Let me tell you about a band. Its name is Hiatus Kaiyote. Bear with me. The singer, Nai Palm (yes, as in napalm) used to be a fire dancer. Still there? Okay, now get the band’s self-dubbed genre: future soul. Oh, and the bio on Hiatus Kaiyote’s website opens with the following: “Every so often a band comes along that… has all the essential elements in place to become a musical movement.” Okay, I know, I know. But don’t go. Seriously. Because this band is incredible.
Trying to tell you about this band is a unique challenge, mostly because of marketing. Every PR rep at SXSW has already used all the words I want to use—exciting, unique, fresh, provocative — to tell you about a bunch of bands that were Nothing Special. And cynical mythmaking, both successful and unsuccessful (with Jack White on one end of that spectrum and poor old Lana Del Rey on the other) has made you suspicious of women like Nai Palm, with her weird bangs and Manic Pixie Dream Girl effervescence and—are those dermal eyebrow piercings?
Fortunately, Hiatus Kaiyote’s debut EP, Tawk Tomahawk, is a sexy, bewildering collection of truly original songwriting and virtuosic musicianship. And “future soul” isn’t market-speak for “the same old warmed over New Wave aping” as chillwave was. And Nai Palm is actually a soulful, deeply intelligent 23-year-old who seems simply to have been born comfortable with her identity as an artist and more than her fair share of charisma. Anybody got a sign-up sheet for the movement?
“I just went to see my friend’s side-show performance in the circus,” Nai grins over a grainy Skype screen, in an internet café somewhere in Melbourne. It’s 11:30 p.m., and she’s just returned to her hometown the night before after a stint on the road. “They eat light globes and lie on a bed of nails with a concrete block on their stomach.” Her glee at the memory can barely be contained.
Given her fire dancing background and enthusiasm for the circus, one gets the sense that if she hadn’t had the happy accident of linking up with the other members of Hiatus Kaiyote — bassist Paul Bender, multi-instrumentalist Perrin Moss and keyboardist Simon Mavin — she’d be in a caravan somewhere in the outback, on her way to the next big-top.
As it happens, though, Bender sought her out after seeing Nai playing a guitar with pink nylon strings at a small club a few years back. They had real chemistry as songwriting partners, and Bender brought in Moss and Mavin to round out the ensemble. “Our connection is almost telepathic,” Nai says.
At first blush, such a claim scans as hyperbolic. But how else to explain how good a record the foursome has made in Tawk Tomahawk, and on its first try as a very young band?
“It’s an innate sense of intuition meets formal training,” Nai continues. “It’s strange, though, because though myself and Perrin don’t have formal training, we write complicated stuff. The others have a formal background, but they really listen.”
Whatever its genesis, Hiatus Kaiyote’s output is unlike any other music being made today. One track, “Malika,” contains such disparate influences as Flying Lotus’s glitchy, cosmic electro; smooth jazz; opera; soul and Malian percussion. Before your brain has had time to switch gears, they’ve launched into “Ocelot” with hip-hop swagger, clacking drumline percussion and synth that calls to mind a blaring horn section. Throughout the album and within individual songs, tempos mutate, polyrhythms taunt your ability to keep up, and Nai’s smoky voice stutters and slithers through her register.
Try to imagine this all together, and you start to understand why Hiatus Kaiyote did us all a favor and came up with a name for this new sound themselves. But both as a way to poke a little fun at the need for labels and, one assumes, as a way to avoid feeling stuck with “future soul,” Nai says, “Perrin is always coming up with genres. One is Wondercore. Another is Galactic Love Attack.” The tagline on their website? “Multi-Dimensional, Polyrhythmic Gangster Shit.”
“Future soul,” however, seems most apt given the prominence of the influence of soul and R&B on Tawk Tomahawk. The child of a choreographer, Nai says, “I was raised on Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding and really old soul stuff, and that’s what I was singing along to. I grew up listening to Donny Hathaway records and singing along to them.
“Some people might wonder, ‘Why is this tiny white woman from this random island over there singing soul music?’ But for me, I was born with it. It’s natural that this is my expression of sound,” Nai says. And she’s convinced important tastemakers like Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who had the band join him for a guest performance during his weekly DJ set at the Brooklyn Bowl, to Erykah Badu, with whom they’ve toured.
Hiatus Kaiyote recently signed on with Flying Buddha, a Sony imprint, which re-released Tawk Tomahawk (the band originally released it on their own last year). Though it clocks in at 11 tracks — five of which are under 2 minutes long — Hiatus Kaiyote think of Tomahawk as an EP. They’re working on new material and looking forward to putting out a proper album as soon as they can.
Even with the money and security offered by a label, Nai is cautious when talking about the future and the band’s ambitions. One she will admit to is a hope to someday collaborate, not with other famous musicians, but with those making some of her favorite music in northwest Africa — Malians.
“Eventually we’d love to go to Mali and work with artists who are kora [a 21-stringed instrument that looks a bit like a banjo] players,” she intimates.
For now, the quartet is happy reveling in the connection that allows them to make such arresting sounds together. They’ll stay that way “as long as what we’re creating is boundless and an honest expression,” Nai says.
I’ve caught myself thinking this all sounds a little naïve. But music this earnest and inventive makes the knowing, jaded act seem cheap and flat, a one-note cliché. It makes you want to do better. If that doesn’t sound like the slow rumblings of a movement, I don’t know what does.