You know Kimbra, even if you don’t know you know Kimbra. Maybe from her hit singles (Cameo Lover, Good Intent, Two Way Street) or her YouTube with 12 million views. Or maybe from that one song with Gotye that dominated human existence in 2011, and won her two Grammys. Her latest album, The Golden Echo, was named one of the 20 Best Pop Albums of 2014 by Rolling Stone.
The pop singer and New Zealand native talked to us about putting connections to work—a common theme throughout these interviews, the importance of finding a mentor and how to make it in a dramatically changing industry. She also shared the best advice she’s received and why musicians need a work-life balance, too.
Now I’m gonna check if I can use my Ticketmaster voucher to see her. I’m also gonna delete this joke in four months when it is no longer timely or memorable.
Why did you decide to become a singer?
It was a series of events that led me towards deciding this was a path I wanted to take. I could see that my music brought people joy when I played it live and I deeply cared about pursuing a career that would have a positive effect and create influence somehow. I also realized it gave me a great sense of joy and access to a spiritual purity of sorts, it felt like a calling that I should follow the desire to make music and perform for people, as though it were something that could really impact myself and the world in a positive way. That was the greatest reason I committed to it as a career.
How did you get started in your music career?
I was writing from around the age of 8 years old, mainly singing into dictaphones and recording onto cassettes but when I was 14 I learnt the guitar and the songs developed a lot more, I then picked up an interest in music production when I borrowed an 8 track from the high school music room and began to record my own songs and upload them onto my Myspace page. I also entered a competition called Rockquest in NZ and was placed second in the country which gave me a lot of opportunity to record music, meet people in the industry and develop experience as a live artist. Then Mark Richardson my current manager discovered my music and invited me to move to Melbourne to sign with his management company and start work on my first album.
What are the steps someone typically takes to become a singer?
For me, education paled in comparison to the actual creation of music, unbound by rules and concepts of what was necessarily right & wrong. I was fascinated studying music in my own time and mimicking the singers I loved which helped me to unlock different ways of using my voice. This foundational study, done in my own way was a pivotal part of discovering my own sound as a singer and songwriter. It is also important to be proactive and follow up on all the connections you make with people when trying to move forward in the industry. I developed strong friends and mentors while I was young as I was always very keen to learn, I think this played a big part in providing me with advice and guidance as I was starting out very young. I think a big first step is attracting the attention of someone who is willing to invest and take a leap of faith with you. In order to make music your career and develop as an artist you need to be able to dedicate yourself to it and therefore be able to live while doing it. Often this comes through a record label but initially for me it was just through management, it allowed me a fertile place to grow.
What are the costs of making an album?
The costs of making a record vary depending on who is investing and how much faith they take on you, how much they are willing to risk. Time also plays heavily into making a record, my first album took almost 3 and a half years to complete, although it was made almost completely without a record label it can still be a very costly endeavor when you are going back and forth on songs with producers for months and revisiting material in the studio. However it is a lot easier to stay within a budget when you have a home studio set up (even if it is minimal) which I have always had and continue to develop this side of what I do so as to maintain a control and not let costs blow out of proportion as they do when you are exclusively working out of expensive, famous studios. I think there is much to be learnt and gained from both processes and ultimately, record companies are prepared and used to taking a loss on many artists so it is different to a student loan that has to be paid back. An artist is being invested in with the hope of a return. On the flip side, when a record is successful a record company can make their investment back sometimes off just one successful tour so it is all relative and ultimately out of the artist's hands. I think the main thing is staying aware of how much money is being spent so you can allocate money to other parts of your campaign, i.e. marketing and not blow a budget on the recording of an album. Fortunately it has now become so much easier for an artist to be very self sufficient in production and able to create amazing records from the humble set up in a bedroom. I have always had a romance with this way of working and think I will always continue to.
How does someone make an income as a musician?
These days most of the money comes from syncs (i.e. when a commercial, TV show, movie, etc. uses your song) and merchandise. With the huge rise in TV and musicians being commissioned to write for films, this has become a really great way for artists to make back money invested in their records and help pay off the huge advances that are often provided up front for living costs and creation of the record. Because of the decline in actual album sales, artists are having to rely on other ways to help fund their records and of course record labels are now having to find other streams of revenue to take commission from to pay back their expenses also. I look at this shift as an invitation for both artists and record labels to think creatively and progressively about ways to assign value to music, people will always want to place a value on the music that touches them, it's just about shifting the focus and finding new ways to encourage that.
What are the best parts of being a musician?
The high that you get from channelling a force far greater than yourself. The energy created on stage when everyone in a band moves as one organism and therefore moves a crowd into a kind of ecstasy is incomparable and a truly transcendent experience. I feel so blessed to have these transporting moments in the work that I do and to be able to give that as a gift to others. When I hear how my music has touched people it truly gives meaning to my life and to the work I do. It is also such a joy to create something from nothing, watching a song come to life once the seed of a melody has been planted or losing yourself on stage is the best kind of feeling.
What are the biggest challenges in being a musician?
Touring can be very lonely and isolating despite being around a lot of people. There can feel like a lot of expectation to be someone or something to people. It is so easy to form a concept of a musician you have been inspired by and at times it can be hard to separate the musician and the art from just the human being, who is flawed and sometimes highly uninteresting. I struggle to separate this for myself and can therefore hold myself to very high and unattainable standards, but it can also be hard to separate these two worlds for other people and creating a balance between the world of the music and day to day life is a life skill I am still learning. Being a musician requires you to be very vulnerable and open your sacred spaces to people but it can be challenging to know when to keep things for yourself and how to protect yourself from burning out on the energy you give out. It is important to maintain reserves and close friends who understand this balance and need for nourishment in order to sustain all the energy that is given out. Sometimes the life of a musician can feel like a lot of intense highs and lows and the lifestyle does lend itself to these extremes but I think with good routines it is possible to maintain balance even within the craziness of the lifestyle.
Best advice you've ever received?
Take each day as it comes. It is important for me to remain present in each individual day and the needs that are required in that moment rather than becoming overwhelmed.
I also often come back to another quote which means a lot to me. “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
This keeps my heart in a state of 'listening' and gratitude.