For most people on the planet, 2020 was a year spent stuck indoors. During that period Naomi Saalfield, AKA Nai Palm, lead singer of the Australian band Hiatus Kaiyote, had one room in particular on her mind: a childhood bedroom that used to glow red for an hour every sunset. It has become the subject of a standout track, Red Room, on their latest, third album, Mood Valiant, and it is a song that has taken on new meaning. “It’s become an anthem celebrating us all being in our rooms in the context of the pandemic,” Saalfield says. “It’s a perfect example of how music veins its way in and lives different lives with different people.”
Speaking over a video call from her home in Melbourne, her shock of blond hair bursting through the darkness of the room, Saalfield stoically recounts how the global pandemic was just the latest development in several years of bad news: namely, a breast cancer diagnosis, mastectomy and the death of her beloved rescue bird, Charlie.
“It really was a rough year. I had lost a breast and then I lost my bird, who I went everywhere with for almost a decade,” she says. “But loss is not a new thing to me; I’m an orphan and I’ve experienced a lot of death in my life. It’s a blessing to have the arts as a vehicle to process it. Sometimes the only thing that can really heal you is music.”
These losses came as Saalfield’s four-piece band were crafting new music for Mood Valiant, the follow-up to 2015’s acclaimed Choose Your Weapon. They also arrived in the midst of a hectic touring schedule, as Hiatus Kaiyote saw a spike in popularity after several of their tracks were sampled by hip-hop royalty including Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z. These beat-flips exposed their niche, noodling jazz and soul-referencing music beyond crate-diggers and their fellow musicians to a more mainstream audience – and came as quite a surprise.
“We’re just nerds who make weird music,” Saalfield says with a smile, “so it’s amazing to see people like Drake playing our track at a stadium show in Australia; it shows that you never know where your music is going to end up, or the meanings that it will have for other people.”
For Saalfield, whose cancer diagnosis brought up emotions from her past that she had never confronted before, music provided an outlet. “My mother died of breast cancer [when I was 11] so it was intense to experience something she had gone through. Since I use music as a vehicle to process emotions, she emerged as a strong theme in the record.”
The album title also references Saalfield’s mother’s fierce presence as a single parent of six. “She used to have two Valiant Safari station wagons – one was white and one was black. Depending on her mood, she would drive one or the other. Usually it was the white one, but if she drove the black one you knew not to mess with Mom on that day,” Saalfield laughs. “Valiant is also such a beautiful word. It has a gorgeous righteousness to it and we want people to feel valiant and beautiful, regardless of what mood they’re in, when they experience the music.”
The result is 12 tracks that, in typical Hiatus Kaiyote fashion, defy easy categorisation but are tied together by the warmth of Saalfield’s vocal harmonies. From the string-laden joy of the lead single Get Sun to the raw introspection of the aforementioned Red Room, and the clattering groove of Chivalry Is Not Dead – featuring lyrics riffing on the mating rituals of leopard slugs – Mood Valiant is both spacious and ebullient.
Key to the record is the musical input of the 75-year-old Brazilian arranger Arthur Verocai (a “cheeky genius”, according to Saalfield), who tracked the string and horn sections with the group in Rio de Janeiro. Verocai’s luscious strings and punchy horns are interwoven into several tracks, while Red Room was also written during the same evening session.
One other room in particular – bass player Paul Bender’s home studio – also proved key for survival when Covid hit. “Did it take the pandemic for us to finish our record?” Saalfield playfully asks. “Bender likes to quote that art is never finished, it is only abandoned, but all I know is that I would have lost my mind if we didn’t have that studio to go to. I just want to be a studio rat; that’s where we thrive most.”
As the world tentatively reopens, the band are embarking on a small Australian tour. “It’ll be great to be back playing and we have a show coming up in a few days,” Saalfield says. “First, though, it’s my birthday tomorrow and we’re all going skydiving. I wanted to celebrate with an experience, as we’ve been a band for 10 years and we’ve evolved together. I hope we don’t use up all our adrenaline on the jump, but we have to move with love, not doubt!”
Another giant leap for Hiatus Kaiyote.
Mood Valiant is out on 25 June via Brainfeeder