Kimbra is a Grammy-award winning New Zealand musician and a judge on the new series of Popstars, screening Monday to Wednesday at 7.30pm on TVNZ 2.
I grew up beside the Waikato River and my childhood was filled with nature, tree huts and imaginary worlds. I started writing songs when I was about 8. No instruments, just lyrics and singing, and I’d record them onto cassette with my brother who was assigned to press record. When I first picked up a guitar at 12, songs just flowed out of me.
I had a wide range of influences, from pop music to more obscure things. I’d digest music like it was chocolate. But back then, I didn’t know what I had to say, so they were just fun, silly songs. Once I got a guitar, my lyrics began to feel more personal and became a way for me to express my emotions in ways I couldn’t when I was talking.
It will always be risky when you show someone a new song, and you just hope the person sees something of themselves in the song. But it’s such a beautiful moment when you play your music for someone and you feel the connection, and see that they know what you’re going through. Rather than having a conversation, it’s like you’re sharing an experience and they’re relating and empathising. It’s really liberating to be heard and seen, but I still feel vulnerable when I play someone something new.
I was signed at 17. My manager was from England and he’d started a company in Australia. Having found my music on My Space, he came to New Zealand to hear me perform in a little bar, then asked if I’d move to Australia to work with him on my debut album. Moving to Melbourne at that age was a bit of a whirlwind. Mum and Dad came over for the first week, to help me settle in, to get an apartment and learn the basics. I didn’t even know how to cook or how to look after myself but I quickly learned.
I was very young when I signed to my management company and there was always the fear it wouldn’t work out. But I trusted my intuition and jumped in at the deep end because it felt like an opportunity to make the music I wanted to make. I’d been approached by people before then, but they’d always said I needed to be more like this or that to fit on the radio. They always told me what I needed to change, whereas the management I signed with, that was the first offer that allowed me to be who I wanted to be.
I never dreamed of being a big star, never imagined my name up in lights, I was just excited to do the thing I love. I also felt passionate about creating a sound that was different, because I knew I wanted to challenge and disrupt things. I mainly imagined putting out a record, then touring New Zealand and Australia, I never really saw America in my future but things started to happen with my song Settle Down. Perez Hilton, the blogger, wrote a piece about it which caught the attention of Americans, some of whom tweeted about it. Then Warner Brothers showed interest. This was before I’d ever collaborated with Gotye – and, with every new opportunity, I leaned in and trusted in the things that were happening.
I’ve had a very strong gut instinct from a young age. Of course it hasn’t always been right, and with hindsight we’d do all sorts of things differently, but when Warner Brothers offered an opportunity, I decided to take it as far as I could. It was scary and exciting, to sign with a huge record label but, once I decided, things fell into place. I really do believe in god or the universe, whatever you want to call it, but I believed doors were opening for me and I was meant to walk through them, as if I am called to make music.
When I first went to America, it was like dating, people trying to sell you an idea or talk you up. Sometimes I’d laugh at the cliche of the record label guy saying things like, “We can make you a star.” I didn’t take it too seriously. I also learnt early on that people can say a lot but you need to watch for what they do and to take everything, praise and criticism, with a grain of salt. Knowing that has helped me keep a level head.
It took me a while to feel at home in LA, and it wasn’t until I was part of the Grammys with Gotye that I decided to give it a real try. I found a place to live on Craigs List. Real talk. On an urban farm in LA, in Silver Lake. It was a normal house but, at the back, there were sheep, chickens, a couple of goats and a sheepdog. It also had an outdoor shower and kitchen and it felt like the perfect balance of New Zealand and America. A shepherd from Mexico looked after the animals and the lady who owned the place lived in front with her baby and I lived out back with the animals. It was strange and cool so I signed the lease and that’s how I did LA.
When you have to start from scratch in a new city, you must learn how to put yourself out there and make friends. This is a good quality to have, to be able to turn up somewhere and hope for the best. I’m also quite shy so connecting with people over music has always been a unifying force for me. When I talk about music, I am activated and my brain turns on.
I lost touch with a lot of friends when I left New Zealand so I’ve really valued coming home to mentor young artists on Popstars. It’s been great to return with this purpose, to work, and also to connect with old friends. Tragically, six months ago, I lost a childhood friend. I wasn’t able to attend her funeral so being able to reconnect and feel close to her has been important. She was the most amazing actress, the most beautiful person, and she passed very suddenly. It’s the first time I’ve lost a loved one and it turned my life upside down. It has been very healing for me, to talk to people about her and I’ve found a lot of strength in sharing her life. Yes, I do want to say her name. Her name was Emily Campbell.
As you get older you notice who sticks around when things are tough, or when you don’t have an album out or you’re not the hot thing of the minute. The people who are still there, checking in and keeping in touch, it’s a beautiful feeling to know I’ve made a second family out of my various friends in LA, New York and New Zealand.
When you care about your work, and really care about telling the truth and being honest, there can’t be room for caring what people think. The moment you get bogged down worrying if something will be rejected or judged, that’s when you start making music for other people rather than making the music my heart wants to hear. It would be wonderful if you reached your 30s and all your insecurities were gone, but that’s not how it works. I still fear being judged, and that’s natural. I’ve also learnt to accept that my work is part of me, but it’s not the whole of me. When I was younger I thought music was my whole identity so when people were critical, it really hurt me as person but now I realise I’m a lot more than my music, which also means I can have more fun with it.
I can’t talk highly enough of therapy. It’s been essential for me to reflect and explore my interior world and I’ve done a lot of work to understand my personality, my weaknesses and my demons. I’ve struggled a lot with anxiety over the years. That struggle is common to so many but, through hardship you learn ways to cope and through opportunities you learn ways to grow. I’ve seen and experienced a lot in this industry and the only way through is forward. You have to find ways to cope, to tell yourself a new story, then get back up. And you simply can’t help other people if you haven’t first worked on yourself.
I am a believer in all that true love stuff. And when you fall in love, you realise life is not only about you. It’s taken me a while to find balance with the romance side of things, but I am in a relationship now. We met online because it’s very hard to meet people outside your chosen field in this business, when you’re always on the road. In order to meet someone with a different career to me, online dating made sense and I’m very grateful now to be in this euphoric space.
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