Growing up in a small country on the other side of the world, a young girl named Kimbra Lee Johnson did what she said almost every New Zealander does -- dream big.
Now, in the tradition of one-name wonders, Kimbra is living the dream of every pop diva as she tries to prove that her homeland offers more than grazing in the grass.
"There are a lot of sheep in New Zealand," she said, laughing about one ugly American's perception of the island in the southwestern Pacific regarded as Australia's little sister. But, the biggest misconception coming from the Western Hemisphere is, she said, "That maybe New Zealanders are so far away and it's hard for us to do big things. I think that's probably been proved wrong. I'm seeing so many amazing New Zealanders rise up and do incredible things," citing film director Peter Jackson as an example. "It's good to submit that you don't have to be from a big country to do big things."
Kimbra left the burgeoning city of Hamilton, known more for agriculture than pop culture, four years ago to do just that. Building a music career in Melbourne, Australia, it took almost that long to record and release her delicious and danceable debut, Vows, which was released stateside on May 22 by Warner Bros. Records. (A seven-song Vows Remix EP, which includes new versions of the funkified power of "Come Into My Head" and the romantically luxurious "Two Way Street," was released digitally on September 28.)
Now she's two weeks into her first headlining North American tour, which includes a couple of appearances this month at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Though she already was known abroad for her robust voice and body painting role in Gotye's video of the worldwide hit "Somebody That I Used to Know," Kimbra was basically introduced to American audiences at South by Southwest in 2012. Beginning with a KCRW Showcase on March 14, the whirlwind ride included eight performances in four days. "Yeah, that was a crazy, crazy experience," for her and her bandmates, she said. "We were just absolutely wasted."
It's been almost nonstop ever since, taking lengthy road trips as a supporting act for Gotye and Foster the People while trying to polish her invigorating live act with an edgy but soulful voice that takes listeners far beyond the pop landscape.
No wonder Kimbra admitted she was tired, but enthused, while talking on the phone from Vancouver, British Columbia on the eve of her tour that began September 25. The fatigued frequent flier had just arrived the previous day from London, where she took a few days off after wrapping up a month of European dates.
"I'm excited about this tour because the places we're playing are far more my cup of tea," said Kimbra, who still found the grandeur of Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado to be awe-inspiring after performing there in July. "Yeah, I like smaller venues. I just prefer the intimacy of getting in smaller venues, places like the Fonda Theatre in L.A. (October 3-4), places I love going to myself. And to actually have a chance to play longer than half an hour, 45 minutes." (laughs)
Yet she's grateful for the break provided by her collaboration with Gotye, the Australian by way of Belgium whose song went to No. 1 in 11 countries around the world. Because of that, Kimbra said, "Obviously, my doorway into America has been opened so wide... There's no denying that there's been an incredible opportunity for me to release my music overseas."
Kimbra and Gotye just happen to be on the same bill October 12th at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. And though ARIA's Best Female Artist of 2011 is coy about the possibility, there's an outside chance she and ARIA's Best Male Artist of 2011 will perform again in Austin, since her sold-out late show at the Belmont on October 13 follows his 7-8 p.m. festival set (Barton Springs stage).
"It's fun to do that song with Gotye, of course," said Kimbra, who also appears the next day at the festival (12:15-1:15 p.m., Bud Light stage). "I just think it's difficult to be able to make it work in the last few months because obviously I have to go on tour and promote this record. We did a good run of performing together on that song. It just felt like the right time for me to start touring my record. But any moment that there's the opportunity to get together and do that, of course, I'm always excited to make that happen."
During this short interview, Kimbra was receptive about discussing almost any subject, but didn't want to give too much away in terms of describing her sound. "I find that words don't necessarily always do justice to it," she said apologetically before admitting there are "elements of being quite theatrical at times and sometimes we call it some kind of prog-pop. But once again they all just feel like words, you know?"
She also was protective while talking about her family, but mentioned that her younger brother and "very supportive" parents (dad's a doctor, mom's a nurse) still live in New Zealand and "I try to keep in touch with them the best that I can."
Yet the guarded pop princess also proved she can be a dreamgirl who wants to have fun, too, including throughout this lively exchange that was enhanced to comedic effect by a sometimes shaky cell-phone connection:
What's something you can share about yourself that most people don't know?
"Hmmm, I'm asthmatic; that's not very exciting, is it?" (laughs)
I'm sorry, did you say athletic?
"I'm an asthmatic. Yeah."
Oh. That's quite different from being athletic, I guess.
"Yeah, exactly. Well, I am athletic as well, but it's hard because... (laughing) Oh no, what else? I really love Meshuggah, the band. Like a kind of heavy metal band. I guess that's something that people might not know about me."
While more mysteries await a world of skeptics who believe there's no such thing as a sure thing, Kimbra is determined to prove them wrong.
A fashionable pop singer-songwriter from New Zealand who enjoys Swedish heavy metal and infuses bits of jazz (check out her dynamite cover of Nina Simone's "Plain Gold Ring"), soul and prog rock into her dynamic wall of sound really can be for real.
If there were any doubts, they ended when a dream morphed into reality for someone who, even at the tender age of 22, mistakenly has been called an overnight sensation.
"I could never have imagined it would be like this," she said about sometimes living in a fantasy world as a child. "It's taken hard work as well. It hasn't happened overnight. I've had a lot of time to prepare for it. I've had a lot of time to think about it. It's kind of been more like 10 years in the making."
Five quick ones for Kimbra about Austin:
What do you remember most about your first appearance in Austin (at South by Southwest in 2012)?
Kimbra: "I can remember just feeling the electricity all through the city with everyone being there, running around to catch the next gig. I was excited to see Thundercat play that week, which was really exciting, 'cause I love him. Yeah, it was awesome."
Who is in the touring band you are bringing to Austin?
Kimbra: "Well, the same guys I've been with pretty much the whole time that I've been playing live with a band at least. Three of them are from New Zealand (Fagan Wilcox, bass, synth; Timon Martin, guitars; Stevie McQuinn, drums) and the other, the keyboardist (Ben Davey), is from Melbourne, Australia. They're like my big brothers. I've been friends for many years. They come from sort of a prog-rock metal background. So they love technical kind of experimental music. But it's great because they add their own kind of flair to the songs... And it's been really great to work with musicians who take that initiative to add to their personalities."
What can the ACL Music Festival audience expect from Kimbra?
Kimbra: "We've added a couple of new songs to the set. They're not new tracks, but they're off the album, tracks that we've never played before for American audiences live. Tracks 'Posse' and 'Something in the Way you Are'... And, yeah, so that will be really cool to debut the live versions of those... The show is gonna be quite visually exciting. We're bringing a really amazing backdrop on this tour and also I always like to indulge in fun dresses."
Other than your performance, what excites you most about coming to Austin?
Kimbra: "Seeing other bands; I've seen the lineup for that festival and I'm excited to see a few acts. I think I saw the Roots are playing; Thundercat will be playing again, and I'm excited to see him. And just being in the city again. To be honest, I just really like the town a lot. So it'll be really fun to hang out down there."
"Keep Austin Weird" is the local motto. What would your slogan be?
Kimbra: "That's a pretty good one, man. I'd be down with that. I think it's a fun one. I think my slogan for Austin would be something about music, you know. And it's an inspiration. Like music is such an inspiration for a city that appears to be built on those kind of values and that is really supporting people who are artistic."
Publicity photos by Thom Kerr.