“I’m going to paint my nails while we chat, is that OK?” asks Kimbra, shaking a bottle of bubblegum-colored polish. Arriving to a Manhattan photo studio without the entourage of other entertainers, it becomes quickly apparent that the 28-year-old takes a hands-on approach to all aspects of her career.
Currently on a multicity U.S. tour, the musician releases her third LP, “Primal Heart,” on Friday, an album the New Zealand-born songstress describes as “more grounded in reality” than her previous work, an aesthetic shift she attributes partly to living in New York.
“It’s a city that demands you to be quite present — you can’t avoid things when they’re right on the street in front of you,” says the singer, delicately applying a slick of pink gloss to her thumbnail. “In a way my music has taken a cue from that.”
Born Kimbra Lee Johnson, the musician gained international notoriety as co-vocalist on the chart-topping ballad “Somebody That I Used to Know” with fellow singer-songwriter Gotye, which won Grammy for record of the year in 2013. “I had been working on my career a long time [at that point] and had a trajectory going,” she explains of the sudden impact the song’s success had on her professionally. “That’s a lot better than if I had that massive song then thought, ‘OK now I’ve got to make an album.’”
Leaning forward, Kimbra rests her elbows upon the bold floral print of a bell-bottomed jumpsuit she’s arrived in, blowing gently on her fingertips. The outfit, she says, is “from a place in the East Village that does unworn vintage.” Noting an interest in fashion from an early age, the “Top of the World” singer explains that in preparing her onstage wardrobe, she will scour the Parsons School of Design web site for up-and-coming design talent.
“I love the thought of my music also being a window into other people’s art,” she adds. “It’s such a self-centered industry anyway, but the chance for me to do something with others keeps me a little more sane and not so narcissistic about the whole thing.”
The down-to-earth creative takes a philosophical approach when it comes to her craft. Tossing a section of her inky locks over one shoulder, Kimbra gazes coyly from beneath a dense curtain of bangs. “I want to entertain, of course, but not at the cost of the art,” she explains. With “Primal Heart,” an album she describes as “a very bold, very tough-sounding record with a lot of bass,” the singer not only penned the songs and produced the tracks, but also closely collaborated with the directors of each music video. “I’m behind the artistic direction of things because an artist to me is about having a complete vision.”
The singer’s naturally pellucid voice lends an ethereal quality to each track of this latest album, but Kimbra explains that with age — and experience — she has noticed her vocal range has shifted. “This record is actually lower,” she reveals sotto voce.
“If you’re trying to connect with someone on a really heart-to-heart level and you’re a little more grounded, you notice you actually talk a little quieter and at a lower register of your voice,” she says in a way that audibly demonstrates her philosophy. “With this record I’m singing in a register that’s more relaxed, which is a hell of a lot easier to perform on tour.”
Describing her earlier songs as “so high” and indicative of “an excitable young woman,” Kimbra shifts back contemplatively. “I think of my voice as a paintbrush — the range changes as you grow to reflect different emotions.”
To help illustrate the complete “visual vision” of her sound, the performer called upon Brooklyn-based artist Phillip David Stearns to create 15 custom animations to accompany nearly every song on her latest tour. Describing the stage as a place “where all my insecurities drop away,” Kimbra admits fan interactions and — subtly motioning to an awaiting studio space — photo shoots cause her far more anxiety.
“Whenever I’m in that place of sound and music, I don’t have fear or nervousness,” says the collected Kiwi. “I feel like I’m giving to and receiving from the audience. This album has a lot of themes of courage and boldness and I want to be the soundtrack for people’s lives. I’ll be so happy if [my songs] evoke strength in people, which I know music has done for me.”
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