Nai Palm (Naomi Saalfield) has unlocked a sanctuary of powerful emotion in her first solo album Needle Paw as she ventures briefly away from her Melbourne-based boho-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote. Her magnetic vocals will be on full display at the intimate upcoming shows for her national tour on Friday, December 15 at the Rosemount Hotel, North Perth and Saturday, December 16 at Mojo’s Bar, North Fremantle. Nai Palm spoke with SARAH DAY about paying homage to her hero the late David Bowie, the meaning behind Needle Paw, and what her formula was in creating such a personal and raw body of work.
Congratulations on completing your first solo album, what brought on the decision to break off from Hiatus Kaiyote on this one?
Thanks! Well I mean I’m not really going solo, we’re still very much a band it’s just kind of something that I needed to do. We needed to have a little bit of a break because we were touring like crazy and it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I knew I always wanted to do something really stripped back but it was just a matter of when and the time just showed itself. But yeah, (Hiatus Kaiyote are) working on another record.
What does the title Needle Paw mean?
Needle Paw was just something that I thought I heard someone once say, and he didn’t say Needle Paw. I don’t know it’s just very visual to me in a sense of that I saw it as kind of like a red cactus flower and when I was recording Jason Gurruwiwi who’s the Aboriginal Gälpu ceremonial singer at the start of the record, he was explaining to me that the song is like a serpent that sings lightning, and the snake has kind of cactus needle teeth. I just thought that I already had this name and this image in my mind and when he said that it confirmed it for me and I just rolled with it.
What was the process like in bringing together Needle Paw — how was it different compared to your previous experience with Hiatus Kaiyote?
Well I mean you know I was in the drivers seat, it’s kind of like a four-way collaboration [with Hiatus Kaiyote] so we’re all very involved in the writing and arranging and producing. I didn’t have anyone else’s wisdom to fall back on, but there was a lot of freedom in that as well as far as being able to take more of my time with the guitar sounds and really take my time on the vocal arrangements. I guess yeah, just more of the driver’s seat.
You take a more acoustically intimate approach with Needle Paw — what were you really trying to focus on with this album — what kind of themes do you explore?
I guess I just wanted to remind people that there are humans behind music and make something that was kind of flawed. I think that the human voice is the most direct way to translate emotions and empathy, you can play an instrument with feeling but I guess I just wanted to give people something that they can listen to in the more quiet moments where maybe Hiatus is a bit too complex for.
You recently toured in the US, what was it like performing your music internationally compared to the Aussie audiences?
If I’m going to be completely honest with you, I feel like Australia’s audiences are quite reserved — maybe because we’re spoilt for choice but you go to the States and they’re a lot more vocal about their appreciation. Here it’s kind of like, you won’t really know if people are fucking with you until the end of the gig — you’re like cool, did you actually enjoy that? I think it’s just a cultural thing, Australians tend to be a little bit more emotionally reserved — but I mean there’s beauty in that too — it’s not like I prefer one to the other. It’s really interesting to see the societal differences when you’re offering art and interacting with that. The solo tour was amazing, it was really nurturing and I felt very welcomed and had a lot of people really opening up to me about how they’re connecting with the record. It’s different you know, I love touring with the band too; it’s just a different side of the same entity.
You covered David Bowie’s Blackstar from his final album paired with Radiohead’s Pyramid Song and Haitus Kaiyote’s Breathing Underwater — how did this come about?
It just happened really naturally. I guess when he died it really rattled me and I think the fact that he was so iconic, re-inventing himself… I mean an artist like that doesn’t really need to do that anymore. The fact that he knew he was sick and yet he still had something to offer, there’s something to say for that.
The lead single Homebody is a really peaceful track with quite raw and emotional lyrics – can you tell me a bit about what inspired this track?
I was just going through a really dark time, it was winter and I lost a couple of loved ones. There were quite a few hiccups with the making of the album. Basically I just wrote from a place of, ‘what do I need to hear right now?’ Music has always been the most powerful healer for me so I was like ok, if I could listen to anything what would it be, what would it sound like? It just came really naturally and it’s a really raw nerve, I think I managed to capture something that’s really unique to my experience. I haven’t really had too many songs that I have to stop myself from crying when I perform them live. Because of that there’s a lot of power in that, people can empathize and get what they need to from it too.
Do you have a favourite track from the album or one that you particularly enjoy playing live?
I’d say my favourite tracks are the opening and closing tracks just because I think the piece that Jason Gurruwiwi contributed is so powerful. It’s a song that’s thousands of years old and it’s incredible that he really trusted me with something so precious to him and his community. I just think that it’s really important as a white Australian artist to educate people to the culture that I feel like is really kept from people and I feel like it’s kept from people because of its power. I really adore Wititj part one and part two.