nao's wonky funk will either make you cry or beg to work with her
From singing back up vocals for Jarvis Cocker to working with Stormzy and Sbtrkt, Nao is the British musician making friends and breaking hearts.
NAO is a 29-year-old East Londoner blessed with the kind of voice that demands a life dedicated to music. Growing up with a steady soundtrack of local underground grime, NAO studied vocal jazz before throwing herself into various musical projects as she traversed her way to world-wide touring artist. From delivering radio jingles and performing at weddings in the early days to a singing back up vocals for Jarvis Cocker, Nao's background is a maze of musical paths all leading her to the center where she finds herself today.
In Australia recently to play Laneway, NAO has spent the last year nailing the festival circuit. After releasing her debut EP So Good via Soundcloud in 2014, she was invited to play Glastonbury in 2015 and last year released her first album, For All We Know, to glowing reviews.
Sitting across from NAO, there's the sense that the energy and enthusiasm for her work is boundless and it makes total sense that people relate so well to her songs. We spoke about her self-described 'wonky funk' and realizing seemingly unachievable goals.
You've been drawn to music since you were really young. Do you remember the precise moment you realized it was what you had to do?
I guess it was that point where you have to make that kind of decision for the first time, whether to go to university or take a different path, when you're like 16. I thought, "if I die tomorrow, what am I doing?" And I just knew it had to be music. At the same time, the idea of being a signed artist was not tangible; it hadn't happened to anyone that I knew and I had no idea how to get from being in high school to being on MTV. Besides I thought it was reserved for the super beautiful and that you had to have something so special about you. Like Beyoncés or Rhiannas of the world. But I just knew I loved singing and there was going to be a way.
I wanted to ask you about singing for Jarvis Cocker early in your career. How was that time and how did he find you?
Basically for me it's just been word of mouth. The music world, as big as it is, is also quite insular. I worked with Jarvis Cocker and while it was only four gigs, they were important shows like Glastonbury and a Pulp reunion at Sheffield. That was really cool. I've been a singer in every context, early on singing on other people's projects, and that's sort of where I learned most of my trade, just kind of doing it as I went along. That's how I found my current manager. He happened to be at a show and said, "who are you and do you make your own music?" From there we started working together and I began making my own music.
There's footage on your Facebook from one of your shows where every person in the audience is really, really feeling your song "Bad Blood." It's amazing to watch how much they love it. Is the song about something that really resonated with you?
I'm not sure if I do know why people connect to it so well. For me, "Bad Blood" is about best friends, and the idea that as you grow up, you change as a human and often separate from that person. It's based on my experience with a best friend who went down a completely different path. I guess it's kind of beautifully nostalgic in that way.
You released your first EP on Soundcloud. What are your thoughts on the music industry in the age of social media?
I grew up in the crossover: we didn't have anything when I was young, there was no Facebook, no Instagram, and no Twitter. My main source of other musicians was via magazines that I'd pick up on a Saturday. I really appreciate social media now because if it weren't for Soundcloud I wouldn't be where I am today. It was important for an artist like me to have released music before approaching labels, the fact that I had a following already and was able to sell out a show on my own made my position much stronger in terms of other people getting on board.
And now you've launched your own record label, Little Tokyo, where you self-release your music.
Yeah, I started Little Tokyo and put out my first two EPs but once I took it as far as I could, I signed to a bigger label. I also signed my record label too, so Little Tokyo is kind of like a subsidiary now.
You were touring a lot last year. What were some of the highlights?
Yeah, we did so many festivals last year but I think a highlight of mine was Glastonbury. We played Park Stage, which is where I've seen so many of my favorite acts play before like James Blake and Little Dragon. So, I was really touched to be playing right there.
You've worked with Stormzy and have connections to the grime scene in your music. What's your history with the genre?
Growing up in East London, grime was huge but in an underground kind of way. When I was fifteen we'd go to the raves and that's what we were raving to. It was Dizzy Rascal and the Roll Deep crew and people like that. It was this really interesting culture. These were the local kids that were doing something cool and it felt like you were the only one that new about it. It took a long time for grime to start making its way up and it was really only when people like Drake and Kanye came on board and told the world how much they liked it.
What are your future plans?
I've got a new music video for one of my favourite songs on the album, called "In the Morning," coming out. Then I've got a remix EP coming out — I've asked my favorite producers like Kaytranada, Mura Masa, and Sbtrkt to pick a song to remix so that should be fun too. Now that a lot of the touring is finished I'm back to that beginning stage where it's like, 'right what am I going to do? Time to make some fresh tunes.'
How do you feel about that?
Text Briony Wright