As we’ve repeated to ourselves over and over (or at least I have) — it’s pretty damn hard to sum up all of the feelings of the past few years. Kimbra found herself in a similar situation as she was crafting her excellent album A Reckoning, which was released today via Inertia/PIAS. After 2018’s Primal Heart, the New Zealand-born artist looked inward to analyze “the moment before I broke”, searching for the catalyst for self-betterment and growth. Amidst the pandemic, Kimbra teamed up with Son Lux’s Ryan Lott to construct the songs that would make up A Reckoning, compiling older, aggressive demos alongside newly-written material that detailed the vulnerability and search for inner meaning, which ultimately all created her most personal material to date.
A Reckoning is a journey through Kimbra’s search for that meaning — the album opens with “save me”, a Björkian lullaby that serves as a surrender before descending into the chaotic, pulsing beats of “replay!” and the RnB hooks of “gun”. Armed with the experimental and cascading undercurrents of Lott’s production and collaborations with Pink Siifu and Erick the Architect, A Reckoning is an introduction to a newer, looser era of Kimbra — a self-assured pop star that’s ready to meet you in a place of connection and freedom. Read on for our chat with the pop auteur, taken place over Zoom a few weeks before A Reckoning’s release:
How are you? It’s been a minute since we last heard from you, and now we’re a couple of weeks away from release.
Kimbra: It’s a crazy mix of feelings! You work so hard to get to this moment, and then a normal day happens and suddenly all of that work is in the world. I’m very excited for people to hear what I’ve been so excited about — I’ve been wearing it out in my headphones for so long that I just look forward to others doing the same thing. It just feels good to be communicating with the world again; performing, sharing, you name it.
Where did this record come from? It seems to be the most vulnerable art you’ve ever shared, and not to mention a whole five years since your last album, AND there was a pandemic in between.
Kimbra: That’s a good thought — where was the entrance point, you know? You never know as you’re writing if it’s going to turn into an album or not; it always just starts as a collection of something that could be anything. I remember I got really focused on the feeling of women — and really anybody, because I feel like minorities and other groups deal with this as well — not really having a positive representation of how to deal with anger and rage, and strong emotions. I have a lot of emotions that I’ve struggled with inside; this fire in me, which of course is great, like the spirit of protest. But it’s also very dangerous when it gets turned in on yourself or turned on someone you love. I was reckoning with this idea; even in photos, I’d center in on the moments right before someone got angry or upset, and I’d continue to follow that rabbit hole until it manifested itself in these songs.
From there, I dug through my old iPhone archives to find songs like “Gun” that hadn’t seen the light of day in some time, and then simultaneously diving into these more-sensitive ballads like “I Don’t Want To Fight” and “Save Me”. I realized they were all about this reckoning with anger, and violence, and conflict — that theme came together, I gave the album that title, and it all coalesced under that umbrella in a really beautiful way.
I didn’t realize these songs dated back that far — I feel like COVID was a large reckoning in and of itself, as we kind of deconstructed these systems that really fucked us up when everything went down.
Kimbra: I think that’s how you know you’re making good art, if you’re accidentally prescient (laughs). I think that feeling was something that collectively resonant.
That discord is on the record too — I love the way that the album opens with the sensitivity of “Save Me”, and then harshly falls into “Replay”, which is just three minutes of intensity. Was there ever a moment in the process where you were worried about these disparate parts coming together cohesively?
Kimbra: Definitely, but once we nailed the theme of A Reckoning, I feel like it all came to place. Working with a co-producer [Son Lux’s Ryan Lott] that was overseeing everything was pretty helpful too, because I was able to trust him. I remember asking Ryan specifically if “Replay” fit in, and he was like “Hell yeah!” because, ultimately, it’s a song about expressing your inner self, which is a recurring theme throughout the record. Ultimately, we can’t really face ourselves until we’re willing to give up and surrender; that’s why the great religions and AA groups start with a surrender prayer. So beginning with “Save Me”, which serves as that surrender, and then falling into the rest of the record where we’re really putting the work in and examining the chaos was actually a beautiful bit of sequencing. The record really serves as a journey that mimicked the coming-up-from-rock-bottom experience that I feel like we all have at some point in our lives.
But yeah, it was definitely a worry — but I do have to surrender to the idea that I am multi-faceted as an artist. I love to jump around from genre to genre, and I think it’s because I get bored easily; it’s a way to stay occupied that just clicks with me by being able to make whatever I want.
I came to your music with Vows way back in 2011, and I agree — it’s been really fun to watch you jump around throughout your career. I think there’s a line from Vows to A Reckoning — but how do you think this album slots in with other work from your career?
Kimbra: I think it’s definitely a portrait of a woman going from a very young teenager to a woman who’s, you know, grown and even contemplating motherhood. You know? My fans have been able to grow with me through so much; as each record unfolds, I get less afraid to really examine myself and my journey, and the struggles that I might have as a creative, or a woman, or as a human, even. In that, I’m becoming more fearless and becoming more confident — with each record, there’s a new confidence and courage to write the songs that scare me, or the songs that might be *too* vulnerable. If I can get better at telling the truth with every record, then I’m doing exactly what I want to do. This record, to me, sounds like a person that’s breaking free — it sounds like a person letting go of a lot of shit.
Going back for a second — I’m a huge fan of Son Lux, and obviously, Ryan has had a massive few years with the movie scores and really branching out beyond the Son Lux name. How did you get linked up with him, and what was it like to bring that perspective into the fold of this deeply personal album?
Kimbra: We did a tour in 2018 — a co-headline tour. I just remember leaving that tour and thinking that they were so cool with their angularity and the way that they created art, and I just thought to myself “What if Ryan made a pop album?” I thought it’d be a cool experience and something I’d actually love to listen to; I just asked him and he was super excited about it, and we immediately got to work. The way that we work together is special, because we just push each other past our strengths and limitations, and I feel like I can trust him with this personal material. Our relationship came from being pure fans of each other’s music, which I think is the best way to work together.
I think the art of collaboration is so crucial to a good record — I’ve heard plenty of stories and urban legends of when it didn’t work out, so it’s always nice to hear of relationships that work behind the scenes.
Kimbra: Absolutely; it’s so easy for things to go south. We fill in the gaps for each other well. He’s been nice enough to say that his favorite parts of this record are my responses and additions to things he sent me; any time one of us would hit a wall, the other person would come in and pick up where the other left off. We were always trying to surprise each other, and as a result, have a very bold record that went through a lot of tweaking to get there. One of my favorite parts of our working relationship is that we weren’t scared to totally remix a song on the fly for the hell of it — it’s special to have that trust to do that.
You brought up something earlier, in that you wanted Ryan to make a pop record. You’ve called yourself a pop artist in plenty of other press — what does pop mean to you? I don’t disagree with your label but would love to know how you think you fit into that world of music.
Kimbra: I think I tried to not be a pop star for a long time. I didn’t want to become a commercial artist — a Katy Perry or something. That world scared me for a long time, but I get called a pop star or pop artist all the time, so I just learned to accept it. To me, it’s representative of hooks, you know? Catchy choruses, catchy hooks, and something that sticks with people. It’s definitely alternative-pop — pushing into experimental places within pop. For that, I want to reclaim pop; I think of artists like Michael Jackson, or Prince, or Kate Bush that were really pushing boundaries with what they were doing and still maintaining that commercial aura that resonated with millions of people. I think pop is one of the few genres that can handle that experimentation; anything can really be pop, as long as it follows a somewhat-standard structure and has a hook. Pop gives the structure, but then we can do whatever we want within that structure.
How do you plan to push those boundaries on the road? Your live presence is already a pretty riveting experience — what will these new songs look like on tour?
Kimbra: I’m touring with a new live drummer, and he comes from a gospel background. It gives crazy energy to the stage, especially as we’ve kind of relied on programmed drum tracks for past tours; having that dynamic of people to interact with always amps up the energy in the set. I’m hoping to play more guitar on this tour too — it’ll be powerful to sing these songs because of how vulnerable they are. I’m actually excited to open that diary, of sorts, on stage because it’ll be me going from jamming out in my bedroom to sharing that experience with anyone who comes to the shows. I want to create a true experience for people; step into my world, and hopefully feel a little different.
I think of my live shows as a space for feeling — I want to give people permission to feel, dream, and be free at my shows. The world is lacking in those spaces where you can truly let yourself be free and feel everything, and I want to create that. In order to do that, I have to go there first; if I can get there, I can help others join me there.