Nai Palm (aka Naomi Saalfield) is keeping it real – and raw. The charismatic leader of the Melbourne boho-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote has delivered a personal solo debut, Needle Paw, focussing on her vocals, guitar-playing and poetic sensibilities.
Today Nai is in her hometown, conducting promo chores two days before departing for a US tour. “It’s not too crazy!” she insists, totally chill. In fact, Nai’s story is one of loss and resilience. She was orphaned as a teenager after losing her mother to cancer and then her father in a house fire – the state assuming guardianship. Later, a self-sufficient Nai gigged with her guitar. She captivated the formally-trained bassist Paul Bender with her instinctive musicality and the pair formed Hiatus Kaiyote.
The quartet issued Tawk Tomahawk independently in 2012, gradually becoming tastemaker raves, their most famous champion being Prince. New York producer Salaam Remi – who, following an association with the Fugees, mentored Amy Winehouse – secured Hiatus Kaiyote for his fledgeling Sony imprint Flying Buddha. The band re-released Tawk Tomahawk with a hip-hop soul remix of ‘Nakamarra’ featuring A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. Hiatus Kaiyote would be the first Australian act nominated for a Grammy in the R&B field. In 2015, they unveiled the synth ‘n’ soul opus Choose Your Weapon amid huge buzz and received another Grammy nod for ‘Breathing Underwater’.
With Needle Paw, Nai courts the unconventional. The singer, songwriter and musician assuredly presents alternative versions of Hiatus Kaiyote ‘best of’ contenders (and other artists’ classics) plus new songs – dispensing with production trickery so as to heighten the emotion. While spare, Needle Paw is intricately constructed. It might be compared to Lauryn Hill’s now-cult MTV Unplugged No 2.0 on which she (notoriously) strummed on an acoustic guitar and railed at the entertainment world. Yet Nai’s approach is more subliminal and honed. Still, like Ms Hill, she’s challenging an industry not always conducive to artistry – especially female artistry.
“I’ve always wanted to do something really stripped back, just because I love it when you have multiple windows into certain artists,” Nai muses. “Hiatus is so complex and dense that I wanted to offer something that was very raw and vocal-based and personal; kind of like an intimate window into myself as an artist – and also [I wanted to show] the power in vocal harmony and the beauty in imperfection. I think there’s so much music that’s super hyper-produced and polished, that I just wanted to offer something very raw and intimate.”
Nai’s vulnerability is pivotal to the lead single, ‘Homebody’. “It’s just a sanctuary,” she says. “It’s reminding people of the quiet sanctuary that you can find in your body if you pay attention to it – and that’s what music’s supposed to be. The reason it’s so raw is because I was really grieving at the time. I lost my stepmother and one of my closest friends overdosed and it was winter… Basically, I needed to write a song to comfort myself and, in doing so, hopefully [it] will comfort other people.”
Needle Paw isn’t wholly a solitary endeavour, with Nai joined by backing vocalists Laura Christoforidis, Jace Excell and Silent Jay. Framing the album is the two-part ‘Wititj (Lightning Snake)’ – Jason Gurruwiwi performing a songline from his Gälpu clan in Arnhem Land. “I was really blessed to have the trust of the family and to be able to share that rich heritage with the world, ’cause I feel like quite often a lot of Indigenous artists are either exotified or completely left by the wayside as far as the music industry in Australia goes.”
Nai has selected idiosyncratic covers, like that of ’90s R&B diva Tamia’s ‘So Into You’. Most extraordinary is her rendering of David Bowie’s “spiritual” ‘Blackstar’ in a medley with Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’ and her own ‘Breathing Underwater’. Nai deems it her “favourite song” on the album.
“I’m a massive Bowie fan – I got his eyes tattooed on my shoulders the day he died,” she confides. Nai cut ‘Blackstar’ as a “homage” to the Starman. “The industry can chew people up and spit them out, or they simplify their formula or their process – and he was never one to settle for that.”
Initially, she was unable to clear ‘Blackstar’, leaving her “heartbroken”. “Bowie’s family weren’t letting anyone release it, [or] anything off that album [Blackstar], because it was so precious and the last thing he recorded before he died.” And so Nai addressed them personally. “I wrote the family a letter and they changed their minds – which was deeply moving.” (Mysteriously, Amanda Palmer previously aired a ‘Blackstar’ cover with Anna Calvi the month after Bowie’s passing.)
Nai inspires people’s faith. “They trust me that my intentions are sincere as an artist in just wanting to share something that is real and powerful in an age where a lot of music is temporary and over-produced and this kinda, like, big lollipop production.”
Hiatus Kaiyote may be on hold, but they’re tied to two of 2017’s zeitgeist hip-hop albums via sampling. Drake prefaces his “playlist” More Life with the group’s ‘Building A Ladder’, while Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DUCKWORTH.’ on DAMN. lifts from ‘Atari’ (a Needle Paw highlight, incidentally). Nai knows ‘DUCKWORTH.’ producer 9th Wonder and has crossed paths with K-Dot himself. “I met Kendrick years ago – before good kid, mAAd city came out. He was super-duper gorgeous!”
Drake’s interest proved the greater revelation – Nai stunned when on social media she saw fan videos of the Canadian opening concerts with ‘Building A Ladder’. “Before I go on stage, I listen to Chaka Khan or something really hyperactive, but [Drake is] such a massive artist and he listens to something so gentle and sincere before he goes on stage… It kind of gave me a window into who he is.”
Inevitably, in plugging Needle Paw, Nai will be probed about a third Hiatus Kaiyote album – the media ever-feverish for the next. “We’re not working on it now,” she answers graciously. “I just finished a record, so I’m gonna tour that and then, at the end of the year, we’ll probably start recording again. But we tour our fucking arses off and it’s full-on – it’s draining! We really needed some time to reconnect with the things that we love and to work on our own stuff.”
Well prior to the Needle Paw announcement, Nai was gigging solo, headlining Vivid LIVE in May. Come November, she’ll tour the album in Oz accompanied by her harmony singers. Again, Nai anticipates that the minimalist performances will allow audiences to appreciate the songwriting, arrangements and “nuances”.
Ultimately, Nai was motivated to create a soul-baring album in Needle Paw to demonstrate that she is more than a singer. Indeed, she relates to Bjork’s pronouncements about being undervalued as a female musician – male collaborators invariably credited for her work. “Bjork is still having to defend herself as a producer – and she’s a genius.
“You’d be surprised how often women are portrayed in the music industry as just eye candy – even today. Even the amount of interviews I’ve done where people are like, ‘How do you sing over this when you don’t have any music training?’ It’s like, ‘Because I write a lot of it!’ Even playing a guitar – playing it all on guitar and stuff is not enough for people. So, without any smoke and mirrors, and producing [Needle Paw] myself, I’m saying my piece with it.”