If you are yet to hear Nao’s voice, let it be known it’s pretty sweet.
Addictive like the highly processed ingredients of sugary treats, Nao could be singing about the most mundane topics imaginable, and you’d still probably hit replay. But her voice is far from artificial: not only are her vocals a satisfying mix of tone, timbre and range, but her speaking voice sounds like she’s suffering the effects of swallowing helium, while still retaining a captivating grit.
“Hello, good morning. I’m fine, although a little bit sleepy but I’m OK,” Nao quickly begins, speaking from East London in her British drawl. The singer-songwriter, whose name is pronounced ‘Nay-oh’, is currently in between festival slots at Glastonbury, Pitchfork in Chicago and Field Day in London, and fresh from putting the final touches on her debut album, For All We Know.
“I was actually doing so much, so it was really difficult to find the time to fully focus and write and write and write,” she says with a laugh. “But somehow, between waking up very early and going to sleep very late, it came together and finally I finished it a couple of weeks ago.”
As one of the UK’s most hyped new artists since kick-starting her solo career in 2014, Nao’s bursting schedule is no surprise. From the BBC Sound Of 2016 shortlist to a chart-topping Hype Machine track via her first single ‘So Good’, and guest spots on Disclosure’s ‘Superego’ and Mura Masa’s ‘Firefly’ last year, Nao is well and truly turning heads. It’s all warranted, though, thanks to subtle vocals that grab you when you least expect it and a special blend of neo-soul with jazz, hip hop, electronica and an R&B pulse.
Serendipitously, Nao’s musical endeavours prior to her solo work came to an end just as she met her manager, and a domino effect of more opportune breaks came her way.
“I always wanted to be the voice of my own project, and that, I think, was just scary. I suppose as the years went by, I felt frustrated, because naturally I’m quite a creative person and I wanted to find my own voice and what it was that I wanted to say as a singer and a musician,” she says. “I met my now-manager, who – I wasn’t looking for one – just happened to be in the audience when I was singing for someone else. We hooked up and I started writing music and we went from there.
“It’s just the strangestthing in the world – the fact the week going on from when I met my manager, he said to me, ‘If you wanted to support any act in the world, who would it be?’ and I remember James Blake and Little Dragon were the first two people that came up. So then to have put out a song for Little Dragon to have randomly heard it and requested would I like to come on tour with them, I had no idea! It was just a really lovely thing to happen, and I love Little Dragon, they have created their own world and their own fan base. I can’t really tell if I am [doing the same], actually, but it was really nice to support them and for them to be an influence, for sure.”
When it came to starting work on For All We Know, Nao drew on the experience of recording her EPs, So Good and February 15, to settle on the sound she wanted to carve out.
“I hadn’t found it before I started, and now that I’ve done that, the album sort of summed it up, what I’ve learnt. I saw what I wanted it to look like musically in the sense that albums I loved from when I was younger – like Miseducation by Lauryn Hill, I loved that it had little skits and intros and outros that tie it all together – so I knew that I wanted that for my album, which is something that Frank Ocean explores, which I love in itself. So I could see this picture, but yeah, I just needed the music to fit in,” she laughs.
For All We Know achieves Nao’s objectives skilfully. Influences like Hill and Ocean permeate the record, boosted by her eclectic, multi-genre sound and contributions from a solid lineup of producers, including John Calvert and A.K. Paul, with whom she’s collaborated since 2014, and London soul collective Jungle. From the Unknown Mortal Orchestra-like ‘Get To Know Ya’, produced by Jungle, to the gritty outlier ‘In The Morning’, the wild and lyrically lush ‘Bad Blood’ and the funky acoustics of ‘DYWM’, it all flows sinuously.
“For me, there was only so far I could take it before repeating myself musically or lyrically. For [my collaborators] to hear some of the ideas and be like, ‘Oh, this is exciting, I know exactly what we should do on it,’ was a relief,” says Nao. “It was really important to my process to just open it up for other people to help me so that the vibe is something original, to show that I can have different colours and textures to my voice, lyrics and production.
“Jungle are cool,” she adds. “They’re quite elusive, actually. It was really funny to be in the studio, ’cause I didn’t realise they worked with anyone else – it turned out they don’t. But I think they just heard my stuff and were quite intrigued by it, which is very flattering.”
North American and British tours fill Nao’s agenda until the end of the year, but Australian shows are on her radar – and a certain summer festival tour is set to lure her south, she reveals.
“Oh, yeah, of course! I think that I’ve been asked to do Laneway Festival in Australia, and that is really exciting for me. My band and I never thought we’d get this far, to be touring or have the opportunity to come out to Australia, and I’ve just got to find the money,” she laughs, “but I think we’ll be coming out in January.”