R&B star Nao at Madrid’s Mad Cool festival: “I want to open doors for other people to succeed”

She used to be a teacher, now she's a pop star. Full marks!

“‘Saturn’ is based on this loose idea of going through your twenties,” says London R&B star Nao of her stellar 2018 album, “making mistakes along the way and getting into your late twenties and then realising it’s time to sort out – it’s time to fix up, basically. The job that’s not working for you – let it go. The partner that’s not working for you – let them go. It’s just a massive period of change.”

It’s a sentiment to which many will relate, and suggests what a down-to-earth figure Nao – aka Neo Jessica Joshua – really is. NME meets her backstage at Mad Cool festival in Madrid, less than hour before she brings sunny vibes to the already sunny locale with a soulful early evening set.

Yet it wasn’t always this way, as Nao refers to “going through a bit of a tough time” prior to writing the record, a follow-up to 2016’s ‘For All We Know’, with which she introduced the sound she often describes as “wonky pop”. During this difficult period, she began watching the HBO show ‘Insecure’, a drama adapted from creator Issy Rae’s lauded web series Awkward Black Girl. In a lovely twist, her song ‘Make It Out Alive’ ended up being included on the soundtrack.

“[The show] made me laugh so much,” she says, “but it was also really, really similar to what I was going through… When I was listening to the first season, I thought, ‘The soundtrack is amazing, I’d love to be a part of it. So the two coming together is amazing.”

READ MORE: Nao – ‘Saturn’ review

Before she was an R&B sensation, Nao was a teacher in south London. Does she ever look back and wonder how the hell all this happened?

“Every day,” she says. “It’s quite weird because – maybe I put myself down too much – but I just never thought this was something I could do. When you’re growing up, your idea of a pop star is someone that’s unattainable. I consider myself a pretty normal person, so it’s really special. If I can’t go all the way to the top, I just hope it opens up doors for other people to get there.”