Hiatus Kaiyote’s Life-Affirming, Genre-Defying Cosmic Soul
The Australian band Hiatus Kaiyote emerged in 2013 with an amorphous sound that pulled in rock, funk and soul, and caught the ear of Questlove, Erykah Badu and Q-Tip. Drake was listening, too: In 2017, he sampled a song from the band’s second LP for his playlist “More Life.” The group’s singer and guitarist, Naomi Saalfield, known as Nai Palm, appeared on his follow-up album, “Scorpion.” A few months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Ultimately, I became obsessed with the concept of impermanence,” Saalfield, 32, said on a video call, speaking from an almost pitch-black room in her home in Fitzroy, a suburb of Melbourne. “Time is an illusion that you have forever, but no one knows how much time they have. And when you have a massive life scare, it really puts that in perspective.”
The band — which includes the bassist Paul Bender, the keyboardist Simon Mavin and the drummer Perrin Moss — incorporated that urgency into “Mood Valiant,” its first album in six years, which came out on Friday. Through bright textures and sunlit Brazilian rhythms, it scores a trek from darkness to light, providing the soundtrack of what turned into a very personal journey.
Before Hiatus Kaiyote earned praise from some of neo-soul and hip-hop’s big names, it was a local group in Melbourne developing its hybrid sound organically. The band formed more than a decade ago, after Bender saw Saalfield playing a pink guitar in a small club and handed her a business card. She never called him, but a year later, they bumped into each other and began working on new music together. Moss and Mavin soon joined them, and the quartet started playing esoteric music with odd time signatures and complex rhythmic structures.
“There was no normality to the way we were approaching this music,” Mavin, 38, said. “And it kind of opened my eyes to a whole new creative channel.”
Hiatus Kaiyote’s debut, “Tawk Tomahawk,” arrived in 2013, and its 2015 follow-up, “Choose Your Weapon,” with its barrage of psych-funk blowouts and moody space-outs, landed as part of the moment that brought D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah,” Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic.”
“It was such a multitude of things,” Bender said of the group’s second album, which is packed with directional shifts. “I think that’s why the title fit. It’s like, ‘What do you want to choose today? What kind of vibe are you in?’”
The band had completed instrumentals for “Mood Valiant” when Saalfield learned she had breast cancer — the disease that killed her mother — and she returned to Australia for an emergency mastectomy. When she recovered and returned to the studio, she came back with a renewed perspective on her personal and professional lives.
“Ultimately, when I got sick, I was like, ‘What do you want from life? Who are you and what do you want to leave behind?’” Saalfield said. “It was actually a really powerful place to record from. I know what it is I meant to do with my life and I’m going to do it as long as I’m here. And it kind of lit a fire under my butt.”
It also inspired her to embrace the spiritual, already a part of the band’s alchemy. On a trip to Rio de Janeiro to record with the noted Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai, who contributed string and horn arrangements for the tropicalia-infused “Get Sun,” Saalfield stayed in the Amazon rainforest for 10 days, and took part in the kambo ritual of wiping frog poison onto her skin to remove the toxins in her body. She also recorded voice memos and used the clips for interludes on the album. The opening cut, “Flight of the Tiger Lily,” features two elders from the Varinawa people teaching her how to say the names of birds; “Hush Rattle” samples local women singing in their native language.
“There’s always a spiritual element to our music,” Moss, 35, said. “In Hiatus, the more we’re in touch with our spiritual side, and more of a conduit for ideas, the better.”
With its warped strings, dusty drums and introspective lyrics that embrace life, “Mood Valiant” has the feel of a ’70s Brazilian psych album. It’s being released by Brainfeeder, a label started in 2008 by the experimental producer Flying Lotus as a home for alternative soul, hip-hop and electronica.
Saalfield said she hopes the LP will touch people when they need it most. “Everybody experiences suffering,” she said. “Everybody experiences joy, no matter how privileged you are or if you have nothing. The beautiful thing is that music is universal. If you can reach people in their darkest hour and comfort them, that’s what it’s for. And that’s what music does for me. It saved me in my darkest hour.”
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