Australian singer-songwriter Gotye has achieved a phenomenal level of success with his hit song Somebody That I Used to Know. The video for the song has been viewed more than 123 million times since it was uploaded to YouTube in July.
But the 31-year-old is hardly a musical newcomer. He’s put out two previous records, Boardface and Like Drawing Blood. Still, with Somebody That I Used to Know, off his new album, Making Mirrors, the man born Wouter (Wally) De Backer has vaulted to international fame.
Currently on a tour that will bring him to Montreal and Toronto later this week, Gotye spoke to The Globe and Mail by telephone about the song and his new success.
How does it feel to be an overnight success after 10 years?
I love it. It feels great. It’s new, it’s fresh. I’m going to all these places in the U.S. and Canada for the first time, which is really exciting.
You are going to be performing on SNL in April. Were you excited to book the gig?
Saturday Night Live isn’t broadcast in Australia, so I think potentially something like Late Night With David Letterman might appear to Australians to have more cultural resonance, in like, if you’ve played Letterman, that’s it, you’ve made it. I must admit that I maybe didn’t have as much of a sense of how big the show is. But a lot of people have been communicating that to me since the possibility came up to play it. It’s pretty exciting.
There is much more sampling on your previous records than there is on Making Mirrors. What brought about that change?
There’s still a lot of sampling on this record, but I did set out wanting to have a different process. I still find sampling a really exciting method for finding sounds and composing sounds. It was an element of how a lot of these songs came together. I kind of did things like apply a sampling approach to, say, taking an acoustic instrument and multi-sampling it and turning it in to a virtual thing. And I wanted to make things more my own.
What do you think this record says about where you are as an artist compared to your previous work?
There are songs on the new record I think I’m more proud of just the lyrics, how they came together, the way the intention managed to come through.
Obviously Somebody That I Used to Know has been the breakout hit from the album, but what are you proudest of about Making Mirrors?
I am proud of that song because it’s really about the lyrics and about a peculiar collection of sounds. I had somebody put it in a nice way to me the other day. They said, “I just really hope you can find a way to write those songs that only you can write.” You could write things that sound like other people, and you can play with that. But if you can strike upon that way to find those things that maybe only you happen to be able to peculiarly express then maybe you’re finding yourself as an artist.
How did you come to work with Kimbra, the female vocalist featured on Somebody That I Used to Know?
I met her about five years ago. She was doing some small gigs in Melbourne. She sent me a YouTube link to a cover of one of my songs that she was doing. The next week I went and checked out her gig and she was amazing.
Part of the brilliance of the song is that it’s both sides of a breakup. Was that there from the beginning of the songwriting process, or was it part of its evolution?
That song was written very linearly. The first break of guitar you hear is the first sound I found, which prompted the first lyric line and the first verse was written. Then I found the instrumental little guitar things that split the verses up and so on. Then I got to the end of the first chorus and I hit a bit of a brick wall. I tried lots of different things. I even considered just finishing the song there because I thought there was nothing left for my character to say other than maybe just becoming more embittered or more directly angsty. And then I thought, no, the best change up is to give another perspective.
Your character in the song certainly doesn’t come off as entirely sympathetic.
It had set itself up once I put the other perspective in there for both narrators to be quite unreliable and to bring in to question anything either had said. I wanted the female perspective to do that specifically and also allow me to return to a repeat of the chorus of my part that would mean it would have a different sense, where you would question who you relate to. I wouldn’t say I’ve written myself in as an anti-hero, but I’m not a particularly likeable character. All those things appealed to me about the song as I was writing it.
Did you have other break-up songs in mind when you were writing it?
I’ve been asked recently what are my favourite break-up songs. I didn’t have a big list.
Where did the concept for the video, which features you and Kimbra partially naked and covered in paint against a work of art inspired by one of your father’s paintings, come from?
Natasha Pincus, who directed and edited and produced it, it was her concept, really. She’s done a number of really great, very arresting direct-to-camera performance film clips, also with kind of quite arty elements included for some other Australian artists. So I approached her directly and she came back with a fully realized treatment. My only real creative contribution was decided what the art work would be.
What was it like filming the video, considering the nudity?
It took a long time. The second day stretched out to 26 hours straight. It took some endurance. But I think because of the endurance aspect the part about being partly naked didn’t bother us after a while. We were just trying to make something really interesting.
Gotye plays Montreal’s Corona Theatre on March 30, Toronto’s Kool Haus on March 31 and Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre on April 8.
This interview has been condensed and edited.