We’ll occasionally be hosting interviews between two industry figures to gain insight into their creative processes. This instalment sees Sydney singer-songwriter Phebe Starr interview New Zealand-born, Grammy-winning artist Kimbra.
The pair spoke candidly about the importance of self-confidence, growing up in small towns, the experience of being women in music, and more.
Read the full transcript of the interview below:
Kimbra: I was checking out your music on Spotify yesterday, it sounds really great. I want to say how much I enjoyed it.
Phebe: Thank you! I’m a big fan of yours I am so excited to chat with you. What are you working on at the moment and how is it going?
Kimbra: I’ve just finished the third album. Well, it’s in final mixing at the moment. I’ve been thinking with this new record about how I want to play it live and communicate it visually.
Phebe: For me when I am working on a project I always visualise something in real life, textures, colours or a situation and that’s how it starts the creative process. I ask myself ‘how do I want them to feel when they are listening.’ What’s it like for you?
Kimbra: I’ve used this metaphor for it a few times now, I want to sit down with people and hold their hand and talk to them very directly into the eyes. Like you have said how do you want them to feel. I imagine sitting over coffee and having a very personal direct conversation. I wanted to really tap into the kind of truth and connection that you have with a good friend.
Phebe: I feel like there’s a need for this. With everything that’s going I’ve felt I’ve needed to make a stand for what I feel on issues and to express them directly. Like… This is what I think about refugees and this is what I will do. I’ve been quite direct. Do you think that as an artist and where we are in the world at the moment you are called to be more direct with your worldview?
Kimbra: Yeah you might be right. I mean I’ve moved to New York City. I’ve travelled to Ethiopia twice during making this album. I’ve experienced some pretty intense things over there but also living here.
Phebe: So you come from Hamilton, New Zealand originally… That sure is different from New York?
Kimbra: Oh I mean it was just the complete opposite of where I live now but it’s an agriculture kind of town so mainly known for its farming.
Phebe: I grew up on a farm as well and it was like valleys and big like Narnia trees.
Kimbra: It does do something to the soul for sure growing up in a place like that.
Phebe: Growing up in a small town was really hard for me to get the connection and support into the arts and just even materials to start. You don’t just fall into it when you’re from a rural town. I would sit there for hours cutting up cassette tapes. I would experiment with whatever I could find. I had to teach myself music. How did you get started?
Kimbra: I probably could have been as young as eight you know, making these songs and singing them out in my bedroom. But it wasn’t until I learned guitar around the age of 12 or 13 that I started writing songs. I started integrating more interesting jazz chords I was learning and at that point. I was connected with the school music teacher. I guess it could have been around 14, 15, when I asked the teacher about a recording unit called a Boss 8 track.
I would plug in the guitar play. I learned how to apply a phaser on it and put reverb synths and pan it off to the side while I’d recorded the voice track. I had another seven tracks to work with. That’s how I expanded into like harmony and backing vocals. I loved music that was very vocal heavy and had just discovered artists like Bjork. I wanted to be a little more expressive with the voice and because I had this piece of technology that gave me that ability.
Phebe: It seems like that early stage of experimenting developed your sound. I’m always trying to push myself to learn new ways of recording and experimenting that take me back to those earlier days of discovery so I don’t get limited by my own ability. What’s that process been like for you?
Kimbra: A technique that you learned early on is to continue to place new pieces of technology in front of you that are going to force you to think in entirely new ways. This room that we’re in now is made up of synths and small gadgets for recording that means I always have a new thing to play with.
The idea is to continually be introducing new things that can be pushing you to think in new ways and I’ve never been a reader of manuals I mean it’s just I’ve always taken that approach of experiment with the piece of technology make mistakes on it and find your own way around.
Phebe: No, I know what you mean I get so frustrated with tutorials I’m like I don’t want to know that I don’t want to know anything I just want to use it.
Kimbra: It’s just, I can’t listen to them.
Phebe: I’m very experimental in that approach as well like I if I get new gear I don’t want to be taught how to use it I want to interact with it. I guess that’s how I started playing music.
Kimbra: Music comes from the inner child right… playful spirit.
Phebe: Yeah that hopeful person who’s a fearless risk-taker that’s not thinking about consequences.
Kimbra: An earlier version of us that we wish we could be all the time and we’re not. But you know, we get to be when we’re musicians. And I think you know if you know every piece of technology you’re working with too well, if you know your instrument too well as well you know – you’re never getting to run up against any, I guess walls, that you have to break through and that…
Phebe: About that fight… for your creativity. Do you think you have to always fight for it?
Kimbra: Freedom comes from definitely learning to assert yourself and be strong about what your vision and intention is. Knowing what your values are and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Of course, we all doubt and fluctuate but if you’re clear on that and why you do what you do and what you stand for as an artist it makes it easier. I think one of my values would be that I always want to be pushing myself and continually stepping into a new territory so that already rules out me making you know contrived pop music that I hate.
Phebe: So that’s how you fight, by communicating who you are and believing in it?
Kimbra: Communication is key. Maybe it’s something that women have to sometimes strive harder for in the music industry, you know it’s something that we have to maybe be stronger about and maybe get a little more flack for it because it can be misinterpreted. Or we just have known men to be better about drawing those strong boundaries.
I think it can be hard for women to stand up in that way and be strong from the start about what they represent what they want to achieve and I think that’s why it’s so important to have a really strong language around that.
Phebe: Yeah totally. I think value system is one of the most important things I’ve had to learn to articulate. Even just having the conversation of this is powerful because I know for me there have been very few mentors or people giving me permission to do so.
Kimbra: In the right light while you tell a very vulnerable story or you explore for example sexuality, gender roles and things that are maybe kind of…
Phebe: …Yeah, hard to express.
Kimbra: You have to really trust the person you’re allowing to do that with and I think maybe that’s a big part of it is just surrounding yourself with people who really know your intentions.
Phebe: Artistically we put a lot of pressure or success on the individual, when in reality – even though we all contribute individually – art is really made collectively.
Is there anything that you want to share with young female artists who are just getting started?
Kimbra: Self-confidence is huge. Faith in yourself and the ability to believe that you have just as much to offer us as another person if you apply yourself and if you care enough but that’s basically a deeper thing you know. Hard work is important of course. But when you care about something deeply and you know that it’s important for you to share it, write that song or maybe produce that song you’re going to do whatever it takes to get it.
You’re going to learn that drum machine you’re going to learn Pro Tools you’re going to learn how to sit down and record your voice and get it right. I’ve never thought of it as work.
Phebe: Yeah so it comes back to your vision and believing in your vision.
Kimbra: It’s just important to create. The entire universe exists because of creation. I believe in the importance of losing the self-doubt that gets in the way from the moment of conception. Basically, if you can get past that stuff then there’s not really any work involved it’s just a call of duty. It’s service and it’s charity and it’s living and breathing. Do you know what I mean?
Phebe: YES, I hear you. It’s a simple but profound strong message and yet one that I think we need to hear more of. I feel like a lot of things in society and life that go bad come back to the loss of those simple truths. Loving one another and loving yourself. The complexities of life really flow from there if you get the start right.
Kimbra: All the things that get in the way of that are the fear. How can we always be coming back to that place of love because I think that’s where creation is born anywhere. That’s who we are, we’re creators we’re loving beings we’re giving back you know.
Phebe: Well whenever I look at any artists that I really admire there’s always a simple truth even though there might be a complexity about them; like David Bowie with his gender roles. At the center of it, it’s that human message to love and to be loved and to accept.
You mentioned you went overseas where did you go?
Kimbra: Ethiopia twice now.
Phebe: Okay, why did you go there?
Kimbra: Well I had a fascination with Ethiopia for a while. I don’t know if you know the music but it’s absolutely incredible. Ethiopian music is very funky and groovy jazz bass but really melodic and kind of takes a lot from the like Middle Eastern scales you know, so it’s got that haunting kind of sounds of things but then like really heavy funk kind of and African inspired rhythm obviously.
So yeah, they have a cool collision going on musically. I’m also obsessed with the food and the culture and I cook the food myself now. I also wanted to give my heart to something other than just being a musician and find a way to see more of the world and maybe give back.
There’s a charity that works for women and children in the most underprivileged parts of the world. They partner up with organisations in the country like Ethiopians that are doing work with women that are affected by HIV/aids. This organisation is helping women by giving them seed money to build a business so… A year later you know they might have a fully functioning restaurant and be brewing beer in their house or sewing clothes and so it’s just incredibly empowering women that are going from having nothing and complete outcasts in society to then see hope again, like I said, hold hands with people from such different circumstances, tell each other your stories, share your pain in a very human primal way it’s just incredibly powerful.
Phebe: It’s really interesting that connection and wanting more wanting healing and all of those things that are universal. Do you carry that pain of seeing women in those situations?
Kimbra: I’ve never experienced anything quite like that before. The way woman are marginalised in these countries is beyond what we can even imagine. Basically, when you fall off the rungs of the ladder as a woman in Ethiopia you’re ending up doing physical labor. So, you see these images of these frail woman climbing up steep mountains holding huge logs I can’t even imagine picking up on their back. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and you know we hear about these things but when you’re talking with these women that are basically our age you know with…
Phebe: With five or six children!
Kimbra: Do you know what I mean? We’re not talking in their 40s. At the end of the day, we all go through loneliness, fear, anxiety, yeah but also courage, strength, and hope and like you said… wanting more and longing for more. These things are integral in all of us and it doesn’t mean just because I have this completely different life that I can’t completely relate to that either.
I’ve had – not quite in the same way but I’ve had my own pain and I think you know me sharing that with them as well is powerful. There’s something so powerful about women being together. It’s incredibly powerful to place yourself in a position where you can’t deny the connection.
Phebe: That’s the role of being an artist. To create that connection in humanity and to struggle with the connection and to try and find meaning in disconnection.