The New Zealand-born singer, songwriter, and producer, Kimbra, is an artist who achieved global recognition early on in the beginnings of her career.
As the featured vocalist on Gotye’s instant classic, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” she won two Grammy awards in 2013. Since then, Kimbra has evolved and blossomed as an artist, pushing the boundaries of pop music with each project she embarked on.
One of the main reasons why Kimbra remains an exciting act to watch to this day is the fact that she uses her voice to its full potential, not just for belting out top-line melodies. Her unique approach to vocal production in particular makes her stand out even more; and she’s only getting started.
As a vocal producer myself who is interested in creating instrument-like textures out of my own voice, I’ve studied Kimbra’s work over the years. Here’s what I’ve discovered that I continue to utilize in my own practice, and what I think all singers can learn from. And on that note, feel free to check out my course on Soundfly, Modern Pop Vocal Production, to learn how to fully produce your own lead and background vocals at home!
1. Fluid Vocals
Kimbra’s incredibly fluid and flexible vocal technique was clearly evident in her globally-acclaimed performance on “Somebody That I Used to Know.” It’s not every day you hear a singer fit such a stunningly wide dynamic range into… one single verse!
Beyond the honey-like quality of her voice, the reason why Kimbra’s vocals are so memorable on this track is because her performance evolves and expands in parallel to the lyrics.
Most singers learn how to utilize their head voice and chest voice register separately. Usually, there’s a clear break between the two. But overcoming the sudden shift in timbre is possible. In fact, sounding delicate and airy at one moment while gradually building to belt out with passion the next is a significant part of Kimbra’s signature singing style.
Her ability to bend her mixed voice at her will was evident to me at first listen.
2. Dramatic Shifts in Vowel Shapes
Similarly, many people assume that singing is all about the vocal cords. But as it turns out, it’s just as much about the acoustics the shape of the mouth provides.
This is a fact Kimbra seemed to have discovered pretty early on. In her debut album, Vows, and her energetic live performances that followed thereafter, she showcased the many ways in which she could color her voice.
Like Kimbra, I’ve studied jazz-singing, so it comes as no surprise to me that she is a big fan of exaggerated enunciation. In my opinion, this helps her think outside the box when it comes to utilizing her voice as the most essential musical instrument of her project.
3. Voice as a Musical Instrument
Before Kimbra came Imogen Heap, with her unconventional approach to vocoders and harmonizers. Björk has made an entire album out of human voices that resembles anything but a run-of-the-mill a cappella project.
But every time a singer uses their voice as an instrument, we get to hear sounds only they can provide. Kimbra’s music can only be brought to life by Kimbra, because she is the only one who has access to the voice that provides the lifeline for it.
4. Vocal Sampling and Synthesis
Another clear strength of Kimbra’s artistry derives from her fascination with vocal sampling and synthesis. With her continuously changing and expanding rig, she’s able to create anything from looped textures to ambient soundscapes with her voice, both in the studio and during her live performances.
Kimbra also relies on technology to create artificial vocal harmony layers. Since it’s possible to MIDI-trigger harmonizers with a keyboard these days, she can create artificial background vocals in real time that sound quite authentic and organic.
Watch Kimbra demystify her vocal sampling process in the video below.
Additionally, Kimbra’s use of various audio effects allows her to not only perform but also design sounds on the go. With hardware processors like TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch 2 and Korg Kaoss Pad, she can play with her vocals much like a guitarist with a pedalboard. And in the studio, with harmonizer plugins like Antares’ Harmony Engine, the possibilities are endless.
In addition to standard effects like reverb, delay, filter, autotune, distortion, chorus and flanger, creating stutter or even reverse vocals in real time takes very little effort today. Reaching Kimbra’s level might take quite a bit of practice, but learning how to process vocals is a great way for any singer-songwriter to segue into music production.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Modern Vocal Production: De-ess, De-breath, De-click”
5. Songwriting and Arranging Simultaneously
Like many songwriters, I used to run into roadblocks now and then. Focusing all my attention on lyrics, melodies, and chord progressions didn’t always work for me. Kimbra was one of my inspirations to find new ways to compose music, with the production process becoming an important part of that.
Her creative process proves that inspiration might come from unexpected sources, like a sung bass line pitched down an octave or two. And sometimes, singing chord tones instead of playing them on a MIDI keyboard can lead to happy surprises.
Kimbra’s music has taught me that self-producing as an artist gives you free rein to get creative. All it takes is to put together a setup that works for you and start with an idea you feel inclined to latch on to.
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