Album art courtesy of Nai Palm
Review by Charlie Saperstein
Naomi Saalfield, better known as Nai Palm, emerged in 2012 as the lead singer of Hiatus Kaiyote, a future-soul band from Melbourne who describes their music as “Multi-Dimensional, Polyrhythmic Gangster Shit.” The band’s rise has been swift. They’ve been nominated for two Grammys; their unique sound has led to samples by rap icons Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Anderson .Paak, and they’ve gotten shoutouts from Questlove, Prince, and Erykah Badu, who simply said: “I’m in love.”
For fans of Hiatus Kaiyote, Nai Palm’s solo release, Needle Paw, might come as a surprise. It abandons the band’s trademark sound—a futuristic, synth-heavy combination of neo-soul, jazz, and funk—for a stripped-back album that relies only on an acoustic guitar and a trio of singers to back Saalfield’s vocals. With this new sound comes an opportunity for Saalfield’s voice to shine like never before. As incredible as the lush instrumentation of Hiatus Kaiyote may be, this is a spotlight that is both welcome and necessary.
The album is filled with creative reimaginings of several Hiatus Kaiyote songs (“Atari,” “Mobius,” “Molasses,” “Breathing Underwater,” and “Borderline with My Atoms”) that, adapted for Needle Paw’s distinctive sound, still remain fresh. Her other covers range from Tamia’s 1998 R&B hit “So Into You,” to Radiohead’s brooding alt-rock anthem “Pyramid Song,” and the title track on David Bowie’s final album “Blackstar.” But her most surprising cover is also perhaps the album’s best: a complete reworking of Jimi Hendrix’s “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland).” In Saalfield’s hands, the song is transformed from an oft-forgotten spurt of psychedelic weirdness into a tightly orchestrated, up-and-down journey that showcases her incredible vocal range. The song is located halfway through the album’s tracklist, and it serves as both a microcosm and a natural climax for the album as a whole—for listeners looking to get acquainted with Saalfield’s immense talent, her belting of “Eleeectric Ladylaaaand” at 2:00 is a perfect starting point.
As excellent as these covers are, Nai Palm’s unique voice and personality is able to come through best on her original songs. Saalfield frequently references the death of her parents (she was orphaned at age 11) as a primary influence in her growth as a musician and as a person, and Needle Paw finally shows us a gentler, more vulnerable side of the singer. Her lyrics are dense and poetic, and the songs shift between restrained moments of delicate beauty and unshackled, uplifting peaks, punctuated by the choir-like voices of her backup singers. These singers are pivotal to the album, filling in gaps that may otherwise feel bare, and they nearly function as other instruments. Of the singers, Saalfield says she wanted to “make something that is—arrangement-wise—as detailed as something where you have other instruments, but all the layers being the human voice.”
Nai Palm herself seems to possess a wisdom, and a mysteriousness, far beyond her years. Individually, she speaks about her close connection with nature: she says that when her parents died, “wild animals became [her] support network,” and this album reflects that love. It was recorded in an Australian desert, and the raw, bare production makes the album feel far more natural than Hiatus Kaiyote’s electronic sound. She has called the album “an intimate window into myself as an artist,” and it truly feels like that’s the case. Needle Paw does more to unravel the enigma that is Nai Palm than anything to date.
With Needle Paw, Nai Palm has succeeded spectacularly at making music for humanity at its most exposed. Nai Palm said it’s an album made to be “something really gentle to just hold people in moments of fragility”: for when “you're hungover on a Sunday morning or… your family member just died.” In this, Saalfield has unquestionably succeeded. Needle Paw isn’t exhilarating like the imaginative jazz of Hiatus Kaiyote—but it’s comforting, intimate, and essential. Nai Palm’s last song on the album is “Homebody,” a structureless tune that stretches lines about coping with pain over a shaky and uncertain acoustic guitar. It’s a gorgeous, hauntingly vulnerable song, one that seems ready to fall apart at the seams at any moment. It’s written to a friend, perhaps, maybe to her listeners, or maybe even to herself. In it, she croons: “Hold on to the color of your day / I will always be around to reach your pain.”