"There's a work ethic that I think the bread is teaching me."
Thanks to reality TV, most of us don’t associate baking with calm. But observing Timon Martin in his bakery, preparing eight sourdough loaves for the waiting oven, is oddly relaxing. With a serene look on his face, the 36-year-old producer, new dad and Kimbra musical director works methodically, scoring the unbaked loaves with a razor called a 'lame'. The careful slashes will allow the bread to stretch as it expands in the oven.
The improvised bakery occupies a toolshed on his dad’s Waiuku flower nursery. Inside there’s a yeasty tang in the air, at odds with the garden tools hanging from the walls. A dry warmth radiates from the large, shiny and incongruous commercial oven.
During years of intense focus on music, Timon always wondered how he could work with food. “I was starting to feel like my skills were one-dimensional. It was all music based,” he says. “Bread-making just fills a different gap. It's way more hands-on and visceral because with my production stuff it's all clicking and very inside the box.”
It’s not just hobby-baking though; his goal is to create another source of income from selling bread. But this will have to wait, because in a few days he’ll jet to Washington to join popstar Kimbra for a support slot with Beck. It’s the first show in the tour for her new record Primal Heart which, for Timon, marks a significant step-up in production responsibilities. He’s got credits on 4 of the album’s 12 tracks, including a co-writing credit on the album opener, ‘The Good War’.
Right now, though, he’s calmly loading the hot oven. Never picking up more than he can carry, he places the loaves inside two by two. Shutting the door he turns a knob that fills the oven with steam. This enables the dough to rise just a little further before the crust begins to harden.
Taking a seat next to the warm oven, he describes Primal Heart’s frozen inception. On January 23, 2016, a blizzard nicknamed Snowzilla dumped record amounts of snow on New York. “We didn't really leave the house, all the shops and public transport and everything was shut down. It was like a ghost town. Really eerie,” says Timon. There was a travel ban in place and, in the East Village, Timon and Kimbra were holed up in her apartment.
With more than 27 inches of snow outside, working on music was the only option. “Kimbra has her place set up in a home studio vibe. I just squeezed into a tiny little desk working away on the laptop. Hunched over it, kind of thing.” It’s a scene that typifies how modern music production has changed with the advent of democratised digital technology. There’s no famous producer involved yet, and no studio. Just two people trading ideas on laptops. “I would make something, give it to her and she'd play around with it a bit, give it back to me and I would develop it more,” he says.
The weather-enforced session marked the beginning of work on the yet-to-be-named Primal Heart record. For Timon, it was a special jaunt to New York to work on ideas for the album, and another milestone in the evolution of his collaboration with Kimbra, a timeline that goes something like; friend, guitar playing sideman, musical director, and on to producing songs for Primal Heart. This organic, slow-building partnership begun back when they were both based in Hamilton, and solidified on Kimbra’s arrival in Melbourne in 2008. “I was one of few people that she knew there from Hamilton days,” he says. They worked together casually on songs for her 2011 debut album Vows. “I just helped at that time and was pretty loosely involved.”
Timon talks with quiet enthusiasm about Kimbra’s production prowess. “She’s a producer as well, so with our process, she will typically want to put her ideas on it too, rather than just being given a track to sing on.” For the initial Primal Heart session in New York, there was a mix of trading fresh ideas, and working with Kimbra’s demos. “Some of it was songs she already had, like a tune that she'd written somewhere along the way, I would take it and sort of redevelop it as a more fleshed out arrangement,” he says.
Watching Timon at the bread oven, it’s easy to see how his faith in process and level-headedness make him an ideal creative partner for someone with diverse musical taste and a penchant for experimentation. “I think she enjoys it with me because I'm pretty relaxed. I don't just charge her money for having a jam. A lot of people in LA, that's what they do,” he laughs. “They'll be like, ‘yeah, yeah. I'll have a jam!’ And then when the album's complete she'll get a bill from them.
“We’re friends, we relate creatively and we can just jam and there's no real pressure to come up with something. It's not time is money at that point,” he says.
The music industry is not all unexpected bills though; Timon’s association with Kimbra has made peers of artists that were once just names on the back of a favourite CD. “One of the people who I've become friends with, who I catch up with every time I go to New York is Ian Williams from Battles, he's a guy from a guitar standpoint I had revered for years.”
While meeting your idols on a more even footing is a great perk of playing alongside a famous popstar, for Timon this fame-adjacent position gives him a unique perspective on how celebrity complicates social interactions. “It's one of those things where I know heaps about what Ian’s done, so you try and restrain the fanboyism… I get a little bit of that thing from people who are fans of Kimbra. I know the feeling now where it's like someone's just talking to you as a person and interested, and when they cross the line of being a little bit too rabid and it gets a bit weird.”
Primal Heart is full of spacious electronic vamps that let Kimbra’s punchy word-setting skip off minimal beats. Timon’s work on ‘Everybody Knows’ is a good example of this spaciousness. Its gentle intro brings to mind the experimental 80’s pop of Arthur Russell, but by the arrival of it’s driving chorus, the bassy synths and swinging vocal rhythms are invoking the deep rumble of Return to Cookie Mountain era TV On The Radio in the best way.
Of the similarities between bread-making and music production, Timon quickly identifies trusting the process as the most obvious. “It's the same way each time and, in a way, disciplined. I find doing music for three hours. I'll be over it at that point. There's a work ethic that I think the bread is teaching me.”
While rotating the loaves and releasing the remaining steam from the oven’s chamber, Timon’s phone rings. It’s his partner Nina calling and she wants to know how to undo the buckle on their baby’s car seat. At three weeks old, their little boy is so new that it’s mum’s first car trip alone with him. But before he can explain the buckle, mum has the baby free and he’s back to zen-like oven oversight.
After 60 minutes at 230 degrees, the sourdough crust has turned a rich caramel colour. There are tints of black along the ‘ear’ – a ridge created where the lame scored the unbaked loaf. Unloading the oven he explains the bread’s dark colour. “The amount of water that's in these is a lot higher than what’s in standard bread… So you actually need to cook it for longer. Then you get a darker caramelised crust on the outside. It's just a preference thing, it tastes a bit richer and darker, and a little more bitter.”
Back at the house Timon and his parents break the warm bread, and after a quick crumb inspection, the butter arrives at the table. There won’t be any more fresh loaves for six weeks while he’s on tour, just fresh jams for Kimbra fans.
Kimbra’s third album Primal Heart is released 20th April through Warner Bros Records and features production work from Timon Martin on tracks 'The Good War', 'Everybody Knows', 'Black Sky', with co-writing on 'The Good War' and programming on 'Human'.