Michelle Grace Hunder // Instagram
—by Biba Adams
When Hiatus Kaiyote debuted in 2013, the hook to their hit song "Nakamarra" had audiences crooning. And with co-signs from Jill Scott and Questlove, plus a feature from Q-Tip, their Tawk Tomahawk LP ended up becoming a hit for the Australian future-soul quartet and earning them a lot of fans in the hip-hop community, as well as a Grammy Award nomination. Follow-up album Choose Your Weapon (2015) spawned popular singles "Breathing Underwater" and "Molasses," and yet another Grammy nod.
It was the beautiful voice of Nai Palm, who also serves as the band's face, that demanded the fandom. And now her powerful, enigmatic vocals and lyrical dexterity have made her a newly-crowned goddess of underground soul just in time for her solo debut, Needle Paw.
Born Naomi Saalfield in Melbourne, Nai Palm turned to art and music after a difficult childhood. "I had to deal with some pretty heavy things very early on in my life," she explained in a phone interview. "Art is never born from order and structure. It's often the reaction to the oppression of the imagination. For me, that was born at a young age. I lost both my parents. I had an abusive alcoholic father. I moved around a lot. I was homeless at times. I raised myself."
Artist // Instagram
It was through this pain that she found her art. "I'm really fortunate that I've been given and worked at these tools that have given me a gratitude and sense of beauty," Saalfield said. "As opposed to feeling betrayed all the time."
After her mother passed away following years of illness when Saalfield was just 11 years old, the singer moved from the city to the countryside where she worked at an animal refuge. "All of a sudden, I'm in the country looking after all of these animals," she said. "Eagles, kangaroos, wombats. It gave me a real sense of purpose and tranquility that I still carry with me everywhere I go."
Her purpose and art manifests through her incredibly dense lyrics and on Needle Paw, the words are the star, both her own and others'. The project features four new songs; covers of songs by David Bowie, Tamia, and Jimi Hendrix; and a few samples from the previous two Hiatus Kaiyote albums. It's a stripped-down album that boasts only vocal and guitar tracks, but still maintains sonic density. Backed by her vocalists Laura Christoforidis, Jace Excell, and Silent Jay, Needle Paw distinguishes itself a Hiatus album in its musicality. "It's very direct and human," Saalfield explained. "It's kind of like a journal. I wanted to give people something that was a little bit more intimate for the quiet moments in their lives."
Artist // Instagram
Coming off a set of sold-out U.S. shows where she performed with just a guitar, one wonders if new universal acclaim will change Hiatus Kaiyote's beloved sound. It's a question that makes Saalfield laugh. "No," she said. "Definitely no outside influence will change our music. The only thing that would change us would be our own internal creative alchemy."
It was 9th Wonder who fueled Hiatus Kaiyote as a hip-hop obsession. His production on Anderson .Paak's "Without You" and Kendrick Lamar's "Duckworth" put their music in front of a whole new set of fans for a group who, despite two Grammy nominations, has never seen their albums hit the Top 40. The ultimate cherry on top was on Drake's More Life where he sampled their "Building a Ladder" for "Free Smoke." It was a pleasant surprise for the band.
"I'm not a massive Drake fan, but I do like some of his stuff," Saalfield said. "For me, the trip was more of the song choice. The fact that he chose 'Building a Ladder,' which is such a gentle, emotional song. The fact that it resonated with him just kind of made me realize that he's a sweetheart. It was just kinda like, 'Aw, Drake's so sweet.' He's this superstar rapper and he's also got this gorgeous heart. That was really cool to me."
Needle Paw is a debut that is as beautiful, light and inspiring as the artist who composed it. When asked about her inspiration, Saalfield ponders her response: "That's almost like asking, 'What's the meaning of life?' As a musician, there are artists that make music that inspires me. But, mostly the music that inspires me to create is shit that I find lacking in substance. That need to contribute beauty to the world is inspiring to most artists, and definitely to me."