Young talent time … Kimbra Johnson, now all of 22, has been writing songs since the age of 10. Photo: Woodrow Wilson
Kimbra Johnson's composure is slipping. Her lovely face is contorted by frustration and she is pulling agitatedly at the constricting collar of her sequinned top. For an instant I think she might unravel completely. Not that anyone would blame her. The young singer-songwriter hasn't slept for almost 48 hours; a combination of post-show adrenalin, a bumpy overnight bus ride from Philadelphia to New York City and an 8am call for the photo shoot, which we are all still at 13 hours later and with two to go. If you think being a pop singer on a meteoric rise to fame looks like a cakewalk, think again.
No diva turn is forthcoming, though. Johnson simply asks politely for "a moment" and steps away from the set to regain her focus. She is a precocious expert at balancing the hectic pace and pressure of work with moments of quiet grace. "I did start to lose it towards a certain point," she says. "I find the studio shoots quite different from responding to a landscape."
Earlier in the day, the crew had schlepped a van full of costumes, lighting equipment, an oversized armchair, plus a smoke machine and generator, through a forested park in Queens, under the direction of Australian fashion photographer Thom Kerr. A "warped Disney" aesthetic had been proposed by Johnson, who outlined her vision to the photographer via her infamously lengthy emails, which can run to thousands of words. "No one will ever be able to accuse [Johnson] of not knowing what she wants or of being the concoction of someone else," says Kerr.
The girl most likely … Johnson, aged 12, at home in New Zealand.
Johnson, who performs mononymously as Kimbra, shot to prominence delivering the third-act riposte to Gotye's scorned lover in his chart-topping single Somebody That I Used to Know. Attentive music watchers would have noted the buzz building before that, after her 2010 single Settle Down began bouncing around the internet courtesy of the imprimatur of celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. ("If you like Nina Simone, Florence & the Machine and/or Björk, then we think you will enjoy Kimbra - her music reminds us of all those fierce ladies!") She followed that up as the voice of Miami Horror's club hit I Look to You and by the time the spotlight fell on her via Gotye (aka Wally de Backer), she had her own debut album, Vows, ready to go.
In an era in which young stars launch their careers via MySpace (Lily Allen) or YouTube (Justin Bieber), Johnson's story is refreshing for its old-fashioned values of hard work, intellectual curiosity, raw talent and soul connections. It is more a story of vocation than manufacture, enhanced by what Johnson would call "moments of divinity ... as if everything has fallen into place".
Johnson, a New Zealander, began writing songs when she was 10, learnt guitar at 12, and by 14 had placed second in the national school competition Rockquest. At 17, she moved to Melbourne after being offered a management deal by UK industry veteran Mark Richardson, who had heard her single Simply on My Lips - released in New Zealand in 2007 - and wasted no time signing her. "In England, it was always highly competitive, so you didn't wait around," says Richardson. "So I got on a plane a week later, went to see her perform and just got connected at that moment."
Dynamic duet … performing with Gotye at the ARIA Awards last November. Photo: Fairfaxsyndication.com
Richardson - who developed a young Jamiroquai - had found himself disenchanted by the limitations imposed by record labels on artists' development, and relocated to Melbourne in 2005 with his Australian wife and their children to take a year off and start over. His voice softens when I ask what it meant for Johnson - "a diamond in the rough" - to cross his path just as he was open to a new venture. "Somebody else was in charge of that, I reckon," he tells me. "You can't link those things up, can you? I just put it out there and she arrived."
And arrive she did. Kimbra Johnson won Best Female Artist at last year's ARIA Awards as well as the Vanda and Young Songwriting Competition; her album attained platinum status in Australia and her first national tour, last September, sold out. In June, she was signed to a worldwide deal with Warner Bros Records in the US by legendary A&R executive Lenny Waronker, who also signed her idol, Prince.
Meanwhile, de Backer and Johnson's Somebody That I Used to Know topped the charts in 11 countries, staying at No. 1 for eight weeks in Australia, and has amassed more than 142 million views on YouTube since July.
Centre stage … at South by Southwest in Texas in March. Photo: Getty Images
And now here is Johnson, supporting Gotye on his sold-out US tour, as well as playing her own headline shows in New York and LA, plus nine showcase gigs in five days at the South by Southwest Festival in Texas. "It's kind of a mad affair," says Richardson. In addition to the live shows, Johnson has been working on adding fresh tracks to Vows ahead of its US release next month. "She is a gigantic force to be reckoned with," says Waronker.
This month, she released Warrior, a collaboration with A-Trak and Foster the People frontman Mark Foster for Converse's Three Artists, One Song series, with an accompanying music video. If her vocals on Warrior are pleasingly "gritty", it is because she had tonsillitis when she recorded them straight into her laptop in a European airport, sparked by the instrumental line she had just received from Foster.
Johnson's commitment is notable. In the midst of January's Big Day Out tour, Johnson left the stage in Melbourne, flew to Los Angeles to sing one song with de Backer on talk show Jimmy Kimmel, before immediately turning around to fly back to Adelaide and take the stage an hour after landing.
In every sense, Kimbra Johnson's life now is a world away from her childhood in Hamilton, two hours' drive south of Auckland. Her father is a doctor at the university's student health service and her mother is a nurse, and they live in the home Johnson grew up in. "I go back to the same place and I have memories of being three years old," says Johnson. "We have a backyard that looks over the river and as soon as I get home, I run out because I have a tree hut in the tree, and I go there."
Johnson has a positive take on the lack of nightlife, crediting it with motivating her and her friends to spend time making music together. Sue Radford, who directs the Hillcrest High School jazz choir, which Johnson joined when she was 13, fondly recalls Johnson as always being "slightly quirky and different", something that became even more apparent in the final years of school, when students are no longer required to wear a uniform.
"She was always a prodigious talent," says Radford. "And she's a perfectionist, so she'd work on something and do it over and over until she honed it where she wanted it."
The choir introduced Johnson to a jazz repertoire - Frank Sinatra, George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald - and she shared her musical curiosity with her friends, discovering a passion for the Mars Volta, Nine Inch Nails, Björk, Jeff Buckley, At the Drive-In and Miles Davis. Johnson also devoted herself to listening to Middle Eastern and African music. "You feed your musical brain with that stuff and it will subconsciously start to channel out in what you create," she says.
"When she arrived [in Melbourne], before we'd even put the album together, she had 64 song ideas," says Richardson.
Vocal coach Cheryl McLeay describes Johnson as "a musician's singer", using her voice as an instrument, "like Ella Fitzgerald". "This kid, I can remember her finishing my sentences," says McLeay. "I think her knowledge of anatomy from her father and her know-ledge of music joined up in that sweet little brain of hers - the analytical side and the artistic side - and I knew [when she was] 14 that she was going to go places."
Johnson's parents initially approached McLeay to coach the 11-year-old, ahead of Kimbra's appearance on a local children's TV show, What Now. "She was so focused," says McLeay. "She knew exactly what she wanted."
Radford cites the singer's exemplary ability to listen as integral to her success. "She listens to advice, she listens to other music, she listens to chords, she listens to the sounds she makes; she's very sound sensitive," says Radford. "She's savvy, she's articulate, she's bright, so she understands the nature of an audience; she understands the nature of what she's doing."
It is the kind of intellect that, when combined with passion, focuses the mind so intently that everything else falls away, driving Johnson's inner circle just a little crazy. "She is so engrossed in what she's doing, she doesn't notice a lot of stuff that's going on around her," says Radford. "She's one of those kids you could pin everything to her front and she'd still forget."
High school was also where Johnson developed a passion for languages, taking an exchange trip to France when she was 16. "Before I signed with Mark, I was actually going to go and study French," she says, adding that religious studies and learning Hebrew were also in her now-deferred plans for university. "I have plans to translate some of the album into French," she says. "It's a bit of a goal for me this year."
Most of this year will be taken up with touring (she'll be in Australia in May), but it hasn't stopped Johnson from thinking about what comes next. Melbourne has been "a perfect little segue to the rest of the world", says Johnson, but she finds herself contemplating a move to New York.
What does the man who has worked so long and with such patience to nurture her success think about this? "As long as she's got her music, she's got a home," says Richardson. "She's consumed by this - it's not a career choice. Without getting too weighty about it, she's incapable of anything else."
The day after the photo shoot, I meet Johnson for Sunday brunch at a rustic Italian bistro in the East Village, a location scouted by the singer, who is navigating her way across the States via Graphic USA, a hipster guidebook to 25 cities, compiled for "travellers with offbeat tastes".
Johnson favours the film works of Lars von Trier and Tim Burton, has recently discovered a passion for Caravaggio's religious paintings ("the lighting of them") and became a fan of heavy metal and post-hardcore music after a boy she liked at school gave her a mix CD. "I was so challenged by things like the time signatures - not just simple four on the floor but three-against-four time signatures and things that were throwing me off and being so unpredictable," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, pop music should be more like this, really', and then I discovered people like Prince and realised they are doing all this stuff within pop. When you dissect their songs, there are really crazy structures going on beneath the really catchy melodies."
That voracious cultural appetite and attention to detail (Waronker calls it her "big, big musical brain") are among the reasons Richardson paired her with producer François Tétaz, who usually composes for film and dance.
"That's why we first clicked, because we could sit down and talk about a super-big heavy-metal band like Mastodon together," Johnson says, laughing. "And we could also talk about Nina Simone and have the same love of both those artists. It didn't matter that they were worlds apart in terms of genre - the conviction and the energy of them, and that they're both challenging in their own field, that's what we both like."
Tétaz was the first person to really challenge her, she says, asking her the questions she was afraid to ask herself about what she was trying to express through her songs. "More than that, he pushed me to explore all my musical indulgences," she says, describing a studio environment in which Tétaz had her experimenting with the sonic qualities of her asthma inhaler or throwing cymbals on the floor. "It was very free - I loved that."
One day, when Tétaz felt Johnson's vulnerability was unconvincing for a particular lyric, he ascertained she had a fear of heights, drove her to Eureka Tower in the heart of Melbourne and sent her to the transparent viewing platform, almost 300 metres up on the 88th floor. Not surprisingly, the combination of her early reluctance to collaborate and his emotional excavations led to a fractious relationship, though not before they worked together for two years and produced half a dozen songs that found their way onto the album.
For his part, Tétaz admired her musicality, appreciated the subject matter of her songs and was a little spellbound by her "X-factor". "It's music that's talking about philosophical ideas and different possibilities of life and it's quite psychological," he says. "There's [also] something quite mysterious about the way she goes about things, where you kind of get a sense of who she is but sometimes you don't and can't be sure what she's thinking." That duality inspired Tétaz to recommend her to de Backer (whom Tétaz also produces) for the Somebody That I Used to Know duet.
Meanwhile, Mark Richardson brought hip-hop producer M-Phazes (Mark Landon) on board to help complete the album. In Landon, Johnson found someone who turned her on to rhythm and groove. "He opened me up to a world of urban soul music," she says. He also allowed her to complete the album without the emotional intensity demanded by Tétaz. "[Tétaz] brought so much out of me, but by then I'd gone deep enough and just wanted to finish the songs," she says. "You get to that point where you just want to get it out."
In the three-storey, 3000-capacity terminal 5 venue in Hell's Kitchen, Johnson's slender frame looks even smaller as she bounces out to greet the crowd, but her powerful voice and electric stage presence more than compensate. When she is not dancing feverishly with her tambourine, she often seems to be reaching, arms outstretched, for the melody. "It's really just an instinctive way for me to colour and control the notes or conduct them in various ways," she says. "It's partly subconscious and also a way of surrendering myself to the music and the beat. I feel far more connected to the whole band if I can somehow physically respond ... with my body."
Her vocals have been compared to those of Jeff Buckley, Björk, Camille, Florence Welch, Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone, while the compositions themselves swing between pop, soul, funk and R&B. Critics have detected Afro-Caribbean rhythms and new-wave vocal tics, and good luck to them - it would take a cryptographer to unpick the complexities that make up each song.
At a headline show at a small East Village venue, audience members struggle to define her sound. "It's like if Kate Bush were a soul singer," muses Australian stylist Ms Fitz. "She's Barbra f...ing Streisand," gushes a middle-aged male fan in the foyer.
She has the audience collectively holding its breath when she is forced to reach for her asthma inhaler mid-gig, spontaneously singing Happy Birthday when she excitedly announces she is now 22, and screaming - and, no, that is not an exaggeration - after her cover of Nina Simone's Plain Gold Ring.
"There isn't a ceiling to what she can achieve," insists her manager, Mark Richardson. But if those expectations are a lot for a young adult to shoulder, then it certainly helps that Johnson believes in something bigger than herself. When there is a slow moment on the day of the photo shoot, she fetches her book and retreats to what she refers to as her "sacred place". She is reading Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power and the Only Hope that Matters by Timothy Keller, a pastor at the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, whose podcasts she downloads along with sermons from the church she used to attend in New Zealand ("obviously I don't really go to church any more - no time") and theology lectures from Melbourne University. "There's a classic quote, that faith is not a destination, it's a journey," she says. "It's not a place you come to and stop - it's following that yearning every day and still exploring it. I'm so fascinated by the human longing for meaning." As she points out, it is also a major theme in her lyrics: "The way we relate romantically to each other is so much to do with our longing for meaning as well."
Johnson's curiosity also extends to Buddhism and the Tao Te Ching and she wants to read more on Jewish theology. "At the moment, I'm really interested in Christian mysticism," she adds.
Initially, she wondered if the intensity of her career might lead her to neglect her spiritual life, but has found the opposite to be true. "There's a vulnerability in music [baring one's soul] but you've also got to protect your sacred place and have a place you can still retire to that no one else knows about," she says. "So that's a thing I just try to balance."
At any rate, she figures that striving for one's own "godlike nature", à la Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix, would yield an intolerable burden. "If you believe it's all come from you, you've got to believe it's all going to come just from you again," she explains. "I just couldn't live with that."
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