Q&A: Singer-songwriter Kimbra embraces ‘a reckoning’ with upcoming album

Sage Dunlap, Life&Arts Associate Editor

New Zealand-born singer-songwriter Kimbra Lee Johnson, known as Kimbra onstage, first garnered mainstream attention from her collaboration with alternative group Gotye in the 2011 smash hit “Somebody That I Used To Know.” She has since released three full-length albums and recently launched a podcast called “Playing with Fire.”

The Grammy-winning pop star’s next album A Reckoning comes out on Jan. 26. Ahead of its release and the start of her North American and European tour later this month, The Daily Texan sat down with Kimbra to discuss her upcoming album, vulnerability in songwriting and the themes of rage and relief she explores through her music.

The Daily Texan: What does the title A Reckoning represent for you?

Kimbra: I had the title before we entered our huge pandemic. … It was more about what I was going through, and then I was like, ‘Actually, the whole world is going through a reckoning. Let me lean into this.’ I read a book called ‘Reckoning with Aggression,’ (and) I was exploring this topic of anger, trying to understand it and myself. I really liked the idea of reckoning with these things inside you, like investigating and understanding them. I decided to make the record a very hard look at the stuff going on inside and in the world. It felt bold and relevant. 

DT: How did the theme of coping with rage translate sonically on the album?

K: We need healthy ways to let out a rage. When we suppress stuff, it’s terrible. Sonically, it was definitely expressed in the drum production. There’s a lot of heavy 808s and (with) the synths, there’s a lot of stabbing sounds and things that jump out. There’s also a lot of stillness, because that’s the other side of rage. There’s a calm after the storm, a surrender. Both are there — the soft piano ballads are the surrender, the resignation. Then, there’s the aggression of ‘Replay.’ Even some of the more flirty R&B songs have an aggressive side; It’s the sexiness and choice of sounds that feels confident.

DT: The songwriting on your single ‘Save Me’ is particularly striking. How did you approach writing that song, and did you draw from your own personal emotions when writing it?

K: I was in a therapy session before I wrote the song, and I was really struggling to get out what I was feeling. My therapist was just like, ‘Why don’t you write a song for yourself that no one’s going to hear? Just say the things you’re most scared to say. You don’t have to try to be a pop star.’ I found myself writing words like ‘I lack the courage to take care of myself. Ain’t that a turn on?’ It’s so depressing to say that out loud, but that’s how I feel sometimes. I didn’t think anyone was going to hear it, so I just was really honest.

DT: You’re starting your North America and Europe tour this January. What is it like to perform songs like ‘Save Me’ that are so personal and vulnerable in front of a live audience?

K: It’s a lot, especially ‘Save Me’ because it breaks my heart to think about where I was. I feel for younger Kimbra. Honestly, every time I sing it, I’m more healed than I was before. It’s hard to explain, but when you really touch your own emotions, they become part of you and they’re not scary anymore. Every time I sing them, and I own them, I’m a little bit stronger because I’m not running. There’s power in that.