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The key ingredients behind the astonishing sweep of Kimbra’s new album The Golden Echo, as recounted by the artist: Supremely talented collaborators, Greek mythology, and a smallsheep farm. Yes, sheep. And not those that famously inhabit her native New Zealand, but a handful right in the middle of Los Angeles. More about that soon.
The Golden Echo album is a vivid, vivacious, and ambitious arc of pop and funk that conveys an array of questions and insights. It’s an album both of youthful exuberance and mature introspection, from the opening track, the joyful “Teen Heat,” to the closing one, the musing, yet still joyful “Waltz Me To the Grave.” It’s at once a dancing record and thinking record, inspired by such diverse musical touchstones as Prince, ’70s R&B, ’90s pop (the first single is affectionately titled “90s Music”), and The Mars Volta, but heralding the full arrival of a distinctive artist. It's what Kimbra Lee Johnson has been aspiring to and working toward since her teen years in her hometown of Hamilton, New Zealand.
Front and center are Kimbra’s own considerable talents as a songwriter, musician, programmer, and singer, but crucial are the contributions by a variety of notables, foremost her co-producer Rich Costey (Muse, Foster the People, Franz Ferdinand), who encouraged her to explore her mad-scientist/sonic-collagist instincts. Silverchair’s Daniel Johns helped ignite her creative sparks, as did such all-star musicians as drummers John “JR” Robinson (Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, “We Are the World,” Madonna, Daft Punk) and Matt Chamberlain (Pearl Jam), singer Bilal, guitarist Matthew Bellamy (Muse), Michael Shuman (Mini Mansions, Queens Of The Stone Age), bassist Thundercat, and string composer/arranger Van Dyke Parks.
And, oh right, the sheep. The Golden Echo really began to take shape right after she moved to a small sheep farm in the unlikely setting of L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood. It was a locale she found both inspiring and, crucially, grounding.
She moved there the day after the 2013 Grammy Awards show, the culmination of a whirlwind year in which she became a global presence via her ear-turning role on Gotye’s international No. 1 hit “Somebody That I Used to Know,” which earned her and Gotye honors for “Record of the Year” and “Best Pop Duo/Group.” In that time she’d also introduced her own artistic vision with her debut album Vows. Now her head was awhirl with possibilities and potentials.
“I’d been caught up with all the Grammy and Gotye stuff happening, and the touring, the constant affirmation — or praise, or criticism, or self-reflection — everywhere,” she says. “You get wrapped up in it. Then here I was chilling with a bunch of sheep. And they don’t give a crap who you are. You’re not special to them. You spend time with them and there’s this beautiful kind of harmony of how everything works in that environment. It was a really great place to create.”
Some of the songs were sketched out with her band before she moved from her previous home in Australia. But the new setting brought about a full flowering of both the layers of ideas she was developing and her talents to realize them.
“I wanted to walk in prepared with some ideas,” she says. “So I collected a bunch of really inspiring instruments. Gotye lent me some little toys, like Omnichords and old samplers. ProTools has always been an instrument for me, so I was back in the lab in that sense. I was also dabbling with iPad apps for the first time, in a recording context.”
It all galvanized when she chose Costey as her co-producer and set up shop with him in Burbank’s Eldorado Recording Studio, having become a fan of the wide musical range he has shown in his work as a producer and mixer for the Mars Volta, Muse, Fiona Apple, and Philip Glass, among others.
Flowering is a fitting analogy, as the album’s title references a blossom. She explains that she was in that space right before entering a sleeping dream state and the words golden echo came to her. On waking, she Googled to see if perhaps she’d encountered the words in a song or book, but nothing turned up. She did find, however, a flower called Narcissus Golden Echo — a very simple flower with white petals and a yellow trumpet that reaches out and up to the sun, like an echo. “I thought it was so beautiful,” she says.
The name references the Greek legend of Narcissus, who is so in love with his own reflection that he cannot see anything else. He dies by his reflecting river and in his place grows a yellow flower. As Kimbra explored this legend, she was also led to a poem by 19th century English Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins called The Golden Echo, about coming to terms with aging. “Midway through the record I had this pin-drop moment: ‘This is what the album is about. This is my journey, to find the golden echo. I can’t say what that is. Is it the voice of god? Inspiration? Is it love?’”
To carry the deep themes, though, she wanted a very enticing package. “You have to be able
to experience something in order to transcend it, but you can do that and still dance!” she
says, citing Prince’s Sign O’ the Times as an inspiration. “You don’t finish that record with a
sense of ‘Phew!’ You finish it with a sense of ‘Yeah!’ That is important to me.” But of course
the start is as crucial as the finish.
“I wanted to kick off with a sense of, ‘This is what it’s like to be young’ — the nostalgia and youth and innocence — before taking it into some places that are a lot deeper and heavier,” she says. That is “Teen Heat,” which was the first song to be finished in her sessions with Costey, setting the tone for what was to come.
“It’s braver than I’ve been in the past,” she says. “It’s essentially lo-fi bedroom sounds in the beginning, and it really takes on a sense of intimacy and fragility. But when it comes to the chorus it explodes, and that idea of sound and lyrical worlds colliding within a track — that was an intentional moment.”
Costey encouraged her to experiment, to follow her instincts and to be playful. “Rich never asked me to change my process,” she says. “He would let me go in there and get it all out, go crazy, do absolutely everything. He would call that the ‘Yes stage,’ where it was yes to everything. ‘Does Thundercat want to come put the bass on?’ Yes, come in. ‘A jam with Dave Longstreth [of Dirty Projectors]?’ Yes, let's do it.”
“90s Music” expands the concepts — bubbly nostalgia with more musical twists and lyrical layers. The sunny tone continues in “Carolina,” even amid a tale of running away in search of a new life. And where “Goldmine” is a bit heavier, incorporating bits of and inspirations from old chain-gang and slave music field chants, “Miracle” follows with a more celebratory tone (“my song of praise and gratitude”), featuring her doing a giddy vocal horn impersonation, a part she calls the “Jackson 5 moment.’” That was spontaneous, meant only to be a guide for a real trumpet to be added later, but Costey liked the effect. “I remember him saying, ‘That’s much cooler. You don’t know what it is, you think it’s a voice, you think it’s a horn. So let’s use that.’”
“Rescue Him” turns dark again, a “transition moment,” she says, the move continuing in “Madhouse” — its take on life in our modern day echo chamber set to an irresistible beat. “Madhouse” came from a jam with Thundercat. “There were so many great songs in the ’80s built around great bass lines — ‘Billie Jean,’ Talking Heads songs. And I was in love with Thundercat’s playing. So I said, ‘How do we just make a song that’s a killer statement bass line and then put everything on top of that?’ I sang something to him, and he pulls out this insane bass line. And the moment that John ‘JR’ Robinson stepped in the whole song took on this explosiveness. He did that song in one take!”
The ethereal “Everlovin’ Ya” is more dreamlike, with Bilal adding a gritty, soulful vocal over another Thundercat bass line. “I knew in the second verse that I wanted someone else singing it,” she says. “And I remember thinking. ‘Bilal would be perfect, because he would bring a tough energy to the song.’ I mentioned it to Thundercat and he said, ‘I played on Bilal’s last record, let’s hit him up.’ Within two days this guy was flying out from New York to get in the studio with me. I’m engineering the session with the guy I wrote the part for in my head thinking, ‘This is a dream,’ and he’s sitting there singing the lyrics I’ve written, just killing it.’”
“As You Are” features the Van Dyke Parks strings arrangement, lending the feel of a Gershwin tune or an old movie. “All this romance and nostalgia, but a dark sentiment,” as Kimbra puts it. The song gives way to the playfully percussive “Love In High Places,” featuring Matt Chamberlain banging on oil cans and other less-than-traditional drums alongside a melismatic Kimbra vocal influenced by her love of the South Asian singers Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
“It talks about love in higher places, being tuned into something that goes beyond the constant self-reflection and leads you outward,” she says. “We find transcendence in mundane everyday things, in trees, in a flower called Narcissus Golden Echo, in things of the Earth. It’s not all up in the clouds.”
Then after the pop-grounded “Nobody But You,” co-written by John Legend and featuring him on keyboards, the extended “Waltz Me to the Grave” ends the album on a pensively expansive note. “It was ‘Teen Heat’ where we started — innocence, youth, coming into contact with these urges,” she says. “And then we finish in a place that’s very much surrendered, very much at peace. There’s still tension in it. It’s a reflection, but it’s being at peace, kind of closing the chapter. And then venturing on.” It’s a perfect summary of Kimbra’s approach in The Golden Echo and beyond: always venturing.