Home Grown Soul
“Hackney used to be associated with people who were struggling,” says Nao, “and that was reflected in the way people acted.”
We’re holed up in a small, converted warehouse-style café, where the waiters bring over a sand timer with each coffee. The location, as the Hackney-raised singer explains, represents a trend in her home borough. “I grew up on the cusp of East London and Essex so it was two very different cultures thrown together. East London is very diverse; it’s a different energy. People are on the hustle in general, and there’s lots of music around. Hackney’s changed so much now. It means a lot of those communities have moved out.”
It’s clear that diversity is close to Nao’s heart. From the way she dresses (monochrome basics paired with traditional African-influenced garb), to her eclectic music taste (a heady combination of 90s RnB and jazz heavyweights, herself a former jazz student at London’s prestigious Guildhall School for Music), the musician – real name Neo Joshua – seems drawn to contradictions. Nao’s sound feels like the extension of this – a spontaneous collision of hooky pop and body-moving beats that she calls “wonky funk.”
Earlier this year the emerging artist’s profile grew significantly with the release of her second EP February 15. A bolshy advance on 2014’s So Good, on which she collaborated with producer A. K. Paul, the EP presented a bolder Nao; a step away from the smoother sway of her previous work and into lurching avant-soul that incorporates elements of house and funk. “I’ve been learning about myself quite publicly,” she tells me. “In the two EPs that I’ve released, you can hear my sound has changed quite a bit. I’ve been learning about myself while writing and putting out music.”
Personal growth has clearly fueled Nao’s creativity. With neon-illuminated sounds and soaring falsetto peaks, her latest single Girlfriend reached for stunning new heights. The track is featured on her upcoming full-length For All We Know, and it seems that much of the singer’s lyrics centre around the turbulent conflicts of broken relationships. “I was a fool to love you / We could have had it all”, she cries in the catchy hook of Fool to Love, but when asked about the personal potency behind lyrics like these, Nao is vague. What is most important though, as she explains, is the development of her “sonic base”, a term she uses to describe the sound that most characterises her. “I want my own world, so people are like, ‘yeah, that’s Nao’,” she explains.
“I’ve been learning about myself quite publicly”
Her reluctance to discuss her personal life appears to extend to her approach to social media. Scrolling through her Instagram and Twitter, you notice a distinct lack of activity. “I have a funny relationship with social media, because as a person, I don’t really involve myself in it,” she admits. “It’s a lot to give away.”
Instead, the young artist prefers to spend her time engaging with fans in person after shows. Asked how she thinks people perceive her, she responds with humility: “I’m always astounded when people turn up.” This modesty translates into the way she sees herself in relation to her fans, too. “I don’t want to portray an image. I’m a normal looking person – I’m tangible. People can say, ‘She’s doing it and kind of looks like me; maybe I can do it as well. I don’t need to be an extreme beauty, I don’t need to be skinny or over-curvaceous, I can just be a normal chick.’”
Nao’s appreciation of the underdog is also the lifeblood behind her label, Little Tokyo Recordings. “I know so many wicked musicians, so many talented people who might not get a look in because they’re not in the right place at the right time,” she explains. “Hopefully, if I build myself to a big enough level, it will help other artists.” As well as the altruistic intentions behind the imprint, Nao speaks ambitiously of her plans to expand it. If one day her voice is to fall short, she will have a safe foundation beneath her. “I always wanted to be more than a singer, anyway. My mum always made sure to say ‘have a plan B’,” she laughs.
It’s sound advice, but I’m not sure she’ll need it. Nao’s A-game has worked out well so far. When we meet she’s fresh from the studio having put the finishing touches on her album – a record that acts as a pindrop of her singular artistic vision up until this point. “I feel like no matter how everything goes, even if people don’t like it, you have to stand by it yourself,” she says. “The journey I’ve been on in the past year, trying to find my sound, I’ve zoned it all in on the new album. I’ve found my voice, really. It’s not just one thing; it’s got so many different colours and moods. I’m,” she pauses, finding the words, “I’m proud of it.”
For All We Know is out now via Little Tokyo/RCA