Somebody that you almost know: She's the girl on the Gotye record. By New Zealand-born singer Kimbra's reckoning, having that place in people's minds isn't a bad place from which to start. After all, the omnipresent Somebody That I Used to Know is one of 2012's biggest, most recognizable hits, an international smash that has sold 5.5 million downloads in the USA alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"I don't see any negativity in it, because it's always so positive for everyone," she says. "I feel confident, for me and for Gotye, that we are artists that have more to offer than just one song. I don't think it's a threat to have that song behind us."
On her own: Released in America in May, Kimbra's album Vows has sold 46,000 copies here after going platinum in both New Zealand and Australia, where it came out in 2011. Single Warrior, which has received a smattering of top 40 and alternative radio spins, features Canadian electro-house DJ A-Trak and Foster the People's Mark Foster.
She and Foster "really clicked in the studio together," says Kimbra (aka Kimbra Lee Johnson). "Although his roots are quite pop, he definitely gravitates to really interesting melodies and cool changes and progressions that I get excited about." Kimbra wrapped her tour Saturday night with Foster the People. She'll return in September for a headlining tour.
Re-writing herVows: Now 22, Kimbra began working on the arty pop that became Vows when she was 17 and moved to Australia after signing a management contract. The U.S. version of the album features six new songs. "I just figured I would do a new evolution of the record for America," she says. In addition to Foster and A-Trak, Kimbra's collaborators for the new tracks include producer Mike Elizondo, The Bird and the Bee's Greg Kurstin and Mars Volta drummer Deantoni Parks.
"I ended up meeting so many people and actually wrote five or six things that were as good as, if not better than, what I already had on the record," she says. "A lot of (the album's songs) were written so long ago that these felt more like where I was at now."
Found sounds: Gotye fans shouldn't expect Kimbra's music to sound like his, but there's a logical progression from one artist's music to the other. The two also share a producer, Francois Tétaz, who encourages an experimental approach to producing sounds. "We used all kind of things, from an asthma inhaler to just chucking things on the ground, whatever we could find in the handbag that people would be confused by," Kimbra says. Tétaz also taught her how to approach a recording like a film. "It should have an opening scene, a climax, a conflict and then a resolve," she says. "That opened my mind to how I should arrange the song and how everything should feel."
More than a pretty singer: Kimbra is especially enamored with the notion of manipulating her voice, both physically and electronically. "Singers get into the mentality that you always have to sound 'pretty' when you sing," she says. "I get into the idea of treating it more like an instrument and taking kind of a primal approach to it." On Vows' opening track, Settle Down, for instance, "the vocal is holding the bass line for most of the song," Kimbra says. "That track started as purely a cappella, with nothing else but the voice." The studio version of Plain Gold Ring (included on the deluxe American version of Vows) "is held together completely through with just vocals and a drum beat. The vocals play off strings at some point, then I reverse them to get different sounds."
Body art: While most music listeners think of Somebody That I Used to Know when they think of Kimbra, many also associate her with body paint. Before she and Gotye got covered with the stuff for Somebody's sensual video, she had used a similar idea for Vows' cover art. "When Gotye said that was the concept of the video, I laughed," she says. "I was like, 'I've already done that.' " She wouldn't be averse to revisiting the concept in the future, she says. "It's so much more interesting to have your body as the canvas and to have the work done directly on it." However, she adds, "I wouldn't want to overkill it."