In a year marked broadly by death and destruction, silver linings are in short supply. That’s part of what makes HATAAŁII’s song “Daak’os” so nourishing. The 17-year-old artist–full name Hataałiinez Wheeler–hails from Window Rock, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation, and he titled the song with the Navajo word for clouds. “It’s about the clouds coming in to replenish the plants and life,” says Wheeler. “A metaphor for how life works itself out and is constantly being reborn.”
He wrote the song for Painting Portraits, his second full-length album, during the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the world underwent a sudden, drastic shift on nearly every level, Wheeler got to work on the project in a shed by his family’s corn field, sometimes in sweltering heat. The scene is easy enough to visualize on tracks like the opener, “Lover Call,” with its sunbaked surf rock sound, bathed in chorused guitar and echoing with deep canyons of reverb.
But for every laser beam of sunlight, there’s a cooling shade ready to shift overhead–in the acoustic bossa nova groove of “Daak’os,” in the sweet, synthy slow dance of “Songbird,” but maybe most palpably in the two-part album closer, “Rain,” with its sampled weather sounds. In moments like that, and in offhanded interludes like “Joe Yazzie’s Fry Bread Stand,” Painting Portraits feels as much like a spontaneous transcription of the world around Wheeler as it is a set of strong, deliberate compositions.
He took an in-the-moment approach to the lyrics of one track in particular. “’Back to the Show’ is about my life at the boarding school I went to, and how I kind of took it all for granted,” says Wheeler. “The lyrics are pretty spontaneous, but I didn’t really care about that. All that mattered was to let my friends know that I missed them a bunch.”
As it drifts between sounds and styles at will, Painting Portraits radiates caring vibes for trying times. There really is something soothing about rain–and about “Rain.” It keeps on falling, pushing the grander cycle of life forward no matter what else may change in day to day life. HATAAŁII is an artist who doesn’t take his musical moment for granted, and he knows how to capture the comforting upside of the circle.
Painting Portraits is available digitally now, in all its sonic elasticity, and you can preorder a copy of the vinyl edition through a crowdfunded Qrates campaign until October 15–it’s the first such release by New Mexico art collective Psychic Sink.