As Naomi “Nai Palm” Saalfield commanded the stage of the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Monday night (Oct. 16) her raw vocal talent became more of a powerful instrument than the Flying V-type electric guitar she was holding. Wearing a spacy metallic blouse and matching knee-high, platform boot, the frontwoman of Australian indie quartet Hiatus Kaiyote captivated the venue’s intimate crowd with her everlasting vocal range and depth previewing songs from her solo album, Needle Paw (Sony Masterworks).
When discussing her debut effort with Billboard prior to the performance, Nai Palm specified that she wanted her voice to be the album’s central focus. “I guess I just wanted to take it back to basics. I don’t have shit to prove,” says the vocal powerhouse who wanted to “celebrate the most emotional and human [thing] on the planet.” Something needed in a time when the importance of the voice on R&B-centric records almost seems to be a faded memory.
Since last speaking to us, the magnetic personality received one of her biggest doses of mainstream reality: Drake commenced “Free Smoke” — the first track and signature hype single from his playlist, More Life — with a stirring sample of Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Building A Ladder.” On the song, Nai Palm’s vocals hold attention as if the sample’s musical space lies within a sermon. It’s only one of her and the band’s more notable accomplishments: Next to being the first Australian act nominated for a best R&B performance Grammy, while gaining A-list fans along the way, such as Naomi Campbell and the late Prince.
Stepping aside from her music brothers for a bit, Nai Palm refocuses that energy on her first solo project. Needle Paw is a 13-track journey starting with the healing chant “Wititj (Lightning Snake) Pt. 1” and eventually closing with its “Pt. 2.” The bookmark tracks of interlude length feature Jason Guwanbal Gurruwiwi and pay homage to the indigenous culture of Nai Palm’s native Australia. The singer considers the closer (an ode “thousands of years old”) her favorite on the LP because, “the Australian identity isn’t really as celebrated as it should be. Indigenous people are the most oppressed in the entire world and quite often they’re silenced.” She completed that thought: “I want to share the beauty I’ve been exposed to.”
Aside from a few remakes of Hiatus Kaiyote staples including the fan favorite “Atari” — a salute to the ’80s gaming console that Kendrick Lamar would sample on DAMN.’s closer “DUCKWORTH” — Nai Palm also covered familiar classics. At her Williamsburg concert she dedicated Needle Paw original “Crossfire” to Hiatus’s main producer Salaam Remi, before transitioning to its paired cover, Tamia’s “So Into You,” much to the delight of the crowd. On the easy-breezy, double jointed song, the singer opens up about falling in love at a crossroad with an earthy vocal conviction recalling a Corinne Bailey Rae lullaby.
Needle Paw also honors the legends and musical inspirations. “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” focuses on the soulful aspect of Jimi Hendrix’s artistry, something Nai Palm feels most music writers often neglect. “He’s fucking beautiful and eclectic, and he got put in this rabbit hole of ‘rock-n-roll man’,” she says of the innovator.
Nai Palm also got emotional when speaking about her favorite cover, David Bowie’s “Blackstar” from his final album of the same name: “It wasn’t going to make the album at one point because his family wasn’t letting anyone release anything off the record.” After her manager suggested writing a heartfelt letter to his estate, they granted her permission much to her delight. That cover is paired with Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” and Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Breathing Underwater.”
Needle Paw is a sea of vowel runs and stressed syllables, interwoven throughout angelic backing vocals and gospel-like notes. The minimalistic production channels elements of nature — for instance, the wispy “Haiku” was sang to an actual wolf for the sake of a choral response from the creature. The sound of Nai Palm’s music would be classified as futuristic neo soul, but the singer doesn’t “necessarily identify myself as an R&B artist.”
However, she did bring up the prejudices that her and Hiatus Kaiyote’s more R&B distinct sound faced in Australia — a country she believes plays more indie rock by white men than any other genre. Nai Palm claims “being an Australian artist was a hustle. We never got airplay [in Australia] or nominated for awards like the ARIA Music Awards. It wasn’t until America picked it up that we got any recognition.” That being said, Nai Palm hopes that audiences will appreciate the beauty of Needle Paw’s artistic voyage simply for the love of music.