Battle of the Bands

Nao

Brooklyn
August 24, 2019
“I’ve found my inner Kendrick.” Nao says one blistering summer’s day away from the recording studio she’s been tucked away in. The singer-song- writer is busy working on the follow-up to 2016’s For All We Know, her confessional and lusciously leftfield debut soul-pop LP. Her sophomore record Saturn, she says, brings in all the voices that tell her story. “You know Kendrick has all these characters within his voice and within his al- bum?” she muses. “I’ve found this whole other character. She turns up a lot on this album.” For the east London-raised Nao, the project is a transition and metamorphosing her voice is a way of addressing pivotal new chapters in her life. Turning 30 last Christmas was an emotional turning point for the musician, one that opened her mind to new perspectives. Saturn is about the process of embracing adulthood and contemplating the naivety of youth. It’s both a celebration of new possibilities and a chance to reflect.

“My friends kept telling me about the term ‘Saturn Returns’. It’s this idea that Saturn takes 29 years to orbit from when you’re born and it is the planet of blessings and growth.” she explains. “So by the time you’re around 29, between 27 and 32, something big happens in your life. It’s like waking up and coming of age, like: ‘I’ve been going through my twenties and what have I been doing in this relationship?’ What have I been doing in this job?’ You start to rethink everything - old stuff that your parents taught you or ideas that you believed in. It’s like a complete shedding of skin and it can be painful.”

Born Neo Jessica Joshua, as a child Nao moved with her family from Not- tingham to south Woodford, which borders London and Essex. Living on the cusp of the capital meant she had all the possibilities of it at her reach. But even though she was able to explore the music coming from nearby Tower Hamlets and Hackney in the early 2000s — garage, grime, 2step and dancehall — her particular neighbourhood felt shut-off and conservative. On top of that, Nao, her sister and three brothers were amongst the few black kids at school. “I was always drawn towards turning left (towards London) rather than right,” she recalls.

When she wasn’t mining London’s groundbreaking underground music scene, she’d often stay up listening to the music her brothers played — pio- neering garage-grime groups like Pay As U Go and Heartless Crew. Every Thursday, the young teen would venture to a singing class in Walthamstow called Estate of the Arts. Her first live performances were at an open mic night at the legendary grime venue Palace Pavilion in Clapton.

“You’d go (to Estate of the Arts) and you’d pick a song to sing, and the vocal teacher would say: ‘try this technique, try this technique’.” she remembers. “It really built my confidence. Because there were other kids there, other teenagers would be in a circle watching you, you were forced to either sing and fail, or sing and be good.”

At the Pavilion raves — which were usually dancehall nights for middle- aged crowds — a connection at Estate of the Arts had arranged for Nao and her friends to jump onstage after the final acts were finished. Stealing the attention of the crowd felt like an essential opportunity. “That was the be- ginning of everything,” she says. “At the time I resonated more with old- school singers (than pop stars like Rihanna and Beyonce). I was listening to a lot of gospel, which led me onto jazz. When I found singers like Nina Simone and Donny Hathaway — proper soul singers who were raw and didn’t apologise — that’s when I thought: ‘Right, I need to become a proper musician’.”

Learning piano as a youngster gave Nao a head-start. Ditching legal studies, she enrolled at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, a prestige college known for harnessing the talents of young musical prodigies (some of Guildhall’s alumni include The Beatles’ producer George Martin and Bafta winner Mica Levi). Nao supported her time at Guildhall as a backing singer for the likes of Kwabs and Jarvis Cocker, and was part of an experimental a- capella group called The Boxettes.

Though she was performing and making music, Nao ultimately felt unful- filled — desperate to find her own way and her own aesthetic. While gig- ging with electronic producers as a vocalist, she fell in love with a new sound pervading London’s electronic underground. Discovering the likes of Burial, James Blake and Mount Kimbie, she’d finally found an in-road. “The dark meets the garage...” she says. “I suppose the garage part resonated with me because I understood it, but the darkness of it as well... I was like: ’Fuck, this sounds so good.’ That moved me into the world of Soundcloud and discovering music that way.”

One show at south London’s Corsica Studios changed her life forever. She was booked to play with an electronic producer called Loxe and a music manager called her afterwards. “Sam (who phoned her) was like: ‘Who are you?!’ We just had the most amazing conversation about what was happen- ing at the time, discussing people like SBTRKT and Sampha. I said: ‘I would love to make my own music and put it out, that would be a dream’.”

Sam became her full-time manager the following day and after a trip to Ja- pan she started a label called Little Tokyo, releasing her debut EP So Good through it in 2014. “Jazz was everywhere in Tokyo, I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t just elevator jazz, it was the amazing stuff I had forgotten about in my childhood,” she says. “I wanted my label to feel like Tokyo, like a small Tokyo. I wondered: ‘What if this label could embody music that’s a bit dif- ferent, maybe not even fully-formed yet?’” So Good comprises four experi- mental and challenging pop heaters, its title track a collaboration with A. K. Paul, the brother of genre-hopping enigma, Jai.

In 2015, Nao released her second EP, February 15 having worked closely with Grades and Royce Wood Junior — two producers who were pivotal in bringing out her distinctive sound. It was in the jet stream of February 15 that Nao’s career began to take off. By the summer she found herself play- ing to a packed-out crowd at Glastonbury and had landed a MOBO nomina- tion for Best Newcomer. “I never thought I would ever get big,” reflects the singer, who was invited to sing on Disclosure’s chart-topping album, 2015’s Caracal. “I dreamt of a record deal — I assumed it would probably be inde- pendent and something quite small, though.”

Two years later, Nao released For All We Know via Little Tokyo but now li- censed to Sony subsidiary RCA, co-penning songs with the likes of JUNGLE and reuniting with A. K. as well as her oldest partner-in-crime, Loxe. Across a sprawling 18 tracks, the album is a triumph of future-pop possibility, hon- oured by a Brit nomination for Best British Female Solo Artist later that year.

On Saturn Nao is bold and experimental, eager to push things forward and unafraid to offload ideas that have been weighing her down. On the skip- ping, dancehall-flavoured banger “Drive and Disconnect”, she raps of her desire to seize the moment, to power positively forward and swerve the distractions of the modern world. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s about getting in your car and getting out — disconnecting from your phone and your lap- top, not replying to emails, just getting away from everything that is stress- ful. And feeling great about that moment!”

The slinky, pitch-black R&B track “Make It Out Alive” on the other hand, confronts the kind of drama that haunts you for years. “I feel like everybody has a dose of that in their life,” she comments. “For me, it’s like in the mid- dle of the night, when I can’t sleep and my mind is swilling and sometimes it can get too extreme. You feel like you can’t make it out.”

There’s a real sense push and pull to Saturn — it’s complex and conflicted, but there’s a pervading optimism that makes it timeless, just like Nao her- self. “It’s not just about heartbreak, it’s a sense of rebirth,” she says. “It’s soul-searching, you know?”