The Kiwi music queen opens up about finding love, starting a family and her new role on Popstars.
It's only fitting that Kiwi songstress Kimbra describes her upcoming new music as "healing". Last year, the Hamilton-born Grammy winner contracted and fought Covid-19 while going through a break-up, having her tour postponed and enduring months of isolation in virus-ravaged New York.
Then, just as a fresh new chapter was blossoming, she lost a dear friend.
"It's been a big year," she reflects.
But today – while talking to Woman's Day at Auckland's Parachute Studios ahead of her new gig on TVNZ 2's reboot of the groundbreaking talent series Popstars – the musician is focused on exciting new beginnings, like her new home, new dog, new television show, new album and a new love, which has her contemplating the idea of motherhood.
It's a far cry from a year ago, when the Somebody That I Used To Know singer suddenly lost her sense of smell and taste, the beginning of a two-week battle with Covid-19, which left her exhausted, nauseated and struggling to eat.
The illness was a major scare given she faced greater health risks due to her asthma – and the lack of human contact made things even worse, especially as she'd recently gone through a relationship break-up and was due to celebrate a milestone birthday. "My 30th was Covid!" she says of the "terrible" big day.
Kimbra's gift to herself was a dog, who she calls "the light of my life" and "the smartest decision ever". But the subsequent months were challenging as she adjusted to the rare stillness of the pandemic following years of travel, concerts and crowds.
"All these staple things in my life were uprooted and music was on hold, so I faced an immense turning point, questioning who I am without my career," she confesses. "Who am I without music, celebrity, affirmation and live performance?
"Getting the dog and moving myself into another stage of life that's more about people, self-knowledge and growth was important. I was interested in building a home and settling somewhere. That's a big turning point when you're like, 'I'm ready for adult stuff now!' "
As both Kimbra and her life in the Big Apple transformed, she felt a pull away from the city.
"New York's known for grimy little bars and whispering in street corners, and suddenly these things were taboo," she explains. "I reassessed what I wanted and the hustle of Manhattan didn't make sense during Covid. I wanted to be with nature and away from the heaviness the city had.
"The mental health aspect would've been harder if I'd stayed in Manhattan. I decided nature would give me the grounding I needed. That was an act of self-care and self-love – to go, 'I need to be with the trees now!' "
Not long after she relocated to the countryside of upstate New York in September, Kimbra found love with an acoustical engineer. She grins, "It's always when you're least looking for it, right? And meeting someone in the context of forests and mountains means dates are, 'Let's go camping!' or, 'Let's explore!' which has been a different way to start a relationship."
The pair were introduced online by friends, and soon bonded over their love for nature and adventure. It's the first time Kimbra's dated someone who isn't a musician.
"I've found someone I can grow with – I'm so in love!" she beams. "Like, proper love. I'm extremely happy and ready to invest in myself as an artist, but also as a human and, potentially, a mother one day.
"It's exciting coming to that place where you realise work's just one part of who you are. For my entire twenties, I was on tour – work, work, work! I was driven by career, and felt combative against that idea that a woman grows up and settles down, but it's different when you choose it for yourself."
Losing a childhood best friend also reinforced the importance of prioritising relationships.
"It's a reminder you never know how long you've got with someone, and that it's worth investing in people and relationships. Not that I was a narcissist, but being a pop star's so much about you, you, you that it's nice to turn it out to other people. If that means having a family, I'm super-down with it!"
But first, there's a long-distance love to navigate, with Kimbra – who turned 31 last week – having returned to Aotearoa and completed managed isolation in order to start work on Popstars. "It's awful," she says about being apart and unable to "hug out" those tough moments.
The couple have been keeping in touch via FaceTime as Kimbra shoots Popstars, a remake of the 1999 Kiwi reality series that birthed local girl group TrueBliss, and spawned formats like American Idol and The X Factor, transforming both the music and TV industries.
Kimbra – who's on the Popstars panel alongside chart-topping R&B artist Vince Harder and former Zed lead singer Nathan King – loved the original series, even heading to a Hamilton record store to get TrueBliss babe Carly Binding's autograph.
She later took part in the Smokefree Rockquest, before finding global superstardom with her and Aussie artist Gotye's collaboration Somebody That I Used To Know. Her debut album Vows followed, then 2014's The Golden Echo and 2018's Primal Heart.
Kimbra hopes to pass on hard-earned lessons to the solo artists, duos and groups competing for a musical break and $100,000 on Popstars.
"All the things I wasn't told, like what a record contract means and how you can own your masters [song rights]. I was just excited anyone was interested in me, so I was like, 'Yeah, sure, awesome!' to anything people said."
Kimbra also wants to empower female contestants, noting there's been many times in the male-dominated studio environment when she felt subtle "micro-aggressions", fielded condescending comments or was seen as "just the pretty singer".
Her greatest lesson? "Know your worth! I was often faster than engineers when I worked on music, but I never wanted to overpower anyone.
"But being a master of your craft is something to be proud of. Women need to make it clear they're equals in the studio. I didn't know how to do that, but the more you get used to speaking up and being respected, the more you grow in confidence.
"I want these young women to have the confidence I didn't have, and know they have as much potential, technical prowess and ability to rise up as anyone else."
With all those lessons, Kimbra's now completing her fourth studio album. Working with Son Lux musician Ryan Lott, she began recording pre-pandemic, but has since reworked songs to reflect her recent trials. The resulting music is so deeply personal, she often feels uncomfortable listening to it.
"I'm like, 'That's so real and so true.' I've put my heart on the line in these lyrics. I've always stood behind my music, but it's different as you get older. I have more confidence talking about the hard things. We don't have all the time in the world, so I want to talk about things that matter.
"These songs are born from broken relationships, self-searching and self-reflection. It's my journey of healing and embracing myself as a woman in my thirties."
• Popstars premieres on Monday, April 12 on TVNZ 2.