One of the biggest songs of last year almost did not make it out of the recording studio. The song is “Somebody That I Used to Know,” which, thanks to its sticky melody, lyrics lamenting a failed relationship and its viral video featuring Australian-Belgian artist Gotye and New Zealand singer-songwriter Kimbra covered only in body paint, became ubiquitous on radio and the Internet throughout the year.
However, Gotye, the singer, composer and songwriter behind the indie pop tune, had difficulties finding a female guest vocalist for it, and later, engineering the final sound mix, he even contemplated canning the song altogether.
The 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist, who is one of the biggest acts performing at the upcoming indie music festival Laneway at The Meadow, Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, finally found the perfect voice in Kimbra, also performing on the same bill.
“It had taken a long time to find Kimbra as the perfect vocalist for the female part and then it was a bit of a challenge to get the mix finalized,” he tells The Straits Times in an exclusive interview.
Speaking on the telephone from his house in the Australian state of Victoria, the man born Wouter “Wally” De Backer admits that at one point, he felt “disconnected” from the song.
“I felt like I dragged it over the line on the recording. I had a sense that it had some strength about it when I was first writing it but as it dragged on, it just became a matter of whether to finish it or not.
“I heaved a sigh of relief when it was done, so I wasn’t thinking about how it would be received commercially or how people would connect to it. But it’s good that I finished it and I didn’t give up on it at any stage.”
It topped not just the Australian charts but also those in more than 20 countries around the globe, including in the United States and Britain. The tune became the most downloaded song in the United States, registering 6.7 million downloads, beating established pop stars such as Maroon 5 and Nicki Minaj, and is also the biggest-selling single of last year on the British charts.
It also helped that the music video became an Internet meme, spawning countless spoofs, tributes and cover versions that spread like wildfire throughout online platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Reddit. While Gotye’s official video has clocked 361 million views on YouTube, a version by five-singers-on-one-guitar group Walk Off The Earth registered 143 million clicks, while a Star Wars-themed spoof, which features Darth Vader as Gotye, brought in more than nine million views.
The singer himself does not mind. In fact, he encourages it — he recently compiled some of the online covers into a single remix video titled “Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra.”
“When I did that mash-up, I had to actively go and seek out all the material that I could find and it fascinated me to go ‘wow, there’s a lot that I missed’.”
He finds it “amazing”, the way that the song has taken on a life of its own. “Some of the interpretations and arrangements are really great, they are really beautiful and musically interesting. Some make me laugh, perhaps unintentionally, but sometimes on purpose, so that’s cool too.”
More than just commercial success, the song is also bringing the bachelor critical acclaim.
“Somebody That I Used to Know” picked up a slew of awards — including Single of the Year, Best Pop Release, Best Video, Engineer of the Year and Producer of the Year — at the Australian music industry’s biggest event, the Aria Music Awards, in 2011, where he also won Best Male Artist.
The album that the song is taken from, Gotye’s third full-length output “Making Mirrors”, swept even more awards at last year’s Arias, winning him Album of the Year, Best Australian Live Act, as well as Best Male Artist and Best Pop Release.
Come next month, the man might take home his biggest prize yet — he has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Grammy Awards: the highly coveted Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, as well as Best Alternative Music Album for “Making Mirrors”.
He declines to rate his chances of winning but making music is not about collecting trophies, he insists. His Arias, for example, are packed in a corner of his home office. “It’s not that I don’t want to look at them,” he says.
“They’re not really helping me make new music or creative things, so it’s not going to have a huge bearing on what I’m making in the future.”
Born in Belgium, Gotye and his parents moved to Australia when he was two. A keen lover of music since he was young, he picked up instruments such as the piano and drums in his childhood and formed his first band, Downstares, with high school friends during his teenage years.
In 2001, he started releasing solo, home-made tracks under the name Gotye, the pet name his mother had for him as a child, a stylized French version of his first name. The songs from his three self-released CDs were eventually compiled into a debut album, “Boardface”, released in 2003.
Around the same time, he also formed a partnership with singer-songwriter Kris Schroeder. Together, they recorded four albums and toured as a band, The Basics.
It was Gotye’s second album, 2006′s “Like Drawing Blood”, that thrust him into the limelight. The listeners of popular Australian radio station Triple J voted it the Best Album of 2006, while he took home the Most Outstanding New Independent Artist prize at the Australian Independent Record Chart Awards. The following year, he took home his first Aria for Best Male Artist.
He says he will be spending the bulk of this year working on new music, which he says will sound a lot more “electronic” than his previous works.
“I’ve been putting together a selection of the more weird kind of gadgets and electronic equipment that I’ve collected. I’d like to do more stuff with tape-machine manipulations and use different pieces of technology that I haven’t played with before.”
In the meantime, there is Laneway in Singapore to think of. Since Kimbra will be appearing on the same bill, will they sing their viral hit together?
“I guess there is a good chance that we’ll be singing together,” he says. “Hopefully, during our set we can sing ‘Somebody’.”
And how about another recording together, The Straits Times asks. “I don’t know, I’m just looking forward to catching up with her,” he says.
“But we’ll definitely do something musical then.”
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times