“NOW do you wanna get deep?” Claire Nakazawa asks me.
I’m sitting on an armchair in an upstairs room of her rambling Marrickville terrace house, with her three Haiku Hands bandmates – Beatrice Lewis, Mie Nakazawa and Mataya Young – scattered around on the carpet as Claire controls the laptop that’s playing a suite of unreleased tracks.
There’s a pile of National Geographics stuffed into a shelf in the corner, next to old wrapping paper and a Planet Earth DVD set, still sealed in plastic. I catch myself staring at this domestic still-life while the songs are playing, cataloguing the scene in my mind so I’m not watching the clever faces of the women who made these songs that are currently punching me in the metaphorical guts.
The moment of “going deep” comes when Claire presses play on ‘Car Crash’, a song about her relationship with a friend who’s going it tough. (Sample lyrics: “Hey queen, I know you’re trying/See you flex but someone’s lying/Is it you? Is it them?”) It’s tender and infused with empathy, and it shines a spotlight on Claire’s vocals, which first took centre stage in 2011 on the Hermitude track ‘Speak of the Devil’.
“[My voice is] naturally quite gentle, not very strong,” she tells me, and ‘Car Crash’ is “not the most ideal representation” of Haiku Hands. Why? “Because it’s one voice, not the collective. But it’s special.” Her bandmates agree.
“They can move between jumping on burnt-out cars outside my studio, and leaving bags of turmeric and health food bars for me."
Not present is the invisible fifth member of Haiku Hands: Joelistics (aka Joel Ma), the MC and producer whose name comes up time and again during our conversation. He serves as a friend, producer, mentor, co-writer, cheerleader – whatever the band requires. “We’re like a writing team,” Claire says, to which Beatrice adds, “It feels like he is in the band; he believes in the project so much.”
After calling on Claire to assemble a crew of back-up singers and dancers for his performance at Beat the Drum, triple j’s 40th birthday celebration in 2015, he encouraged her to harness the scrappy, punk energy that went into that show and channel it into something more long-term. When his DJ, Beatrice, paired up with Claire, it felt like kismet. “They’re just punks,” he tells me over the phone. “Their art is all-encompassing, it doesn’t just stop at the music.
“That’s what I saw in them. It’s something about the attitude they have where they can move between jumping on burnt-out cars outside my studio, and leaving bags of turmeric and health food bars for me – that mix of thoughtful and wild is pretty awesome.”
It was at Joel’s insistence, and with his guidance, Claire tells me, that she tapped into the truth of her personal relationships for ‘Car Crash’. The chorus – which repeats the phrase: “You’re fucking awesome, lady” – is something of a mission statement for Haiku Hands, Claire says. “It’s about lifting each other up, like, ‘You’re good! I’m good!’ It’s a bit ballsy.”
Connecting The Dots
This value system – of ballsiness, community, and intra-band encouragement – seems fundamental for Haiku Hands, a group of seasoned artists who are carefully and consciously fusing their disparate practices together for the first time. As well as Hermitude, Claire has collaborated with the likes of Urthboy and Horrorshow as her alter-ego, Chaos Emerald. She is also a fine artist – some of her abstract landscapes paintings are resting on a mantle in a downstairs room of her house.
Beatrice is a synth and electronic artist who, as well as DJing for Joelistics, has worked as a workshop facilitator for a youth diversionary program in Alice Springs, where she’s most recently been working with Kardajala Kirridarra on their first record. Beatrice and Hermitude were performing at the same festival in 2013 when Beatrice and Claire first met, and after a few more chance run-ins, they started sowing the seeds for what would become Haiku Hands.
“I don’t want [Haiku Hands] to be a bubble that bursts” – Beatrice Lewis
The next recruit was Mie, Claire’s sister and a fellow visual artist who’s a regular at Sketch the Rhyme, a series of events where rappers freestyle while visual artists compete in sketching battles. “Through [Sketch the Rhyme] I’ve performed at heaps of festivals, so I’m used to the touring life but not performing vocally so much. These girls really encouraged me,” she says. Beatrice adds: “Mie’s always in the band, even if she doesn’t know it.” Mataya, a jazz singer and another Hermitude collaborator, was the next addition, adding an essential element to the Haiku Hands line-up.
“We were interested in one another’s mediums,” Claire explains at a table in her backyard when I ask how they connected the dots scattered between them. “Bea’s quite into visual design as well, Mataya’s a singer and I wanted to learn her skill” – a plane flies low, either leaving or arriving at the nearby Sydney airport, and I push my recorder closer to Claire, praying the noisy engine doesn’t drown her out as she continues to list the values she admires in her bandmates. “Welcome to Marrickville!” Mataya says, laughing.
The group connected and started plotting what this project could be around 18 months ago, thanks to a shared experience in the music scene and an understanding of how the enigmatic parts of it can operate.
“Watching our friends’ musical careers has informed me in how we go about this,” Claire says. “Seeing how other people have done it is an advantage.” Far from being wide-eyed first-timers, they’re going in prepared and with a plan in place. “I don’t want [Haiku Hands] to be a bubble that bursts,” Beatrice explains. “I want it to be a long-term, strong thing; a collaborative collective that grows and develops.”
The band’s live shows are just as great a focus of their long-term planning as the music these shows will facilitate. Over the course of the afternoon, I watch them move instinctively to their beats and decide how these spontaneous moments could work on stage, catching themselves when a move veers too close to “sexy” and subverting it into something less simple and clear – like performing with curtains of hair covering their faces instead of sassily pointing at the audience.
There’s talk of dressing their friends in all black and having them dance with torches to mimic the elaborate lighting designs the band can’t quite afford yet. Mataya tells me their stage shows might feature more performers than just the four of them, in an effort to both keep audiences guessing and to fill a stage with even more of the rowdy energy that we first heard on their debut single, ‘Not About You’.
“What the fuck did I just make?!”
That song, the one that brought this unknown group into contact with more managers, labels and opportunities than they could’ve anticipated, came about almost by chance. When Angus Stuart (AKA Hermitude’s El Gusto) wrote the beat, Beatrice tells me, he paired the bassline with “a weird drum, like from a Casio keyboard preset” and the result was so disconcerting: “He immediately shut his computer and was like, ‘what the fuck did I just make?!’”
Claire and Beatrice had planned a writing session, still in the phase of testing out whether a creative partnership could work between them, when they dug it out of the depths of his computer and immediately saw its potential. “It’s so different to what he makes,” Claire says, “I think it wouldn’t have had a home otherwise.”
The lyrics (a cocky blend of classic hip-hop braggadocio and self-actualised affirmations about leaving a distinctive mark) combined with the track’s cover image (the four of them with neutral expressions and their eyes covered by bars, obscuring their identities) craft the first message from this band with a lot to say: this is about all of us and none of us, all at once. “We don’t want this project to be so identity-driven,” Mie explains, “it’s more about what the collective can bring.” Claire agrees: “It’s a project where we can say, ‘Look what we can create together’. It’s a joint effort.”
This kind of collaborative spirit seems inextricably linked to the Red Bull Music Academy, where last year Beatrice was one of 70 artists attending lectures from legendary producers by day and performing shows across Montreal at night. It was there that she worked on Haiku Hands tracks with producers such as Just Blaze and Theo Parrish, and met Oceantied, a producer from India who’d go on to produce the track ‘Fashion Model Art’ for her band.
During her shows, she played a combination of her solo music and Haiku Hands stuff, and the reactions forced her to confront the potential of the project. “The responses were just crazy: everyone stood up and started dancing. It felt like, this is a thing.
“I left Red Bull with no self-doubt,” she says, sitting up a little straighter. “I was like, ‘this is what I want to do. And we’re going to take over the world’.”
When I ask Joelistics about writing ‘Not About You’ and ‘Car Crash’ – two songs at opposite ends of the spectrum, vibe- and tempo-wise, he taps into the sentiment that ties together the floating particles of music, art, dance, energy and friendship that encapsulate Haiku Hands: “‘Not About You’ is a good, solid slap in the face; ‘Car Crash’ is more about exploring bravery and vulnerability, but they’re both equally as punk as each other, in my mind. The world is full of frauds and that punk spirit is some way of retaining something real. That’s what they do.”
Giving him the props for bringing the key players in this band together would be too simple and convenient, especially since it seemed destined to happen, like an eclipse or a tornado. Rather than being the result of planned meetings and schemes, it seems as though the universe was conspiring to bring these artists together, knowing that something fiery was inevitable. Now we all get to sit back and watch, together. I hear it’s going to be quite a show.