She Don't Give A: NAO Interviewed

East London soul singer NAO tells The Skinny about stepping out from the shadows and creating a world that's all her own

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 06 Oct 2016

Neo Joshua’s put in the work – she studied jazz at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama, she’s sung backing vocals for Jarvis Cocker, contributed guest vocals for chart topping beatmakers like Mura Masa and Disclosure, and she even started her own label, Little Tokyo, Now, though? It’s time for NAO. When The Skinny calls the East Londoner, she’s just come out of a business meeting with a potential video director. It’s just one of many indications, over the course of our conversation, that the soul singer’s firmly in charge of her own future. 

In July, Joshua released her debut album For All We Know. It is like a diary – an accumulation of years spent publically discovering her sound and, alongside newer cuts, it picks and chooses from her two previous EPs. But for many, the first we heard of NAO was from an enigmatic collaboration with A.K. Paul – brother of the ever-elusive producer Jai Paul. That track, appropriately titled So Good, appeared on Soundcloud seemingly out of nowhere in 2014 – and it’s been played almost three million times since. Over two years, the internet watched with peaking curiosity as NAO slowly – carefully – emerged into the light. After a time, we learned her name. Just this summer, she appeared in one of her own videos – but only in profile.

NAO explains that to put herself forward “wholly and completely” felt overwhelming at first, but she raises her voice slightly to insist: “Now? I’m becoming more comfortable and understanding. I kind of feel like I can step out from my own shadow. I didn’t want to be in videos before because…” She lets rip a husky cackle; “Basically, I take really shit photos. 

“I mean, in [the video to] Girlfriend I’m not the focus – we used sharp angles, so you’re not always seeing my whole face in one shot. But slowly I’m coming out of my shell. I’m understanding that people who are interested in my music would like to know more about me. Exactly as I didn’t know what I wanted to sound like, at the beginning, I also didn’t know how I wanted to be portrayed.”

Those who have followed Joshua’s journey have heard her experiment with all sorts of sounds – from the glitchy synth shards synonymous with the Paul brothers, to cavernous, heartbreaking soul-funk ballads. It’s almost too perfect that neo-soul – a genre tag often applied to musicians like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu – should be facing a NAO-sized shake-up. She laughs, “I was just trying out some stuff. So Good is a wicked tune, but it’s definitely the sound of A.K. and Jai – so it inspired me to try and find my own version of that, I guess. When I hit on tunes like Adore You and Inhale/Exhale, I was like this is what I’m trying to say. [Those songs] were the beginning of me working it out. And now that I have an album, there was more space for a bigger soundscape.”

“Bigger” is right. Joshua writes about extreme emotion, those game-changing moments where the world slips out from under your feet – or the flush in your cheeks when you make accidental eye contact with someone you shouldn’t. Yet, until now, she’s written with a certain opaqueness. There’s no Adele-style live action replay to these intense, poignant recollections; with NAO, it’s all in the telling.

Over frozen, broken glass beats, In The Morning has an unusually open narrative by Joshua’s standards, but far from being new, the song turns out to be one of the first she ever wrote. She's just been waiting for the right moment. The paced realisation of an impending break-up unfurls from rational logic (‘I can’t be who he wants me to be [...] But I can’t bear to tell him, I don’t love him anymore’) to the crushing, crashing weight of a world imploding: ‘I gotta let him go.’

“I’m quite a tender person, when I sing,” she explains, haltingly. “Songs like Blue Wine, or In The Morning – they’re personal. I wanted to illustrate that there are so many colours to my palette as a singer and a musician. I wanted [the album] to be a world where you get some tunes that are a bit vibey, a bit sunshiney – but with some tunes that are deeper and much more intimate.”

Still, even those sunshine songs turn up the drama. Recent singles Girlfriend and Bad Blood both contain huge shifts – classic, gigantic, pop ballad twists. “I’m attracted to emotion,” NAO confirms. “Music that genuinely feels like it comes from someone’s soul. You believe them. And they might express it in the most simple way, like Bon Iver, quiet and minimal… or it could be a gospel singer like Kim Burrell; she can be an absolute powerhouse, but I believe her. That’s what resonates.”

As she finally lets us get to know her, NAO’s own trademark touch resonates throughout For All We Know. You can hear it in the gorgeous, slick production of tracks like Fool To Love, but also in the crackling voice memos which strip back bars to their original demos. Aside from opening up musically, it’s a nod to the skits and outros in other albums that Joshua’s loved in the past. “I wanted to show that I wasn’t just one thing,” she explains. “I wanted to show musicianship. I’m not around to make Radio One hits. I want to explore.”

It’s a double blessing, then, that her Top 40 charting album is so adventurous – future-facing, but nostalgic, too. Joshua describes how her jazz background influenced a sampling process, of sorts. “Basically, in jazz you take little pieces of information: say you listened to a John Coltrane sax solo, and you might take two bars of it? That’s a lick, and you put it in your own music – and then create from it. So that’s what I’ve done! Kind of like a secret code.” If you listen carefully, you’ll find snippets influenced by Aaliyah (“she was amazing, and someone I listened to while growing up”), Stevie Wonder, and D’Angelo, to name a few. “I’ve got loads!” she enthuses. “It’s how I learned. And it’s a way to pay homage to the people who came before, and inspired what I do now.”

Clocking in at 17 tracks, NAO’s debut follows 2016’s trend for lengthy records. Frank Ocean, Drake, Kanye West, De La Soul and James Blake have all released albums with 15+ songs this year, and they’ve all involved mighty guest-lists of contributors, too. Not NAO. She has two collaborators – A.K. Paul returns for the ground-shaking Trophy, and Abi Dijon had already worked on the EP version of Adore You. Otherwise, though, it’s all the work of Neo Joshua. “I didn’t even know if anyone would listen,” she says, thoughtfully. “But it was really important to make it super clear that this is from me. To put that in the album. All those people you said – I love Frank, I love James Blake, I love Kanye – they all have their own worlds.”

We’ve come to expect a worldly independence from NAO, too. In order to put out her debut, she signed a deal with Sony imprint RCA – but offered herself as label boss of Little Tokyo, rather than herself as an artist. “It’s basically a distribution deal, but it means it all still runs the same!” She laughs, delighted: “I’m the only person on the record label and I still say exactly what goes on. No-one else can turn around and say they don’t like it.” From here on out, it’s NAO’s world for the taking.

NAO plays the Art School, Glasgow, 26 Oct; For All We Know is out now on Little Tokyo Recordings