It’s an unseasonably cool Saturday at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. While Rare Essence pounds a percussive go-go loop, I wander aimlessly looking for Hiatus Kaiyote, an upstart soul quartet from Melbourne, Australia, that performed earlier that day.
In July, the group released its debut album, Tawk Tomahawk, in the U.S. The band, blending jazz, hip-hop and traditional soul, has received enthusiastic cosigns from Erykah Badu and Roots bandleader ?uestlove. Kaiyote’s growing buzz comes from word-of mouth: Someone likes the album, tells someone else about it, and they pass it along. Eventually I track down lead vocalist Nai Palm, whose quirky and infectious energy drew smiles and picture requests from passers-by. as she told me how it got to this point.
The album has been out in the U.S. for a couple weeks. How are people reacting to it?
We put it online about a couple years ago, so the reaction from that has been crazy. It dropped officially a couple weeks ago, but the reaction happened way before that. We’ve got people who we admire musically getting into our shit, like ?uestlove and Erykah Badu, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Jazzy Jeff and Dwele. That reaction has been monumental. The fact that just putting our music online has reached such a high caliber of artists.
We’re also getting reactions from really odd places like Libya, Saudi Arabia and Peru. It’s pretty amazing that English might not be their first language, but they’re resonating with the music. That’s been the biggest trip for me.
How did you get onto ?uestlove and Erykah’s radar?
?uestlove found out about the album through Angel [Deradoorian] from Dirty Projectors. And she found out about it through Animal Collective. And they heard a song on the radio in L.A., from this cat who was spinning it there. He found out about it from Taylor McFerrin, who we supported. So it’s been around. When ?uestlove picked it up, I went to the States and represented the band. I got to chill with the Roots backstage at Jimmy Fallon. I was chatting heavily with James Poyser, who works directly with Badu. I assume that’s how she heard about the album. How Jazzy Jeff and Dwele heard about it? I have no idea. It’s amazing to know that our music is being heard because people hear it and respect it enough to want to share it.
Your music pulls from so many different influences. Do listeners easily understand what the album is about?
Even with the band name, there’s an elusive element that’s not easily spelled out. You can create something, but how it’s perceived is a part of creativity. How you absorb the information is part of your own creativity. I think we’re elusive enough with it that people from all different walks of life can find their own way to connect with it.
The groundswell behind the album seems very organic…
I think that’s the best way to do it. The Internet has really evolved the industry. Now, your music can have this natural swell of its own without having to send it out to DJs. Back in the day, you really had to hustle to be heard, and I feel like because of the vastness of the Internet, you can just put anything up there, and it can be heard by people on the other side of the world. There’s a very natural word-of-mouth way of spreading music now. It’s really exciting to be a musician in this period of the industry’s evolution. We’ve definitely been very fortunate as a result of that.
What was the creative vision for Tawk Tomahawk?
I felt the project was an evolution of my songwriting. I never wanted to work with just any musicians; I really wanted them to be creatively and emotionally involved with it as much as I am. This was definitely a collaborative effort. You couldn’t take one member out of the band; every member is very important. It’s our creativity together that really makes that sound, and makes it unique. Each song came together in a very unified way. We recorded it in our home studio and put it out. The response to that is very inspiring. We know that we can keep doing what we naturally want to do, and be respected for that.
With all the attention you’ve received the past couple months, does that pressure you to create something even better next time?
The fact that more people are listening now, that definitely makes you want to take it to a deeper level. I think we’re in overdrive. There’s less pressure like, “Shit, we’ve got to write some hits.” It’s more trying to find the time to lock it in where we can work. After this tour, we’ve put some time aside to really get into that. We’re not really under pressure, just excited to put some more stuff out.