The past few years of Kimbra Johnson's life have been somewhat nomadic. She's spent almost two years in New York; before that, two years in LA. After struggling to feel at home in LA – and still feeling a sense of belonging to New Zealand – Johnson says things have started to synthesise in the Big Apple.
"LA almost distances you from reality," she says. "You drive everywhere, so you're not on a subway or bus with people; whereas New York confronts you with reality. You have to immerse yourself with people of all classes and races - it's just all right there in front of you.
"I think that's exactly what I wanted when I was writing this album," she continues. "As a lifestyle, I found [LA] removed me a little bit from things, whereas I want to feel in the heart of them."
In the heart of things is where Kimbra found the pulse of her next record. Primal Heart, Kimbra's third offering, examines the most essential wants and needs of human beings – and looks at the way the instinctual self is often the most truthful.
"I've spent a lot of time making quite dense music, and I really wanted to just get to the core of things with this album, to find something that was a sense of deep knowing," says Johnson.
"We are at once an animal, fighting for our lives, and also this kind of spiritual being that is looking forward," she says. "And all of these songs on the record come back to some kind of primal, original emotion, whether it's ambition and greed, or vulnerability and brokenness."
Her last record, The Golden Echo, was a work of elaborate technicalities and busy production – the kind of "dense" sound Johnson refers to. "You should have seen how many tracks there were in those things," she says. "Within each synth line, there would be like 40 other versions of that synth line."
Elements of it worked, but focusing on the minutiae often led Johnson astray. "You can be at a studio 'til 4am just like tweaking a high-hat sound, and before you know it, where's the song gone?"
This time around, she recruited Grammy-winning engineer John Congleton (Lana Del Rey, St Vincent) to co-produce Primal Heart with her. His objective standpoint helped her move away from that heady, obsessive approach, and together, the two collaborators worked towards a more focused sound.
"John was like, 'you can't have options, you've got to commit. If we bring in Pino Palladino, D'Angelo's bass player, onto the record, we have him play, and we commit to what that is.'
"That was hard for me, but incredibly productive. Because there was an intention to these songs; to keep things tighter, to stop dancing round the edges, and sit inside the heart a little more."
Johnson has become more and more prolific as a songwriter – she was called upon for the writing sessions of Rihanna's latest album, and Ariana Grande has had a hold on one of her songs for two years. The singer says the fabric of pop has always been inherent to what she loves in music, and lending herself to more accessible structures has taught her how to speak to her listeners more directly.
"It freed me up," she says. "And if that means it's made the songs more grounded in a structure that people can follow, then that's great. But for me it's more about, what does the song need? Does it need to have as much jumping around? Or can it afford to just actually look someone in the eye and talk to them – tell them the story?"
What: New album Primal Heart
When: Released next Friday