With her early singles and videos nominating her as NZ pop's next big thing, Kimbra delivers on that promise with her debut album. She talks to Scott Kara.
This is not intended to sound condescending, but Kimbra Johnson - or just plain Kimbra as she is better known, and perhaps soon to be well-known around the world - really is one smart cookie.
Whether she's pondering her readiness to take on the global music business ("I'm excited more than scared," she says with a laugh), or refining mad and frenetic beats and rhythms to make them "easily digested", the girl is on to it.
And the 21-year-old Hamilton-born, Melbourne-based pop singer-songwriter, has great taste - both style-wise (just look at her), and more importantly, on the music front. She has a deep love for Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley, pop radicals Prince and Bjork, and, more intriguingly, she also admires the manic grooves of bands like art metallers the Mars Volta and Mastodon.
As an example of the girl's diversity, on her debut album Vows (out on August 29) she pays homage to Nina Simone with a cover of the jazz great's lesser-known 1958 tune Plain Gold Ring, but then she's just as happy working with Mastodon producer Mike Elizondo, whose past clients include Eminem and Jay-Z among many other big names, in Los Angeles.
"We came up with some great songs that could have potential for the American release - and for the second album," she says.
It's this vast, and often extreme palette of musical influences, that helps make her own pop music unique, ambitious and fun.
There's the double-dutch handclap rhythms and spectral outbursts of Settle Down, the sauntering showtune mood of Good Intent, and theatrical pop of Cameo Lover. And it's all delivered with a soulful voice that moves from moochy and cuddly to high and hollering.
"I want to definitely try to push some boundaries in pop music because everyone is at that point where there is a lot of stagnancy in the mainstream and people want to experience something a little bit more fun and challenging. That's a big goal of mine, to push that genre a little bit."
It's the sort of music that's hard to do because it walks that fine line between new and inventive and kooky and annoying. But she pulls it off.
"Maybe it just comes down to being honest about it," she offers. "People can tell if you're forcing something, and what I try to do is keep it really honest and if it doesn't feel right then people are going to pick up on that.
"Cameo Lover is one of the most pop songs I've ever written. But it still feels totally truthful and real for me, and not cheesy, because they are real emotions."
It was a decade or so ago, when Kimbra was 10, that she started writing songs at the Johnson family home in the Hamilton suburb of Hillcrest. The songwriting and performing really took off when she got her first guitar aged 12, and by 14 she had placed second at high school music competition Rockquest.
"It sounds cheesy but I do think music has called me to it and I feel like I have a responsibility to go forth and pursue it ... do something with it," she says.
Her first NZ On Air-funded singles, Deep For You and Simply On My Lips, from 2005 and 2007, were humble, acoustic singer-songwriter tunes. Then she left Hamilton bound for Melbourne when she was 17 to pursue her music career - and, as it turns out, fame and fortune.
The move across the ditch also coincided with her listening to a wider range of music - "A lot of interesting stuff that really expanded my mind" - which was the catalyst for changing her musical style and finally settling on that unique sound of hers.
"It changed things for me because whenever you throw yourself into a new culture, or out of your comfort zone you're going to have to move with that. I was comfortable and having a great time in New Zealand, but I guess things like being away from home really are defining points."
And all of the sudden, she says, she wasn't satisfied writing straightforward guitar songs. "Not to say music just on guitar isn't beautiful, because it is, but I wanted strings, and this and that, and I just had the tendency to be much more theatrical with my music."
These days she's just happy and relieved to have Vows ready to go. It's been a long time in the making.
She started recording it when she got to Melbourne, and hasn't stopped refining and writing songs since. In that time she's grown up a lot and the 11 songs that made the final cut represent the ups and downs of what were very formative years for her.
"They are defining years of your life, you learn a lot, and I did change a lot throughout that time; I think this album is a real process of emotions and experiences. I didn't want it to be a fragment of one idea, and I wanted it to explore all the different moods of that time. So I feel like it is a journey," she laughs.
She also attributes much of where she is at now to the people "you surround yourself with" - like manager Mark Richardson who spotted her talent early on and encouraged her to make the move to Melbourne, and her band who can be seen playing up a deft and dapper storm on the YouTube video to latest single Good Intent, recorded live at Melbourne's Sing Sing recording studio.
But the music is still hers - and what Kimbra creates is future pop that's hard to pigeonhole. Yet songs like Settle Down, the swooning and catchy Two Way Street, and the jerky and jittery dance pop of Limbo could be - and should be - big around the world.
For what it's worth, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton thinks so too. "She's effing rad," he gushed.
And in June she was also signed to Warner Bros Records which will release Vows on a world-wide deal.
So is she ready for it?
"I've been lucky to grow up around a lot of musicians, you know, from Rockquest right through, so I've been hanging round with people in that industry from an early age; also over here it was about surrounding myself with people who are humble and grounded and not taking yourself too seriously because that's when it can get dangerous, when you lose that perspective.
"So I feel prepared that if things did happen then I'd be able to keep perspective and not get too carried away with it because it is only music - and it's not everything.
"But at the same time it's exciting to think I might have a chance to have a voice in the world and share it with people," she laughs.
On the album she is open, and at times brutally honest, as she ponders "ideas of promises, commitment and betrayal, and all of these emotions that I connect with".
Last track The Build Up has lines like "you won't fit inside my heart"; there's also Settle Down's weary musings about married life, through to her poignant and pure version of Simone's Plain Gold Ring.
"It felt right to sing it because it suits my voice, but the more I listened to it I realised how in line it is with the themes of the album."
It comes naturally for her to be open and honest in her music because "all the musicians I love put their hearts on the line".
"There is an incredible rawness to music, and whether that's in a reflective way or an uplifting way, I think that's always been the drive behind what I do. And it's challenging, and the hardest part of that process is becoming vulnerable for your audience.
"But that's what connects, that's what's real, and what makes people have a moment with something."
Who: Kimbra. A pop star, but not as we know it
Debut album: Vows, out August 29
Where and when: The Kathryn Wilson Fashion Week Show on September 2 in Auckland, which will be a free show for 3000 guests. See Facebook.com/KathrynWilsonFootwear