The phrase "eagerly awaited" might get overused, but anticipation could hardly be greater for 'By Fire,' the new EP by Melbourne’s future soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote, which premieres exclusively on Red Bull Music today. Due for official release December 2, the EP is a taster for the band’s second album, 'Choose Your Weapon,' which drops in March on Flying Buddha/Sony Music Masterworks. Last week, we caught up with frontwoman Naomi Saalfield, a.k.a. Nai Palm, to find out why this is the band so many of your favorite artists are buzzing about.
Tell us about the incredible string of word-of-mouth recommendations that ended with you being befriended by Erykah Badu.
We did a show with our friend Taylor McFerrin, Bobby McFerrin’s son. He gave our music to Gilles Peterson and Anthony Valadez, a DJ on KCRW in America. Dave Portner from Animal Collective was driving along and heard us on the radio, and he spoke to Angel from Dirty Projectors, and she was working with ?uestlove, and he showed it to David Byrne and James Poyser, who writes for Erykah Badu. The first time I met her she came up to me singing one of our songs and gave me a hug. I have no idea how Prince heard it!
You were the first Aussie band to be recognised in an R&B category at the Grammys (for 'Nakamarra,' featuring Q-Tip). Do you feel you’re doing something quite un-Australian?
That’s just it. Aside from indigenous culture here there is no identity, so there’s no real musical lineage that you have to adhere to. The natural expression of Australian culture is a fusion of everything. I don’t feel we’re alone in that. There’s some incredible music coming out of Australia.
Nai Palm is in a grand tradition of female punk stage names, like Poly Styrene or Ari Up…
I love getting something that has negative connotations, and claiming it, and then creating a positive association to it. You find that a lot in my lyrics. Nai is also short for my name, Naomi, and Palm is also how, as a singer, I’m letting people read my past, present and future in my songs. I also love to dress up. I don’t want to grow out of that. I made a headdress out of an eagle I found in the desert. I like collecting treasure wherever I go. Then it’s like you’re wearing memories.
You don’t seem to adhere to any popular restrictions about what a song can be about. 'Nakamarra,' for instance, was about the courage of a friend who went to live with an Aboriginal tribe…
Most songs are more often than not about romance or going out partying. And I feel like there’s so much beauty in the world. I’m working on a song at the moment about dinosaurs. We look back on them with longing, and glorify them as almost mythological, but we are just as incredible as dinosaurs. There’s also a song about that sense of wonder in gaming, because I grew up in a family of four brothers, with Atari and Sega.
What is the significance of fire for you?
I was actually really surprised that our label chose ‘By Fire’ to lead the EP. It’s essentially a burial song for my father, who died in a house fire. He used to make native American jewellery and tipis and stuff and he burnt it all six months before he died. Fire is creative but also destructive, and I wanted to focus on that duality. I also used to be a fire-walker. Our music is pretty layered.
Do you feel trepidation about releasing something so personal?
Everything I do is like that. That’s what it is, that’s why I create. Not everybody has the ability to release that tension within themselves through music, but maybe they can by listening. The industry has become all about forever being youthful and partying. But for me music is potent, it’s ritual, it is magic. It has played that role for thousands of years. I don’t know, I guess I’ve just had a lot to process in my 25 years on the planet.