Welcome to Kind of a Big Deal, a series dedicated to introducing powerful women who are breaking boundaries in their fields. You’ll meet the rising stars and get the inside scoop on how they made it, what they’re working on now, and what’s up next.
Ever sang along to Drake’s “Free Smoke”? How about Kendrick Lamar’s “Duckworth” from Damn. (another 2017 chart-topper). If so, then you’ve already heard the sonic wonder that is Nai Palm and her band of talented men, known all together as Hiatus Kaiyote.
Recently, the Grammy nominee has been on hiatus from Hiatus, working on her debut solo album, Needle Paw. She’s an exceptionally talented, self-taught, ethereal artist whose knack for badass tunes and quirky style have made her one to watch. Fans connect to her sense of originality and sincerity, and her body of work has caught the attention of top artists and up-and-comers in the industry.
We caught up on the phone with Palm just before her solo album release last Friday to talk about quiet success, working with Willow Smith, and her penchant for vintage “treasure hunting.”
Check out her interview with InStyle, and snag a copy of her latest record from Amazon, here.
You have two Grammy nominations under your belt and a bunch of very popular fans. Would you say that has changed anything about your music or the way you approach it?
The essence of it is the same. I guess the only thing that's really changed is the time. I feel like I have to demand the time to allow myself to write and process more than I used to.
What is your creative process like when you're writing?
There is no perfect time or location. Writing lyrics, for me, is like a treasure hunt. I'll write down different phrases, little melodies, or dreams and see how they fit into a bigger picture. It's not like, "Okay, I'm alone in my room, I can just write now." I feel like we put too much pressure on ourselves as artists to do that. As long as you're paying attention to and remembering the details that come to you, the song will come out the way it's supposed to.
Who did you look up to when you were a kid?
Artists like Björk, Stevie Wonder, Arthur Verocai, or David Attenborough have been mentors for me in a way as these beacons of power. But that's not where my inspiration comes from. It comes from the space between my experiences—the tiny, quiet moments that I use to process.
Kendrick Lamar and Drake have both sampled your work on their latest albums. What was that whole experience like?
The crazy thing is, at the time that was all happening, I was deep into working on the acoustic record in Australia. It's this very stripped back, very personal journal of an album. And to have these massive releases as validation at the same time was a bizarre juxtaposition. But I really love that it was the first track of Drake's record and the last track of Kendrick's. That's a beautiful spectrum.
Had you met Kendrick before Damn. released?
I did! It was before Good Kid, M.A.A.D City dropped, and he did a show in Australia where I got to meet him. He was so humble and rad. And when he had to bounce—we were drinking a bottle of Hennessy—he was like, "You finish this." So I smuggled the bottle out of the club and now that's my water bottle. I have it right next to my bed. Kendrick, you know, he's a prophet of our age. So it's really beautiful to see his progression and it's so humbling to be invited into this legacy of music history when we're just these nerds. We're just nerds from Australia.
You’ve said that before putting Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Building A Ladder” on his record, Drake listened to it as his pre-show song.
Before you go on stage, you're just kind of charging your batteries up listening to music. For me, it's either Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody" or Aaliyah's "More Than A Woman." It’s such an important part of the process. So the fact that he's such a massive pop artist and the song that he listens to before he goes on stage is more gentle and intimate, gave me a window into who he is as an artist. For him to take it to the next level and open his album with the song—I mean he’s one of the highest grossing pop f****** artists in the world—so that was really cool.
What do you want the rest of the world to know about Australia’s music scene?
As far as the original scene here, it's super innovative and amazing, But for me, it's very important to share more indigenous music with my fans because it's very powerful and very underrepresented. I am often repelled by the concept of becoming high profile or famous or whatever—it doesn't suit my nature—but I realize that there's a responsibility that comes with popularity as an artist. For this new solo record, the first and last songs are parts of a ceremonial song by an aboriginal singer from Arnhem Land. In the same sense of Drake opening his album with an unknown—a somewhat known—Australian band because it’s personal and means a lot to him, I'm opening my album with something that I think is beautiful that people might not have the exposure to.
What do you want fans to feel when they're listening to your new record?
The whole point of being an artist who shares his or her art and isn't just a bedroom writer or producer is to create a sense of sanctuary for people. That's what music is for me. Records and artists, they become your home or your family. You might never meet these people, but they can create a space for you where you feel nurtured. That is always my main intention when I share my art. I want to create a sanctuary.
You've also met with Willow Smith to brainstorm on a potential future project. What was it like to work with her?
She's so gorgeous and sincere. I have so much pride and faith in her as a f****** female musician! We've had a lot of high profile people reach out to us wanting to collaborate, but when Willow hit us up, I was very excited to work with her. She's young, she's a woman, she could be a pop f****** nightmare, but she's not. Willow actually gives a f*** and the fact that she was open and educated enough to expand her creative horizons past some kind of manufactured pop was important. I went to her house and it was very chill. We just picked apart some ideas. It was all very organic. We don't have anything produced and super polished yet, but that relationship is real. Hopefully it all comes together. It's just a timing thing.
In Hiatus Kaiyote, you front a band of guys in an industry that's filled with men. Can you talk a little bit more about working with other female musicians? What is that like for you?
I try not to focus too much on the difference in gender, but sometimes it's very present whether you like it or not. The fact that I even have to comment as a female artist and not just as an artist is something in itself. But the more time in spend in the music industry, the more I get excited about working with women because I feel like there is still an absence there. It’s become something I’m passionate about. And with the band, I'm just really lucky that the guys are very emotionally evolved and sensitive.
Ten years from now, when you're looking back at your career, what do you want to say that you've accomplished?
You know, quite often artists start out with the purest of intentions, but it's not an easy job. It sounds glamorous, but it's grueling to give so much of yourself and live up to expectations. It's really not a surprise that a lot of artists die young from overdose or that we're self-damaging—either that, or we lesson our artistic integrity because we find a formula that people want and that hype validates us. I guess for me, it's less a podium of "you made it" and more that I just want to be able to endure and continue to give even though the stakes get more intense.
When things get intense like that, what keeps you going? Is it just the love of sharing your art?
I wish I could say yes, but sometimes it takes a little bit more than that. I've done shows where I've been so tired and emotionally strung out that I'm just like, “I don't care about anybody in this room because I have nothing to give.” And I never thought that I would be in that position, but I have. When I'm highly strung out or super broken like that, I listen to albums or perform very simple, natural rituals like burning Palo Santo (which is this wood from the Amazon). Or I take a shower. Never underestimate showers. They're water temples. They save lives! Showers save lives.
Have you ever considered another career?
I haven't even really considered this one, to be honest. It wasn't like, “I'm going to find a job doing this and succeed.” This is who I am and thank f*** I found a way to continue to do this. But aside from music, I love to care for wildlife. I'd love to learn how to silversmith and make jewelry. My parents have vintage shops and my father was a silversmith, so I grew up in market culture.
Has your style been influenced by your parents’ work? And has is changed since you started working in music?
Yeah, it has changed, but it's always changing. On my days off, I'm constantly churning through treasure and new looks. It's my real addiction—I'm a treasure addict, but I also live a transient life. How I adorn myself is a direct representation of my fascination with the world, how the world expresses itself, and my engagement with that.
Would you ever work with a stylist?
I refuse to work with stylists just because I love the hunt for treasure and the personality that comes with finding s*** on your own. I'm a very sentimental person in all aspects of my life, especially when it comes to adornment.
I hear your latest treasure is a vintage Alfa Romeo jacket.
Yes! I found it at a thrift store in Melbourne in the neighborhood where I used to live. It's all sequined and embroidered and s***. It’s gorgeous and perfect because I'm doing—well hopefully, if I pull it off—a video where I have this demolition derby driver driving around me while I perform. So I wanted to have this element of a glam rock, hectic car chase.
Do you have a favorite city for thrifting, now that you’ve traveled with the band a bit?
It may be the most cliché answer ever, but Harajuku, Japan. There's this spot called "Dog" there that has this Lady Gaga-esque designer who makes crazy s*** and they have a really regular turnaround. It’s also in an alleyway where they have a lot of really amazing vintage, so you can kill two birds with one stone if you’re looking for hyper color, neo-contemporary stuff and very gaudy T-shirts. I once got a f****** glow-in-the-dark Nikola Tesla T-shirt there.
Oh yeah. Cape Town in South Africa has maybe the best street style in the world. There’s a punk element, but it also has all the beautiful African beadwork. Downtown Vegas (uptown Vegas is all the glam bull****) has old showgirl sequin s*** or rockabilly s*** that usually has some crazy story to it.
What would you say you've learned about yourself after doing this for a few years, leaving Australia to perform, and now releasing your first solo album?
What I've really learned is that we tend to think of home as people or places, and when you're constantly traveling, it's hard to touch base with that stuff. But if you can recognize that your home is in your body, then you don't feel so estranged wherever you are. That's helped me a lot.