Former backing singer Nao gets her chance to shine on this future-facing pop debut
The Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom offers a salient look at the fate of many backing singers. They might have vocals so bloody strong they could drag a 10-tonne truck, but mostly they end up stuck in the shadows of the big bands and massive artists they work for, the credit for their contribution to some of the world’s biggest hits lost in the sands of time.
Nao could have easily slipped into that camp. A former session singer with the likes of Jarvis Cocker, the Hackney-based vocalist only decided to become a solo singer after the person who ended up becoming her manager spotted her singing at someone else’s gig and decided she had the chops to go it alone.
At an impressively thorough 17 tracks long – including a couple of brief but lovely demos in the shape of iPhone voice memos – Nao’s debut album certainly isn’t shy about setting her out as one of the UK’s brightest new talents. The first thing you notice is her voice, a fluttery but punchy thing with a propulsive kind of power. Oozing out in-between the bassy beats that kick-start ‘Adore You’, it’s a magical, helium-enhanced melding of some of Britain’s finest: Sade, Kate Bush and, um, 1990s ‘Dreams’ hitmaker Gabrielle.
Nao’s style has been dubbed ‘avant-soul’, but her music is far more mainstream than that would suggest. It exists in a modern musical landscape that’s had its foundations laid down by south London’s dubstep wizard Burial and The xx’s breakaway boy Jamie xx, whose wobbly party tunes template is now the rule rather than the exception. ‘Feels Like (Perfume)’ rolls together glitchy club sounds with traditional piano-led jazziness, while ‘Girlfriend’ boasts a lush spaciousness that belies its somewhat needy lyricism.
Nao’s real flair, though, lies in embracing the old school and making it seem fresh. ‘Get To Know Ya’ and ‘DYWM’ both re-rub late ’80s soul and push it firmly into 2016 with crisp production and an effortless dancefloor feeling. More proof, if it were needed, that Nao – and her odd but addictive vocal – belongs up front.
Record label: Little Tokyo Recordings
Release date: 29 Jul, 2016