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Kimbra Reflects on Her and Gotye’s Song That We All Used to Know, 10 Years Later

“Prince walked to the stage and I just can’t explain what it’s like to see someone who’s had such a huge influence on your life, standing in front of you with an envelope in their hands that contains your name.” Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

Ten years ago the Australian artist Gotye asked New Zealand musician Kimbra to feature on his song “Somebody That I Used to Know.” At the time Kimbra had no idea it was going to be a hit. It lacked all the trappings of a conventional pop song: The chorus shows up late and it only repeats once, and the track is composed of an obscure Brazilian guitar sample and nursery-rhyme xylophones.

But the slow burner, about opposing sides in a relationship’s bitter end, found a global audience, ascending to No. 1 in more than 25 countries and accumulating billions of plays across streaming platforms. In 2013, Prince anointed Gotye and Kimbra the Grammy for Record of the Year (they won Best Pop Duo/Group Performance as well). The song created infinite opportunities for both Gotye and Kimbra, but both have since resisted the industry’s desire to generate the next hit for hits sake.

Reflecting on the song a decade later, Kimbra spoke with Switched on Pop’s co-host Charlie Harding about how the song’s unlikely success inspired her to pursue her singular musical vision, and how it feels to be yet again co-nominated for a 2021 Grammy for her collaboration with Jacob Collier and Tank and the Bangas on “In My Bones.”

Charlie: So take me into the session. How does “Somebody I Used to Know” come together?

Kimbra:  Gotye contacted me through my producer, François [Tétaz]. He made it clear that he had been looking for the right female partner for the song. He had tried out a few people, but it didn’t feel right. Wally [Gotye] has such a strong vision, he knows exactly what he’s looking for, so he thought he would try it with me. And he brought his microphone over to my house in Melbourne. He helped me find a place in my own life that I could relate to the lyric and sing it from a place of real authenticity. And I did a take down, he gave me feedback. We didn’t work that hard on it in terms of overworking the vocal — maybe four or five takes. Something was captured on that day. And he went away, continued to work on it. I thought no more about it, really. I knew it was special, but I honestly thought it was going to be, like, a track six ballad on the record. It’s funny when record-label people tell me, “I always saw it coming. I knew it immediately when I heard the song,” and I’m like, “Well, damn, you knew more than me ’cause I didn’t. So maybe you guys are way smarter than me.”

What was your experience of receiving the Grammy for Record of the Year then?

I was very excited to be in the same room as my idols. It’s a very crazy experience to look around and, you know, in the same row that you’re sitting in, be looking down at Beyoncé, Adele, Jennifer Lopez. They were all sitting together. Behind me is Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes; in front of me is Frank Ocean. I mean, it’s just an incredible moment to just be in the presence of people that made you want to do what you do. I had no expectations of winning the Grammy. I thought it was incredible that we were nominated. We hadn’t been asked to perform at the Grammys and I kind of took that as a sign that maybe we wouldn’t win it. We were just excited that we were going to be part of the event.

Do you recall the moment when they read your name?

Now that part I remember very well! So Prince walked to the stage and I just can’t explain what it’s like to see someone who’s had such a huge influence on your life, standing in front of you with an envelope in their hands that contains your name. That moment of the nominations being called out was very unreal. We had Janelle Monáe, Frank Ocean, Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, the Black Keys — a lot of incredible people were all nominated for the same award. And then comes our name and then Prince says, “I love this song.” So everyone’s like, What is he talking about? And then he says “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye and Kimbra. It’s kind of a blur from there.

What happened behind the scenes to your life after the Grammys?

My career was taking off, but I was kind of hesitant to even let that in because I am very wary of success. I know that it can be gone in a heartbeat. So I resisted it a lot. I always felt that the work was the most important thing, especially if I wanted to have a career beyond “Somebody That I Used to Know.”

I had an opportunity with the second album, [2014’s] The Golden Echo, to be quite bold and quite daring, because I knew that I would have the reach that I didn’t have before. I used that notoriety from the Grammys to kind of pull together a really crazy cast of people for my second record: Rich Costey, who had produced bands like Interpol; Matthew Bellamy from Muse; Mark Foster from Foster the People; Thundercat; Daniel Johns from Silverchair.

I hoped there would be a single on there or something of commercial success, but I didn’t go into it with that mind-set. I went into it with the mind-set that anything is possible and that’s something that I learned from winning the Grammy. Because if a girl from New Zealand can come to Australia, be asked by someone to sing the second verse of a song, have no idea that it’s going to blow up, and then have it hit No. 1 in [multiple] countries and win a Grammy from her idol Prince for a song that doesn’t even have a chorus until after two minutes, and is the most unlikely pop song in the world … well, then you bet that I’m going to get experimental with this next record. Because that’s the most experimental story I’ve ever heard.

Why would I go and make a cookie-cutter hit after that, when I just had success with was something so obscure. I just believed in the power of possibility after that moment.

You’ve said that pop music shouldn’t dumb people down and instead do the opposite.

Prince did that. We don’t even realize how deep Prince was going on those records. The greats always do that. They’re always sneaking in things that the mystics have been saying forever, but they do it in a way that is only noticeable on multiple listens. And that’s great pop. Pop that makes you dumber is often stuff that actually doesn’t get better with multiple listens, that kind of gets more and more annoying. I have no problem with various types of music, but I do believe that the music industry, and the pop industry, sells people short in terms of what it assumes of them. It assumes that people can only hang onto a song with only two chords and repetitive melody that goes a hundred times over. It’s just not true. People can wait two minutes for a chorus. They can get invested in a storyline; “Somebody That I Used to know” is a perfect example of that.

You’re nominated again this year for your collaboration, “In My Bones,” on Jacob Collier’s Djesse Vol .3, which is up Album of the Year. How are you feeling about this nomination now?

I think he’ll get it. I mean, that’s my feeling, Jacob is such a force. I’m in awe of his talent. I don’t know. I feel like he might get it, but I’m also … I still have no idea. The music industry baffles me but in a good way, like in the way where I’m like, Huh, I don’t know, anything’s possible.

My expectations are different now to how they were back then. I think things are changing and music is changing and people’s desires and music are changing. I’m super stoked to be up for another Grammy with him. It’s beautiful that the work that I continue to do with my friends, with the people that I love, is resonating with a larger audience. I’m super grateful.

Whatever happens happens, basically.

I’ve always seen awards as kind of like, they’re cool, but they don’t become the bearers of truth on whether something has value.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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