I was sitting, as I so often am, staring blankly at my computer screen. Words flittered through my mind like fireflies on the wind, beyond reach and teasing me. I wasn’t looking to create the great Australian novel or anything – just a simple press release – but the small amount of creativity and inspiration I was searching for remained achingly elusive.
But things were about to change. An email arrived, two abstract words as its subject, a bold blue hyperlink begging to be clicked stared back at me and, with the slightest depression of my index finger and the ensuing ignition of a Youtube clip, my writer’s block dissipated. I was more verbose than Shakespeare playing Scrabble, I was inspired, enriched, and words cascaded from my mind in torrents. All this from a single song. Hiatus Kaiyote have that effect on people, and it’s not without intention.
The Melbourne four-piece sprang to life just a few years ago but already are emanating concentric ripples through the musical world. Unfairly pigeon-holed into the genre of R&B, their sound incorporates a staggering array of influence, from acid jazz to blues, funk to electronica. It’s as if they’ve tossed Otis Redding, Erykah Badu and Björk into a blender, smeared the puree on hip-hop toast, layered on a healthy dose of post-production and poured a gallon of smooth treacle over the entire concoction.
“Nature is a massive thing in our writing and creative process,” highlights front woman, lyricist and lead guitarist Nai Palm. “But sonically, I guess J Dilla would probably be the most prominent influence because of the way he approached production, coming from a background of hip hop and production but then trying to recreate that live.”
Introducing Hiatus Kaiyote is like trying to explain flavour without synonyms, colour without sight… or true love. Words jumble, contradicting, overlapping and always falling short. “Here,” you must say, “listen, experience, feel, immerse.” Emotion and invocation are defining elements of their music, separating them from musicians who merely perform. Hypnotic and alluring, the experience is almost tribal and spiritual, Nai noting the traditional music of Mali among their myriad influences.
Stripped apart, laid bare, instrument by instrument, or in Nai’s lilting vocals, parallels can be drawn from around the world, spanning genres or highlighting specific artists, but accumulatively, Hiatus Kaiyote are, thankfully, nothing but themselves.
“The origins for a lot of our songs are something that I come up with vocally,” Nai reflects, her lyrics frequently following their own rhythms, in harmony with all the other elements, but not dependent upon them. “People often ask me ‘how do you sing over these changes?’ But actually, we create around the changes. We all write together and listen to each other and there’s no real feature to speak of – everything has its own character that stands out.
“It’s kind of like a TV show with four superheroes and they’re, like, all super-awesome, but none of them are the main ones, they’re all amazing at different things.”
Their debut album, Tawk Tomahawk, set the music world abuzz. Bypassing mainstream media, it reached the ears the industry’s A-List, Pharrell Williams, Prince and Erykah Badu – an artist they now call a close friend – all extolling the band’s talents and sound. Stepping away from convention, they have created songs as if some divine chemical formula or exotic culinary recipe, each element essential to the finished product but rich and abundant in its own right.
“Instead of sampling the way I want my voice to sound or altering it digitally, I try to emulate my own voice in how it might sound if it were chopped up,” says Nai when discussing their preference for producing their tracks in a more live-style environment. “There’s an energy that gets lost through production. It’s the difference between playing a song together live versus us multi-tracking it. Even though we’re still playing the same sounds respectively, there’s something in that interaction, that energy.”
That energy emanates from the band, whether listening to them through headphones on your bus ride to work or fully immersed in a live performance. They are artists in the truest sense, creating through emotion, with echoes of influence, but from their own foundation and with their own passion, discarding a music-by-numbers approach in favour of something so definitively theirs.
It’s like they’ve been given all the essential components to make a car and with them they’ve created a helicopter. You know that it’s music, you recognise its influence, you delight in the familiar blanket it throws around your shoulders and the pulses of energy that surge through you, you really, really like it but it eludes description.
How the band view their music and its creation is also an antithesis, an alternative perspective upon an underlying message.
“We want to stimulate people’s imagination and enhance their emotional state, whatever that may be. There are messages, there are many layers of intention in the writing, but at the end of the day, it’s about whether it reaches people on an empathic level while also lifting them up by stimulating the their imagination. It’s like The Neverending Story or something,” Nai analogises. “It evokes imagination but there’s so much depth. I know so many people who were scarred for life when Atreyu the horse died! You find that a lot in children’s film. They’re not just the light, happy, magical worlds – there’s content, but it’s subconscious. There’s magic, but there’s also depth. We try to make our music as multi-layered as possible so that people can resonate with it for whatever reason.”
Hiatus Kaiyote are fast becoming a band of renown, a renown the precedes them across continents and tours, press and the public. Nominees for The Best R&B Performance at this year’s Grammy Awards, there is no doubt that the music world is taking notice. But the band remain humble, thankful to shed the burdens of life on the road and press junkets to return to their simple, Melbourne lives, their friends and family, to the familiarity of home.
The band is fast gaining a name for themselves, but it is through their simple passion of creating, in producing music through integrity.
“The hard work goes entirely into making sure that what we produce is beautiful,” says Nai, “that we are sincere with it and proud of what we release – that’s where all the hard work goes. The rest has just kind of unfolded. When I perform, it’s not like a performance, it’s like ‘this is who I am.’ It can be really full-on and it can damage people, but I’m really blessed to have met the people I have at this stage because it has really solidified who I want to be. The thing about artists is that, if you’re making ‘real’ music, you have to be so human to create something that people can relate to. If you don’t, you’re not doing your job as a sonic healer anymore, you’re just an entertainer. And that’s so different; there’s entertainment and then there’s therapy, and art is always therapeutic.”
For more information or to check out their tunes, visit their website: hiatuskaiyote.com
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Dec 2, 2014