How Nao found solace in music: “When you’re writing, you stumble across answers”

After breakout album 'Saturn', the R&B star experienced lows and massive highs – from burnout to motherhood – and regrouped with 'And Then Life Was Beautiful', she tells Kyann-Sian Williams

nao has been on our airwaves for seven years, delivering her perspective on life with that idiosyncratic, silken voice of hers. Over the years, the 33-year-old’s traditional R&B has earned her a Grammy nomination (for her astronomical second album, 2018’s ‘Saturn’) and shown plenty of growth from her 2016 debut ‘For All We Know’, with which she absorbed the popular sounds of the early 2010s – all wobbly, upbeat synth and bouncy basslines. And her latest record, the five-star stunner ‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’, confirms Nao as an ethereal R&B star for the ages.

With album three, Neo Joshua pushes the boundaries as to what beautifully simple R&B should be. Whether the music is hopeful, or smoky and lustful, she is constantly playing around with different sonics. “I think that’s what albums are all about,” she tells NME over the phone. “It’s a chance to explore your own voice, your own musicality and songwriting. It’s a chance for me to try out a load of different styles.”

Nao might have moved away from her early electronic music, but the east Londoner’s albums are definitely a product of their times. She admits that her earlier sound “wasn’t the vibration that struck people,” pointing out that she opted for a more organic sound with ‘Saturn’, which kicked her career up a notch. But she loves that her albums demonstrate her musical progression. “In 2014 to 2016, when I was writing the first album, electronic music was really popular. I really enjoyed electronic music as well. I was raving to it so, of course, it was going to be a part of what I was going to make. Then the sound shifted, and I went into a more soulful era, and I feel like I’m still there.”

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That debut album was hugely inspired by the exquisitely experimental Solange’s 2016 record ‘A Seat At The Table’. Nao is quite the conceptual artist, and there are parallels to be drawn between the ways in which both musician weave consistent themes through each of their albums, as well as being carefree in how their music sounds compared to others. As well as ‘A Seat At The Table’ being “definitely a reference point” for this album, the singer turned to Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’, “since those two albums were big on having that organic feel I wanted when becoming more instrument-based and less electronic.”

The singer is infatuated by the fact that Solange continues to push the boundaries of her beloved R&B genre. “I think being an artist and being 33… a lot of artists are celebrated because of their youth and being super-young is something celebrated across all platforms – not just music. I think I love that Solange is a woman in her 30s making really cool music [who] has a massive audience, and people really dig it. She didn’t have to be 21 to do that, and I find that really inspiring.”

When Nao was nominated for the Best Urban Contemporary Award at the 62nd Grammys, rising R&B star Lucky Daye’s debut album, ‘Painted’, was nominated for Best R&B Album. The pair met while they were both strutting their stuff on the red carpet – and the seeds of silken, jazzy ballad ‘Good Luck’, a new track from ‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’, were sown. “We were both mutual fans of each other and then the next day we were just in the studio cutting the song,” explains Nao. “I just felt like that was so cool because that couldn’t have happened if we didn’t meet right there at that moment, and then go to the studio the next day.”

Since the last time NME last spoke to the singer in 2016, she’s done more than earn a Grammy nomination. The artist recently became a mother – while the world was up in turmoil last year, no less – and this, she says, has helped her to “manage her time wisely.” Before she was a parent, she would be touring, doing endless interviews – anything to make sure she got her music out there – and this led to Nao burning out. It “wasn’t to do with mental health,” she explains, “and more to do with my physical health, and I found it so difficult to do day-to-day stuff anyone could normally do.”

This physical exhaustion even prevent her from starting her stunning third album; in our celebratory review, NME concluded that the meditative record “captures a sense of healing, and offers hope, adding: “‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’ truly is a true celebration of R&B, yet – despite its nostalgic nods – Nao has still created a record that doesn’t sound like anyone else. If you need to do a little soul-searching yourself, this soulful record is a good place to start.”

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“I feel like I am different now than I was pre-pandemic,” Nao says. “Before I’d do absolutely everything I could to promote the album. I’d go hard and make sure the tours I was doing would be crazy. We were doing America, Europe, Asia; we were going all over the world and I just ran myself ragged. This time, I’m just like, ‘Nah’. I just want to release music and want people to love it, but I also need to find a bit of balance.”

“I love that Solange is a woman in her 30s making really cool music, [who] has a massive audience”

Around the time of ‘Saturn’, she wanted to showcase her transition from her 20s to her 30s in a grandiose way, dedicating the record to the concept of this narrative. Pre-pandemic, Nao was still tapping into her 20s’ “hustle mentality” to make sure her music was heard, but at the time, she “thought it wasn’t enough”.

“Looking back at ‘Saturn’,” she says, “I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was really doing something for me. It was really special, and I know that now with hindsight. But when I was in it, I thought I should have been doing so much more and should have been doing so much better. However, everything happens in its own way and in its own time and now I look back and feel like it made a real impact.”

Nao believes “it’s a natural state of being” to want to push yourself to the max to make sure your craft is appreciated – especially “when you’re in your 20s” – but adds: “I feel like your 20s åre all about the grind, ticking boxes, and you have the energy to hustle. So it was a mixture of the mentality of that, but also being in the industry and feeling like everything may just disappear in a second… I wasn’t trusting [others] to value my work as good enough to last, or that I’m good enough to last to the next album.” Nao was making herself “go ham” to prove herself to the world – but now she feels that she’s enough, and proudly knows her value.

Credit: Press

The exhaustion Nao experienced was a wake-up call, making her tap into a heightened confidence on ‘And Life Was Beautiful’. Addressing the burnout she experienced due to the music industry’s relentless pressure, she created the new album’s standout tune ‘Burn Out’. With this whimsical track, chimes of soothing synths provide the backdrop to Nao’s staccato voice expressing what she really wants to do: “I really need to grow for me / And go slow, there’s nothing to run for”.

While ‘Burn Out’ is mostly about how Nao suffered physically, she can also see that there’s “a lot more empathy for artists when it comes to what artists are going through nowadays.” And for her, writing is its own form of therapy: “The creating is the part that I love the most. There’s no fear or worry in that; that’s the easiest part and the most enjoyable. I can’t wait to go back to what I really love, which is writing music for myself again – getting back to creativity as soon as possible.

“I want to get back to my own little writing room and start experimenting, talking about life experiences and transitioning through shit I’m going through, or what others around me are going through, and I know other people can relate too.”

“I think my role as an artist is to support people. I just want to [help] people enjoy life and all their life moments”

It’s the self-expression, rather than the trappings of success, that truly appeals to Nao: “I definitely signed up for the music part, but I didn’t sign up for the fame part. I don’t think I understood what it really meant. I think some people and artists are really good at it – can really thrive and capitalise off of their fame, whereas me… I’ve always been a really private person so who I am in my privacy is who I am in the public eye as well. I steer away from things that are fame-related. I’m not massively great on my social media, or I turn down a few TV show offers just because I don’t think I’m made for the famous bit. But I’m definitely made for the music.”

Nao put her rawest feelings into her newest joint, wanting to build hope in her fanbase. Look at the album’s artwork and you’ll notice a sunflower in Nao’s mouth – and it’s not just for aesthetic reasons: “I love how themes run through my records too. On ‘Saturn’, I always had a balloon with me to represent the planet Saturn always hovering around me during that time. In this album, the sunflower represents hope.

“I love the idea that the sunflower is always looking for the sun and even in the nighttime when the sun is gone, a sunflower continues to look for sunlight, so it’s always turning in different directions. There’s something really beautiful and hopeful about that. I think that translates to the human experience and what we all went through universally through the whole pandemic. There was always hope.”

Just as sunflowers lean on each other to survive, Nao helps to heal people while healing herself in the music-making process. “When you’re writing, you stumble across answers,” she says. “You get clarity on the next steps to take, or how you could approach things, and there’s a sort of clarity that you could get through meditation or through therapy. Then you can deliver that to thousands of millions of people through your music.

“I think my role as an artist is to support people. I just want to [help] people enjoy life and all their life moments. Whether they’re good or bad, I want people to have an outlet for themselves and connect with music to help them through that moment. That’s why I always write about life and growing pains, and music is a really beautiful medicine.”

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