Music’s hall of fame is dotted with artists so iconic just one name has been more than enough to propel them to superstardom – Sade, Adele, Madonna, Prince, Beyoncé, to name but a few. New Jersey R&B singer and songwriter Audrey Chu has all the promise of a future legend but, blessed and cursed to be on the rise in the digital age, when she started releasing music in 2018 she found a mononymous moniker made it harder to cut through the noise online.
After a year of deliberation, she finally settled on her new alias when her little brother addressed her as “Audrey nuna”. In Korean (she’s Korean-American), that suffix is a term boys use to address their older sisters (and younger males use to refer to females older than them generally), reflecting the country’s social hierarchy of respect.
“I’ve been called that since I was six so it’s something that felt right and like me, but I also just think it’s cool to make the entire world your younger brother,” Audrey explains now, just over a year after she changed her name. “I think that’s just an interesting relationship – between a younger brother and older sister – where you sometimes don’t traditionally see respect, but it’s embedded in the word.”
If you don’t know Audrey Nuna just yet, she’ll soon be commanding your respect too. The 22-year-old artist is a one-of-a-kind creative visionary who makes inventive R&B that’s as infectious as it is intriguing. That’s evident on her upcoming, enthralling debut EP which contains the vibrancy of Tierra Whack and the soulful swagger of Deb Never.
She’s a singer for who her voice acts almost as another instrument, constantly shifting in texture and tone, whether that’s from how she manipulates her own vocal cords or the effects she deploys in the production. Both are exhibited on the hypnotic 2019 single ‘Soufflé’, from the deep, processed voice that closes the track and Audrey’s soft, rhythmic singing at the other end of the spectrum. As someone who sang before she could speak, it makes sense that her voice is at the centre of her creativity.
At other times – like on last year’s lowkey banger ‘Damn Right’ – she also drops mile-a-minute raps full of dexterous wordplay but, she insists, she’s not a rapper. “I’m really not,” she laughs. “I just love words and if I hear some sounds and I feel like saying some stuff instead of singing over it, then I’ll do that. It’s really just this thing that leaked into my life somehow.”
Rather than harbouring ambitions to be the next rap icon, that type of delivery is just another way for Audrey to express herself. “Sometimes there’s a lot of words that I want to say,” she explains. “When you’re writing a melody you have to fit what you’re trying to say into a concise amount.”
Raised in the small town of Manalapan, New Jersey – “the suburbs of the suburbs” – the rising singer credits the monotony of her hometown (and subsequently leaving it) with sparking the imagination that courses through her songs. “It was boring, but I think that was good for me,” she says. “I got in the habit of always just daydreaming and thinking things like, ‘What if we could strap a jetpack to our backpacks and fly around?’ Those habits developed in the suburbs – it’s almost like you’re so bored that there’s this pressure to make cool shit.”
It’s easy to imagine her as a kid with her head in the clouds, searching for something to stimulate her and satiate her abundant curiosity. During our conversation, she shares that the only thing other than music that she thought about doing was becoming an astronaut and adds that one of her biggest dreams is to fly. “I’m not even kidding, I really want to fly – not on aeroplanes, my body,” she explains enthusiastically.
After graduating high school, Audrey enrolled at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute (alumni include Maggie Rogers and Arca) and found the contrast between where she’d come from and the constant buzz of New York had a big impact on her. “It just did something to my brain,” she recalls. “I spent 18 years feeling like everyone just thinks really similarly and, even though inside I really knew that that’s not who I was, going to this little island where it was like think freely and do what you want to do [made me feel like] I never want anything else.”
In her first year at uni, Audrey spent her nights travelling uptown and working in the studio with Roc Nation-signed producer Anwar Sawyer, who’d discovered the covers she’d been posting on Instagram when she was still in high school. They’d work from 10pm to 4am, when Audrey would go back to her dorm, catch a few hours sleep and go to class. It might sound exhausting but she describes it as “the best year ever”. “I’m always searching for and aiming for that feeling of waiting for the bus at four in the morning and feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing,” she says. “And I really learned that I really love what I do so much.”
At present, the musician’s stint in college is limited to just that one year. She convinced her parents to let her take a gap year by making a PowerPoint presentation of pie charts, financial breakdowns and examples of people who’ve dropped out and been successful. As you can probably tell, Audrey is someone not just with a bucketload of talent, but the ambition and drive to make the world notice her too. No wonder her parents supported her decision (they’re “ecstatic” with how things have turned out, by the way).
Now, she says she’s probably not going to return to the classroom – things are going so well at the moment she doesn’t really need to. She’s signed to Arista Records – coincidentally the label was started by the very same Clive Davis who her school is named after – and has been releasing a stream of brilliant singles, each further cementing her as one of music’s most exciting new voices.
At the start of this month, she released her latest – ‘Space’ – on her 22nd birthday. Over a languid, subaquatic beat, she sings lethargically: “I’m underwater but I didn’t notice/ Cos I was too focused on all of the tokens.” When she first heard the beat, Audrey immediately equated it to being submerged undersea. It inspired her to write about realising she was alone after having an almost tunnel vision-like concentration on making music work for her.
“I was definitely feeling that way [when I wrote it],” she explains. “It was during my gap year and I was living alone for the first time. [The beat] just triggered something in me and I basically wrote a journal entry to it.”
‘Space’ is one of 10 tracks that will feature on her debut EP, which will arrive next month. Among the rest of its tracklist are the likes of last year’s bold and fun Jack Harlow collaboration ‘Comic Sans’ – alongside a whole host of eclectic sounds that showcase Audrey’s versatile talents. While there’s a ton of range in the musician’s catalogue, there is one commonality that ties things together – a lot of food references.
“Food is another art form to me,” she begins, comparing the coming together of flavours to the melding of different sounds in music. Food also has strong significance for her on a personal level. “My mum expresses her love by cooking for people. She didn’t come from money and she lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx with nine people, and food was community. It was how her family showed love for one another. So food is love.”
As well as wanting to incorporate food into her career in the future, Audrey has goals that could bring whole families together over her music, just as her own relatives gathered over dishes. “I want someone’s grandma to sing the shit I’m writing because I’ve learned to respect how hard that is,” she says. “To make something that you’ve always wanted to make but then to see someone’s grandma or grandpa – or just normal people – find their truth in something that is so specifically you [is what I want].” If the grandparents of the world have any sense, they’ll get on board with this uncompromising original now.
Audrey Nuna’s debut EP will be released in May