Local Current Blog

“We like to put things in boxes”: Kimbra on Prince’s spirit, vocals, and constant evolution

Photo by Micaiah Carter

Kimbra gets Prince. Since buying Musicology in a New Zealand record store, she’s released three of her own shape-shifting albums, including today’s Primal Heart. But she’s never lost sight of principles she learned from Prince — especially evolution, duality, and joy.

You know her from “Somebody That I Used To Know,” the song that sent her and Gotye to the top of the charts, but she’s a wild, incredible artist in her own right. This is the woman who sang:

You got Morrissey, Joy Division on CD/
But I don’t go for them, I can’t move to that beat/
I like Marvin Gaye and gospel music, my soul and my heart/
But you call it noise, always spoil my favorite parts

There’s so much more to read about her, but for this interview’s purposes, you just need to start off knowing that she loves Prince. He admired her work, telling Janelle Monáe that his favorite song from The Golden Echo (2014) was “Carolina.” And here, she gushes about his.

Here’s our conversation.

The Current: The day after Prince’s death, you wrote a blog post which said, “There is perhaps no other artist in the world who has inspired me as much as Prince.” That’s a huge statement. But can you scratch the surface of what it means for you?

Kimbra: The reason I wrote that is because he inspired me on so many levels. There’s lots of artists that I look up to — some as vocalists, some as producers, some as entertainers or fashion icons. And then you look at Prince. He’s kind of done all those things. [laughs] He’s inspired me on all those levels.

His music ranges from heavy rock to the most emotional gospel ballads. [He had] the ability to be so sexually liberated but also deeply spiritual. I see music as a very sensual expression, but also as a very spiritual expression. It’s a really beautiful paradox that he encompassed so unapologetically.

You know, we like to put things in boxes. We like to have spiritual music on the left side and raunchy, sexual music on the other side. But Prince was such an amazing artist who could break those dualistic ways of thinking and show us music that could possess all of these things. Which is very much like the human experience, right? We are a contradiction much of the time, and so many things go on within us.

I thought for a long time that I had to choose where I want to stand as an artist, in terms of genre. But Prince inspired me: Why do you have to make one choice? You can be a multifaceted artist, confusing and surprising people. I really admired that.

And in that same blog post, you wrote, “Prince spoke of the primal beast and the humble soul.” Now your third album is called Primal Heart.

Yeah, that’s interesting! I wonder if I was meditating on that stuff back then. There’s a lot of things that were moving me at that time.

I released a song called “Sweet Relief” soon after Prince passed, and I remember I was going through difficulty with my record label. I wanted to put out an EP, and they wanted me to wait until the album. But I’d finished this music, and I wanted to release it.

I remember having a moment where I called Lenny Waronker, who worked really closely with Prince. I just told him, “There’s no reason why we should hold back on releasing the music in fear that it might not do what we want it to do.” It’s an outlet, and someone like Prince always put the music first and pushed to get his art out there, whatever the cost. I’m sure he had a lot of fear — he’s a human — but he’d walk straight into his fears.

And so I remember thinking about what that means, quite a long time ago, before I decided on the album title ‘Primal Heart.’ Fear and primality tie into each other, and Prince showcased both of them a lot in his work.

Have you been to Paisley Park? I know you were going to perform there, but then he passed, and that wasn’t a thing.

That’s right. I was all set to perform there, and of course it would’ve been so inappropriate for me to bring that up at the time when they were working out his estate. It didn’t feel right to ask about that in that time.

I haven’t visited before, no. Obviously, if the opportunity comes up, it’d be incredible. But I guess I don’t know how I feel about the places that people create. It would be amazing to see where he worked, but I don’t think it would necessarily change the way I feel about his music. It’s like when they say, “A church isn’t the building.” It’s the spirit everywhere, right?

The first Prince album you ever loved was Musicology, which some would call underrated. What don’t people understand about that album?

Musicology is sort of a weirder way to come to Prince. I’m not sure how critically acclaimed that album was — I don’t think it was massive for him. But I think he was going into neo-soul on that record, and it’s a lot cleaner than other albums. The production is slick, and maybe that shinier sound was less appealing for people. But the songs never stopped being incredible. I think of “Lolita” and 3121 — I was obsessed with that album. Even the very most recent release. There’s been so much good songwriting across the board.

What has changed a lot is Prince’s production style, and if you fell in love with the earlier, grittier analog drum machine beat and raucous guitars — that did change over the course of his career, and you can understand that he wouldn’t have been excited about doing the same thing over and over again. So there’s this self-imposed need to push his own production; push the musicians that he plays with.

You know, I was just so excited for the music video for “Musicology.” I thought, who is this incredible dancer? I kind of knew that he was famous, but I didn’t really know anything about Prince. Just his presence was incredible to me.

And beyond that, the violence of funk music he made: the little stabs that he put in the music. His musical choices were so aggressive — so bold and unapologetic. Even in “Musicology,” the bass line and the funky horns — you don’t really hear music like that on the radio, especially at that time. It was the 2000s when that came out, and everything was a bit more jamming R&B, so it stood out.

You sang “Call My Name” from Musicology at the Cedar Cultural Center last time you were in town, and in 2016, you performed at First Avenue with the Revolution. What are you thinking about when you cover Prince? It seemed like it was a huge undertaking for you, or maybe a leap of faith in yourself.

It’s super nerve-wracking, because I know that Minneapolis is Prince’s home, and many of the people in the crowd have seen him perform at various times. There’s always that moment: “Can I do it justice?”

But I’m a big believer that half of what makes music so meaningful is soul. It’s the conviction with which you perform the music, and there’s no doubt that I have a very strong connection to Prince and a big heart for what he does. So I try to let people into just how much I love him, even though I’m screwing up the chords and everything. [laughs]

You know, Prince’s music is joy. Right? If you’ve ever been to a Prince concert: it’s just straight-up joy and fun. It gets really emotional and deep, but at the end of the day, you can feel his playful spirit.

I did play with the Revolution in Minneapolis, at First Avenue, and having that kind of acknowledgment from his band gave me a real sense of — I felt like I could cover Prince because I had that seal of approval. [NPG bandleader] Morris Hayes was in the audience! When they invited me to that stage, it was such an honor and validation. “You can cover your hero.”

Kimbra performs with the Revolution on Sept. 3, 2016. Photo by Steven Cohen for MPR.

Were you able to talk much with the Revolution?

A lot, yeah. I got to know Wendy really well. She’s an incredible woman. Morris Hayes is from the New Power Generation, and we’ve become quite good friends over the years. [I’m] quite close with the Janelle Monáe crew, and I met him through Janelle.

With the Revolution, we got to spend a bit of time together practicing. And it was emotional. They all really had to have their moment of catharsis that night. There were a lot of tears backstage, and it was really emotional for me to be there, too. Even though I was mourning from a different place than they were. I think when you share a moment like that with people, you feel like family after. [laughs] You’re all crying together, and it’s very intense.

And going back to the music, I wanted to talk about vocals. I think of you as so much of a vocally experimental artist, and I was wondering if you had any favorite vocal techniques or moments in Prince’s music.

There’s so much I could talk about. I don’t know if you’re acquainted with For You, the very first album. That a capella he opens the record with is just called “For You.” It’s unbelievable what he does with that voice and where he takes you in that one.

I think what’s so astounding about Prince is how masculine he can sound, and low, and growling, but then his falsetto sounds like castrati or something. I can’t believe how much control he has up there.

And he has such a skill to mimic. I mean that as a high honor, because when you’re learning how to sing, half of how you grow is just mimicking your favorite artists. You can hear that. Michael Jackson, of course, loved Diana Ross. He’s trying to sing like her a lot of the time. Of course, he adds something different to it, so that changes the tone. But you can hear Sly and the Family Stone through Prince, and artists like Minnie Riperton in his work. I’m sure it’s because he has that ear to hear music and do his take on it. Of course, it comes across very unique. But it’s that daringness to say, “Yeah, I’ll give that a try.” And the ability to listen to vocalists like an instrument.

It reminds me of Prince’s fashion as well.

That’s right, absolutely. He always did it his own way, but you can see so many lines of thinking where he’s obviously been watching a lot of Bowie, or various other things, and taking it into his own little sphere.

And of course his screaming technique. I don’t think anyone else has really got the same — yeah, I go back to the word “primal.” That primal scream and intensity that Prince could get out of his own instrument is incomparable.

In “Top Of The World” off Primal Heart, is the “diamonds and pearls” lyric a reference to Prince?

[caught in the act] Yes…of course, of course!

In “Top Of The World,” it’s kind of a dark lyric, in the sense of the story. It’s following this character that’s getting higher and higher on ambition and greed. Going from good intention, rising up to this point where you can no longer see the forest from the trees. You’ve lost the thing you wanted, which was to connect with people, and now you’re blinded by your own ascension. That’s the core of “Top Of The World” and the music video.

But when I was trying to think about different lines to express the way it feels to be on top of the world, of course, you think of success and jewels and power. So maybe diamonds and pearls are referencing that.

But actually, we’ve now lost Prince. He’s no longer with us in the body anymore. So saying, “Send me up with the diamonds and pearls,” it was more of a warning or cautionary tale, because the ambition that comes from striving and striving and striving can have a dark outcome. It can cause people to be removed from us before their time.

To me, “diamonds and pearls” refers to the grandiose and the heights that someone like Prince came to, but also, it’s got a darker undertone. We lose so many great people too soon. You can’t help but ask, is it [due to] that disconnect or isolation that causes one to become removed from their beginnings or the people that loved them? We don’t know exactly how Prince or so many different artists passed, but we do know there’s a really hard side to that story.

Thank you for sharing that. This last question has to do with the ascension of your own career, but in a more fun way. I was wondering if you could tell the story of when Prince handed you a Grammy.

Well, at the Grammys, I kind of forgot that we were up for an award. [Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know (feat. Kimbra)” took home the 2013 Record of the Year.] While Prince was reading off the nominees, I was just so blown away by the idea that he was standing in front of me, and I was a breath away from this person who had inspired me so much. He feels larger than life to all of us, I think. It’s just surreal to be not only standing in the same space as him, but also acknowledged. Having that nod. He even said to the crowd, “I love this song.”

I remember being quite overwhelmed, and I wondered if I should go say something after, but he ran away so soon. And I remember thinking, “No, I don’t need to have a conversation. That was just enough.” We had this mutual respect. I think for every artist who works so hard, there’s something so satisfying about getting that acknowledgment. And who better than Prince to give that seal of approval?

Read more features on Prince’s multifaceted sound here — and tune in to our new Purple Current stream for music by Prince, his inspirations, and artists carrying his legacy forward.

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