Kimbra, who performed in March at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., has her first album release in the United States on Tuesday.
By James C. McKinley Jr.
On her 22nd birthday, Kimbra sashayed onto the stage at Webster Hall, in her first bona fide concert in New York, while her band vamped on a campy movie theme. She wore a short pink party dress with poofy sleeves and her hair in bangs and a flip, a retro 1960s do. She looked doll-like, a brunette version of Alice in Wonderland from a Disney film, but showing off more leg than Alice would. And when she began her first song, “Cameo Lover,” an upbeat plea to her man for intimacy, her voice was anything but innocent.
Kimbra’s album, “Vows,” which is now being released in America with six new songs.
Some of the people crowding around the stage that night in March began to sing along, even though the song is not on American pop radio, and her first album, “Vows,” comes out in the United States on Tuesday. “I always imagined my first American tour might be pretty modest,” she said later. “What I was really surprised about was how many people knew the words to my songs already.” Her cross-country tour continues through July 7.
The star-making machinery at Warner Brothers Records is firmly behind Kimbra, who comes from New Zealand, and she has had a run of good publicity in the last year. She was the talk of the South by Southwest Music Festival in March, where she did eight sets over four days and impressed critics. Her first album, “Vows,” sold more than 100,000 in Australia (which qualifies as platinum there) after its release in August 2011, peaking at No. 4 on the Australian charts. Then she won an award for best new female artist from the Australian Recording Industry Association.
But what brought her to wider attention in this country was her duet with Gotye on “Somebody That I Used to Know,” a song that has become an international hit and has spent five weeks at No. 1 in the United States.
Rob Cavallo, chairman of Warner Brothers Records, said the Gotye hit came well after the label had signed her, which was in June 2011. He had already decided to pour resources into promoting her. “Kimbra’s a real artist, and I envision her having a 15-to-20-year career,” he said. “She has the potential to be like Prince. That’s how strong her musicality is.”
High praise, yet it remains to be seen if Kimbra’s quirky, jazz-inflected R&B and pop will find a big American audience. She is philosophical about her sudden visibility here when she still has not had a single on the pop charts.
“It’s a good thing, because you get to build a foundation and explain what you’re about,” she said at an interview in Warner Brothers’ New York office. “It’s difficult if you get thrust to the top with a hit single, and nobody knows anything about you.”
Livia Tortella, a co-president of Warner Brothers, said the label is focusing on building an online audience for Kimbra and broadening her exposure by having her open for established artists like Gotye and the group Foster the People.
“Airplay is fine, but our goal is for her to be a headlining artist by fall, and we are really close to that goal,” Ms. Tortella said. “It’s becoming more and more critical for artists like Kimbra that want careers to start developing a following independent of radio.”
Kimbra’s songs are more experimental than many pop radio tracks. She layers her vocals with a loop machine, singing underlying motifs before adding the melody and then a harmony line above. She is fond of complex, syncopated rhythms; unpredictable song structures; and the occasional jazz harmony. She likes to break into scat, yelps, screams, grunts and other unconventional vocal sounds.
“Settle Down,” her biggest hit in Australia, starts with a rhythmic vocal riff, “Boom-bah-boom-BAH,” over which she sings the melody, as syncopated hand claps and sharp synthesizer chords punch in. She says she has always loved pop music, soul and R&B, but wants her own songs to “take a more progressive angle, with theatrical elements.” She admires singer-songwriters, she says, who “use their voices as instruments,” like Björk, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and Prince.
Kimbra, born in March 1990, grew up in Hamilton, New Zealand, the daughter of a physician and a nurse. She learned to sing when she joined her middle school’s jazz choir and discovered Ella Fitzgerald; she started writing songs on guitar and doing solo engagements. A boyfriend in high school turned her on to Miles Davis and the Mars Volta. She bought a loop pedal and started experimenting with layered vocals. When she was 17, Mark Richardson, a manager and producer, persuaded her to move to Melbourne, Australia, and pursue music rather than go to college.
It was in Melbourne that she started working on “Vows” with François Tétaz, who is Gotye’s producer. (He introduced the two singers.) The album was a long time in gestation. Both Mr. Tétaz and Mr. Richardson counseled Kimbra to wait until she had a strong set of songs.
“I would have been very happy at the age of 18 to put it out,” she said. “Here I was sitting in Melbourne, and my manager and my producer were like: ‘You’re not ready yet. You don’t know what you want to say as an artist.’ I’d say, ‘Yes, I do.’
Mr. Cavallo said Warner Brothers became interested in signing her a year ago on the strength of the videos for the singles “Settle Down” and “Cameo Lover.” The label flew her and the band to Los Angeles for an audition.
“She killed it,” he recalled. “She’s 22 years old, and she knows exactly what she wants every note on her album to sound like.”
But Mr. Cavallo did want to tweak the album for an American audience. At lunch after the audition, he told Kimbra he regarded some of the songs as “underbaked and sleepy-sounding.” In November the label put her together with three proven American producers: Mike Elizondo, Greg Kurstin and Mark Foster, who also is the frontman of Foster the People. The United States release will have six new songs.
Onstage at Webster Hall on March 27, Kimbra was electric. She leapt and shimmied in her flouncy dress, played a tambourine vigorously, flung her hair and sometimes did odd hand and arm motions as she sang, as if she were visualizing the notes or conducting the audience. A high point came when she sang a cover of Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring,” with its hypnotic ostinato bass. She invested the lyrics about a woman in love with a married man a fierce sexual longing absent from Ms. Simone’s bluesy lament.
Offstage she is very much a young woman in progress. She is still girlie enough to admit, “I get very excited by Walt Disney films.” But these days she says she finds inspiration in stories about Christian mystics and in Buddhist writings and C. S. Lewis’s theological works. On a recent morning she was working her way through the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Strength to Love.”
“I just find it really fascinating the way we struggle to find meaning in the universe,” she said without a trace of irony. “It inspires a lot of my songs.”
Some of her songs reflect the heartache of leaving home and family behind. One song is addressed to Sally, a close friend she had in high school who chose a rustic life in New Zealand. Kimbra sings:
Sally i can see you
i’m not the girl i once used to be
i don’t know how i got here
But i fear i’m in too deep.”