Under (and East of) the Land Down Under

Kimbra Vows

If you watched the Grammy Awards earlier this month, you’d have seen that the song “Somebody That I Used to Know” won the prestigious Record of the Year award. The ubiquitous single, a former number one hit in the United States and over twenty other countries, is by Gotye featuring Kimbra. Gotye (real name: Wouter De Backer) was born in Bruges, Belgium, though his parents moved to Australia when he was just two years old. In Sydney, his parents enrolled him in school as “Walter,” the English equivalent of Wouter. They would later move to a suburb of Melbourne and the name “Walter” eventually transformed to the less formal “Wally.” Similarly, the name Gotye, is an intentionally modified spelling of “Gauthier,” the French version of Wouter/Walter. Suffice to say that Gotye has the variations on the name pretty well covered. Now 32, Gotye has released three albums as a solo artist while maintaining concurrent membership in the indie-pop trio The Basics, who also have released three albums. Well, enough about Gotye, he’s already gotten plenty of press lately.

Who, on the other hand, is Kimbra, who provides the female vocal on “Somebody That I Used to Know” and came to the Grammys wearing what looked like a Björk castoff? That’s what I wanted to know, so I did a little digging into her biography and I checked out her album Vows. Kimbra Lee Johnson was born in Hamilton, New Zealand in 1990 and (like Gotye) is now based in Melbourne, Australia. Although she is yet to have a solo single chart in the United States, Vows, her first album, peaked at number fourteen on the Billboard album chart. I have to say, it’s one of my favorite albums from this past year. Ostensibly an alternative rock album, Kimbra visits so many genres in the course of the CD as to make it virtually uncategorizable. No matter, `cause she effortlessly moves from one genre to the next, or combines aspects of various ones, yet manages to deliver a satisfying whole.

New Zealand seems an unlikely place to produce an international music star. The country’s population is fewer than 4.5 million people (slightly less than that of Louisiana) and they're spread over two main islands and several much smaller ones in a rather remote area of the globe. Off the top of my head, I could come up with only a few Kiwi artists who have had an impact internationally. After further research I found that there have actually been only a few Kiwi artists whose fame has traveled beyond the national boundaries. Most, if not all, of those artists tackled the world by way of Australia, a nearby country having a fully-fledged music industry that New Zealand itself lacks. As a result, it’s somewhat difficult to talk about New Zealand music acts without acknowledging an Aussie influence.

The Kiwi acts that have made a sizeable impact outside of New Zealand are truly a diverse lot:

Crowded HouseCrowded House was formed from remnants of the Auckland, NZ band Split Enz, which remains one of the country’s all-time most successful rock groups. The major creative force in Crowded House was Neil Finn, who with his brother Tim had been major songwriters for Split Enz. Besides Neil,  the trio known as Crowded House originally featured a pair of Australians and was based in Melbourne. Later on, Tim Finn also came on board for a time, making it a bit more Kiwi. Both New Zealand and Australia claim Crowded House as its own and each ranks the band among the most popular in their nation’s history.

Lyric soprano Kiri Te Kanawa was born in Gisborne, NZ of Māori and European ancestry. She is among the most popular opera singers of the last fifty years, starring in productions internationally, especially in Great Britain and the United States. Te Kanawa is comfortable singing in a variety of languages and performing works from the 17th to the 20th Centuries. Although she has now retired from performing operas, she continues to give concerts and recitals. Her career on disc includes literally dozens of recordings and she is considered one of the foremost interpreters of Mozart, Strauss, Verdi, Handel and Puccini. Keith Urban

Country singer-guitarist Keith Urban was born in Whangarei, NZ, though his parents moved the family to Australia before he was school age. Urban had four number one country hits in Australia before heading to the states to try his luck in Nashville. After several years of near anonymity, doing session work and leading a band called The Ranch, Urban broke out in 1999 with his self-titled solo album debut. That disc featured “But for the Grace of God,” the first of his fourteen number one country singles in the United States. Urban is a multi-instrumentalist who has recorded nine hit studio albums and garnered numerous major awards.

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie first met at Victoria University of Wellington (NZ), originally appearing together in the five-person comedy troupe So You’re a Man, before reducing to a duo as Flight of the Conchords. After stops in various corners of the British Empire, they landed in London, where they were given their own series on BBC Radio 2. That series eventually led to their HBO TV show, also called Flight of the Conchords, which aired for two seasons. The duo’s comedic songs have led to several hit albums, one of which (the EP The Distant Future) won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album in 2007.

Here’s a reminder that CDs at the Des Moines Public Library check out for three weeks (with two possible renewals) at no charge. DVDs check out for seven days for just one dollar. Stop in at your nearest branch, or visit us online at dmpl.org, and check out New Zealand’s greatest music exports.