Popping Up: Kimbra

Mike Wass | February 23, 2012 6:00 am

Popping Up is our recurring look at new artists making noise on the music landscape. Because, hey—Madonna and Britney were once unknown, too.

Kimbra is somebody that you really should know. The New Zealand-born singer/songwriter is currently shooting up the Billboard Hot 100 courtesy of her cameo on Australian pop pioneer Gotye’s unexpected worldwide smash hit “Somebody That I Used To Know”. Her contribution to the acidic breakup anthem adds a much-needed female perspective to the gloomy proceedings, and showcases the crystal clear vocals that have rocketed her to stardom in the southern hemisphere.

While the 21-year-old remains relatively unknown stateside, she already has a platinum-selling Top 5 album under her belt in Australia and an ARIA Award (the Aussie equivalent of a Grammy) for Best New Talent. The modern-day torch singer is hoping to repeat that success here with help from her Gotye duet and a hectic touring schedule that includes the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin in March and the opening slot on Foster The People’s North American tour.

FULL NAME: Kimbra Johnson

AGE: 21

HOMETOWN: The Katy Perry lookalike was born and raised in Hamilton, New Zealand, a large industrial city on the country’s picturesque North Island. She moved to Melbourne, Australia at the age of 17 to further her music career.

SOUNDS LIKE: Bjork without an accent. The quirky Kiwi songbird has been compared to everyone from the Icelandic pop-pioneer to Florence + The Machine and Nina Simone thanks to her eclectic genre-hopping style that encompasses elements of jazz, folk and soul, underpinned by a strong current of pop. Kimbra names French chanteuse Camille and English experimentalist Jamie Lidell as two major influences.

BEGINNINGS: Gotye’s go-to girl started writing songs at age 10, which is surprising because she didn’t grow up in a musical family. Her father, a doctor, gave her a guitar when she was 12 years old. She placed second in a nationwide school music competition called Rockquest at 14. “That was really encouraging as a kid,” Kimbra told Melbourne’s Herald Sun. “It seems a lifetime ago, but it was a great head start.” She then released a couple of independent singles in New Zealand, but they failed to chart.

BIG BREAK: One of the pretty brunette’s pre-fame singles was called “Simply On My Lips”. While it was a nonstarter commercially, it brought the then 17-year-old to the attention of a Melbourne-based independent record label called Forum 5. The owner flew to New Zealand to meet the teenager and, after hearing her perform live, offered her a deal — on condition that she move to Melbourne to perfect her sound. She jumped on a plane and spent the next four years crafting her debut album Vows.

DEVELOPMENT: Listening to a wide variety of different artists and developing contacts in the Australian music industry played a key role in creating her own distinctive sound. She collaborated with a number of high-profile producers and sought inspiration from unlikely places. “I like challenging people,” she told the Herald Sun of her quirky pop aesthetic in 2011. “Look at “Single Ladies”, that synth line in the chorus just takes this dark turn. Or “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. The fun of being in the pop world is you can really play with people’s perceptions of what the word pop means.”

AUSTRALIAN SUCCESS: Kimbra unveiled her new, mature sound on her international debut single “Settle Down” in 2010. The jazzy-pop concoction drew critical acclaim and the colorful video generated a tidal wave of blog love. A follow-up single called “Cameo Lover” showed the rising star in a completely different light with its disco-tinged beats and helped cement the 21-year-old as the next big thing. Vows was released in late 2011 and peaked at #4 in Australia. It has since been certified platinum and earned the adopted-Aussie an ARIA Award for Best New Artist.

GOTYE CONNECTION: As successful as her own album was, Kimbra’s career reached dizzying new heights when she was asked to appear on the lead single from Australian singer Gotye’s third album Making Mirrors. “Somebody That I Used To Know” was an instant smash, rocketing to #1 and selling over half a million downloads in Australia, where it has been certified eight times platinum. The bitter breakup track has also topped charts in Germany and the UK and is rapidly climbing the Billboard Hot 100.

Ironically, the diva-in-waiting used to perform Gotye’s 2007 hit “Hearts A Mess” live and used to harass the 31-year-old to attend her shows. ”When I was still making my record I was doing gigs in pubs around Melbourne and just said to him, ‘Hey, I’m playing, you should come down,”’ Kimbra told The Age. ”I saw him around a bit but it wasn’t until we made the song together that we saw each other as friends.” Asked about the song’s success, she told the newspaper: ”I didn’t expect it to go number one. I knew it would go well but it’s amazing how well it’s done.”

US PLANS: With “Somebody That I Used To Know” sitting pretty in the US iTunes Top 10, her focus has turned to the States. An American edition of Vows is on the way — complete with a brand new tracklist. She also has some serious touring on the horizon. She will appear at SXSW, open for Foster The People on dates across America and support Gotye on his forthcoming US tour.

Do you think Kimbra has a good chance of cracking the US market with her soulful pop jams? Let us know in the comments below, or on Twitter and Facebook!