Kimbra’s visit to Expo 2020 Dubai this week is, in a way, a homecoming.
For the past 14 years, the two-time Grammy Award-winner from New Zealand, whose full name is Kimbra Lee Johnson, has built a successful career in the US as an adventurous singer-songwriter and producer.
The relocation has paid dividends with her landing a 2011 chart-topping hit – Somebody I Used to Know with Aussie-Belgian artist Gotye – headlining the US music festival Coachella and releasing three acclaimed albums.
Her Expo shows at Dubai Millennium Amphitheatre, on Monday and Wednesday, mark the first time an audience will hear tracks from her coming and yet-to-be-titled fourth album outside of the US, where she recently completed a small run of sold-out gigs.
The UAE concerts are being organised by the New Zealand Pavilion, and Kimbra, 31, is looking forward to being a cultural ambassador for the Kiwis.
“I don’t get many chances to represent New Zealand as I have been living away since I was 17 years old,” she tells The National from New York. "It still remains so much part of who I am, though, in that I am a Kiwi through and through.
“I am just excited to be at the Expo and to align myself with New Zealand.”
Like many of her peers, Kimbra’s whirlwind career of back-to-back global tours suddenly stopped in March 2020 with the pandemic shuttering music venues worldwide.
While the change of circumstances was disorientating at first, she used the time away to work on her most experimental album yet.
“I have been using a lot of different technology to manipulate and create new effects with my voice, whether it is looping it, making it sound like a choir or even a synthesiser,” Kimbra says.
"As a result, the new songs are challenging to record and play live and we are trying to learn them and get them right.
“Being on the road a little bit, we are seeing how the songs are opening up and taking on their own lives. It's exciting."
Everything about the album, Kimbra says, has been created with the aim of pushing the envelope and inviting fans to be part of the process.
Both strands come together in her latest collaboration with online platform KLKTN (pronounced collection).
Kimbra joined the tech start-up in October and now fans can click on her page and get paid access to fresh tracks, video diaries, behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the album, plus NFT artworks.
"I am trying to create a community of fans who really want those insights, like hearing the original demos of the songs," she says.
"And I create so much that just sits there on my computer that I realised, why don't I share this with people?
“Getting involved in the visual artworks for sale is also a pretty exciting step because it provides income for artists, that we didn't have for a long time."
One of pop music’s weirdest songs
One track Kimbra won’t have a problem playing in Dubai is the aforementioned Somebody That I Used to Know.
When Gotye recruited her to sing the break-up ballad a decade ago, the last thing on her mind was global acclaim (including being sung by the cast of TV series Glee).
"Whenever I hear it now on the radio, it just takes me back to performing it at Coachella or on Saturday Night Live," she says.
"My brain goes back to all these memories, like recording the vocal in my bedroom.”
While she doesn’t exactly understand how such a slow-burning track became such a big hit, Kimbra says its success remains a source of confidence when composing her own unorthodox songs.
"It is a weird song but it does give me faith that some things can succeed the way that song did.
"It also made me really ambitious as an artist. So if any record label person tries to tell me what makes a hit, I will just stare him in the face and tell them 'really?' Because I was part of a hit and it definitely didn't sound like that.”
Kimbra performs at the Dubai Millennium Amphitheatre, Expo 2020 Dubai, on Monday and Wednesday, November 8 and 10, from 8.30pm. Concerts are free with an Expo pass. More information is available at the New Zealand Pavilion website.