It took Naomi “Nai Palm” Saalfield and her Grammy-nominated, futuristic, neo-soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote a day to record “Building a Ladder,” the last track from their sophomore LP, Choose Your Weapon (2015). Two years later, during his Boy Meets World tour, Drake included the deep cut on his pre-performance playlist.
“At first, my social media blew up because he was opening his tour with it,” Nai tells Billboard. “He’s been a fan of our sh– for a while. It’s kind of beautiful.”
The Australian band’s biggest A-list stan took his support a step further when he sampled the song at the beginning of “Free Smoke,” using Nai’s hauntingly raw vocals and keyboardist Simon Mavin’s minimalist accompaniment as the opener of his brand-new playlist More Life.
“I think his people reached out to Salaam Remi, who is the head of our label, Flying Buddha [Sony]. Someone hit him up and asked him about it being on the record,” Nai recalls. At first, the rapper’s producers tried to re-create the tune with different arrangements and musicians, but each attempt lacked the original’s power. “Then we did a conference call with [Drake’s] producer and his management, and they played it to us over the phone.”
It was an international affair: Drake’s producers in Toronto, his management team in London, Hiatus Kaiyote in Australia and their management in New York City. Thanks to the fear of email leaks and hacks, the band was only allowed to hear the sample over the conference call. “The first time I heard it, the audio quality was pretty rough,” due to what Nai describes as “sh–ty connections.”
Back in 2015, “Building a Ladder” almost didn’t make the final cut of Choose Your Weapon. Ultimately, the group decided to complete the project because they wanted to finish what they started. “It was the last thing I recorded. We were super exhausted. I guess I had to suck it up,” Nai says. She’s glad she did, as this new experience is very “humbling.”
When comparing Drake’s sample to other artists’, Nai shouted out her friend, Anderson .Paak‘s incorporation of “Molasses” (the penultimate track of Choose Your Weapon) on his Malibu (2016) cut “Without You.” The Australian artist says she receives countless reinterpretations of Hiatus Kaiyote songs on SoundCloud, with the most striking being a completely cello-ed out version of one tune. Still, she expressed gratitude for Drake’s artful selection. “The fact that somebody like Drake, as prestigious as an artist, experiencing so much of life, all the time, found sanctuary in [our song], there’s beauty in that too. To me, it’s not like one [sample] is more important than the other. It’s just different realities, I guess. I f— with all of them.”
Despite their appearance on More Life, Nai has only listened to “bits and pieces” of the new playlist. The singer opts for the buzz of major releases to subside before giving them a careful listen — something she did for her fave, D’Angelo, after he released his heavily anticipated Black Messiah.
Currently, Hiatus Kaiyote is preparing to tour during the latter part of spring into the summer and is gearing up to release a new LP next year. Nai describes some of the new music being recorded as acoustic records, à la Lauryn Hill‘s Unplugged. Although she wouldn’t give many hints about the producers and guest artists she’s collaborating with — in fear of jinxing any future releases — she did name-drop Willow Smith. “She’s a really big fan of the band. As a woman, I think it’s really beautiful to interact with other female musicians and engage them on that side of creativity.”
The singer is open to the possibility of connecting with Drake for an actual recording session. “Even though he’s mainstream, he’s referencing real sh–, and he’s really clever about it. He seems like a really genuine, rad person who still has a good head on his shoulders.”
As far as dream collaborators for the band: Laurence Fishburne and Missy Elliott. “Laurence’s vocal quality is f—ing awesome. Missy Elliott is a f—ing G and totally underappreciated as an MC. Anything she works with is gold; she’s not afraid to f— with the formula. She’s always been a contemporary innovator.”