NAO Is Here To Make You Feel Things

Words + Photography: Mahaneela Choudhury-Reid

Upon listening to Saturn, NAO’s sophomore album, it became clear to me that her talent comes from another world; her heavenly, ethereal vocals can summon angels, while her songwriting can soften the hardest of hearts. This record, a follow-up to 2016’s critically acclaimed For All We Know, addresses pivotal new chapters in NAO’s life, and came to fruition during the singer’s own Saturn return (which, in astrology, means a particular season in life). Linking up with the Sony-signed artist on a chilly afternoon in her hometown of East London, as I photographed her for this piece, it was evident through our conversation just how excited NAO was to be releasing her new body of work.

After turning thirty last Christmas, it was a big turning point for the musician—one that opened her mind up to new perspectives. Saturn is both experimental and bold in its sound; it feels confident, in what seems like a very deliberate shift and nod to the other genres she appreciates, such as electronica and jazz. From the afrobeat-influenced banger, “Drive and Disconnect”, to the glitchy R&B of “Make It Out Alive” with SiR, NAO’s versatility is showcased tenfold on the 13-track album. During my conversation with the gifted songwriter, we discussed everything from growing up in Essex and her wannabe-grime-emcee phase, to finally finding her feet in the ever-changing landscape of UK music.


What was it like growing up where you did?

I grew up in South Woodford, which is right on the edge of East London and Essex. It was definitely an interesting place to grow up, and a culture clash in many different ways. I’d walk right out of my house towards East London, which was really diverse with lots of different music and art—like a melting pot, really. And then to the left was Essex, which was very much a monoculture; you know, like, pub culture and stuff. A lot of my friends from school, they were from Essex, and so when you’re growing up, it was kind of like, what was normal to their culture, wasn’t normal to me.

So I found myself kind of going more towards East London and Walthamstow, because there was more that I could identify with there. For example, I couldn’t get my makeup in the area I lived; they never had my shade, so I’d have to go to Walthamstow market or to PAKS to get stuff for my hair. It was an interesting place to be, as it was a time when grime was coming up as well. And like, being a young girl and wanting to get boys to like me, I’d pretend I was into grime as well [laughs]. I was even an MC for a while.

Bars! [Laughs] On the new record, Saturn, it feels like you’re making a bit of a departure from your previous work into something different, sonically—would you agree?

I’d say, yeah, I’m definitely exploring a newer side to myself. My thought process with the first album was I didn’t want to be boxed in, like: “Ah, she’s just another girl making R&B.” I wanted it to be different and go against the grain, and create a different story. Now, though, I feel like I’ve established myself a bit more. It’s allowed me to relax and allow the songs to be what they’re gonna be. So some songs are more straight-up R&B, and others are more electronic or ballad or whatever. This time, I wasn’t trying to go against the grain to make it more different or whatever, I’m just letting the songs sit and simmer and fly out into the world. It was a conscious choice to move on from my sound before, just because I feel like I have my feet more firmly in the ground now as an artist.

Looking back, now that you are more established, your first EP was self-released and gave you a lot of freedom to explore your sound, whereas you might not have been able to if you were signed to a major at that point. When you started up your own label, Little Tokyo, was that a conscious decision too?

Well, I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision, but more that it was the only route available to me. For starters, labels definitely weren’t banging on my door trying to sign me. Little Tokyo started out because we didn’t have any money or any other way of releasing the music. It was kind of a “let’s see where this takes us” mentality, and as a result, it developed into something quite interesting and hopefully quite special. Little Tokyo used to be just me, but we’ve since released two other artists on there and hope to bring more through.

What’s next for Little Tokyo? It’s amazing to be in that position where you can help facilitate other artists.

It really is. I don’t take any rights so I don’t really “have” the artists on my label, but it’s been great providing that platform. We did our first Little Tokyo night last year, which I’m really hoping we can do more of. It’s about sick talent that maybe haven’t had the chance to come through, and people that I think fans of my music would also resonate with. I really wanna do the next one soon but, obviously, I’ve had to focus on making this album. Next year, though, we’ll be doing another night.

Speaking of the album, it’s called Saturn and the name is based off of ‘Saturn return’, as the planet takes about 29.5 years to orbit the sun. Many people say you feel the effects in your late 20s and early 30s. How have the last few years been for you?

Yeah, Saturn is about me being in my late 20s—and all that comes with it, which is basically a lot of change. Throughout making this album, I was going through my Saturn return, as were a lot of my friends. There’s definitely been some amazing things happen but, also, it’s been about coming to the realisation that some things aren’t working. For me, it’s been a lot of leaving things behind and coming in to the new, and basically becoming an adult woman—which is hard, especially in the current climate and the pressures we’re facing today. It’s not necessarily all doom and gloom though.

“A big part of getting back to my centre and becoming grounded again, was trying to leave social media behind.”

I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to, especially in the current post-social media world we’re living in, where there’s so much information to process. One track on the record that really resonated with me in that way, was “Drive and Disconnect”. Do you feel like social media has impacted you during your Saturn return?

Yeah, it has... A lot, actually. But I think it affects everyone. As much as social media helps you to share and connect with people which is beautiful, I think it also has a lot of negative effects on your mental health. And I think, for myself—and I imagine for a lot of other people, too—it’s all just a lot. It can make you feel inadequate, like you’re not doing enough or have you compare yourself to others. So, for me, a big part of getting back to my centre and becoming grounded again, was trying to leave social media behind. Which, of course, was really difficult. You know, I’m an artist, I need to use it as a way to connect with people and it’s really beautiful in that way, but it’s just hard, man.

I’m the type of person, now, that doesn’t really use Instagram; like, I don’t really scroll through it these days. And if I do catch myself, I just airplane mode it, or I leave it in another room. It’s important to take time out from it. When I was going through some of the tougher aspects of my Saturn return the past two years, I kind of just got away a lot, and I found a really beautiful freedom in that. I did quite a bit of travelling and went exploring to get out of my environment, to get some headspace, so that’s where “Drive and Disconnect” comes from—it’s just about disconnecting from everything that was overstimulating, and not in the right way. “Drive and Disconnect” is about taking a conscious moment to switch off from all of that noise.

The production on the track is something really different to what we’ve heard from you—what inspired that choice?

It was actually inspired by Tom Tripp, who I’ve worked with through Little Tokyo. He showed me this afrobeat tune by an artist called Niniola—she’s so sick. I just wanted to keep listening to it over and over. And then, a couple of weeks later, I had a session with this guitarist and producer, Jeff Gitty, who is incredible and can play just about anything. I told him I wanted to make something inspired by [Niniola’s song] “Maradona”, and he just started coming up with the guitar line and we went from there. It was a lot of fun!

It’s great to see you exploring new musical territory. How do you feel about the increase in popularity of genres like Afrobeats, R&B and soul in the UK?

It’s amazing. It definitely wasn’t the case when I was coming up, but I feel like it’s the internet that leads everything. Now, fans can choose what they want to listen to, without being guided by the radio or whoever it is that has their own agenda. So now R&B is coming up, and it doesn’t really matter what you look like or where you’re from. Music has the ability to travel in ways it never has before. I can definitely see how the industry is now trying to catch up with it all, but it’s wicked to see UK artists represent for R&B on a global level.

Speaking of music travelling, you have a track on the record with an American artist, SiR, who is amazing. What was that experience like?

It was sick! With SiR, we didn’t even make it in the same place, which is kind of beautiful in terms of the internet paving the way again. The first time we met was on set for the music video of “Make It Out Alive”. He’s such a sweetheart. A big teddy bear!

That music video was dope. It was cool to see you show yourself a bit more than you have in previous videos.

That was a bit scary, but I wanted to put myself more at the forefront this time. The last record, I made a conscious decision to not really show myself as I wanted it to be about the music... Who knows, I might go back into my cave now [laughs]. I’m still quite a private person.

Please don’t! [Laughs] We like NAO out of the box.

[Laughs] I’m kidding; I do, too. I guess it’s kind of changed as I’ve grown—I’ve definitely become more comfortable with it. And, really, I think that’s been my main take away from my Saturn return: a sense of acceptance and confidence. So yes, you’ll definitely be seeing more of me.

Posted on November 02, 2018