A Moment With Nao, Soul Singer On The Verge

Aug 13, 2016

Her name is pronounced "neigh-oh," and you'll want to get it right, because soul singer Nao is one of the most buzzed-about voices to come out of London in years. The one-time backup vocalist has already made it to the BBC's "Sound of 2016" roundup of innovative new musicians — with little more than a year under her belt as a solo artist.

Born Neo Jessica Joshua and raised in Nottingham, Nao traveled all over the U.K. before finally settling in East London. The 31-year-old grew up loving Nas, Missy Elliott and Brandy, and developed a particular love for gospel. "I just listened to gospel all the time because the singers were the most amazing," she says. "Aretha Franklin is a good example of someone who was a gospel singer but then made it mainstream. She let her voice just completely rip; not many could do that."

Inspired by Aretha's vocals, Nao started writing and singing her own music. That led to her first job at 16 — still in high school — teaching other kids choir arrangements and harmonies. As her college career began, she hit a crossroads.

"Around the age of 18 most people want to decide what they want to do: They go into university, and you have to choose your subjects," she says. Bored by her law classes, Nao immersed herself in music, studying jazz composition.

In 2014, a manager discovered her singing in a nightclub and asked why he hadn't yet heard of her. Soon after, she left her teaching and backup singing pursuits behind and started recording demos. Her first track, "So Good," came out in October of that year, to be followed by the EP February 15 in May 2015.

"It was quite a beautiful moment actually, stepping from behind the scenes to the front," she says. "Never when I was a backing singer did I think, 'I wish that was me.' I was so happy in that role. But when the moment came for me to do my first performance as myself, up front, it was just a completely different energy which I hadn't experienced before, and it was really special to have people in the audience know your songs. I was kind of like, 'What was I doing all of those years before?'"

Nao's debut album, For All We Know, is out now. Hear more of her conversation with All Things Considered at the audio link.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BLOOD")

NAO: (Singing) You're a holiday, a glass of ocean slipping down...

ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:

This is Nao, one of the newest artists to come out of London. The former backup singer now solo vocalist is considered a rising star on the music scene with a sound that's a cross between funk R&B and electronic music. With little more than a year under her belt as a solo artist, she's already featured on the BBC's Sound of 2016 list which is known for picking innovative new musicians. In her first studio album out now, "For All We Know," Nao says she drew inspiration from the song she grew up listening to - everything from rappers like Nas to R&B star Brandy and even gospel.

NAO: I just listened to gospel all the time because the singers were just the most amazing. I mean, like, Aretha Franklin is a good example of someone, actually, who was a gospel singer but then made it mainstream. She let her voice just completely rip, but not many people could do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Oh, yes he will. He'll take care of you.

AUBREY: Nao grew up loving the vocal acrobatics of gospel and decided to start writing and singing her own music. That led her to her first job at 16 while still in high school teaching other kids choir arrangements and harmonies.

NAO: My teacher is like do you want to come and do a summer school, come and teach what you just taught yourself to other kids? And I was like what? And then he was like I'll pay you, and I was like, yeah, I'm down (laughter).

AUBREY: During her college years, she threw herself into studying music, especially jazz composition.

NAO: When I came out of studying, I was making some music by myself just writing. I felt like I was making everything too complicated. But actually what about not trying so hard - basically just like write once a night at night, what comes to me naturally.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADORE YOU")

NAO: (Singing) Away, way, way - I really do adore you.

And when it came to production, I was like I think I want to make everything a lot simpler, just make simple beats, interesting basslines. So one of the songs called "Inhale Exhale" - that was my first song that I wrote with thinking that in mind. And so literally I started with a kick and a snare. This is really simple, but actually it just grooves in a like - in a cool way, and then on top of that I just wrote a bassline arrangement. (Imitating bass). So it's like - it's kind of a - quite a melodic bassline, but it leads the whole song. And literally that is the song just kick, snare and a bassline. And I sing on top of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INHALE EXHALE")

NAO: (Singing) Running out of luck. Take me to the church and back again without tripping up.

So I think it was in 2014 - I was just the voice for so many people's projects and like a backing singer and a session singer, you know, and I was singing for someone else in a nightclub in south London. And my now manager was in the audience. And he just kind of heard me, and he hit me up the next day and was like who are you? How is it I don't know you are? And I was like I don't know who you are (laughter). But we hung out for a bit. I just kind of spoke about how I saw myself if I was going to be a solo artist, and he was on the same page. So we just said let's work together.

I started writing some demos, and I put something online a track called "So Good." And that kind of took on a life of its own. And literally that was a moment where I was like I think I'm going to give this a go.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAO SONG, "SO GOOD")

NAO: And so I left behind everything - teaching, backing singing. It was scary because obviously that was the way I paid the bills. And so there was a moment of just like - um (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO GOOD")

NAO: (Singing) Oh, I doubt you're good, but it fits as long as you take me there. Don't care if you're sure to come on in as long as you're taking me there.

I feel like it was quite a beautiful moment, actually, stepping from behind the scenes to at the front. I never actually - when I was a backing singer did I ever think I wish that was me. Like, I was so happy in that role.

But then when the moment came for me to do my first performance as myself, up front there was like - it was just a completely different energy. It was a completely different experience which I hadn't experienced before. And it was, like, really special to have people in the audience know your songs - to, like, perform to them was just really amazing and I was kind of like, what was I doing all of those years before? (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLFRIEND")

NAO: (Singing) Could you like someone that's hoping that they crawl out of their own skin for a time? If I was your girlfriend, could you love for two?

I love performing so much. I think this is my favorite part of everything that I do beyond writing and singing and all the other stuff - it's actually getting onstage and doing it live because we all get to share it together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLFRIEND")

NAO: (Singing) To make us fly.

AUBREY: That was Nao. Her new album "For All We Know" is out on all streaming platforms this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLFRIEND")

NAO: Don't be scared to shed a little broken, oh, baby... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.