Originally published in Beat Magazine.
“I’d never been in a band before. A year later, we had a Grammy nomination and were relentlessly touring. It’s a lot on us individually, as people, but also on your creativity, because you don’t have any time to reflect.”
Nai Palm, AKA Naomi Saalfield, is likely best known for fronting the neo-soul, Grammy-nominated mammoth Hiatus Kaiyote, but she’s performed as a solo artist for most of her life. Now the enigmatic singer-songwriter has finally released her self-proclaimed baby, Needle Paw.
It’s a mesh of old and new sounds – originals, Hiatus songs, and covers – presented through Nai’s vocals atop an acoustic guitar. Backing vocals come from Laura Christoforidis, Silent Jay, and Jace XL – all of whom she’s worked with on past Hiatus releases – and the album opens and closes with vocals from Yolngu ceremonial singer, Jason Gurruwiwi.
“The thing about a vocally-driven album is it’s about the emotional delivery. It’s a really temperamental beast, especially when you’re working with other singers,” she says. “But if art isn’t a challenge, then it’s not really worth doing.”
Don’t expect the multi-dimensional, polyrhythmic gangster tunes you’d hear on a Hiatus record, though. “It’s a different part of performing. I don’t have to worry about locking into some crazy polyrhythm, where if I’m lagging on it, it’ll just completely fall apart. You can hear a pin drop, as opposed to having this big musical Voltron to play with.”
If you’re wondering where the album’s name comes from, it literally started and ended with Nai Palm, “thinking someone said Needle Paw, and they didn’t say Needle Paw. It was something that I was marinating on, and I just really liked it. I love selectively hearing random shit.”
Such is her free-flowing, down-to-earth, improvisational nature. However, if you think Hiatus’ music – and her music, by extension – is just one big carefree jam session, you’d be sorely mistaken.
“I want to set the record straight about Hiatus. People are like, ‘You’re a jam band.’ Hell-fucking-no. The amount of time and energy that goes into specific arrangements and advanced harmony and time signatures – that shit is so thought out.
“Even this acoustic record. It’s a rabbit hole that is super challenging, but super rewarding. The liberation is in the delivery.”
Whether it’s the slow-moving, ethereal original ‘Homebody’, the familiar Hiatus track ‘Borderline with My Atoms’, or a completely improvised re-working of Tamia’s ‘So into You’ – each song’s power comes through Nai Palm’s impassioned vocals. “I started singing it, the guys chimed in and nailed it, so I was like ‘Fuck it, let’s just put it on the record,’” she says of the cover.
Speaking about her performance at the upcoming Queenscliff Music Festival, she’s very matter-of-fact. “It was just bookers. I have a label, I have an agency, I have a publisher. For the most part, anything that is a tour or festival – there are so many moving parts, so that the last thing I can think about is the logistics of that shit.”
It’s refreshing to hear something like this from an artist. After all, they’re human too. Not everything has to be so hyped up – sometimes, things just are what they are. Such is Needle Paw – an intimate, humanly imperfect album pulled straight from the celestial depths of Nai Palm’s soul.
“I wanted to keep the imperfections and keep it really raw so people could hear the humanity behind the arrangements, because so much shit is hyper-produced today. And I love that. It’s good to show people that there are human beings behind it all. My favourite shit is when I hear the humanity in stuff. It takes a lot of balls and courage to be flawed.”
Currently, she’s touring the USA with Cosi Jaala, but after that she still has big plans. “I’ll go to Europe to play some more shows. And, my friend’s having a baby. Then, home to work with the boys from Hiatus, and rinse and repeat, until I turn into a pumpkin.”
Nai Palm will perform at Queenscliff Music Festival, taking place from Friday November 24- Sunday November 26, with The Temper Trap, Russell Morris, Mama Kin Spender, Stella Donnelly, and more. She’ll also play Max Watt’s on Friday December 1. Needle Paw is out now via Sony Music.
Cover image by Prue Stent.