“My earliest musical memory is me riding this yellow tricycle around the house when I was, like, four, while ‘Boogie On, Reggae Woman’ by Stevie Wonder was playing,” says Nai Palm, lead songwriter and vocalist for the band Hiatus Kaiyote. “Stevie Wonder has just been one of the big ones for sure.”
Wonder’s influence can be heard. In fact, Hiatus Kaiyote’s sound draws on many inspirations, but the genre most associated with the band is soul; their fan base knows it better as “Future Soul.” The term, coined by the band, has become something of a watchword among their varied fans—who include the Roots, Erykah Badu and Prince—as it somehow captures the schizophrenic calm of their music, simultaneously dreamy, but with undertones of more high-energy funk.
Hiatus Kaiyote, which hails from Melbourne, Australia, hits San Jose’s Pagoda Lounge on Halloween night as they ramp up their latest tour—previous outings to North America and Europe have kept the band on the road for much of 2013.
Hip-hop figures largely in the DNA of Hiatus Kaiyote’s musical identity, namely the more introspective narrative elements of ’90s rap and R&B. The hip-hop heavyweights of the 1990s were storytellers largely concerned with notions of size—ideas regarding life on a macro scale, but told through micro framework, in largely personal narratives. This sense of scope is one that Palm says she is consciously playing with, citing her influences as rooted in nature and science, as well as genre icons.
“My mom raised me on Aretha, Stevie, Otis and shit, but my auntie has been playing Tupac and Aaliyah since I was 7 years old,” Palm says. “My natural feeling to write music is based on what I was raised on.”
This mix of old guard instrumentals and new guard lyrical influences is what’s largely given Hiatus Kaiyote the buzz that’s made their star rise so far so quickly. Yet Palm is unable to hide a pang of disappointment that her home country has yet to pick up on what they’re putting down.
“It’s a little strange, to be honest, but it makes sense because Australia is, like, 40 years behind America, even in the age of the Internet,” she says, laughing. “The throwback soul movement is just now happening here. With the U.S., they’ve already explored that, so when they hear a band like us they get the relationship, and celebrate it more because they have a deeper understanding.”
In a sign of the stateside support for their sound, the group’s self-produced debut album, Tawk Tomahawk, was re-released by their label Flying Buddha (a subsidiary of Sony)—even after the album was available for free online.
“The crazy thing about all of this is that we put it on Bandcamp, and all these people like Questlove and Jazzy Jeff and Badu had already picked it up, and the fact that it was getting so much attention when we put no money on marketing whatsoever—that was a trip,” she says. “So it’s really amazing that the label believed in the record enough to formally release it even after it was already released.”
The band has been steadily touring for the past few months, and thanks to heavy radio rotation on alternative and independent stations around the country (most notably LA’s KCRW), as well as a standout showcase at this past year’s SXSW (“It was mental,” Palm says of the set), the band is on its way to establishing its name far beyond its early fans and music industry supports.
But for Palm, of all the big names that have been steadily tweeting or reaching out to the band (rapper Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest was featured on a track; and Badu recruited the group as a tour opener), the biggest moment for Palm was one that she wasn’t even present for.
“Stevie Wonder,” she says, in the same exact breathless tone as when she’s describing that memory of her on the yellow tricycle. “Our friend DJ Spinna showed [Wonder’s] son the music, and I now know that Stevie has heard it, and to me, knowing that Stevie Wonder has heard it…” She trails off. “None of it’s good enough,” she says. “I’m going to have to write a new song just for him.”
Hiatus Kaiyote performs Oct. 31 at Pagoda Lounge. More info.