Around 2012, the world got to know Kimbra Lee Johnson when the song “Somebody That I Used To Know” hit the airwaves in a major way. The track, which was by the Belgian-Australian artist Gotye and featured Kimbra, became a global sensation unlike few songs before or since.
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But Kimbra is more than just a featured singer. She is a standout artist in her own right. Want proof? We caught up with the New Zealand singer and songwriter to ask her about her experience as a writer, what happens when she feels a gnawing sense of doubt, what advice she has for younger artists, and much more.
Check out the Q&A with the 32-year-old two-time Grammy Award-winning Kimbra and her newest track, “Save Me,” below. The new song is part of a new album that the artist announced this week, A Reckoning, which is set to drop in 2023.
American Songwriter: How did you get started in songwriting?
Kimbra: I began writing songs when my family would take me out on the boat we had in New Zealand, where I grew up. I would gaze out at huge volcanoes in the distance and melodies would rise up for me. I made little poems and would play around and put things together from as young as the age of 8 years old.
AS: What do you believe goes into writing a hit song?
Kimbra: A hit song often lands on something universal while also being incredibly specific. It usually has a feeling of familiarity but also feels unique! My favorite kind of hit song is one that feels like you’ve heard it all your life and connects you to a singular moment in your life.
AS: What was it like being part of one?
Kimbra: It’s totally crazy. People feel so connected to you without knowing anything about you really. It’s also so special to feel like I’ve been part of a soundtrack to someone’s life.
AS: Have you ever experienced writer’s block and how did you get past it?
Kimbra: I’m not sure I believe in writer’s block, I just believe that we lose confidence in ourselves and this absolutely leads to a kind of blockage. I often get past this kind of block by trying something totally different. Writing on a new instrument or completely changing the lighting in my studio.
AS: How do songs typically come together for you?
Kimbra: I usually start with a beat. Then I begin to sing melodies in a kind of gibberish. Then I begin to self-translate and work out what I’m saying while adding more lyrics to deepen the sentiment.
AS: When working with other artists, what is that spark, or the moment when you know it’s going to be a good session or a great song?
Kimbra: When we look at each other like little kids and laugh. Whenever I laugh or cry I know I’m making a great song.
AS: Is it hard to let a song go?
Kimbra: Yes. I have not worked out how to do that with grace yet.
AS: What is the hardest part for you when it comes to staying motivated to keep practicing songwriting?
Kimbra: I find it hard to stay motivated when I’m cut off from community. I thrive creatively around people and stimuli. I need to be around it to stay inspired.
AS: What was the biggest facet of taking your songwriting to the next level?
Kimbra: Meeting the right collaborators and deciding to be fearless around telling the truth.
AS: What advice would you share with songwriters who are just getting into the business?
Kimbra: Sing for yourself, write for your soul. Love what you do first before you ask others to love it too.
Photo courtesy The Oriel