Hataałiinez Wheeler is a very modern kind of crooner: a pensive, deep-voiced troubadour whose serene surf-country songs tap into the hope and despondency of a new generation. The music he makes as Hataałii — a Navajo term that means ‘to sing’, a fitting diminutive of his given name — is at turns witty and world-weary, sunny but endearingly solipsistic, tapping into the nihilism of The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg as well as the gorgeously romantic sleaze of Chris Isaak, if either of them had to deal with the anxieties of constantly carrying a mobile phone or losing contact with friends during COVID lockdowns. Future-facing but decidedly old-fashioned, Hataalii is a refreshingly unplaceable new voice, channeling his distinctive worldview into songs that feel timeless and perfectly modern all at once.
Hailing from Window Rock, Arizona, part of the Navajo Nation, Hataałii first started playing music as a teenager, inspired to pick up the bass, and later the guitar, after seeing his older brother playing surf songs for his friends. Teaching himself to play by playing along to songs by Jack Johnson and U2, he soon developed idiosyncratic tastes of his own, discovering cult heroes like Mac DeMarco and Westerberg, the latter of whom still inspires Hataałii’s mode of lyricism.
This year, Hataałii releases two new songs: the wistful, evocative waltz “Land of Poor Chance,” and late-night indie ballad “Presidents Got Me All Night.” Hataałii’s first songs made with a producer — Los Angeles indie-folk singer Joel Jerome — these two tracks reveal an artist looking to make music that’s nothing less than “the most raw form of expression possible.” The pair of songs are among the most cinematic Hataałii has ever made — fitting, for a year that’s seen him star in an episode of AMC’s acclaimed Dark Winds. Inspired by Hataałii’s eye-opening experiences attending the University of New Mexico, both tracks find him coming to terms with the everyday strangeness of young adulthood, the alienation of moving to a larger city, and power dynamics within relationships. Both songs are, of course, generous, funny, and profoundly open-hearted: in other words, quintessentially Hataałii.