Few 2014 singles have been as delightful as Kimbra’s barbed-wire kiss of a pop song, “90s Music.” The Golden Echo head-bopper is at once a lovingly sentimental ode to the unforgettable hits of the New Zealand singer/songwriter’s youth, and a heartbreaking song about faded romance and the impossibility of ever totally recapturing the past. Its production — a mix of trap-derived hip-hop and cacophonous noise-pop — is both sugary sweet and surprisingly jagged, as bouncy and catchy as anything the “Somebody That I Used to Know” singer has ever written, but made with zero attention paid to potential radio airplay.
We caught up with Kimbra during her recent New York visit — which included her first-ever Letterman appearance — to talk about both “90s Music” and ’90s music, as the New Zealand export listened to some Beverly Hills, 90210-era favorites with us, sharing her feelings on (and her personal connections with) some of the decade’s pop classics and not-so-classics.
SPIN: What was the genesis of “90s Music”? Where did you come up with the idea to frame the song around listening to ’90s music?
That was an afterthought of the song. It didn’t actually come out of being like “Let’s write a song about ’90s music!” I wrote it with two of the members of my band — we did this jam out in Australia, a rural-bush garage set-up we had, and it was like a silly, fun song that sounded like a weird circus on acid. I had this thought of Japanese kids’ music mixed with Battles –– my band listens to a lot of Battles –– and math-rock stuff. We were kind of thinking about these worlds colliding, this very floaty R&B vocal with these angular jagged elements. And then I was just gibberish singing, “EVERYDAY WE LISTENING TO!…”
Did you have a relationship that was based around listening to ’90s music?
Absolutely, yeah. Obviously I was pretty young, but it was the first stuff I remember really getting into. The first stuff I ever listened to of Michael Jackson was his ’90s stuff, which is funny. It definitely is an era that I have a lot of fondness for — especially in the song’s music video, it was really fun to celebrate that period.
It’s such a fun song, and it has such a wild video, but it’s actually a very serious love song when you delve into it, very heart-string-pulling.
I’m so glad that you get that dimension of it. I think it’s always interesting when a song can feel fun and candy-coated, then you dig a bit and there’s a sentiment here that’s deeper.
I love that line, “After all these years it just felt different.” I’ve had that feeling listening to music, when you have this specific emotional connection with the song growing up and then later you listen to it and it’s not quite the same anymore.
That’s right, and sonically I wanted to display the same thing where it doesn’t at all like the ’90s, so it’s this futurist present space but you’re remembering these times. Also, being OK with change happening, that you grow up, and it’s got that element of melancholy underlying it. You grow up and it’s not quite the same but the memories are still there.
1) TLC, “Waterfalls” (1995)
Sounds like a Dilla beat. [Listens through intro.] Oh, shit, of course, TLC. This is fantastic.
TLC definitely get namechecked in “90s Music.” Were you a fan of theirs growing up?
Totally, man. God, I haven’t heard this in forever. This is such a good beat. It’s really held up over time.
2) OMC, “How Bizarre” (1997)
[Laughs.] Oh, man… Sugar… Is it Sugar Ray?
Close, same time period.
[Kimbra’s nearby publicist motions that she knows the answer, and correctly guesses the song title. A conversation ensues between her team and SPIN about what great song it is, especially for karaoke.]
Do you know where these guys are from?
New Zealand! Oh, right, OMC, “How Bizarre.” No, I do know that! That’s so funny.
Stands for Otara Millionaires Club, which is apparently ironic, because there’s not a lot of millionaires in Otara?
No, it’s like a ghetto! Definitely not, no.
3) Alannah Myles, “Black Velvet” (1990)
Don’t think this one has held up as well! [Listens.] No, I don’t think this is ringing my bells…
This is Alannah Myles. She was kind of a one-hit wonder, but this song was actually the No. 1 song in the U.S. the day you were born.
Is that right? I’ll have to start listening to it then!
What was your earliest ’90s music-listening memory?
“Fantasy” by Mariah Carey. That song was super-’90s, you know what I mean? And Bobby Brown. We used to cover a Bobby Brown song! “Every little step I take…”
Do you still pull out any ’90s jams at the live show?
We actually pulled out “No Scrubs” by TLC the other day, at WNYC Soundheck. A nice little hint of that.
4) Björk, “Human Behavior” (1993)
Oh, nice. Björk! This is from Debut, this album was a game-changer. So wild! So, so different from anything I’d heard before. So much groove, you know? Classic ’90s, it’s got that kind of drum production… This is so good.
5) DJ Shadow, “Midnight in a Perfect World” (1996)
Oh my gosh, I’m tripping. Damn, this is really testing me! It’s on the tip of my tongue…
This one wasn’t really a hit.
Yeah, but I know it! [The drums kick in.] Oh, that’s so ’90s, that…
So this is “Midnight in a Perfect World,” by DJ Shadow…
Oh, so you do know! Because he remixed “90s Music,” of course. That beat is so classic of the time, and he uses that kind of sound in the remix of mine as well! Eerie drums, with that kind of live kick…
Is it cool to have a kind of ’90s icon remixing “90s Music”?
So cool! And I love what he does with it. It’s so hard-hitting, and so different… He’s usually very melodic.
6) Nirvana, “All Apologies” (1993)
[Struggles until voice comes in.] Nirvana! Yeah, fuck! Oh my gosh, dude… I am having such a slow day.
Are you a fan of theirs?
Yeah, but a bit of a late fan of theirs. I’ve still got so much of their music to explore, I’m really behind. But Nevermind, that one I really know.
Did you have somebody who was a ’90s guru for you?
Yeah, the drummer in my band, he introduces me to so much stuff, stuff I hadn’t even heard of when I was a young kid. And in high school, I had this guy that had I had a crush on, he was in the older year, and he showed me all the metal and stuff.
7) Prince, “Cream” (1991)
[Recognizes instantly.] Yeah, this is such a classic intro! Let’s just listen to it for a minute.
You’re a pretty big Prince fan, right?
Huge, yeah. He’s able to strike that balance, he can write songs that everybody loves but they also have that incredible sonic depth to them. I’ve been told that Prince likes the song “Carolina” off my album! We got to meet Prince at the Grammys. He was the only icon that I really cared about meeting. He’s the king of groove, man. It’s just effortless.
8) Savage Garden, “Truly Madly Deeply” (1997)
This one’s gonna be a little bit less funky.
There were some really bad moments in the ’90s, weren’t there? [Listens more.] Actually, this is not bad. Savage Garden, right? I actually like the voice of the singer [Darren Hayes], it’s got that kind of Scritti Politti quality to it.
So I have more obscure chart trivia for you. This song used to stand alone as the second-longest-running Australian No. 1 in Australian chart history, until 2011, when it was tied by….
[Laughs, then starts to sing along.] “Some-bo-dy that I used to know!”
Did you pay attention to that stuff? Were you watching the charts, watching the song go up?
I mean, I knew that it was number one! I didn’t really, like, watch it go up though…
Was it cool seeing it, like, “Oh, now it’s No. 1 in New Zealand! Now it’s No. 1 in the U.K.!”
Of course, yeah! I remember landing in London, and it had just turned No. 1, and that was like… Wow. Arriving in a country, and you’ve got the most popular song.
So that was my last song. Real quick though, do you have a favorite ’90s song?
Damn, “Fantasy” would be up there. “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden, that’s a big one. Missy Elliott and Timbaland’s 90s work. And I have to say “Miss You Love” by Silverchair, that’s a great song. That whole [Neon Ballroom] album, really.