For Nao, the transition from backing singer to frontwoman has been both sudden and a long time coming. Nao—pronounced ‘Nayo’, no surname—first published her own music on Soundcloud last summer. Five months later, she finds herself in the middle of a European tour with Swedish electro outfit Little Dragon, playing stages like Brixton Academy. “It has been quick,” she admits. “But I’ve also been doing this for a long time.”
“When I was younger, I never thought that singing could be a vocation,” she explains. “I always thought that to sing you had to be Beyoncé—you had to be a singer—but I fell into doing gigs for other people and I realised that, actually, you don’t have to be a pop star to be a singer. You can do sessions, backing singing and you can be a recording artist, so I ended up doing that. It’s only recently that I’ve become the voice of my own project. It’s taken on a life of its own.”
Our interview is oddly intimate in setting. We meet in a flat close to Broadway Market, East London, where the only space available for a private chat is a stranger’s double bed. Outside, cold winter sunshine gilds the gliding waters of the canal. Nao has arrived in a flurry of apologies for having cancelled the photo shoot that was to follow our conversation. She has had a busy few weeks of touring which, she says, have translated to her face. As we start talking about her journey into music, though, there are no signs of exhaustion. Only the shimmering glow of excitement and a faint trace of disbelief.
Nao started singing at an early age, when she was given a karaoke machine by a friend. She began measuring her voice against the likes of TLC, Destiny’s Child and Celine Dion, in the bedroom she shared with her sister. Around her, grime was taking off. “We would huddle in people’s bedrooms over decks and people were MCing and stuff. My sister and I enjoyed going over, for the boys really, to get some attention. And I loved to play piano. I loved soul music and studied jazz. So now that I’m creating my own music it’s just a massive melting pot.”
The most striking element of her sound is the contrast of her childlike voice and the sharp, irregular beat bouncing up against it. There are references to soul and the R&B groups of the 1990s, but with an edge firmly rooted in London, garage and grime. She describes it as music of the moment. “It’s like a little diary,” she says. “I don’t like to write about the past too much. I draw on experiences: what’s good, what’s bad, what’s not quite right.”
She seizes whole songs from a passing feeling or impulse. During the recording of the synth-laden track Good Girl, she convinced the producer to scrap what they had, start from the beginning and just go with the mood of a simple bass line. So Good, the title track of her EP, also emerged organically from a collaboration with A K Paul and evolved as a duet on Nao’s initiative. The slow, sensual beat and lingering vocals caught the attention of the online music community and is her most- played song so far.
Nao betrays no sign of being phased by her rapid shift from the side of the stage to the centre. “Within myself, it’s been a long time coming,” she says. “When I’m up front I feel strong, like I’m supposed to be there.”
I have the same feeling when I see her perform at a tightly packed Corsica Studios in Elephant and Castle a week later. “My mum keeps telling me people need music to tap their feet to, so that’s what I’m trying to do,” she tells the audience. Framed by two singers in shiny black dresses and matching hairdos, she throws her head back, twists her hands up in the air and lifts the crowd with her voice.
This was interview originally published in issue 24 of Oh Comely.