Kimbra Lee Johnson was born on 27 March 1990 and grew up in Hamilton, New Zealand. Her father, Ken Johnson, was the head doctor at the University of Waikato's student health centre and her mother was a nurse. Kimbra attended Hillcrest High School, rising to prominence as a musician after competing in the national schools' competition Rockquest for three years running, where she was awarded second place in 2004 when aged 14-years-old. At the age of 10, Kimbra had begun writing songs, at 12-years-old Ken bought her a guitar and "after a few years of lessons, she was on stage, performing with her guitar tutor (she was never taught to sing)". Kimbra made her first music video, "Smile", for the children's TV show What Now. Kimbra was a member of the Hillcrest High Jazz choir, Scat, and her teacher, Sue Radford described her as "a very talented young person in a range of different areas".
Early public performances by Kimbra included singing at the Waikato Times Gold Cup race meeting in 2000 as a 10-year-old, and singing the national anthem at age 12 before 27,000 people at the Auckland vs Waikato NPC rugby final. In 2007, after winning the Juice TV award for best breakthrough music video for her second single "Simply on My Lips", she came to the attention of ex-Independiente Records boss Mark Richardson (Jamiroquai, Paula Abdul) and his newly-formed management company and independent label Forum 5 in Melbourne, Victoria. She signed with Richardson and relocated to Australia.
In June 2010 Kimbra's first single on Forum 5, "Settle Down", was released. She had started writing the track four years earlier – it was finished with François Tétaz. The music video was directed by Guy Franklin. Perez Hilton featured the track on his website citing "[i]f you like Nina Simone, Florence & The Machine and/or Bjork, then we think you will enjoy Kimbra – her music reminds us of all those fierce ladies!" On 10 December, the Australian 'indietronica' group Miami Horror released their single, "I Look to You" featuring Kimbra's vocals. Kimbra also stars in its music video, which features wide-angle and kaleidoscope shots of her in face paint and dresses walking through golden fields.
Early in 2011, Kimbra's song "Cameo Lover" was a finalist for the 2011 Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition and eventually won the competition. In March she issued "Cameo Lover" as her next single, its music video was released in April and was directed by Franklin. On 15 July 2011, "Cameo Lover" won the songwriting competition, ahead of third placed song, "Somebody That I Used to Know", written by Belgian-Australian musician, Gotye. On 7 June Kimbra signed to Warner Bros. Records New Zealand for distribution in New Zealand and Australia, as well as a worldwide deal for other territories with Warner Bros. Records in the US. On 5 July Kimbra sang in Gotye's single, "Somebody That I Used to Know", which was mixed by Tétaz. Tétaz had recommended Kimbra to Gotye after a 'high profile' Australian female vocalist had withdrawn from the collaboration.
On 29 August 2011 Kimbra's debut album, Vows, was released in New Zealand and 2 September in Australia. In its first week of release it charted at No. 3 in New Zealand, No. 5 in Australia and No. 14 in the US. In its second week, it rose to a peak of No. 4 on the ARIA Albums Chart. Australian producer 'M-Phazes' produced Kimbra's track "Call Me" and assisted on other tracks on Vows. Its artwork including body art and illustrations were created by Rhys Mitchell and Raphael Rizzo. She has won the Critics' Choice Prize at the 2011 New Zealand Music Awards and Best Female Artist and Best Song (for "Somebody That I Used to Know") at the ARIA Music Awards of 2011. The US release of Vows featured new tracks not available on the Australian or New Zealand version of the album.
On 19 January 2012, "Good Intent" was played on a episode of ABC's drama Grey's Anatomy. The track also appears in the video game, The Sims 3: Pets. Also in January, Kimbra won the "One to Watch" award at the 2012 Rolling Stone Awards. Kimbra has collaborated with Mark Foster (of Foster the People) and DJ A-Trak on the track "Warrior", which was released on 2 April. On 14 April she performed "Somebody That I Used to Know" with Gotye on Saturday Night Live.