SALT LAKE CITY — There’s something that connects the music of Skrillex and Paul Simon — some place where these opposite ends of the musical spectrum meet. Kimbra is sure of that. As for what or where that is exactly, she’s still figuring it out.
The New Zealand-born singer, who headlines Metro Music Hall on May 23, released her third album, “Primal Heart,” last month. “Primal Heart” doesn’t solve Kimbra’s query, but it does feature a Skrillex collaboration (“Top of the World”) and a piano ballad that Paul Simon might appreciate (“Version of Me”). The album also pulls Kimbra away slightly from the musical fringes she’s previously frolicked in — and, perhaps, gets her a little closer to linking these opposite forces.
“I was looking for that sense of familiarity: that you’ve heard it before, but you’ve never heard it before,” Kimbra explained during a recent phone interview with the Deseret News.
That magic blend of the recognizable and the foreign, of the big primal beat and the strange sacred whisper, is the stuff of pop music’s most enduring songs. It’s how a Prince or Beatles tune can make every person feel like it was written just for them. And it’s the space Kimbra is trying to learn to occupy.
She’s been here before. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” which featured Kimbra on co-lead vocals, was perhaps the most out-of-left-field hit song of the past decade, staying at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for eight consecutive weeks in 2012. Kimbra went on to release her second album, the bizarre and infectious funk-pop odyssey “The Golden Echo,” in 2014.
Not that she’s aiming to retread or re-create past successes — after all, there’s no sure formula for whatever made a song like “Somebody That I Used to Know” so prosperous. Somehow, pop can be simultaneously fickle and predictable.
“And I think there is kind of a loss in some current pop music, where you start knowing everything that’s coming before it comes. You can almost hear the song before it starts,” she said. “You stop seeing any mystery. I’m a big believer in using music to cultivate mystery and lead people toward maybe transcendence — when you go to a gig or you hear a song and you actually feel kind of taken out of your body in a way. And I think pop music can be that, because it’s this kind of tool that’s unifying and universal.”
“Primal Heart” sounds like Kimbra’s most intentional dialogue with modern pop music yet. The whimsical elasticity — a kind of unrelenting, Flubber-injected bounce — that typified her 2011 debut “Vows” and its follow up, “The Golden Echo,” is subdued on “Primal Heart.” Her melodies have become more focused.
Kimbra still has those madcap instincts, but they’re channeled into something not quite so sprawling. She has an ear to the ground instead of a head in the clouds. It’s the sound of Kimbra refining her own musical vocabulary.
It’s been a decade since the 28-year-old inked her first record deal. In the past 10 years, she’s moved from New Zealand to Australia to Los Angeles, and now calls New York City home. “Vows” and “The Golden Echo,” she said, were a bit like job interviews where the nervous candidate can’t stop talking.
“When you’re first starting out, you are so excited to kind of fill up every bit of space with a new idea, because you have so many ideas,” she explained. “I think as you mature as a songwriter, you’re more confident about only keeping the ideas that really say something, and being OK with leaving space.”
Part of that, Kimbra said, arose from working with some of pop music’s biggest names. She got called in to songwriting sessions for Rihanna’s 2016 album, “ANTI,” and also worked briefly with Ariana Grande’s team. For the Rihanna session, Kimbra and other writers were handed a prompt with very specific parameters. She wasn’t used to writing this way — “My process is so about floating until something feels exciting, and then running down the rabbit hole,” she said — but it was fruitful.
She realized the pinnacle of the pop world, occupied by the Beyonces and Rihannas and Ariana Grandes, is rooted in a simplicity that’s actually quite bold.
“I just think it focused me,” Kimbra recalled. “If it’s done well, it can be super powerful and striking, when you learn to let go of what doesn’t need to be said, and to keep what really does.”
She carried that into the new album: If a beat or melody or chord progression didn’t evoke something essential, Kimbra scrapped it. Producer John Congleton, whose vast resume includes R. Kelly, Modest Mouse and everything in between, was brought on to guide “Primal Heart.” Collaboration has long been Kimbra’s instinct — “The Golden Hour” leveraged a smorgasbord of musical mad scientists from disparate genres — but Kimbra said Congleton wasn’t really interested in that.
“I don’t want to know about that person,” Congleton would tell her. “I want to know about you.”
“So it really was quite confronting to have someone … actually tell you that you’re important enough, you’re worthy enough,” she said. “Sometimes you collaborate because you’re scared to kind of hold it yourself.”2 comments on this story
It wasn’t always easy. Kimbra said distilling a song down to its pop essence, with her fully exposed vocals at the forefront, was a vulnerable, sometimes uncomfortable experience. “Primal Heart,” she said, is her grabbing hold of her own identity in a way she hasn’t before.
“It’s that point of collapse, that break in the voice — then you’re able to communicate something that comes from a place of real depth,” she said. “And I think that I feel that on this record. I feel myself in that space between collapse and comfort.”
If you go …
What: Kimbra, Son Lux
When: May 23, doors open at 8 p.m.
Where: Metro Music Hall, 615 W. 100 South
How much: $20 advance, $22 day of