Hiatus Kaiyote: “Art isn’t perfect, it’s about the energy”

After Nai Palm’s cancer battle and amid a global pandemic, the genre-fluid mavericks from Melbourne return with a record that celebrates life

“Right before we left for Brazil he wrote this cryptic email,” splutters Hiatus Kaiyote bassist and cellist Paul Bender. “‘Um, there’s a lot of instruments in this song already, I’m finding it quite hard to arrange anything for it’.” He pauses for a beat. “‘All the best, Arthur’.”

Generally, before flying 13,000 kilometres across the world, you want the last message from your overseas host to fill you with confidence. But on the eve of Melbourne jazz-funk shapeshifters Hiatus Kaiyote’s flight to Rio de Janeiro to work on their long-gestating third album, they received that confusingly brief missive from legendary arrangements master Arthur Verocai, who had been called in to help the band level up with his Latin-tinged orchestral touches.

“We were like, ‘What does that mean? Is he bailing? What’s happening?’ We were terrified… and then we had to fly over there,” Bender shakes his head.

Bender and the band are kicking it at his house in Preston, where Hiatus Kaiyote have a studio known affectionately as The Villa. Singer, guitarist and iconoclast Nai Palm (real name Naomi Saalfield) is wearing an outrageous fluffy white headpiece that Jay Kay from Jamiroquai would happily swap for one of his sports cars. “I’m sketching ‘Crazy Rats For President’,” she declares, apropos of nothing, her hands barely keeping up with her muse.

NME Cover AU 2021 Hiatus Kaiyote
Credit: Tré Koch

Speaking to NME via Zoom, the group are sitting around a sun-kissed kitchen table covered in smoking paraphernalia, takeaway coffee cups, a guitar pedal, black nail polish and a copy of The Saturday Paper.

Drummer and percussionist Perrin Moss plays with a laptop cord. Beanie-wearing synth player Simon Mavin (also of The Putbacks) blows impressive smoke-rings and carries himself with a Best Supporting Actor charisma.

Bender, who is introduced by the band’s manager as “the one with the fisherman’s beard”, is happy to make himself the butt of band jokes. “I was the only one who lost their mind during lockdown. I made a rap album,” he grins, referring to the Bandcamp release he titled ‘Middle Aged Caucasian Existential Debut Record’.

The quartet laugh easily at each other’s wisecracks, surreptitiously show each other pictures on their smartphones and allow the loquacious Saalfield to field most questions about their third album, ‘Mood Valiant’ – certainly more relaxed than when they arrived in Brazil not knowing whether The Arthur Experiment was going to be a success.

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Hiatus Kaiyote on the cover of NME Australia #19. Photography by Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore

Hiatus Kaiyote have been a tight-knit gang for a decade now. Bender caught Saalfield doing a solo show at now-defunct Fitzroy nightspot Gertrude’s Brown Couch. “It was one of her first-ever solo gigs, but straight away I was amazed by her voice and songs,” Bender says over email afterward. “I knew it was the kind of music I wanted to be involved in – complex yet beautiful and logical.”

He didn’t see her for another year, then the two bumped into each other and became buddies. Moss and Mavin joined them for a jam shortly afterwards and Hiatus Kaiyote were born in 2011.

The following year, they self-released their debut album, ‘Tawk Tomahawk’. “It’s Australia’s most important soul record,” says Northside Records’ boss Chris Gill, whose shop is also on Gertrude St. He sold “stacks of copies of ‘Tawk Tomahawk’ – I needed those boxes immediately. It’s a cherished piece of local Melbourne culture”.

Looking to stand out, Hiatus Kaiyote and their manager Si Jay Gould coined the genre “wondercore” to describe their heady blend of restless jazz, bohemian funk and new-school R&B. Mavin explained at the time: “That’s what we’re always aiming for as a group. We’re trying to get to that moment where people are overwhelmed in joy, in confusion, in sadness, or in the magnitude of emotion or disbelief.”

“A Valiant is like a Kingswood, a trashy Aussie car… It’s a flex because it’s really daggy” – Nai Palm

Then something cool happened. Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors – the US art-pop bands du jour at the time – heard Hiatus Kaiyote’s spine-tingling ballad, ‘Nakamarra’, and passed the tune to Questlove. The Roots drummer then shared a link to that song with his millions of followers with a note: “Once in a blue moon, something moves me so much I’m willing to alienate friends when an undeniable project comes along… THIS is that project.”

Gilles Peterson, Erykah Badu and even Prince got on board: The Purple One tweeted out the ‘Nakamarra’ YouTube link with “DON’T WORRY. JUST CLICK.”

The band signed to Salaam Remi’s (Nas, Fugees) Sony-distributed Flying Buddha label. ‘Nakamarra’ became a wedding song, a tattoo, a lullaby – and reached critical mass when they released a version with Q-Tip doing a guest verse. This led to the band’s first (emphasis on first) Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance, a feat never before achieved by an Australian act.

After touring ‘Tawk Tomahawk’ extensively at Splendour In The Grass, Fuji Rock, Glastonbury and Lollapalooza, Hiatus Kaiyote released ‘Choose Your Weapon’ in 2015. It expanded their palette to even more unpredictable rhythms. Their fanbase swelled. ‘Choose Your Weapon’ was ARIA-nominated for Best Urban Album and single ‘Breathing Underwater’ was up, again, for a Best R&B Performance Grammy. In 2017, Nai Palm released her debut solo album ‘Needle Paw’ and toured it internationally.

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Nai Palm. Credit: Tré Koch

Then Saalfield was diagnosed with breast cancer, the same condition that claimed her mother’s life when she was 11 years old. She underwent treatment in 2019 and had a mastectomy, opting out of breast reconstruction to challenge beauty standards.

NME is warned pre-interview not to bring up Saalfield’s cancer battle unless she does. “A lot of people thought 2020 was hard but the year before I lost a breast and a bird,” she says. “My parrot Charlie Parker was my bestie, it was a really shit time.”

In 2021, Nai Palm is back at full strength, though she’s still required to take some “crazy medication that puts me through, like, menopause, essentially, and gives me hot flushes”. So she carries rosewater around with her, a refreshing balm that lent itself to a piano- and flute-filled song on the new record.

“That song is a sanctuary, it’s nurturing. Some of our music is really hectic and about, y’know, robots or whatever. ‘Rosewater’ is gentle, graceful, elemental,” she says.

In May, Saalfield tweeted out a crystal ball emoji, declaring: “We orphans throughout history have been destined to do great things.”

“There’s no formula in how we make music. It’s like coming to the playground and swapping lunches” – Nai Palm

And ‘Mood Valiant’ is the greatest thing Hiatus Kaiyote has done to date. Music has been life or death for Saalfield since her rough teenage years in foster care, but after staring down her own mortality, the scope of her creativity is wider, the stakes higher. Her voice and ideas are reaching places they’ve never been, and the rest of the band follow her lead, locking in and making ‘Mood Valiant’ a brighter and more engulfing journey than any other record they’ve made.

On ‘Mood Valiant’, Saalfield sings about the sheer joy that can come from making music with friends who were visiting her in hospital not so long ago – and love songs about the mating rituals of seahorses and hummingbirds (not together).

Dotting the album are field recordings of wolves, dogs, Amazon birds and even bats – beguiling inclusions that are less David Attenborough-esque flourishes and more celebrations of the gift of life. Life is short, Hiatus Kaiyote are saying. Let’s at least feel something while we’re here.

The record’s title ‘Mood Valiant’ is a nod to Saalfield’s mum, Suzie Ashman, who had six kids and somehow, two vehicles.

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Perrin Moss. Credit: Tré Koch

“I don’t know how she afforded it, but she had two Valiant station wagons. One was black and one was white,” says Saalfield. “And we were ratbags. She would drive the white one usually, and whenever she’d had enough of our nonsense, she would drive the black one. On those days it would be like” – she adopts the tone of a 1920s gangster – “‘Today’s the day you don’t mess with the boss’.”

“A Valiant is like a Kingswood, a trashy Aussie car,” she continues. “I like the idea that it’s not a Lamborghini like you usually see. It’s a flex because it’s really daggy. The badass side of me comes from my mum being incredibly stylish.

“I also really like the word valiant – it’s so uplifting and righteous.”

It’s a good word, and ‘Mood Valiant’ a good soundtrack as Melburnians exit the city’s fourth lockdown as beautiful, battle-hardened butterflies.

During lockdown, Saalfield borrowed her personal trainer brother’s gym equipment and went into the studio to work on the album. She also got high on a daily basis. “There’s a Magnolia fiscus tree in the Fitzroy Gardens, and I would walk there and climb it and listen to the album mixes,” she says.

Perrin stayed fit by running around with his dog, Pablo. Bender explored his aforementioned hip-hop side with tracks titled ‘Shit’s Fucked’ and ‘FUCK 2020’, and Mavin found the enforced home detention actually sorta nice.

“When we recorded ‘All The Words We Don’t Say’, we challenged ourselves to do it. But you don’t always have to do it, people don’t always want that” – Simon Mavin

“We’re all kind of hermits, y’know,” the synth player says. “It wasn’t that different from not playing [shows]. I’ve been playing for like three years straight and this is the first time I’ve stopped. My body felt great. I got a PlayStation 4 and slayed the shit outta Perrin in Rocket League. They introduced multiplayer and we’d play against each other.”

It’s the sort of thing their fanbase would enjoy watching on Twitch. Wisely, Hiatus Kaiyote have embraced the world of Patreon where they release exclusive content. “It’s nice to just present different sides of our exploits and absolute nonsense as well. Patreon is a really cool format for artists now,” says Perrin.

The group have hosted sleepover parties, launched a side project Swooping (the band sans Saalfield), live-streamed concerts and now have nearly 800 patrons who support them to the tune of $3,456 a month.

It was a nimble move at a time when most musicians in Australia felt left behind by the federal government. “Because the band’s a company, we just got one JobKeeper,” Gould says with trepidation before Saalfield interjects with some real talk: “We signed a publishing deal which kind of saved our ass.”

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Paul Bender. Credit: Tré Koch

In August 2020, Hiatus Kaiyote inked a global deal (excluding Australia and New Zealand) with Warner Music Group’s publishing arm Warner Chappell Music, covering all past and future work. And in March 2021, Universal Music Publishing Australia signed Hiatus Kaiyote to an exclusive deal covering both Oz and NZ, timing the announcement to the March release of their single ‘Get Sun’, featuring Arthur Verocai – which takes us back to that Brazil trip.

“We got over there and met Arthur and he was lovely and all but… we were in the studio waiting for the sheet music to turn up,” Bender says through a forced grin. “We had no idea what it was gonna be. Then it [the arrangements] arrived and the horns turned up and did a thing and oh my god, it was ridiculous,” he says, slashing his arms through Mavin’s looping smoke plumes.

“Then the strings turned up and did a thing and I was like ‘OH MY GOD’,” he says, properly losing it. “I was crying in the control room – it was amazing.”

“He’s got such a brilliant mind,” Saalfield says of the ever-smiling, effervescent septuagenarian. “And he just threw this magical thing together,” she says, squeal-singing ‘Get Sun’’s ebullient horn parts.

‘Get Sun’, Saalfield remembers, was “a really old song of mine” which she had written pre-Hiatus Kaiyote “that I thought was super shit”.

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Simon Mavin. Credit: Tré Koch

Fans think it’s the shit, though. As one YouTuber commented: “This is what it sounds like in your brain when you’re good at maths and you’re solving a polynomial equation sippin margaritas.” Another gushed: “I feel like I’m friends with all of you because you are here listening to the best band.”

“There’s no formula in how we make music,” Saalfield adds, switching coloured markers. “It’s like coming to the playground and swapping lunches. ‘What do you guys have? A sandwich? Cool, I’ve got a Roll Up’. We do an exchange. When I finally showed them ‘Get Sun’ they really loved it.”

‘Mood Valiant’’s second single, ‘Red Room,’ also came together in Brazil, but in a vastly different way. Saalfield wrote the insular demo pre-pandemic about a special time in her house when the walls would become illuminated in crimson hues from stained-glass windows as the sun set.

It’s since become a universal lockdown anthem with this gorgeous couplet: “It feels like I’m inside a flower, it feels like I’m inside my eyelids.” Nai Palm’s voice on the song is shrill, strung out, and to pinch Bender’s superlative for Verocai, frankly ridiculous. What vocal processing had Saalfield’s pipes been put through?

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Credit: Tré Koch

None, as it turns out – it’s all Nai Palm. “People keep asking if I put a sub on my voice. I’ve never sung so low and I’ve never sung so high.”

‘Red Room’ was recorded on the fly at 2am in Rio after the band had partaken in “heaps of tea” and the local liquor cachaça.

“I never write on the fly; everything I do is intentional and meticulous, there’s a lot of Wikipedia dives to work out what words mean. There’s something really beautiful about that urgency. It was a very intuitive song,” Saalfield says. “We’d drunk so much cachaça – it’s sugarcane firewater – out of hand-carved shot glasses.”

“That song is like breathing to me,” says Mavin. “It’s nothing, sorry, it’s everything.”

“Sometimes you’re working on a tune for weeks and months and you overthink it, but that one we essentially wrote and finished at the studio in Rio. It forced us not to elaborate. ‘We’re doing this now! Let’s keep it simple!’” Perrin recalls. “The way Nai’s voice falters too, it lets listeners know that those things actually happen.”

Saalfield adds, “You can hear the humanism in those takes. Art isn’t perfect, it’s about the energy.” Initially, the singer didn’t want those cracking vocals on the album. “Then I was like, fuck it, it’s a vibe. It’s surprising that’s the one that’s resonating with people. I’ve shot myself in the foot though, because now I have to do it live,” she says, shaking her head.

Mavin becomes philosophical. “The selfish part of being a musician is always trying to prove themselves every time. When we recorded ‘All The Words We Don’t Say’, we challenged ourselves to do it. But you don’t always have to do it, people don’t always want that,” he says.

NME Cover AU 2021 Hiatus Kaiyote
Credit: Tré Koch

It’s true: music fans who don’t “get” Hiatus Kaiyote often put their math-jazz inclinations in the Too Hard Basket. And that suits the band fine. They have enough fans in high places to know they should keep flying their freak flags. In March, they signed to Flying Lotus’ label Brainfeeder. Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and Beyoncé have all sampled their songs. Drake tapped Nai Palm to work on his ‘Scorpion’ album, contributing, in her words, a “throwaway recording” of Aaliyah’s ‘More Than A Woman’.

Drake and Nai Palm developed a simpatico relationship when he was sending her stems. “He picked up pretty quickly that I’m not going to sell his shit to buy a yacht. It’s a mutual respect thing.” She didn’t know it had made the cut on his record, though, until Drizzy’s lawyers contacted hers.

And one song from ‘Mood Valiant’ nearly slipped through Nai Palm’s fingers. “Simon wrote ‘Stone Or Lavender’ ages ago, and initially the plan was he was going to give it to Beyoncé,” Saalfield says, needling her bandmate.

“That’s not what happened,” Mavin says, nearly taking the bait. “I went to Los Angeles and we hung out in various studios with various producers and we showed one guy ‘Stone Or Lavender’ and he said, ‘Oh man, Beyoncé’s gonna kill this song’. But that didn’t happen and –”

Saalfield jumps in: “But I thought it did, so I was like, ‘Oh well’. Then some time passed and I thought, ‘What if I wrote to the song?’ Then I said, ‘Oh look Simon! What do you think?’ He was shocked I’d done it.

“I was going through breast cancer stuff and then the death of Charlie, so I had a lot of loss to process,” she says, peering up from her sketchbook and adjusting her headpiece like she’s focusing a pair of binoculars. “‘Stone Or Lavender’ was the garden bed to do that… I’m a lot more cryptic with my lyrics, but this is just the human experience; there’s no bells and whistles, lyrically it was about real tangible grief.”

The room goes still. Then Nai Palm breaks the tension: “I’m glad I stole that shit back from Beyoncé.”

Hiatus Kaiyote’s ‘Mood Valiant’ is out now