The East London soul singer on new beginnings and self-discovery.
In an industry deluged with R&B singers, to encounter a voice like Nao’s is somewhat of a rarity. A master of range, her vocal prowess effortlessly dances circles around her contemporaries – diving into deep husky tones, but more often than not, soaring into her distinctive bubblegum falsetto.
And if her first album saw her quietly entering the party, tentatively carving out her soulful niche, this time around, her highly-anticipated second album, Saturn – which dropped last week – feels like a gorgeous, self-assured front door arrival.
Inspired by the astrological phenomenon “Saturn Return”, NAO’s intimate funk/soul hybrid record seductively winds around her listeners, delving into relatable themes of personal growth, change and hope. You’re glassy-eyed arms-to-your-sides lassoed before you even realise what’s hit you.
As part of Amazon Fashion’s “Pop Up Shop Live” – a series showcasing dreamy brands alongside buzzy talent – the East Londoner performed a stripped-back, acoustic set for fans. Ahead of the set, we caught up with the singer…
Your second album came out last week, how do you feel about it?
I feel really good about it. I was super nervous yesterday and didn’t look at any social media, any tweets, nothing. I think it’s really exposing. In my music I wear my heart on my sleeve, so then to put it out to the public is quite nerve-wracking. But I had the album launch party last week, and the response in the audience was really beautiful, they knew all the words, even songs that hadn’t been released yet.
Why the name Saturn – what does it mean to you?
It’s based on this astrological idea called Saturn Return. The idea is that Saturn is in one place when you’re born and it takes 29 years to fully orbit. If you believe in astrology, then Saturn is the planet of lessons and growth. So in your late twenties, something big happens in life that causes you to grow up, leave adolescence, and become an adult. So loads of people in their late twenties might notice that they’re unhappy with certain aspects of their life – maybe the job they’re in, or a relationship, or maybe just who they are, and it’s time for a change and a shift.
How personal is that to you?
That happened to me in the last two years. It’s not all doom and gloom, it’s like a really important time of growth, but it meant letting go of a lot of old things that didn’t serve me.
Are you really into astrology?
I’m open spiritually, and I’ll just take whatever things resonate with me.
You talk about themes of change and growth, are there any other themes you explore in the album?
The album travels in a story, and it starts with “Another Lifetime”, which is about a break-up, and the next song is called “Make it Out Alive”, which is about the aftermath of a breakup and what that feels like. Sometimes that feeling can be all-encompassing, and it feels like it will never end, because it often comes with negative feelings. Then the third song is called “If You Ever”, which is more upbeat and hopeful.
How much do you think you’ve grown as an artist since your first album?
My first album came out two years ago, when it was really important to sculpt out my own lane. I didn’t want to be lumbered in with every R&B singer, so it was really important for me to make sure what I did felt alternative, different and out of the box. But now, this time around, people know who I am and what my sound is, so I’ve put my feet into the ground to go explore other things.
Do you have a favourite track from the album?
I think favourite songs change, but at the moment, there’s a song called “Orbit”, and that one feels like a special tune. I haven’t heard anything like it before, and I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, but it just came together in an interesting way, and it just sounds fresh to me, and organic.
You’ve got amazing style, who were your style icons growing up?
Growing up, I didn’t care about fashion! My mum would always be so annoyed with me, but I’d just wear trainers until they had holes in them. I think it also came from my family not having much money, so to spend money on fashion didn’t really occur to me. It’s only now that I’ve become an artist that I’ve had to become more conscious about what I’m wearing. I’ve grown a lot within the last 4-6 years, to be like “okay, how do I express myself not just as a singer, but also as a person that has to be in the public eye.”
What do you like to perform in?
In the beginning I went with comfort, so I was wearing a lot of Ghanaian print, really baggy Aaliyah-style harem pants. I’m from the Caribbean, but I love Ghanaian clothing. Now I have a designer who I’m working with called AVD, and she’s been making the most beautiful outfits. Last night I had my album launch, and I had a kimono on, with massive metallic sleeves, inspired by Beyoncé. Right now, I’m taking inspiration from Janelle Monae, I think she’s got a really strong fashion sense.
Tell us how you got involved with this Amazon pop-up event?
Amazon contacted us about doing an intimate set. I thought it would be a really good time to do it, because the album was out. It’s such a small show, and it just felt special to be able to strip things back to just voice, guitar, and percussion, and let fans see that.
How did you go about picking what you were wearing?
Well, I originally chose something online, but I got this outfit while being in the pop-up just now! I had soundcheck, and a look around, and the clothes are amazing. This outfit’s by Truth & Fable. I think it’s just really beautiful, elegant, and I feel like it suits the vibe of the show tonight. It’s acoustic and stripped back, so it’s a bit more chilled, but elegant enough to be a performance piece.
Anything else you had your eye on?
There was this really nice black fur jacket, a sparkly sequin top…
You were talking about how the set’s going to be acoustic and stripped-back – do you prefer these kind of sets?
There’s only a small amount of people, and I wanted to respect the space. The stage is small, the acoustics are small, and I felt like if I brought in a full band, it would be overpowering. I also feel like whenever I’ve done acoustic sets and filmed them and put them online, they go down so well, but I get to do it so rarely because when we’re on tour, it’s always like full band, full show, so it always feels extra special to be able to strip it back.
So you’re doing this tonight, you launched the album recently, what’s next for you this year?
We go on tour pretty soon, starting in Japan, so this is new territory for us, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the music’s travelled so far. Then we head over to America, tour there, Europe, England, so yeah, we’re basically going to be on the road from Christmas, up until April. I don’t know what’s after that… sleep I think!