Right now, the world needs a band like Hiatus Kaiyote. Heavyweight taste makers Badu, Questlove, Taylor Mcferrin, Gilles Peterson, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and Jazzy Jeff all seem to think so too. Small explosions in every corner of the globe are clawing for HK in a fierce domino effect, that’s rather exciting to watch. Future Soul music never sounded so universal yet uniquely Australian. That’s right folks, they are Australian. But in Australia, they are still relatively unknown. Why is that? Well, I’ll give it to you straight, but first, more HK ogling.
Let’s turn off the hype machine for a moment and strip this shit right back to where it started, for me at least. I feel privileged to have witnessed the birth of HK and they aren’t that old, one year to be exact. Oh what a glorious bandwagon to be on.
Lead singer, Nai Palm, and I met spontaneously for the first time in 2010 through a mutual friend, Zulu Flow. It was actually on Zulu’s phone that I met her. It’s not everyday that you sing to someone on the phone you’ve never met before, yet we did exchange such jovial jingles instead of standard hellos and it sparked curious admiration. The next day I searched the internet for links to her music, which back then were these delicious acoustic offerings featuring that voice, my god, that voice is real. I had to meet her in person to truly vibe off this girl. When we did finally meet, my first impression was of an endearing gypsy-esque-soul-baby with a brilliant gentle demeanor. I fell in love – it’s easy to fall in love with Nai.
Around that time, by divine default, I ran a night that was the only event showcasing Australian soul artists in all their alternative forms and sub genres. The event was a part of a movement called the Oz Soul Collective. The night Nai was booked, it was a sold out October show in Melbourne at the Toff in Town with literally back to back performances. On that bill was Ngaiire, Jess Harlen, Hailey Cramer, Ella Thompson (Axolotl), Kisshead, Vida Sunshyne, Runforyourlife along with too many other acts to mention. I remember that night well because it was thick with the spirit and the future of soul music in Oz. It was the first time many of us felt a new soul movement un-folding. With heartfelt intent the Oz Soul Collective was working toward convincing an industry that these artists exist and are worthy of exposure.
That auspicious night at the Toff, Nai performed a 20 minute set with Paul Bender and the decadent opera singing creature that is Simoncee Jones. The 3 piece setup was a pain in the ass for the sound guy that night, mainly due to a quick change over issue. However, armed with a laptop, midi controllers, guitar amped vocals, electric guitar, opera singer, double and electric bass, they impressed a new sound upon that audience. Notably, you got a sense of just how layered and experimental this early, non-official, HK setup was with the exploration of sound. They were just finding their feet.
Fast forward to 2011 where Hiatus Kaiyote have established themselves in a cross section of Melbourne’s underground music, with a line-up of outstanding musicians who are all equal in mastery. I booked them in for one last Oz Soul night before I hung up my promoter hat. As excruciating as the sound system was for them that night – and I still deeply regret this injustice to their product – I have always said the epitome of a true artist is one that can cope with any situation. This is a band that takes pride in their sound, and needless to say, they were pissed off. Lucky for all of us, they are malleable and forgiving human beings.
With Paul Bender on bass, Perrin Moss on drums, Simon Mavin on Keys, three backing vocalists, and the songwriting seamstress that is Nai; all superlative and artistically monstrous musicians. They harness the genius of nearly every legendary artist this world has come to know, from Stevie to Dilla, Bjork and Badu, HK are a royal flush. 2011 into 2012 saw these kids gigging like motherfuckers. They mastered their complex live sound through residency after residency, support after support, until they built up a healthy following in Melbourne. Their live show should be on any music appreciators bucket list. Add the creative zeal and connectivity that is their management, Si Jay Gould, and Hiatus Kaiyote was set to write themselves into the history books.
Their debut EP Tawk Tomahawk released in April this year, mirrors its creators on many wondrous levels and draws on a mélange of cultural influences. It’s partly a reflection of the diversity and the colour of the world in which they live. Musically, it’s like a fondue of unravelling beauty, so much so, that they make me want to write words like mélange and fondue. Their brand of ‘Wondercore’ is a golden balance of soul, jazz and latin, poly-rhythmically laced in minimalist hip hop beats, tumbling in raw electronic musical bliss. It’s a most distinct and sophisticated sound. Coat this with carefully crafted vocal melodies and harmonies, married with poignant lyrics delectably phrased, and you know you are in the presence of pure art. This is deep progressive soul music that will massage your very being. You will believe in music again. It is this very formula that has awarded them their rightful accolades.
This evident talent was noticed by Taylor McFerrin after they supported him one night at the Espy in Melbourne, who embraced HK immediately. I was there to watch the mutual love bounce between them all. Again, the notoriously shit-sounding system at the Espy was of a disservice to the HK product but even with shit sound, it did not mask the truth of their music. I call it eternal probability, a right-place-right-time scenario where Taylor has proven to be an instrumental and influential supporter of the band. HK have been ricocheting upwards ever since. It was always meant to be this way. When you have a group of people who make music with such profound passion, who have a message for the world, who are connected to each other soulfully and sonically – magic is bound to happen.
After successfully breaking what seems like a drought in worldwide recognition for Australian soul music, their popularity continues to build in a cult-like fashion as they headline their own tour of Australia in November, presented by Niche, Wax Poetic’s and Music Feeds, off the back of a promotional tour to NYC & LA. With reviews one can only dream of receiving and high profile head nods it seems the rest of the world loves them. So why have you the reader like so many other Australians, not heard of them, yet? And why must we wait for international acceptance of our artists before our own country can take them seriously?
I used to think that it was a soul genre awareness problem and I have further theories that extend to an undercurrent of racism in this country, but I won’t go there in this write up. After much analysing, I’ve concluded that, in this country, we do not have a machine with operable cogs to launch and sustain the artists in these genres. I beg to be proven wrong. Currently in Australia this site is the only reputable Zine that publishes articles about this type of music, and even then, HK just sits in the ACCLAIM electronic beat music pocket, among its definite street culturist readership.
Catergorising yourself as a soul artist in Australia conjures up somewhat unfortunate associations. ‘Soul music’ can come with assumptions of afros, revivalism or homogenised urban-pop to name a few, but there is certainly a different brand of Soul coming out of this country that will challenge the expectations for this genre. We simply don’t have a strong enough machine to support it here in such a funneled industry. From magazines, radio, TV and blogs, to industry initiatives, festivals, events and venues that qualify as genre-specific platforms for soul, hip-hop, jazz, funk, blues, R&B based artists etc – we don’t have flagships. In any of its forms, soul music will inevitably get lost in a machine that has serviced the last 60 years of Australian rock, indie, alt and pop music. What this also means is that we essentially have a population of music consumers in this country who do not understand or appreciate this type of music. Not that they can’t acquire a taste for it, I just believe they haven’t been fed well.
Yes… there is Triple J. While they have unearthed a great many artists, soul music is still a blip on their radar and again, artists are lost. The ratio on the J’s currently stands at 0.1 out of 20, in regard to airplay rotation for any soul-orientated artist. On Triple J Unearthed website, there isn’t an applicable category of ‘soul’ music as a preference for these types of artists nor is there a programmed show which might serve as a response. Now, it may seem hypocritical, because as I write this HK are charting at number 1 on unearthed, in the Electronic category. Hiatus Kaiyote are above and beyond that category; they represent Australian soul music.
For those who may argue with me about the irrelevance of the genre debate, should be less of a puritan. In music business land, music is a product. Genres or categories are only relative to market value and placement, packaged for delivery to consumers. It’s as transparent as that.
Yes, we have a live music scene, but even that is caught in a crossfire of venue/promoter greed and politics, with a lack of perspective on sustainability within their own cities. Those who have power and influence should ALL be doing more. Investing in development and strategies to foster this music just makes good logical business sense which will forecast untold benefits. Our whole industry needs a shake up and I for one will not tip toe around pretentiousness.
Artists need to wake the fuck up to the reality that they can’t rely on traditional methods of making money from their music. We live in a new age, no one can afford to be complacent. A wise man once told me, that an artist needs to build an economy around themself to be sustainable, basically we need to look at creative new business models and plan for the ever changing climate. Especially when faced with head-scratching marketability, or artists struggling with branding vs integrity, if they fall on deaf ears or if their music just plain sucks – change the strategy. Sustainability to me also includes a strategy which should be effortless for soul loving people, which is loyalty, support and strengthening our existing scene. In regard to HK, it feels like a collective win for our soul community especially here in Melbourne many of us are waving their flag in wholehearted support. It helps that their music is undeniable.
As we move into a future teeming with independent music, evolving technology and all the opportunities that come with it, I believe we are looking at a new Australian soul music frontier. It’s right under our noses, now all we have to do is take ourselves seriously.
Haitus Kaiyote are doing just that and they are slated to be the most exciting future soul export this country will ever know.