Fighting the Good War

What is the natural state of the human heart? Why does it take over like an exorcism and become the driving force of our innermost desires? How can those desires work toward our evolution? These are the kinds of questions that New Zealand-born artist Kimbra explored as she wrote her newly released album, Primal Heart – an emotional roller coaster that dives into the visceral, complex nature of human impulse and passion. You may know the alternative pop songstress, Kimbra, from her Grammy award-winning hit song with Gotye, “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Throughout her career, she’s released two successful albums, Vows (2011) and The Golden Echo (2014), as well as collaborated with powerhouses like Mark Foster (from Foster the People) and John Legend. However, Kimbra has always marched to the beat of her own drum, figuratively and literally. She developed her sound through the help of her first producer, François Tétaz, who pushed her to write songs continuously as a teen for 2 years before she released any music to the world. Through that process, Kimbra found a unique, unpredictable style that fuses her passionate vocals with intuitive, musical twists and turns. Her sophistication and sense of musical spontaneity is ever-evolving and so is her content.

Her new album Primal Heart is a wonderland of layered sound and ambience that questions human patterns and calls for an evolution of consciousness. Co-produced by John Congleton, who has also worked with artists like Lana Del Rey, the album strums at a secret chord that accesses a more honest version of ourselves. The songs hit on a raw sense of ego, aggression, and loneliness, which are firmly rooted in the desire to be loved. Kimbra describes how she believes people contain multiple versions of themselves, which include the versions bursting with potential, as well as the people they don’t want to be. In order to reach this level of vulnerability, Kimbra has to dive deep and confront every version of herself and introduce each one of their voices like an arsenal to challenge convention and fight the good war.

So you basically achieved this pinnacle award, a Grammy, early on. What was the thought process that motivated you to stay on course with your music and keep grinding?
Through the help of my first manager, I had a mission to get my career on a course before I actually met Gotye. I think it was a really good thing that I had a sense of vision established that didn’t have anything to do with the Grammys or the Gotye song. I had this calling in life that I wanted to do this kind of music. And I think I can say with confidence that it has acted as an encourager, because it reinforced that truth of – if you make something you manifest into the universe, you actually don’t know what is going to happen. And with the Grammys, I think about just how ridiculous it is in some ways. Like, looking down at the seats where I was sitting, there’s Beyonce, Jay-Z, Kelly Clarkson, Adele, just all of them in the same row as me. And I’m like, “this is hilarious.” I mean, who would have thought? It wasn’t like the pinnacle of “Ok, this is what it’s like to make it!” More like, “Damn, don’t ever think that something’s not possible.”

I love the irony in your song “Top of the World” where you’re chasing this dream, but it’s a dream that society values. Are you drawing parallels to your own life and career?
You know, often things start from a personal story. But you can only go so far with that because you only have so much to draw from. So then there comes a point in a song for me, probably around the halfway mark, where I’m like, do I keep wanting to go with that same experience and my views on it or do I want to try something that’s like a collective consciousness? The reason that I love Greek mythology so much is that there’s so much passed down through generations. There’s this collective repetition that works in our world that’s really fundamentally a part of all our stories. So, “Top of the World” for me is watching certain people come into power that probably started with very good intentions, but when ambition becomes the only driving force in your life, you become deluded and divided by it. And, of course, I can see that kind of stuff in my own life. In order to make it into something that is powerful, you sometimes have to draw from the most exaggerated experience, the thing that has the most directness for people. I just try to bring a bigger story into it so that it can reach more people, reach something deeper in the human heart. That’s the thing that I’m interested in: What is in a human heart?

I think with songs like “Top of the World,” “Like they do on TV,” and even some of your older stuff, like “Settle Down,” there’s this running theme of questioning conventions. What are the conventions you seek to break down through your music?
We’re told a lot of things when we’re young and then you have to grow up and question them. Do you take a song at face value for just a fun, catchy hook or do you look deeper into the lyrics to see what that artist is going through? Do you take what you’ve been told about marriage, or do you question it? I think I’ve naturally been more curious and I believe in curiosity in music. It would be a really sad day if we all became factory-made and formulaic. Curiosity is pretty essential, and you’re right, it’s questioning things that we’ve taken for granted. Questioning love because love is the most important thing in the world – it’s the lyric of the whole album: “I’ve got a heart that’s primal, because I need your love for my survival.” Human beings, we can’t progress or evolve into actual useful beings if we don’t learn, receive, and cultivate an environment of love.

I felt like “Version of Me” really stood out on the album. What inspired this vulnerability?
It came from a really vulnerable moment with someone I cared a lot about. We had a very kind of heated argument, but I think there are moments of self-doubt when I see myself back in cycles – when you watch yourself repeating history over and over again with someone that you love. We want peace, we want unity, we want harmony, but we keep playing out this story that’s sabotaging [us]. I think I found myself writing a text to this person. “Please, I’m sorry. Next time will be different.” I watched this come out of me, and I was like, wow, what an interesting sentiment – begging another person to wait for a more evolved version. Ethan Gruska [the co-writer] and I both agreed like, okay, that’s kind of an interesting thing to talk about, why are there different versions, why aren’t we just one person for the world? Why are we so many different people? Finding the lyrics was healing for me in that moment when I found myself caught in cyclical behavior of being that person you don’t want to be.

One of your songs is called “Good War” about fighting the same wars over and over. What has been your biggest personal “war” that you continuously struggle with?
I think we’re all at war when we live in the Western world. I mean, if you’re white and middle class, you’ve already got a lot of luxury above everyone else in the world and you can easily just go along, believing that you’re entitled and that your voice isn’t really going to make a difference. And the war within myself is knowing that temptation is there, but also acknowledging that I feel a very strong pull to make my life worth something and add my voice to fights for justice. I do believe there may be a god, there may be something beyond us that actually intends for us to work together for a new evolution of the primal heart. I’m getting very deep now, but you asked me. That’s a war for me, because I’m not some kind of saint at all. Every day I walk past people on the street that need my help, and I don’t know what to do. Part of me thinks that I’m entitled to just get on with my life, because I work hard for what I have. But this is a brother, and this is my sister, and I’m an artist and it’s my responsibility to work towards the change I want to see and be a part of it.

What do you hope people will take away from Primal Heart?
Connection with each other. I think that’s really powerful, if you can feel connected to your neighbor, connected to yourself. I mean, you can’t give yourself to others if you don’t first confront the things within yourself. If it’s an album that makes people look deeper with the nuances and complexities of one’s self, I think it will help them to have more empathy for the complexities of other people.

Text Zee Chang
Images Courtesy of Richard Reinsdorf