Back in 2016 when her first studio album ‘For All We Know’ dropped, the fulcrum of Nao’s fanbase was characterised by the adage, ‘if you know, you know’. 2 years later, her star is shining brighter than ever.
In Dalston on a windy Thursday afternoon, the bright-eyed, jovial singer’s presence brightens up the room instantly. As soon as she enters, she makes a snap comment on my fluorescent jacket, which instantly puts my mind and heart at ease; it is always difficult to gauge how an artist’s character is from watching previous interviews, as they tend to bounce off and react to the energy provided by the interviewer, so in a way, her passing comment helped me to gain a small sense of familiarity and comfortableness with her.
It seems so long ago since her debut EP, So Good, dropped (5 years ago this week), but since then, it is safe to say that Nao has established herself as a superstar of the scene. Far gone are the days of commercial success for Black British artists being predicated upon their sound fitting into either grime or R&B; the last few years have seen the scene become a lot more diverse and experimental, which has helped artists such as Nao thrive.
Born in Nottingham but raised in East London, Nao’s first forays into music actually went a long way into shaping what her sound was not going to be –
When I was growing up, I was a part of the grime community in and around East London. When it was proper kicking off, I was just a 15 year old kid; people would just be in their bedrooms with their decks, and they’d be MC-ing and spitting bars, but I didn’t really get love like that because I was a girl! When it came down to making and producing my own music, I felt like I didn’t want to do grime, because it was still very underground, and it didn’t really suit my voice.
Moving onto her early days as an artist, we speak on who her musical influences growing up were. Despite growing up in a period and area where grime and garage music reigned supreme, these genres did not have a bearing on the musical path she was about to take. Contrarily, she resonated more closely with classical soul artists; “Nina Simone, Chaka Khan and Marvin Gaye”, were her go to points for inspiration and influence. Considering the blend of so many different genres in her music, it was interesting to hear that soul music had formed the foundation of her musicality, especially as she did not go down the traditional R&B route. With her path set out, she started making music, which quickly gained a very positive buzz –
People were interested quite quickly. When I decided to become an artist, the reaction was really good from the offset, rather than me having to release track upon track, waiting for a good response.
Despite the positive response to her music, she admits she initially found it very difficult to listen to her own music, “at first it was like, I make a track and I’ll love it, and then I play it for someone, and if they’re like ‘meh’, suddenly, the song is dead to me” laughs Nao, “because the music was so new to me and I didn’t fully know my own sound yet, I used to heavily go on from other’s opinions”.
Our conversation moves onto her thoughts on R&B in the UK, to which she makes her feelings known of stereotypes that exist within music on Black British artists –
As a black British artist, you’re normally fit into one of two boxes; a grime artist, or an R&B artist. So much of what we do goes beyond that, and has different genres within it. An artist could be rapping and they’re just put under the grime umbrella, which to me is quite lazy ,so I do think we need to stop pigeonholing people
What she said brought up a valid point which I briefly touched upon earlier, regarding the poor categorisation of genres which do not fit the traditional parameters of grime and R&B – artists are making waves and being successful, but are being boxed into a zone which they aren’t really a part of. It is this same invalidation which spurred Nao on to make more of a name for herself. It’s an unfortunate reality that more artists are encountering, but it was refreshing to hear about it from an artist’s perspective – better yet, from an artist who has been a regular victim of this pigeonholing, but has not allowed it hold them back.
This led onto a more optimistic discussion onto her thoughts of the funk/soul genre within the UK as a whole, to which she paid homage to some of her peers –
It’s SO much better now than it ever has been. In the UK before, there wasn’t much of a space for us, but the music was spreading so fast elsewhere around the world, so we kind of had to play catch up. But now, you’ve got international stars like Jorja Smith, and people coming up and making waves like Mahalia, so it’s looking really promising.
And she isn’t wrong. The niche market of funk and soul is growing rapidly within the UK, and we have artists now pushing the envelope more and more, pigeonholed or not. With Nao‘s world tour just round the corner, where she is set to perform in Asia, North America and Europe, the scope of our scene is widening further and further. But any guesses as to which city she is looking most forward to performing in? Tokyo? Los Angeles? Nope. Right here, in London, at O2 Academy Brixton –
it’s home, and before I was an artist, I sang there as a backing singer about 3 times, so to have the chance to go there and perform as the main act is a really special moment for me. UK crowds are also really beautifully diverse.
A homegrown artist showing love to their city – brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it?
Next, it’s time to talk new music, specifically Saturn. Before diving straight into questions regarding the album, we discuss her creative processes, and her requirements for studio time. “The first step is always airplane mode”, she explains, “because your phone is such a distraction, that you can’t even get into the zone”. Going on from her first step, I compare it to an anecdote taken out of the Kanye West handbook; during the production of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye did not allow any phones in the studio at any time. Reacting to the story, she jokes, “does that mean I can only tell people they can come in the studio if they’re wearing Nike?“, but reassures that she never goes as far as that in terms of studio requirements. We move onto the topic of collaborations, which is something that is big for Nao. Despite having worked with several producers and artists, she admits she has “a set of friends who are her regular go-to options”, and how the “energy of the person she is working with has a great effect on whichever song she produces”. Although this may seem quite self-explanatory to some, energy and cohesion between artists tends to be an overlooked feature of music, especially considering the digital age we live in, where the need for artists to record together at the same time is not necessary anymore.
As we finally touch upon Saturn, I ask what the message behind it is. From what she said, Saturn is definitely a coming of age project. “It’s to help people transition from being a young adult into being a mature adult, and it’s to show that sh*t is going to go wrong, but that is totally normal”, she describes, “it’s a soundtrack for those who feel pressured to have their life completely set out by the time they reach their mid 20s”. With such a relevant theme to current society, where the pressure on millennials being larger than ever, the anthems on Saturn are going to speak to people directly. Having just touched 30, Nao is speaking from her experiences, which is something that gives her music weight and credibility. I mean, who wants to hear a 27 year old talk about the pressures of yours 20s, when they haven’t even finished it themselves?
Saturn doesn’t leave off from where her previous album, For All We Know left off. She’s veering into another lane, but as shown in some of the already released singles from the album, such as Make It Out Alive, she’s still firmly in her comfort zone. Saturn will be available on all streaming platforms on October 26.