put out to the world and it’s a statement that you make visually. Nowadays, that can be a way for people to enter your world so I’ve put a lot of thought into it.
Speaking of the face and image that you put out to a world, can you talk about what went into putting together your image and branding as an artist? Did you put any thought into that or did that just sort of develop naturally?
Yeah, I think it has developed naturally. To me, fashion is a form of self-expression and I think it’s most exciting when style reflects a lack of fear — when you can be really bold and adventurous about style. I feel like people are most excited about the statements I make style-wise when I’m clashing patterns. It’s kind of like the music – when you put two things together that don’t feel like they should work but they do.