LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. music fans may know Kimbra as the female vocalist with heartfelt lyrics on Gotye's smash hit single "Somebody That I Used To Know," but sultry singer is stepping into her own spotlight with debut album "Vows."
New Zealand native Kimbra Johnson, 22, took three years to create "Vows" and two more before its U.S. release, timing it to ride the wave of success "Somebody."
"I'm very glad I've waited this long to put this record out because you only get one shot at a debut, and I wanted to make sure it was right," Kimbra told Reuters.
"Vows," which was released in Australia in September 2011 and hit U.S. stores and online last week, spans five years of Kimbra's life from age 17 to 22. She describes it as "a big period of self-discovery for any woman," exploring themes of love, identity and coming of age.
"The album lyrically talks about what promises I'll make for myself and to others. I want to create a body of work that people will grow with and feel like they continue to evolve with me," she said.
Lead single "Settle Down" and second song "Cameo Lover" explore romance and were both written early and fine-tuned over three years. The song "Home" is a more recent addition, tapping into the singer's long touring schedule and making peace with "home not being a tangible thing."
Defining a specific musical genre for "Vows" is complex, as Kimbra touches on jazz funk on "Come Into My Head," soul sounds with "Something In The Way You Are," and retro electro-pop beats in "Warrior."
The singer cites bands such as Dirty Projectors and tUnE-yArDs as influences, but she also drew on surrealist artwork such as Salvador Dali to bring a "feeling of something cinematic" to the record.
Asked to define her own music, Kimbra is reluctant to assign it to one category, calling it "progressive pop" as it explores different styles and preferring to "describe it perhaps in colors and moods rather than genres."
The soft-spoken singer embraces her creativity onstage with artistically styled hair and brightly colored outfits. She takes charge of the spotlight with a confidence beyond her 22 years, letting her voice wax and wane with the tempos.
Kimbra, who is currently on a U.S. tour supporting indie-pop band Foster the People, teamed up with lead singer Mark Foster and Canadian DJ A-Trak on a remix of her single "Warrior," and she is happy to lend her vocals to other people's songs, hoping to work with Rufus Wainwright, Outkast and Pharrell Williams down the line.
Growing up in the scenic landscapes of New Zealand, the young singer found herself closely drawn to nature for her early music, before being signed by a management company and moving to Melbourne, Australia at age 17. There, she said, she was surrounded by the "stagnating" scenery of the city.
"There were moments where I was very lonely, being in a one bedroom apartment with no job other than writing this record ... but loneliness breeds incredible creativity," she said.
Following its release in Australia, "Vows" quickly went platinum selling more than 100,000 copies, and Kimbra's star status in the U.S. has been rising fast since "Somebody That I Used To Know" starting gaining steam in late 2011.
"Somebody" has sold more than 4.5 million copies in the United States to date, and has topped the Digital Songs and Billboard Hot 100 charts numerous times over the past 20 weeks.
The success of "Somebody" has taken Kimbra by surprise. She readily admits she never believed the song would crack the pop charts to sit alongside the likes of Justin Bieber and Rihanna.
"It's really encouraging for the state of pop music to see people yearning for a different kind of honesty in the charts than we've seen in the last few years," said Kimbra.
Breaking into the U.S. market on the back of only one song can be a daunting task for most rising artists, but Kimbra believes she has the advantage of a body of work with "Vows" to offer her newfound fans.
Asked whether she'll ever tire of the one break-up hit that kicked off her journey, Kimbra said she would always have a fondness for Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know."
"Even if you're (onstage) starting to feel disconnected from the lyrics, you look out into the audience and you see everyone so passionate and moved by it, that revives your energy for the song," she said.
Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte