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In a life haunted by the shadow of death, Naomi Saalfield – best known as Nai Palm, lead singer of Grammy-nominated Melbourne band Hiatus Kaiyote – has learnt what she values most. By Brodie Lancaster.

Hiatus Kaiyote lead singer Naomi Saalfield’s focus on mortality

Naomi Saalfield, aka Nai Palm (front), and Hiatus Kaiyote.
Naomi Saalfield, aka Nai Palm (front), and Hiatus Kaiyote.
Credit: Positive Feedback PR

Naomi Saalfield – aka Nai Palm, the lead singer of internationally acclaimed Melbourne band Hiatus Kaiyote – sits across from me in the cosy banquette seat at Napier Quarter, a European-style wine bar and cafe in Fitzroy. It’s early January and outside the picture window behind us the streets are slowly emerging from their holiday hibernation.

Saalfield has wavy, electric-blue hair, tattoos that snake from her mouth to her ankles and piercings that give the impression she is something of a human bowerbird. Today, a tiny heart-shaped silver motif dangles from her nose ring. The city’s sleepy energy is in stark contrast to Saalfield’s hectic schedule.

In mid-December she returned from a solo North American tour, where she played a mix of solo songs, Hiatus Kaiyote tracks, covers and some surprise unreleased gems. She and the band are in and out of the studio this week – her lips are sealed when it comes to what they’re working on, but they’ll soon drop the dreamy, optimistic anthem “Everything’s Beautiful” – and she’s working on renovating a house. The staff at her local Bunnings tried – and failed – to talk her out of buying litres of Barbie pink paint to cover its walls. The employees on the paint counter never stood a chance against Saalfield.

A month before Hiatus Kaiyote’s biggest hometown show to date – a gig at Hamer Hall on February 23, where the band’s signature brand of neo-soul will be amplified by The Dreamboat Orchestra – 34-year-old Saalfield is thinking about musical legitimacy.

“We often get associated with this academia world, and Berklee music college,” she muses over a glass of sparkling water. “But I don’t know any music theory. The drummer doesn’t know any music theory. So much of it is creative. The concept that to make intelligent music you have to have gone through some form of academia is fucking bullshit. The concept that you have to go through the right channels and avenues to be successful is a lie.”

Saalfield would know. Since linking up more than a decade ago, she and keyboardist Simon Mavin, bassist Paul Bender and drummer Perrin Moss have released three studio albums – all of them earning Grammy nominations. Their Hamer Hall show features orchestral arrangements by Brainfeeder composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, as well as the arrangements of Brazilian legend Arthur Verocai, with whom Hiatus Kaiyote collaborated on their 2021 album Mood Valiant. They’ve already performed a version of this show at the Sydney Opera House and the Hollywood Bowl.

Saalfield timed the conclusion of her recent American tour with a visit to Mexico, where an artist she’d befriended on Instagram spent four days tattooing the backs of Saalfield’s legs in a layered diorama of flora and fauna. She stands up, showing me the magnolia flowers, moths, cicadas, dragonfly and bat hidden among leaves that decorate her thighs and calves. “It’s just like my favourite flowers and their colonies,” she says.

The natural world has always called to Saalfield. As a young teenager, after the deaths of both her parents, she lived with foster-care families. One family were custodians of a wildlife sanctuary for native animals.

Her first tattoo, at 19, was drawn on a scar running from the corner of her lip down to her chin. “It was a scratch from a wild crow that I hand-reared,” she says. “It was an orphan, like me.”

The experience of nurturing and releasing a creature was “so deeply profound” to Saalfield she felt compelled to wear its mark on her face forever. “What’s more empowering as a woman, than to be able to look after another life form and have the grace to not possess it?” She was told she’d ruined her prospects and her beauty, that she’d been “such a pretty girl” but had “wrecked her face”. “Now it’s more common,” she says. “You might see five face tattoos a day. But I remember [people’s reactions] being confronting.”

Hiatus Kaiyote have toured their signature style of electronic jazz and funk all over the world since the release of their debut album, Talk Tomahawk, in 2012, collecting a horde of fans and celebrity admirers as they went. Between their second studio album, Choose Your Weapon (2015), and their third was a gap of six years. But as Saalfield explains, it’s not like they went on an extended holiday.

“A year [after Talk Tomahawk], we had a Grammy nomination and were touring the world, getting a name for ourselves,” she says. The band experienced the classic hype and potential burnout that plagues young acts, especially those from our isolated corner of the cultural world: it feels as if it’s all or nothing, a zero-sum game. “When you’re young and starting out in the industry, you feel like your life and your career is going to be over if you don’t say yes to everything.”

In 2016 came another Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance. “We only really decided [to take] one year off,” Saalfield says. People told them it was career suicide, but they knew themselves and one another better. “We did non-violent communication courses just to be able to trust and understand each other on a deeper level,” says Saalfield. “You can’t create anything if you hate each other.”

Saalfield is a self-described “more is more” person, a trait that extends beyond dress and performance and the free-jazz way she weaves through a conversation, and into her capacity to work, create and share. She used the break from the band’s commitments to record a solo album, the stripped back Needle Paw, in 2017.

During the pause came one of Hiatus Kaiyote’s most headline-grabbing co-signs. Drake, hip-hop’s emo prince, sampled the band’s track “Building a Ladder” on “Free Smoke”, a highlight of his 2017 mixtape More Life. Saalfield would go on to perform on two more Drake tracks, and wrote nine songs with him. “He writes a lot. He’s a workaholic,” she says. He set a trend: Beyoncé and Jay-Z would follow suit, sampling the Hiatus Kaiyote track “The World It Softly Lulls” on their 2018 collaborative record. “So it was kind of like, even though we were hiding from the industry, there was enough high-profile things to keep it bubbling away.”

And then Saalfield’s world wavered. “I got breast cancer, so I had to do –” she pauses and that “more is more” determination creeps back in. “To be fair, I was doing a show with [multiple-Grammy-winning soul R&B artist] Anderson .Paak just two weeks after my surgery. And I was on tour when I found out and continued to tour.”

Being diagnosed with the same disease that killed her mother threw Saalfield’s priorities into sharp relief. “It just lit a fire under my butt. Not to say that I wasn’t really fucking motivated before, but I think it just deepened it a bit,” she says. “Being an orphan ... and being in the foster-care system and [having] had foster carers that have died, I’ve had a lot of death in my life. So it’s not like it’s a new thing, but once it’s happening to you, it’s like you’ve got a little bit of extra information that you maybe didn’t have before. That’s useful.”

The echoes of Saalfield’s “spicy and emotional” childhood remain a very present element of her life. “Therefore, I will always have shit to write about.”

One of her mother’s idiosyncrasies laid the foundation for Mood Valiant. Saalfield’s mother, Suzie Ashman, was a dancer and an art teacher.

She had two Chrysler Valiants in different colours. Most days, Saalfield and her five siblings piled into the white one. When their mother got behind the wheel of the black Valiant, it was like a mood ring clouding over, a Magic 8 Ball landing on “Outlook not so good”. Making the album was, for Saalfield, almost like throwing a rope back in time to contact her mother, some 20 years after her death.

“We started the record and then I got sick right in the middle, right before all the vocal tracking. And so I was like, What if I die before this is finished?” says Saalfield. “My biggest obsession in life is finishing recorded music because it needs to exist – it’s not properly alive until it can go and live with other people. We’d just done all this work and it’ll never see the light of the day if I die before I fucking get to sing it.”

Saalfield had a mastectomy in late 2018. Coming out the other side made her aware of the gendered approach to post-surgical processes. “I had to have the discussion with a plastic surgeon about reconstruction,” she says. “She used language like, ‘You’ll feel normal’ and ‘You’ll feel more like a woman.’ And I was like, ‘How dare you project that shit onto me?’ They were really intense about it.”

Rather than reconstruction, she chose to get a tattoo in the negative space left after removing “this toxic thing”. “Amazon warriors used to burn their right breast off so they could do archery better,” she says. “What’s more fucking feminine and bad-ass than that?”

Saalfield and her siblings first encountered the foster system when her mother was sick. One of their carers was a woman who came “from old money” but who resented her family’s wealth. She spent her life funnelling it into charitable organisations such as Oxfam and a local First Nations fund working to repair employment, health and education inequality. She left Saalfield “a portion of a house deposit” when she died, enabling the musician – who is “not making buy-a-house kind of money” – to plant roots in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.

Its previous owner was a woman named Evie. She planted gum trees around the property but after 40 years became unable to care for the garden and had to move on. “I am taking that over,” says Saalfield. She grasps for a quote about planting trees that will shade future generations, wondering if it came from Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet. She is moved by the idea “that you are selflessly putting forth the work that will support other people when you’re gone”. “It’s comforting,” she says.

Over the past four years, Saalfield’s become obsessed with her own mortality. She’s always had drive and determination in spades, but now her legacy is an abiding thought. “I felt more connected to the fact that music is my purpose and it’s the thing that brings the most joy to me,” she says. “You know that scene in Titanic where the musicians are playing as the ship goes down? I think if you really love what you do, that’s kind of what you want to do right up until you can’t do it anymore. And so when I was threatened with the possibility of [death] being a reality… it just kind of makes you focus less on your own self-doubt.”

I ask how that obsession manifests – whether it sees her writing more, collaborating with other artists, erecting a tower of work that can stand alone when she’s not here to hold it aloft. “I make more effort with the people I love,” she tells me. “Because I don’t have trust in time anymore.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Intimations of mortality".

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