More than a decade after being the other voice in that song, with the fame, pressure, madness and expectation that followed consigned to the past too, Kimbra Lee Johnson will release her fourth album at the end of this month.
It will be independent, just as she is; it will be called A Reckoning, just as she’s encountered. It will be more than a record of persistence and survival, but it will certainly be a statement about both of those.
Wind Back Wednesday returns in 2023 to the 2011 release of her debut, where potential was evident, pressure mounting, and the attention close. Alongside it was another Antipodean album which came without the spotlight but with at least as much talent, from Biddy Connor.
Sailor Days (biddyconnor.com)
ONE OF THESE ARTISTS ARRIVES having already been declared one of the voices/faces of 2011 and editors are falling over themselves to give her space. The other arrives knowing she'd be lucky to get a second’s consideration before they put her album in the Vinnie’s box. Both responses tell us more about our expectations and values than the artists’ and each are equally irrelevant to the music.
Each woman has bided her time: Kimbra Johnson, the putative star, having been warehoused for four years by her management since arriving from New Zealand as a 17-year-old; Biddy Connor/Sailor Days, the obscure one, an active collaborator as the string arranger and player with the underground, alt. folk scene. And both have made debut albums brimming with ideas that tell you those years have not been spent in idle, or Idol, hours.
On Vows, Kimbra leaps from rhythmic, multi-vocal exercises in the style of Camille (a comparison which makes more sense across Vows than the Bjork one usually ascribed) to low-impact R&B in the manner of the girl groups Prince used to produce, to bouncing pop choruses and slow, FM radio ballads.
She is as likely to serve up some clipped electronic drum sound as some woody percussion and will follow a thoughtful and yet adventurous take on Nina Simone’s Plain Gold Ring (keeping the drama but toying with vocal layers and rhythm parts) with a slap bass-enhanced bit of ‘80s funk that practically screams Level 42 rather than 21-year-old.
So far though, imagination and adventure are more prominent than telling songcraft, with few songs resonating beyond their genre exercise and sonic play. That’s still more than most of her chart companions can boast mind you and she’s only beginning.
With Connor, a multi-instrumentalist who works here with Laura Englert and her regular offsider Jen Sholakis, the palette is far narrower: songs working within frameworks of elegant, sparsely furnished shapes that tend to the thematically opaque and the measured, if rarely static, tempo. But that doesn't mean she’s any less interesting.
The Owl And The Rooster creates complex relationships between organ, percussion and anxious violin which veer between moody and disturbing, while the title track pitches you amid string and woodwind noises before contrapuntal voices interchange and the violin takes you towards mid-20th century composition.
Connor’s voice, solo and in tandem with her collaborators, stays within its limitations but isn’t afraid to twist and turn within those. Her songs do likewise and they have a compelling, though niche, appeal.
The prominence and sales of Biddy Connor’s Sailor Days isn’t going to be a shadow of a freckle on the arm of Kimbra’s Vows. On the other hand, no one should expect Kimbra to match Connor’s interior, mature and frankly uncommercial approach either.
However, for now, Sailor Days feels more complete and focused and, on its own terms, successful than Vows.