Art is a kind of magic, and few things are as powerful as a true artist. Words written several millennia ago still guide the lives and studies of modern scholars, paintings created centuries ago still captivate onlookers for hours, and songs recorded decades ago still bring listeners to tears. When an artist is true, the art they create can affect the lives of the entire world around them. In this modern age, musicians are particularly powerful.

Songs carry us through many of our days. We are inundated by a tide of music — everywhere we go, we are bombarded by beats and blasted by vocoded voices. Songs inspire us to work harder, offer us cathartic release, or manipulate us into buying whatever we are subtly instructed to want.

Some musicians have been nearly deified, their legends codified into history with the stroke of a pick or the beat of a drum. When unbounded by the fetters of financial burden or popular expectation (either through extreme success or none at all), an artist often creates the truest version of their art.

Based on what we have seen in recent weeks, it could certainly be argued that Kanye West has either been driven very slightly mad by success or revealed to have been that way the whole the time. Regardless of his cult of personality, however, West’s impact on popular music and popular culture is undeniable and certainly in part due to some combination of talent, fearlessness, and financial support.

Whether Kanye’s records are authentic expressions of the artist himself or clever constructs, I believe may not yet be known. Hiatus Kaiyote, on the other hand, seems to lack none of the aforementioned positive qualities of an artist like West but with none of the drawbacks.

The Melbourne-based neo-soul/R&B/art-jazz act formed around the vision of lead singer/guitarist Nai Palm. “Since the beginning, it’s been somewhat about the ability, but I think it’s been more about the unity of the band and the collective drive of what we’re going for,” said Palm.

That unity has propelled them from the Melbourne arts scene back to LA for their second GRAMMY nomination and a killer sold-out show at El Rey Theatre this past weekend, where I first meet Hiatus Kaiyote.

Hiatus Kaiyote by Wilk
Photo by Wilk

The group was backstage at El Rey, and despite being severely jetlagged, slightly dazed, and just about to perform for a packed house (not to mention with the GRAMMY Awards just days away), the band members weren’t at all nervous. In fact, they were amiable, welcoming, and extraordinarily gracious.

“Yeah, it’s a little surreal…Last year we ended up jamming with Madlib for hours. Recorded the whole thing, so that will come out at some point. I would just look through the Plexiglas, and there’s Madlib on the mic,” Bender recounted. “I’d think, ‘This is so weird.’ He’s this sort of king of the underground scene. Then on the red carpet we met Pharrell, and it was quite strange to have that appreciation from both ends.”

This appreciation for many distinct voices bleeds into the band’s songwriting process as well. When not guided by Nai, the band is more of a round table of ideas and improvisation. One of the members may have an idea or a hook, and then the rest of them keep up, each song developing organically on the merits of the group’s collective talents and openness to each other.

“What’s really unique about this band is that you’re not sure of the destination, but you all know when you get there,” said Palm.

HiatusKaiyote_LexVoight-20 copy

The breadth of influences that each member brings and the cumulative input that the band translates and synthesizes into a cohesive sound is staggering. Where Perrin Moss (drums) waxes romantic about the qualities of bush-recorded east African drumming, Paul Bender (bass) lauds the epic, cinematic qualities of Pet Sounds. Simon Mavin (keyboards) stays quiet most of the time, gently blowing smoke rings.

“I often find myself going back and revisiting things,” Simon admits. “Trying to figure out how that song works.”

Each person seems to be an incredible combination of incisive and creative, wielding each approach with equal alacrity. Their songs are joyous exercises in controlled ecstasy, which may seem like a bit of a contradiction. However, it’s totally appropriate for a band with a hip hop-by-way-of-heavy metal styled soul singer and a couple of hippie jazz savants.

I often think of jazz as the Zen of musical genres. It’s esoteric, stresses mindfulness and unity, and requires the utmost concentration. Its nature as a largely improvisational form necessitates that musicians enter a kind of flow state in which they, the music, and the other people they are playing with become largely indistinguishable — it’s all about the piece itself. I’m reminded of that often when listening to the members of Hiatus Kaiyote talk about their songwriting process.

The band laughs and talks a bit more with me, and though I’m sure they’ve answered the same questions dozens of times, they make the discussion feel like a much more intimate exchange. Each question is thoughtfully considered and responded to as if it were the first time they’d heard it. For a fledgling interviewer, it’s most appreciated.

Eventually the spell is broken by a security guard (no joke) telling us we are really “fucking his ass” by being outside, followed by a string of so many words in such a short period of time we find ourselves, quite suddenly, back in the green room not really knowing what just happened.

I bid my goodbyes and find a space in the front of the theatre. When Hiatus Kaiyote takes the stage, they do not disappoint. Nai plays with a wide grin plastered on her glittering face the entire time. They may sound incredible on record, but live they are truly something to behold. Their set is incredible, and I can tell the stage is where they really want to be.

HiatusKaiyote_LexVoight-21 copy

When I catch up with Hiatus Kaiyote again on Sunday, this is not as much the case. The band is tired. Not just jetlagged tired, but drained from a weekend of performances, nervousness, and constant hand shaking with industry folks tired.

“Since our first practice, I knew this was something special, and ever since then, it’s been just like this,” Simon said, gesturing around to the industry types in expensive clothes all networking around them. “It’s fine, but I just wanna be back home making music, man.” He says it with a good-natured and tired smile. The drawn expressions on the other three band members seem to agree.

It’s a strange phenomenon to observe. I’m at a party for the talent, but none of the execs or industry folk are actually talking to the artists themselves. Simon laughs when I point this out. “It’s ok. I don’t mind it; I just want a nap!”

Again I am struck by each member’s warmth in the face of a situation that isn’t the most comfortable. I chat with each of “the boys” as they are lovingly referred to by their management and play some pool with Bender (who wipes the floor with me, by the way) before Hiatus Kaiyote plays a short three-song set in the foyer of The Patch, an artist’s retreat and occasional exclusive, intimate venue supported by Sour Patch Kids that has hosted and supported a plethora of artists in a short period of time (including artists like Halsey and Kehlani) in their three locations between Hollywood, Austin, and Brooklyn.

HiatusKaiyote_LexVoight-5 copy

The house is totally gorgeous and the setting, complete with an American flag-painted piano, is an amazing backdrop for a performance by one of the bands at the forefront of contemporary music. People sit on the floor or stand behind the chairs or crouch on the steps of the circular stairwell. It feels a bit like how Hiatus’ early shows must have felt in the Melbourne art scene, only with a lot more money being thrown around behind the scenes.

The set is very stripped down. Perrin only lightly hand-taps this kit, which is covered in a shirt he grabbed from his suitcase upstairs. If you’re looking for the future sound of Hiatus Kaiyote, look no further.

“I would love for us to go more in [a live] direction for production — all the musicians in a room, recording live, and that’s how the recording is,” said Bender. “You have to keep improving as a musician in order to do something like that.”

Hiatus Kaiyote - Choose Your Weapon

Despite the clear talent, ability, and flexibility to do anything they want to do, Hiatus Kaiyote seems most likely headed to an organic singularity. Over the course of the weekend, all of the members express interest in a more organic, live-recorded approach to production. Unlike Kanye West, they seem disinterested in the ultimate creative power granted them by their various talents and successes. Unified, the band seems ready for anything.

I have been privileged to be around several exceedingly talented people who ended up going major places, and being around Hiatus feels very similar, like time moves quicker around them or potential energy is everywhere. It’s as if the fabric between present and future is fraying. It feels kind of like magic.