Nai Palm on the Makings of ‘Needle Paw’
The human voice is an underrated instrument. Beyond its basic function to communicate, the voice has a rare ability to connect and heal – often in ways that can’t be explained. On her debut solo album, Needle Paw, Nai Palm scales things back, using only vocals, a guitar and a kora to strike the right chords.
Palm, best known as the front woman of future soul collective Hiatus Kaiyote, has always understood the power of this instrument. And although Needle Paw is a departure from Kaiyote, it is her stripped-back homage to the group, the voices in music that shaped her and those that are embedded in the country she calls home (“It was really important for me to open and close the album with an Aboriginal ceremonial singer”). Covering various songs from the group’s catalog as well as tracks from David Bowie, Radiohead, Jimi Hendrix and even Tamia, the singer-songwriter gives us a rare glimpse into her creative and cultural makeup.
In this interview with TIDAL, Nai Palm elaborates on her decision to delve into a solo project, the musicians and friends who joined her, the icons she chose to cover and the incredible catharsis that coincided.
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What are those first few hours like after the album comes out when people are reaching out to you and you’re seeing all these posts on social media?
There’s been an overwhelming amount of people that have lost loved ones recently and have been listening to the record, and it’s been helping them. That’s the main theme, I guess, which has been pretty full-on. Coming from someone who has lost both of their parents, it’s a very raw place to be in. The fact that the album can be helping people, and not just helping people but the fact that they feel compelled to reach out to me and tell me that it’s helping them feels really special.
Why did you decide to branch out from Hiatus Kaiyote and do this as a solo album?
I knew I always wanted to do an acoustic, stripped-back thing at some point. I guess the timing was just right. [Hiatus Kaiyote] had been touring a lot, and we’re four artists that are collaborating, and we we’re touring really hard for the better part of five years and you can burn yourself out. We just needed to take a little bit of a sabbatical and reconnect with ourselves.
Our solo stuff doesn’t take away from the project. It’s just going in individually, and then when we come back together at the end of the year, we will be stronger and healthier and have the real desire to do it. The type of music we’re making isn’t designed to be temporary or the hottest thing out there; it’s more of a longevity thing. As artists, we just needed to take some time to find ourselves again, so this album was really cathartic for me in remembering what it is that I do and as a female musician and as a producer and a music director.
Can you talk a little about some of the musicians that did join you on the album?
The three backup vocalists, that tour with Hiatus Kaiyote in Australia, they’ve been around since the beginning, as far as our live context goes. All other vocals on the Hiatus records have been me just layering it up, but with this album, I wanted to make them feel included and part of the family.
Being an artist from Melbourne who doesn’t get to spend much time there anymore, it was really important for me to have a sonic journal that represents the beautiful people that I know and that I have started the mission with. So Silent Jay, Laura Christoforidis and Jaye Excel. And they killed it. We’ve been singing together for years. I’m really proud of them. When you’ve been singing together for years, there’s a seamlessness that I think is special about the human condition and relationships.
I also worked in my friend Raneen Younane, who is an amazing singer, but she’s really shy. I let her sing on some stuff, and I made a little choir of some friends of mine. I got a kora player, his name is Amadou Suso, the only other instrument on the album outside of guitar because ‘Breathing Under Water’ was inspired by the kora. As a guitarist, I’m inspired more by other instruments than by guitar, so it was really cool to get him in the mix. He was last minute actually, like the last day of mixing and managed to fit a session in. It was all kind of down to the wire.
As an Australian artist, it was really important for me to open and close the album with an Aboriginal ceremonial singer because I’m honored to be exposed to the rich, ancient culture of the country that I was born in. I just wanted to show my fan base and educate my listeners with something that is really special and needs a voice. The songs that Jason [Guwanbal Gurruwiwi] sings on the record are like thousands of years old. It’s real magic, you know, and I feel like its underrepresented in the music industry. That was the intention behind that.
It’s amazing that you could bring in people that you knew and people who are a part of your culture, so there’s an element of familiarity there, But you also incorporate elements that are underrepresented and may be new to your audience.
Right. Well it kind of works like, having Drake sampling us at the start of [More Life].The first thing your hear on Drake’s More Life is my voice, and I feel like it’s the same type of conscious decision. We’re a band that he fucks with, but maybe his audience wouldn’t know our shit, so him putting it right at the beginning allows your fans into a window of the things that you appreciate. There was a similarity there. It kind of came out right at the end of recording the record, so there was this sort of beautiful symmetry.
You also covered more familiar artists on this album: David Bowie, Radiohead, Tamia and Jimi Hendrix. Why did you choose these artists?
The Tamia one, ['Crossfire/So Into You'], was kind of a fluke, like it just sounded good and we were playing around then it made the cut. There’s that element of continuity and humility there. The Hendrix song ['Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)'], I feel like he is the poster child for rock & roll and guitar shredding, but I feel like he was so much more than that as an artist. His writing ability and his harmonic understanding. His songwriting is really soulful, even doo-wop bands and playing with Little Richard.
I wanted to celebrate the writing instead of necessarily the chops, which is something I feel is overlooked in the music industry because it’s like, ‘Oh, if you can shred, then it doesn’t matter about the writing,’ whereas I think if a song can holds its own, then that is what stands the test of time. Also the fact that being a female musician who plays electric guitar, it was kind of like, ‘Electric Ladyland’ has a softness to it and an allure, and I wanted to tackle something that is associated with male, God shit. Also the harmonic side of it.
The Bowie song … It really struck my world when he died, the day he died, my friend who was actually on this tour with me at the moment, she tattooed his eyes on me the day he died. I think the reason why I chose that song is there’s something profoundly beautiful about the fact that he was an artist and he knew he was dying, but he still wanted to give. He’s a true icon, and he reinvented himself so many times. Even knowing that he was sick, he still had something to offer to the world. So that was the intent behind that.
That’s my favorite song on the album, and when we were clearing it with Sony, the family were not letting anyone cover the album because of how much it meant to them, so it was heartbreaking. But coming from somebody who has lost loved ones, I understood it, and he was public property essentially. I sent the family a letter and poured my soul into it, and they trusted me enough and they knew where I was coming from and they cleared it even though they were not letting anybody release anything off the record, so it’s just like added this depth to it.
I also just feel a responsibility as a musician to pay homage to the idols who have come before because I feel like any real musicality is being filtered out of the music industry. It’s just temporary one-hit wonders who don’t necessarily need to be creative whatsoever. It’s more design-based, and you think about David Bowie and Prince and the last of these icons who really defined themselves musically and who were courageous. I just wanted to pay homage to that and hope that music in the future continues to be played by people with an artistic vision as opposed to moving digits and selling on.
The album is very human and very vulnerable. Is there an album that to you embodies that and that really hits your soul in the right ways?
Yes there’s a singer from the Sahara desert who just passed away last year, and her name is Mariem Hassan and the album is called Shouka. It’s just raw and powerful and beautiful. Whenever I’m on tour and feeling rundown, it puts my soul back in my body a bit.
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