There is an age-old tradition of the front-person from a band going solo, reinventing themselves and the musical direction of their band when (or if) they return. For Nai Palm, the lead singer of Melbourne-based jazz-soul group Hiatus Kaiyote, going solo for her recent LP ‘Needle Paw’ was so much more than just creative departure or experimentation.
Instantly recognisable for her vocal acrobatics and non-linear style of songwriting, which has seemingly spawned an entire genre of Melbourne soul, including artists like 30/70 and Jordan Rakei, Nai Palm has always lead Hiatus Kaiyote with an unpredictable force. Over the thirteen tracks of ‘Needle Paw’, adorned with just guitar and voice, Nai Palm takes the listener on an intimate journey into her songwriting process, musical tastes, and ultimately envelops them in the emotive strength of her voice. Diarisitic yet political, the record is bookended by two ceremonial songs from Aboriginal performer Jason Guwanbal Gurruwiwi, evoking a rich history of indigenous Australian music that goes beyond language and into land and earth itself.
We caught up with Nai Palm following her recent show at London’s KOKO to talk about the liberation of performing solo, the need for indigenous representation, and the voice as tied to deeper understandings of the self.
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What were your motivations for making a solo record?
We needed a break from touring with Hiatus Kaiyote to just focus on being creative and to work on some production. I thought it would be a good time to remind myself of who I am and what it is that I’m doing creatively because it can all be a bit of a whirlwind otherwise. I wanted to make something really raw and personal and minimal, especially in an age of hyper-produced and hyper-designed music.
How did your writing process for ‘Needle Paw’ differ from writing with Hiatus Kaiyote?
All the Hiatus songs on the record are the songs that I’ve written for the band and this is how they begin. Some of the new tracks might end up on the next Hiatus record too. For me, we’re not separating, we really adore creating together, I just wanted to give people a more intimate view into our writing process.
Does it feel exposing or liberating to perform solo on stage?
Even when Hiatus is on tour, I do some solo shows sprinkled in but it’s definitely more intense this time because I have the album also. It’s been beautiful though because you don’t have anything to fall back on, so you have to be emotionally present all of the time. It's been really nurturing and I've found that people just want to sing along with me. I have more freedom to loop stuff and let it breathe, it’s human and imperfect and there’s a lot of liberation in that. The record is a testament to the power of the human voice.
You have such a distinctive singing style yourself, how did you develop it? Or was it always present?
There’s no such thing as singing a certain way your whole life because physically your body changes and you get more awareness of yourself. It’s not a stylistic thing that changes, it’s more of an internal security and understanding of self, so as you get older and wiser, when you go to project how you feel through your voice it’s going to evolve and mature. Usually it’s more of a cathartic place that people create from, rather than a cognitive and analytical one.
Can you convey emotion through vocalisations alone, without lyrics?
There’s so much music I listen to from other countries in languages that I don't speak and it all comes down to whether people are sincere in what they're singing about and sharing. People might not be able to fully dissect my own lyrics since it's a labyrinth of references but I'm not mad if they don't get what I'm singing about because at the end of the day you're going to associate it to your own experiences. When I write, I like to have many layers to a song so that different people can find different access points into it.
How did your collaboration with the indigenous performer Jason Guwanbal Gurruwiwi come about?
As a white Australian, it’s important to learn about the original custodians of the land because so much of it is intentionally segregated. These are a people that are arguably the oldest living civilisation on the planet and there's so much respect for the land in their life and culture. There's so much beauty to learn that's kept from the vast majority of Australians and it's really important to try and educate yourself about it and to just meet some of these people.
I met Jason through an infamous Aboriginal Australian actor and activist, Jack Charles. Jason is a ceremonial singer and when I saw him sing it was the most powerful voice I've ever heard. There was no ego there, it's just pure power and the song he's singing is thousands of years old, it's his cultural heritage and identity. The fact he trusted me with it for this record was so beautiful. The timing of working with Jason was really auspicious also because he lives in a super remote part of Australia, so managing to cross paths and finding the space to work together was really cool.
I know I have an international audience so I wanted to show them something beautiful that they might not normally have access to. They're my favourite tracks on the record because they feel like home!
How did you go about choosing the covers to perform on the record?
I chose the David Bowie song ‘Blackstar’ because it’s just so intense. He had a career that spanned decades, constantly reinventing himself and still being number one on the pop charts. He was liberated creatively and didn't have anything to prove, yet he was on his deathbed and still giving and pushing his creative boundaries.
There was a point where his family wasn’t letting anyone cover anything off that album because it was too personal but I sent them a letter, pouring myself into it and they changed their mind. There’s been a lot of trust on this record and that’s been really humbling and nurturing for me.
With Jimi Hendrix, I wanted to celebrate his more soulful side. He’s so much more than a male rock god and ‘Electric Ladyland’ reflects his R&B roots in playing with groups like the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. Also, it can be a bit of a bro-fest as a woman playing electric guitar, so I wanted to do something effeminate with it.
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'Needle Paw' is out now.
Words: Ammar Kalia
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