Kimbra on Janelle Monae: 'We both feel strongly about showing creativity in a different way.' Photo: Thom Kerr
On March 27 this year Kimbra Lee Johnson turned 24, and while she didn't have a party she still had a good time. Kimbra - when you're part of a song as successful as Gotye's Somebody That I Used to Know you can pull off a pop star's truncated name - spent the day in a Los Angeles rehearsal room with the diminutive but nonetheless imposing American R&B operator Janelle Monae.
The two plotted the form of their Golden Electric Tour, a joint effort that will see Kimbra's eclectic electropop and Monae's futuristic funk showcased before the pair finish the evening with a joint set that will touch on their shared influences.
''We don't look at anything as a gig. Janelle is on a mission and I feel the same in how I see music. We both believe in engaging our fans,'' explains Kimbra. ''A lot of female artists in the music industry now are just seen as sex symbols, and we both feel strongly about showing beauty in a different way and showing creativity in a different way.''
Kimbra was speaking last week from Melbourne, where she was rehearsing with her band after more than a year in Los Angeles recording her forthcoming second album. It's the same city she moved to seven years ago, as a determined teenager from Hamilton in New Zealand looking to pursue a career in music.
Thanks to the Gotye collaboration, and her 2011 debut album, Vows, Kimbra achieved some of what she wanted, but it wasn't enough for her to slow down. On February 10, 2013, Somebody That I Used to Know won Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. On February 11, 2013, Kimbra moved into a house in the LA suburb of Echo Park being run as a small sustainable farm and started writing the follow-up.
''I put innovation on a pedestal for this record. I wanted to break ground sonically, take a lot of the ideas I'd been inspired by and eat them up and spit them out in my own way while still writing pop songs,'' she says enthusiastically. ''I wanted to combine - and sometimes juxtapose - ideas into one. I like the idea of putting out an ambitious song and hoping that as people listen to it they'll discover new relics of sound.''
The first taste of the record is the track 90s Music, both a literal and figurative circuit-breaker. With its grinding frequencies and skip-rope chants, the song is an initially abrasive palate cleanser that puts a neat line between the tidy grooves of Vows and the new material. Kimbra calls it a ''futurist'' song, and it's fascinatingly bonkers.
The song began as a raucous garage-punk jam with her band, until they added 808 drum machines to the verses, piquing Kimbra's attention. She worked on the revised song with her studio collaborator, producer Rich Costey (Muse, Franz Ferdinand), who called on Muse's Matt Bellamy to add a guitar part before Kimbra enlisted Foster the People vocalist Mark Foster to contribute.
''It continued to evolve in a natural way and not be overthought. It happened,'' says Kimbra, who had a supergroup's worth of collaborators on the album. ''It's either going to work or not, but it's certainly going to be something.''
The album's list of contributors includes Silverchair's Daniel Johns, Dirty Projectors songwriter Dave Longstreth, and prog-rock maven Omar Rodriguez-Lopez from the Mars Volta, with Kimbra also the chief technician for the sessions. Her prized compliment was from Costey, who said she had ''the fastest fingers'' of all the studio's engineers.
''I'm fascinated by production and by creating sound, so when Rich gave me a room with the most incredible gear I grew in leaps and bounds,'' she says. ''I wouldn't just do takes - I put every part of the tape together: the sampling, the cueing, the compressing of every element. It was a whole new language to speak.''
Kimbra talks about her new music in excitable tones, and the only problem she's had has been letting go. She was making minute fixes to the snare sound at the start of 90s Music (too loud apparently) even after it was available to hear online.
''What made me stop was the realisation that if I didn't stop I couldn't share these things with people. If you hold on and tamper with it, it becomes self-indulgent and loses the spontaneity,'' she says. ''The way an artist stays sane is to constantly move forward.''
Gig With Janelle Monae, Monday May 19, 8pm, Sydney Opera House.
Tickets From $102 plus booking fee, sydneyoperahouse.com.
Live Dance grooves, noise detritus and a formidable dual encore.
Best track Settle Down from the album Vows.