Grammy nominated neo-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote had over 130 aspiring musicians in awe at the APRA Songwriters workshop at Southern Cross University on Thursday.
Hosted by accomplished contemporary vocalist and music lecturer Leigh Carriage, the workshop featured interviews, questions from the audience and performances by the Melbourne quartet.
Formed in 2011, Hiatus Kaiyote features Nai Palm on vocals, guitars and keyboards, Paul Bender on bass and production, Perrin Moss on drums and electronics and Simon Mavin on keyboards.
The interview session explored the musicians' backgrounds, the creative process and dynamics within the band.
Vocalist Nai Palm began playing guitar and writing songs when she was 13, and playing gigs a year later.
“[Bassist Paul] Bender saw me play on my third or fourth gig, he wanted to work with me and produce [me] but I chickened out because I wasn’t ready," said the singer.
"I didn’t even have a proper guitar during that gig... I grabbed my friend’s little sister's pink, fluorescent child’s practice guitar and thought, 'this’ll work', and just rocked up to the gig with that!”
Bender admitted he was baffled during their first encounter.
"I was like 'who is this freak with the guitar?'," said Bender. "I thought myself 'oh no, this is going to be naff for sure'... but then, it was actually amazing. We didn't run into each for at least a year after that gig."
Debut album finds favour at Grammys
In 2012 Hiatus Kaiyote self-released their debut album Tawk Tomahawk, which was then re-released last July as the first project on hip hop producer Salaam Remi’s Flying Buddha Imprint.
Their song Nakamarra was nominated for a Grammy award for the best R&B performance, making them the first Australian act to be nominated in that category.
With cryptic lyrics, otherworldly harmonies and complex time signatures accompanying Palm’s sultry vocals, Hiatus Kaiyote’s genre-defying brand of 'future soul' blends the swing of jazz, the back-beats of hip hop and R&B with various elements of music from around the world.
“I’ve always written in weird time signatures because I didn’t really know what they were, and I grew up listening to a lot of music from West Africa,” said Palm.
“The music I was raised with subconsciously from a young age was not your standard 4/4 stuff… because of having that ingrained from such a young age, when I went to write [a song]… I don’t know, it just happened!”
What makes Hiatus Kaiyote's music unique is the way their songs integrate complex compositional techniques such as key changes, tempo changes and metric modulation, while making it sound seamless.
The band members said there was plenty of rigour that goes into their creative process.
Paul Bender said when writing song he always thinks about "thematic ideas" for songs.
"For example, [in the song] Shaolin [Monk Motherfunk], the theme is the vocal melody and those intervals," Bender said.
"So the bassline would replicate the vocals, and then I'd come up with a few variations. So you can jump around between different feels and different styles... but [the sections] still have a same flavour."
After the theme has been established, Nai Palm says the band would then get together and work out each section to "piece it together".
"Simon would come up with some awesome keys and synth sounds and create a loop, while Pez (Perrin Moss) would have a [drum] break that he’s been working on," said Palm.
"The pieces either magically fits together, or we workshop them until they do."
The band members conceded that arranging songs of that level of complexity could often require a meticulous process.
"You really listen to each other and make sure every part works well within the other parts - this is really crucial," said keyboard player Simon Mavin.
Mavin told the audience the band would sometimes play the same four-bar loop "for hours and hours".
"It's ridiculous! We just keep playing it to the point where we're going insane," Mavin said lightheartedly.
"And then we get to the next four bars, repeat the process and before we know it, we've finally finished this really hectic tune... then we don't play it for a year and it's cool again!"
The workshop's performance set list featured three of such 'hectic' tunes; the quirky Shaolin Monk Motherfunk, the ethereal Breathing Underwater and Borderline With My Atoms.
The eccentric song titles are only the tip of the iceberg. Along with virtuosic muscianship, Hiatus Kaiyote songs are also renowned amongst fans for Nai Palm's cryptic, almost indecipherable lyrics.
When Leigh Carriage asked about the inspiration for lyrics, Palm went on to tell the audience she answered "obsessive wonders of the world".
"I like nature documentaries, I like anime, visual art… I am currently writing a song about dinosaurs and mega-fauna,” said Palm.
Palm added that she finds passion in everyday topics and tries to express this in her own, often abstract way.
"There are so many things you can write about! For example, with Breathing Underwater, I wanted to write a love song that's not a relationship love song... you know, the love you put in a cup of camomille tea that you make your friend when they're going through a break-up.
"I just try to look at typical topics and finding interesting ways of talking about the core of what people are trying to express—which is empathy and connection."
To find out more about the band and their music, check out Hiatus Kaiyote's website.