You know when you’ve only seen an artist in photos and maybe music videos, but you still form a vivid mental image of what they look like, act like, are like, and that informs your understanding of their music? I had that for Kimbra.
If you know her, it’s most likely as the woman who sings the second verse on Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know. Despite the poppy charm of her music, this is the closest she has come to mainstream appeal. I knew her for her first album, and most intensely for the video to her song Settle Down. This song straddled the old and new with her smoky rasp and clean Minnie Ripperton falsetto wrapped up in a big band sound that had been sampled and reconstituted with a modern edge. And the artist herself seemed to represent that mix of old and new with her bob and her sundress. She looked timeless; a popstar perfectly in tune with the history of her genre. What’s more, she and her band could play it all live, no backing tracks, no overdubs. In live videos on Youtube I saw them improvise and toy with the elements of the songs so that each performance was its own unique instance of creation. She became for me a symbol of what Pop could be if the consideration was on the appeal of the music not a kind of addictive, inescapable repetition.
Of course, that image wasn’t the real person – nowhere near it. And even if I knew her personally, how much would that really inform my understanding of her creative process? It’s always going to be a losing battle trying to square the person up to the product or the performance. But still, it was a shock. That edge of musical history had been totally erased. That big band sound had shrunk to a Kaoss Pad, a drum machine and a bunch of keyboards.
That’s not to say I wasn’t amazed at times. She is still a phenomenal singer and performer, and she had fully incorporated that electronic edge into her sound. She stood at the front of the stage in a rig of vocal effects that looked like it could drive a spaceship. As she sang she processed her voice in real time, adding harmonies and stretching out delays into oscillated soundscapes that went perfectly with the vaporwave projections of polka-dot fighter jets and floating heads behind her. She would spasm as the effects distorted her sound, her hands clutching at the dials and buttons as if distorting her voice was electrifying. There was a lot of Imogen Heap, Bjork, and Eurythmics to her new sound and there was definitely something interesting and danceable going on. It just wasn’t what I was expecting at all. She had become an entirely different artist, even reconfiguring her older material to fit this new sound. She had become… Somebody That I Used to Know.
And that isn’t a bad thing. We can’t expect artists to stagnate, to keep wheeling out the same hits every time we see them like a cover band of themselves. The new music she was producing felt very current. It fit alongside upcoming acts like Shura or Nao (although the one thing they get right that Kimbra missed is having live drums to drive home all of that fuzz and glitches). I guess I’m just sad that I never got to see her when she was at that moment in her career, but perhaps what I think I missed out on is something that never existed in the first place.
Featured image: Billboard