There’s a soul revival going on and Nao is at the heart of it. But, she tells Jordan Bassett, she’s not planning world domination just yet
Look, no one is saying that 28 is old. But we’re accustomed to our up-and-coming pop stars being more of the ‘teenage heartthrob’ ilk than Nao, AKA Neo Jessica Joshua, the east London soul singer who’s taken the scenic route. “It took me 14 years to get here,” she says. “I feel like the music industry is so fickle; things can come up and down, so it’s more important to just enjoy what’s happening now. I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Yet she learned much during the years she spent giving singing lessons in south London and performing as a session musician for Pulp and Kwabs among others. “Being older has helped me with some things, like signing a record deal to my own label [Little Tokyo Recordings] because it meant I could bring other people along and grow a family,” she says.
Nao was discovered by chance when preparing to perform backing vocals for a friend in south London venue Corsica Studios. “My now-manager was in the audience,” she says, “and he was like, ‘Who are you? Why have I not heard of you before?’ He asked if I was interested in doing solo stuff and I was like, ‘Yeah, but I’m also happy doing the session stuff I do now. I’ve found a way to get paid to sing; I don’t know if I want to give that all up.’ Then, when I started exploring it, I started writing and feeling strong, so I decided to let it all go and see what happens.”
The resulting debut album, ‘For All We Know’, is a crisp, cool collection of soul songs that are by turns sexy (‘Get To Know Ya’), romantic (‘Adore You’) and lyrically complex (‘Blue Wine’, which explores her brother’s depression). The songs are smoky, low-key, characterised by quietly throbbing basslines and glassy percussion.
While the song ‘Girlfriend’ makes lyrical allusions to Prince (Nao’s a massive fan), the funk workout ‘Trophy’ could have been discovered in his rumoured vault of unreleased music; it’s that good. This comes in the midst of something of a soul revival, with singers such as Låpsley, Mabel McVey, Connie Constance and Jorja Smith giving the genre a slick 2016 makeover. Nao is gifted in both talent and timing; now is the perfect moment for her to pitch to the mainstream.
It’s no surprise that she’s being toutedas the next big thing, having come third in the BBC’s Influential Sound Of 2016 poll earlier this year. What’s perhaps more surprising, though, is that Nao expresses little interest in the stardom the record
seems likely to win her. Asked about her goals for the future, she laughs and says, “Oh my gosh! I think if you were asking my label [the album is being released via Sony and Little Tokyo Recordings] they want me to be Adele, but I’ve set my bar quite low. Is that a bad thing to say? I think it’s a cultural album. Maybe it’s not an album that sells loads and loads in its first week, but it could be a word of mouth thing. And then people start to hear it and over time it grows and it finds its home. I feel like those are the albums that I love.”
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So, Nao is both outrageously talented and refreshingly humble. The bottom line: she’s cool with who she is. “I don’t think I’m a massive hit writer,” she says. “I feel like the music’s definitely accessible, but I’m not sure the radio can play it all day.” She’s too modest: mysterious R&B singer AK Paul clearly knew he was onto a good thing with their 2014 collaboration ‘So Good’, and ‘Super Ego’, the glittering electrofunk song she recorded with Disclosure, was one of the best from their 2015 Number One album ‘Caracal’. Yet she refuses to see herself as a potentiallymassive star.
In Glastonbury speak, she’s less interested in playing the ludicrously massive Pyramid Stage than the smaller, more boutique-feeling Park Stage.“I watched Adele at Glastonbury,” she says, “and I thought she was obviously doing an amazing job, but for one person to give themselves to that many people… I wondered what she was thinking before she went on stage. I imagine it would be quite daunting.” She adds, with a grin, “Cut to me next year when I’m on the
Pyramid Stage and I’m like, ‘See you later!’ and get in my jumbo jet.”
After performing as a back-up singer on the Park Stage in previous years for the likes of Jarvis Cocker and, slightly bizarrely, the Radio 4 comedian Marcus Brigstocke, she made it her own as a solo artist this year, having performed on the BBC Introducing stage in 2015. Give it a couple of years and a main stage daytime slot doesn’t sound like a stretch at all. Yet she hasn’t forgotten what she learned as a teacher in south London. Her different careers collided when she spotted a shy teenager on the music video set of her song ‘Girlfriend’, which was filmed the day before our interview.
“He reminded me of one of the students I used to teach,” she says. “He’d grown up on an estate, got into s**tloads of trouble at school and got kicked out. He was actually really interesting, but he couldn’t make eye contact when he spoke. He was super- underconfident. I used to encourage my students to use singing as a way of boosting their confidence and helping them to open up a bit more. Singing in front of people does that; it really switches something inside of you. It’s really empowering.” While she’s humble, it’s clear Nao’s found her own empowerment through singing. When she decides where she wants that power to take her, there’ll be no stopping her. Via the scenic route, of course.