Nao has had to get used to talking about her unmistakable voice. “That’s the one thing everyone tells me,” she laughs. “‘Your voice is super-high!’”
This one-in-a-million soprano voice brought the east Londoner – her name’s pronounced Nay-O – to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where she spent four intense years studying for a bachelor’s in jazz. Later, it served her well as she recorded backing vocals for artists as varied as Jarvis Cocker and Kwabs. And that, she says, was more than enough for a while: “I was honoured to be able to make a living as a singer.”
Then, two and a half years ago, her current manager spotted her on stage with another group and persuaded her to go solo. As this year’s festival season approaches, it’s resulted in the 28-year-old being at the forefront of the UK’s vibrant avant-soul scene, alongside other breaking acts including Jorja Smith and Mabel.
James Blake’s peerlessness was an early inspiration – “he’s created his own sound” – and as soon as she started working with A. K. Paul, the much-hyped London producer, everything clicked. “Funk and jazz and soul music is just in my genes and in my blood,” she explains. “This was the sound I needed to explore.”
Her latest single, ‘Girlfriend’, is exemplary of her self-described “wonky funk”, with underwater synths, funky guitar and lyrics that reference the Prince track ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, while debut album ‘For All We Know’ – a homage to late soul man Donny Hathaway – is out in July on her own label, Little Tokyo Recordings. Describing her captivating vocals, which sit slightly behind the beat, she enthuses about an innate, deep relationship between music and the soul. “It’s not a technical thing,” she says. “It’s the groove of it. I can’t help it – it just feels right.”
Nao: The Details
Buy It: Debut album ‘For All We Know’ is released on July 29.
Live: June 24-26 Glastonbury Festival
Fact: Nao used to be in an all-female a cappella five-piece called The Boxettes