Meet Nao, Avant-R&B Star Moving From Back-Up Singer Shadows
East Londoner Neo Jessica Joshua first stepped onstage as a backup singer for the likes of Jarvis Cocker and Kwabs before she began to write and make tracks at home as Nao. Working with fellow U.K. underground producers like Loxe, Mura Masa and A.K. Paul (whose brother Jai Paul remains one of the more mysterious figures in the U.K.), she gained notice for her first two EPs before popping up on Disclosure's Caracal last year.
This week sees Nao step front and center with her hotly-tipped debut album, For All We Know, an exquisite amalgam of FKA twigs-styled strangeness cut with catchy throwback Nineties R&B. There are strands of gleaming boom-bap that brings to mind SWV and Deniece Williams as well as dusty Soulquarian funk, all of it held together by Nao's voice, which can swoop down into a gravelly purr and then soar into a deliriously high register like a 21st century Minnie Riperton.
Already being touted by BBC Radio 1's Annie Mac as the "Hottest Record In The World," Rolling Stone caught up with the R&B singer to ask her about moving from "20 feet from stardom" to the spotlight.
You started off as a backing singer for Kwabs and Jarvis Cocker. Did you see 20 Feet From Stardom — and did you identify with their plight?
I really enjoyed that documentary, which I know is a bit contradictory as I am now that person in the front. Something that went through my mind was that there's a real beauty in being on the stage, performing and singing harmony to songs you love without the pressure of being that person in the front, having to entertain thousands of people. There's a quiet niceness to not being that person, just being in the back. I was just excited to be a back-up singer at that time. It was quite new to me. There were moments in that film when the back-up singers were all singing together and you could just see the absolute joy and love on their faces when they were all connecting in harmony and all their voices were blending. That moment I recognized and that I aspect missed a lot.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to be in front?
It happened organically. I was singing for someone else in a nightclub in London and my now-manager was just there. He heard my voice and he called me up the next day and asked: "How come you're not doing your own stuff?" I supposed I had been asking myself that same question. We started writing together and I gave it a go just putting out some music and people took to it. I felt confident enough to leave everything behind and just give this a go and see where it takes me.
Was there an artist that made you realize that you could do this yourself?
In hindsight, Kwabs was a friend who came from a similar space as me. When I saw him making his way, I understood that it was tangible. It wasn't reserved for extra-special, extra-beautiful people or people who had this amazing something "else" about them. I knew Kwabs and I knew the work he did and that was it. That was enough and it taught me it was a tangible thing not reserved for all the Rihannas of the world.
What was the first song you did that you felt nailed it?
The track "So Good," which I did with A.K. Paul, I understood in that moment how easy that sound came to me. Going through a session and hanging out, the song is what came out of it. I went, "Oh my gosh," that was pretty easy.
With Jai and A.K. Paul, we're still waiting for a follow-up to "Jasmine." Are they really mysterious? Is there a bunch of music they're just not gifting to the world?
I get the impression from working with them not that they're intentionally cagey, but that they're quite perfectionists with their music. They spend a lot of time working on stuff and they're okay with taking their time as well. They're not tapped into the industry in that way and I don't know if they give a shit. They just make music, leave it for a few months, then come back to it and be like, "I want to work on it some more." As a result, they only put out a few tracks. They're normal guys that are trying to find their own route without playing the game. They're just doing their thing and they're perfectionists.
Were you a perfectionist yourself or did you learn how to be less controlling?
"Controlling" isn't the word I'd use for being a perfectionist. It's just about having enough confidence in yourself to say, "It's OK." You can release it to the world and people can hear it. With music, you can just keep changing everything. You can change the bassline, you can change the beat, there's hundreds of billions of places you can go. It's endless. I had a moment where I couldn't put out any more music until I found "my sound." But then I realized that your sound is ever-evolving. Do you ever find it?
How did For All We Know come about?
The album went through a few processes. For me, I spent a lot of time alone writing it and producing a lot of the ideas. At some point, you hit a wall and start repeating yourself so I opened it up to friends like A.K. Paul and bounced ideas so as to get more interesting sounds. At the end of the day, it was important for me to tie it all in to one sonic space that represented me. And Grades was the best person to help me with that. He's very good at making sounds. The musical conversations we had showed that we had a deep understanding. He didn't put his own stamp on things and stayed true to what I wanted to say.
Now that you've put out your first album, does it make you admire certain artists more?
There's a few: Bon Iver, James Blake, Frank Ocean, Radiohead, Little Dragon. I feel they carved out their own lane, they sit in their own sonic world and have their own fanbase. They don't worry about charting and getting in the Top Ten. They are strong in what they do. There's longevity in that kind of career. They're not playing the game and can exist beyond radio. I feel like that's the title of my next record, Beyond Radio. In a dreamworld, I'd like to do what Bon Iver did, making an album in a wood cabin on my own, being all arty. Maybe for the second album.