INTERVIEW | Nai Palm's ​"Needle Paw"​ is an intimate exploration of Palm's poetic lyricism

Shaun Harris 10/19/17

"Needle Paw's" source material is a well of poetic ruminations on nature, life and death, and all the small intricacies of existing. It's no wonder Nai Palm's solo debut is imbued with the same energy.

When I meet up with Nai Palm in a computer-free coffee shop in Harlem, I'm trying to metabolize that, 1) I am about to speak with someone who's unbelievable talented and, 2) I need to somehow remain objective and professional. It's hard to be objective about art you love and even harder to ask questions when your heart is racing. Melbourne's Hiatus Kaiyote is not your typical band. Every member of the quartet is a skilled musical genius, and the band's two releases, Tawk Tomahawk (2012) and Choose Your Weapon (2015), are both examples of the collaborative exchange between the bandmates.

Hiatus Kaiyote is known for their undeniably unique, genre-bending sound, and at the core is Nai Palm, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who could easily be a pulitzer prize-winning poet. A healer of sorts, Nai Palm is the type of woman who calls herself a lady pirate, curses with blazing passion and takes every question, even the most awkwardly posed and slightly reductive questions (my bad Nai) and turns them into beautiful, thoughtful, charismatic answers. Achingly smart and an engaging conversationalist, Nai Palm seems to radiate the same aura of her music, always considering the fluid and ever-changing nature of the human condition.

Needle Paw (out October 20th) is not the R&B, soul, futuristic, operatic, synthesized, rock chamber of Choose Your Weapon. The lyrics are there and Nai's breathtaking vocal performances are there, but the atmosphere and breath of the album are different; like a Koala bear chewing on his Eucalyptus, Needle Paw's power is not in its intensive groove sessions, but in its quiet simplicity. An album dedicated to healing and centering herself outside of HK's recent launch into a mainstream, public profile, Nai's Needle Paw showcases the vocal arrangements and harmonies that made Choose Your Weapon so unique, and explores the human voice as one of the strongest instruments in HK's music.

Featuring covers of Jimi Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland" and a very special cover of David Bowie's Blackstar — that almost wasn't cleared by Bowie's team — Needle Paw is a nod to the music and sounds that inspire Nai just as it is a breakdown of HK's musical intricacies.

You begin and end the album with Jason Gurruwiwi, who you mentioned is a big Aboriginal artist and a very important part of Aboriginal culture. And you also included some of your backup singers from HK. In what ways does Needle Paw gesture toward communities in music and art in a different manner than Choose Your Weapon, and how does the recording process reflect this?

Well, I wanted to do the record with the backup singers that we perform with live in Australia just because they've been a massive part of our journey but we've never recorded with them. We haven't been able to afford to tour with them extensively overseas, and so, I just wanted them to feel involved. They're like family, you know? And also — people are going to think this anyway — but I wanted to avoid the whole like "lead singer goes off on her solo thing." It's not that. Like I'm using the BB's from the band, and it's still very much apart of the conversation, and the project is just a really a different element to the bigger picture. And Jason Gurruwiwi, he's a very special man.

Jason GurruwiwiPhoto by Emilia Terzon

This is the thing: I travel a lot and I meet a lot of people. And the thing about Jason is he's from a remote indigenous community in Australia. And when I say remote, think about how big Australia is. All the cities — there's like five major cities on the outside and then there's, for the most part, just dessert. And he's lives on community and hunts stingrays. He's a ceremonial singer, so he's doesn't tour festival circuits. And there was — Dr G Yunupingu was a famous Aboriginal singer who died recently and he played in the white house and stuff, and Jason, after this recording session, I was like, "Well where are you going next?" And he works out of Darwin and is like one of the main language custodians and translators for language because there's so many different dialects of language up there. And, you know, he was flying back to sing at [Dr G Yunupingu's] funeral. But it's like a ceremonial thing. And it's such a powerful part of Australian culture that not a lot of people get exposed to.

Australia Day is essentially like Columbus Day here. So there is a sense of patriotism for most Australians, but what it actually represents is genocide of indigenous people. The day that is celebrated is the day that Captain James Cook came to Australia and slaughtered everybody, you know? So for a lot of people, people that are aware of indigenous communities, it's a day of mourning and [yet] it's celebrated like National Day.

Australia day celebrated January 26th (Getty)

And I was really fortunate to be exposed to it. There's an Aboriginal icon called Jack Charles, Uncle Jack. We got an email from his team and I didn't even know he was a musician. Like, I just knew him because he was my friend's grandfather. And this was like two years later, and we got an email from his team and asked if I could play at an event to raise awareness and change the date of Australia Day. He flew down another band and Jason was in town. I was bawling my eyes out. The fact that he trusted me enough to put that on the record was profoundly beautiful. And so, I use my profile to just share it with people, you know, because it's so segregated. You don't learn about indigenous issues in school and I've been really blessed to to be able to go to the desert and work with indigenous audiences. I feel honored to be able to be a bridge. It's not like aggressive and political; it's just like here's something really beautiful. If you want to check it out you can, and you should, and you can learn more about it.

The presence of wildlife, nature, and animals seem to be present in Hiatus Kaiyote's music and Needle Paw seems to incorporate wildlife in a similar manner. How does the inclusion of the elements change the narrative of your songs, and how does it affect your songwriting?

Nature deeply affects everybody whether or not you are the sort of person that goes camping or whatever. If you think about the fact that people are drawn to the beach and how just being by the ocean can clear your head, or going to the park. We are a part of the natural world and yet we isolate ourselves and wonder why we end up riddled with anxiety and stress; and it's because we're creating a synthetic world around us to fit into and then wonder why — you know? Everybody is connected to [nature].

Nai Palm and Charlie Parker (Amie @amiespeach)

Like the eclipse, it just happened. Whether or not you're a giant nerd or like a super spiritually advanced person, it affects you. And the amount of people that would've just been going about their business and that shit happens — the world stops and you pay attention. I'm just blessed that I, from a young age, lived with wildlife carers. I grew up in the city, you know, I was a city baby, but when my mother died, I moved to the country...against my will. It wasn't like "Oh I'm going to live in the country now." I just got moved there and I hated it at first, but it was such a massive part of my healing to be somewhere that is, you know, in a valley of mountains and a river where you can drink from the water, and looking after injured animals and stuff. It just...It really helped me and I'll never forget that, and I carry that with me now. And I've been really fortunate to be put in a position where I'm forced to listen and really understand why and why it affects me the way it does. And it does! Whether you're aware of it or not. And so, of course, when I go to create, it's going to be naturally ingrained in what I do. Because I think the natural world is so much f***ing wonder and beauty and complexity — how could you not find that inspiring?

In many ways, Needle Paw is a macrocosm of culture explored at a micro level: Adventure Time, Atari, David Bowie, 90's R&B, Jimi Hendrix's legacy — these are all people or things that have shaped culture in some way. How do you navigate pop culture spaces through the context of nature and the human body?

I don't really see them as separate. In an everything is everything kind of way, you can find a common denominator between everything. I was talking with Steve Wonder's backup singer Deja — she's so beautiful. And she was was telling me that Stevie once said to her, "We are more the same than we are different." You know, I feel like we obsess over how different everything is, or like this is so unique or — A laptop is nature…we are natural. We use minerals and elements on the planet and our intelligence to create it. It's like an extension of us, but it's still made up of the same molecular structure as you are to some degree. You know, it's almost like an obsession. I love finding juxtaposition and finding a way to harmonize them and seeing how they're similar. It's just really natural for me like I don't see them as separate, so I really try to find bridges and it's like a hobby that I actually really love.

I never want to be one-dimensional. You know? You have to find a formula that works for you, and I just feel like this works for me and this is who I am. This is my identity. Like the world – the universe thrives in chaos and is ever-changing, and it's the human condition that we have this need to hang on to a sense of identity and isolate ourselves. And even the concept of time is like, "I'm going to make a formula to understand something that is infinite and put in these regimented minutes," but it's like...you can look at it that way, but it's still going to be all encompassing. And what you do with a minute versus what I do with a minute is our concept of how we live in that time and how it's different. But it's the same amount of time and I just feel like the more you allow your experience — the more you trust in the fact that you can't control anything or you can't isolate anything really, the more liberating it is. And I feel like that's something that I'm going to be working on my whole life.

Right. It's a journey.

Because it's human nature to want to feel secure or feel created…things that are familiar. How do you find the bridge between finding something that is familiar but also instills a sense of wonder and imagination, that is limitless? Yeah.

You are covering HK songs as an exploration of your vocalism, relying solely on the acoustic guitar and minimal production on this project. What exactly did you feel was lost in translation once all the synths, bass, drums, and chords were piled onto your writing that you wanted to reinterpret on Needle Paw?

I guess like the subtle detail in the vocal harmony. You know, and like the fact that the human voice is such an emotive instrument. It's the first thing you do when you're born, you make sound. There's something really celestially auspicious and primal about the human voice and why we resonate with it.

Absolutely.

It's the first point of contact and so I wanted, with that in mind, to make something that is — arrangement wise – as detailed as something where you have other instruments, but all the layers being the human voice. Because there's so much more flexibility for emotional intention I feel with the human voice then if you are playing guitar. Like, you can play a guitar lick with emotion and power, but there's so much nuance just in the human voice that you cannot achieve with an instrument because it's direct. And so, like, by using the layers, all of the layers with this type of detail...I just felt like it could be something that draws you in but holds you. It's kind of like the difference of... if I like...sang something to you really loud and performed it to you and it had an element of entertainment versus me whispering it in your ear. They both have power and they both are gonna affect you differently, but if I'm whispering it to you there's something a) a lot more direct and, b) intimate.

Yeah. Very intimate.

And so I just wanted to give people another way of experiencing the art of it all. And also, this is the first point of my expression. Like when we work with Hiatus, we rehearse and everybody's ideas are there and it changes and evolves; and then when you're in the studio, there's a whole other element to that. But "Homebody," for example, when I wrote it, that's what it sounded like. That was the first—

Utterance!

Yeah. The first life that it had and so to be able to find a way to get as close to that as possible, but still nerd out on the arrangements was the goal. And for me, I listen to a lot of different music.

It shows.

Sometimes you just want something gentle and I don't know if Choose Your Weapon is the album for every part of the day. You know what I mean? Because there's a lot going on — not to take anything away from that — but it's like I wanted to create something that was like OK, so what if you're hungover on a Sunday morning or what if you're family member just died. The crazy thing about this record is "Homebody" is the only song — well "Crossfire" is out today — but "Homebody" was the first song, and the amount of people that have experienced death recently that have written to me and told me that this is what they listen to like... I'm an orphan. I know death very closely. I've lost a lot of people that are close to me and there is a real vulnerability with going through that and there's music for every mood. I just wanted to create something that could be more in the context of a lullaby, or something really gentle to just hold people in those moments of fragility.

And Hiatus can do that too…but...you know…. And in the same respect, if we're out at a club and you put on Needle Paw, I don't know if it's really gonna hit. [laughing] Because it's not that type of record.

[laughing] No. Yeah, no.

And that's okay. That's not what I'm trying to do. Yeah. This is what I was trying to achieve with Needle Paw. A bedtime story version of it.

I think often women are called selfish for writing songs that aren't about men making us unhappy. When I was reading your bio about your value in Hiatus being questioned, I immediately thought of Stevie Nicks, who was often told she wasn't as talented of a songwriter in the band as the men were musicians. In reclaiming yours songs, how does Needle Paw reiterate the complexity and beauty of the female perspective in music?

There's feminine and masculine qualities in everybody. From someone who grew up with four brothers, I definitely have the pyromaniac gamer, rougher side. I just feel like, as a woman in the arts, not just in music — and not just in the arts — in life in general, you really have to fight for your voice. I had a beautiful mother for the first eleven years of my life who was unapologetically herself and always nurturing and I think how much that's impacted me. In a society that — especially in the arts— if you're a female you're just the face. You're disposable, or once you get past a certain age, you're not going to be sexy anymore. You can't be marketed; whereas, these standards aren't on men at all.

No.

Or even as producers. I'm going to be completely honest with you, but another reason for this record was like the amount of times people just assumed I was singing over the shit when it was my everything. And in the arrangements, I put a lot of effort into that, so it was like alright, well, if I release this, no one can fucking question that ever again. I produced it myself. I arranged it myself. It shouldn't be, but it is still really rapid in the music industry, this double standard of what you can achieve as a female artist versus being a dude. I just feel like I'm fortunate enough to have a very strong sense of identity, and I'm stubborn as hell and I've been given a platform to be a beacon for people to be unapologetically themselves and f***k with the beauty standards that are projected upon us. Like this tattoo, the one on my chin, was my first tattoo and I was 19, and it was a crow that I hand-reared.

And it was a scratch. When I released it back into the wild it was all to do with nurturing something and letting it go and learning this with my mother and nurturing myself. You know, not staying trapped in the physical world or hanging on to shit and keeping it and preserving it. And so, for me it was very powerful. And I had a dream I got it tattooed and the amount of people that were like: "You ruined your life." "You're such a pretty girl, why would you do that to your face?" And it's like because it's important to me and how is it that something that is so deeply powerful can be a lack of femininity—

To someone else.

Yeah. And I didn't realize it but how much people felt like it was their role in life to tell me that I've ruined my face. I was working as a waitress at the time and I remember one woman came up to me and she was like, "What's your problem with being feminine," or some shit like this. I was like, "Well, actually, women all around the world have been getting chin tattoos as an initiation right since the dawn of time, and your construct of western beauty standards is so thin it doesn't count for anything." I was just like this is who I am. That can be so confronting for people.

Yeah it can. It scares people.

Right. I'm not angry. I'm just gonna lead by example. So, I'm going to play electric guitar and wear whatever the f***k I want to wear, and say whatever the fuck I want to say, and write songs about electrons or whatever. You know, that's all you can do, and it's the same with having Jason Gurruwiwi on the start of this record. It's not like a protest album. It's just like here's an example of something that exists that is beautiful and that is under-represented in a positive light. So I'm going to use my platform to wave the flag.

I have grown. I am growing. this is all I could ever hope for
— Nai Palm (@artykarateparty) October 16, 2017

HK is often called "future" soul. On Needle Paw you're certainly exploring melodies that are familiar to soul and R&B rhythms, but how are you reinventing or shattering these genre molds people keep placing you in?

I think soul has a really strong and powerful heritage and it's something that I was raised on. But like Stevie Wonder, for example, is considered R&B and soul, but he has Classical influence, Bossanova influence, West African influence. The colors are there and the details are there. And especially being a white artist from Australia, it's not like a cultural heritage that I feel like I am a byproduct of. I was raised on a lot of soul and R&B, but I was also raised on a lot of other shit. Like for example, I have a friend Moses Sumney, who is an amazing singer and arranger and is contemporary and beautiful. And he has songs where he's singing f***ing Latin, but he keeps getting categorized as R&B because he's black.

Moses SumneyLaura McCluskey

I don't feel like I'm revitalizing a genre. I feel like I just draw in from different elements, but essentially I'm not trying to do anything. Every song has its own habitat. I see why genre is a tool for people to be like, you know, deathcore! There's been many examples of universal artists that are pigeonholed as R&B or soul that have come before me, even like my girl Erykah. It's not all love songs, it's not all political shit.

Exactly. Exactly.

She's a doula, she's…There's so many examples of artists that have songs beyond their "genres." I don't feel like I'm a pioneer. I feel like artists that are sincere will have these elements in their work — unless it's been curated as a marketing tool. That's a part of the industry too. There is art and then there is entertainment and those lines are really blurred nowadays, and it gets really convoluted and confusing. I don't identify as turning a music genre around that I don't necessarily feel like I all the way belong to. I think that would be really uneducated and arrogant of me to have that viewpoint. And it's not what I'm striving for.

Badu and Nai Palm .. Same tribe. @HiatusKaiyote pic.twitter.com/jQN0UFklIr
— ErykahBadoula (@fatbellybella) August 7, 2013

I just want to make music. Some people have a game plan when they're creating like, "OK. I want this to turn up at the club." I'm not very business-minded when it comes to the art that I make. It's very urgent. Sometimes you just find yourself crying or laughing and you don't really have a source of why that is, but it just happens. My creative process is not like a long term game plan, it's just as long as I stay sincere and make sure that whatever it is that I'm producing...I think it's important to be a selfish artist. I think as long as whatever I project is the direct representation of who I am, then it is what it's supposed to be and that's when people resonate with it the most. You know, like you can feel it. That's the power of music is it's empathy. It's like amplified empathy. And you can hear it. You can feel it. If it's real to you, it's real to you as long as it evokes something. And that's all I'm really striving for.

I think "Homebody" serves as the album's heart: to be at peace with yourself and find worth and value in your surroundings. With this album, how did you personally find yourself drawing back to the basics, going back "home" to your roots, and to the basics of your creative process?

Well. We've been touring a lot you know, like the band took off and then it was just like GO time! And it was my first project. I'd never been in a band before and then six months later I'm touring overseas with it and I didn't have anything else to compare it to. My life just had this amazing trajectory, but at the same, I was lacking the time to really process it. And we toured so much and explored a lot and learned a lot together, but it just kind of got to a point where we were like, you need to remember what it is you're doing. Like I never want to lose the love for what I do. And the same with the guys and if you're just kind of like mechanically going through it — Sometimes you gotta do it just to survive touring schedules and life.

Of course.

And it's that the age old thing of artists falling apart, or overdosing, or throwing themselves out of windows, or dying too young. And it's because it's a high-pressure lifestyle. And then you have to somehow still be open and emotional. There's so many elements. You'll be exhausted and you've got to perform, but then you also have to be open. It was just a lot you know, and so we took some time off.

And Sony reached out like how do you feel about doing an acoustic record — which was something that I always felt that I would do at some point. And the timing was perfect. You know, winter in Melbourne and we weren't doing anything with the band because everyone just needed to chill for a minute. I just went to the desert and did this project with these three women and [started] reconnecting with my friends I never had time to see. And my stepmother just died — it was just... a lot. I hadn't even been in Melbourne for more than a couple of months at a time, and I was like "Am I even from here?" I just felt disconnected from everybody and isolated.

It was like, "Who are you and what is this crazy career that's happening and why is it?" I just kind of needed to remind myself of who I am and what it is that I do. And to be honest, I was grieving. To be on the go for years and all of a sudden you stop, and it's a winter, and you've lost touch with friends. And also just becoming more high-profile and feeling more and more isolated. I love people. I grew up with five siblings and I've always moved around, and I love the human experience, and chatting with people on a train or in an elevator or whatever. To be denied that because of peoples' projection of you I found really heartbreaking. So, I just needed to document it and "Homebody" was kind of like...I was really sad and I was just like, "What do I need?" I have my albums that I go to like this really beautiful one called New Ancient Strings by an artist called Toumani Diabate. That's like my home, it's a home to me. So I was like, "What do I need right now?" If I could listen to any artist that would help me right now, what would I need?

And I also didn't want there to be too many vocal acrobatics and shit. To be honest, it's not even my favorite vocal performance of mine and I actually cringe a lot when I hear it, but it's like I try to record it a lot. The more prepared I was, the more it lost its essence. When I do takes and takes and takes — I'm just like, this isn't what the song is. Stop trying — not to impress anybody else — but just my own standard of what I think is good. It was really confronting to just make something that is imperfect. It's f***ing hard to do that especially when you're a perfectionist. And like we all have a sense of identity and ego that everybody naturally has, and it's like, "How do I get the f**k out of the way of myself to just have a direct" — because I know what the feeling is when I made it... how do I translate it? And so, that's what this is and that's why I wanted that to be the first thing to be heard as well because it's not the most glamorous.

Right. It's extremely bare.

From an industry standpoint, it's not the most clever thing to do because generally you want to have the thing that everyone can sing along to and vibe to.

Right. Sure.

And it's like, no. This is a really naked raw album and if you're coming to it looking for a party — find another album. There's a lot of projections of what my solo album is going to be. "Oh are you going to work with producers?" "What does it mean that you're not doing stuff with Hiatus?" This is what it is. It's not this clusterf***k of intense shit and it's not gonna have this feature of Future on it.

No! [laughing] Please.

It's naked and vulnerable and imperfect. Yeah. There's power in that. If you can feel comfortable at your worst and share that with people, then anything else after that is yours. And it takes a lot of courage to do that, but it's worth it.

Nai Palm's "Needle Paw" is out October 20th.

Nai Palm "Needle Paw"Courtesy of Sony

Upcoming tour dates for Needle Paw:

October 19 Washington DC U Street Music Hall
October 23 Los Angeles CA El Rey Theatre
October 24 San Francisco CA The Independent
October 27 Chicago IL Lincoln Hall


Buy and stream "Needle Paw" here: https://naipalm.lnk.to/NeedlePaw

Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.

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