With an upcoming album in the works, London-based singer-songwriter Nao is enjoying the process of “doing what comes naturally.” The album — expected to drop summer 2016 — will be a stepping stone for the artist whose pop-funk sound is maturing into something less concerned with perfection than it is candor. Tinted with ’90s influences, Nao’s catalog re-contextualizes the era that straddled the playfulness of youth and stripped-down sensuality of adulthood.
In 2014’s So Good and 2015’s February 15th EPs, the “Inhale Exhale” songstress clung to these spaces with a steadfast grip — and so far, it’s working. A relatively new name on the map after releasing her first song on SoundCloud less than two years ago, Nao’s voice has harnessed the attention of artists and recent collaborators like Disclosure and Mura Masa. Audiences are similarly entranced by the dance-worthy texture that makes up the landscape of her sound.
In a conversation with Billboard, Nao opens up about her forthcoming project, how she cultivated her style, and adapting to her newfound popularity.
You put out “Bad Blood” last month. Is that song going to be featured on an upcoming project? What do you have in the works?
I guess “Bad Blood” is a taste of my album, which I hope to be releasing next summer. I’ve put out two EPs before and I feel like that was me exploring my sound and my music quite publicly, but now with “Bad Blood” and the album coming out, I feel like I know what I want to say a bit more.
Do you have the concept in mind for the album?
I don’t know about concept but I think I’m trying to do what comes naturally to me. I’m a ’90s girl and that’s the sort of music I was listening to growing so naturally, when I’m writing, a lot of that comes out without me thinking about it. Before, I used to try and make things sound a bit different, maybe a bit more left. Now, I’m just a bit more comfortable with it. It’s actually just what I write down well. There’s not really much of a concept, but it’s a definite nod to the music I was listening to growing up and trying to express that in today’s world, in 2015.
I’ve read that you used to be a bit of a perfectionist when it came to your music. Have you been able to get out of that headspace and if so, how?
Yeah, definitely. If I was doing my ideal inspiration, I’d probably write and write forever until I thought it was perfect but perfection doesn’t really exist for me. All I can do is write what I think is good in this moment and that will be perfect enough. Maybe in two years come, I’ll look back to it and think, “Oh my gosh, that was awful!” Or I’ll look back and think, “That was the best thing I’ve ever done!” I don’t really know how I’ll feel about it in the future so I can’t just keep writing and writing and writing until I get to the perfect sound. I have to see what’s right in this moment now and in the next album, I’ll do what’s right in the moment then.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you developed your sound?
When I first put out the song with A.K. Paul called “So Good,” I realized in that session how natural writing soulful R&B songs came to me. I’ve always gone against the grain and tried other things, but in that moment, I was like, actually, I think this comes to me quite naturally. I’d like to explore that. I went and studied jazz as well, so I’m always looking to push the boundaries or just writing perfect and a bit differently. I don’t know if it’s a unique sound. I think that’s up to the listener, but I think that’s where it started. Maybe the album will be a good interpretation of it.
You put out your first song less than two years ago. How has it been working with big name artists like Disclosure?
It’s kind of difficult to explain. I feel like when you imagine it, when you’re dreaming of these moments happening, they’re so much bigger than when they actually do happen. They feel quite normal. When you do work with big names, they’re just normal people and when you meet them, you’re just like, “Oh, ok! There’s nothing shiny or sparkly about you. You’re just a really amazing musician.” We’re just hanging out and the shininess all goes away.
The thing that isn’t normal is having fans and having people message me and tweet me a lot. I find it keeps happening, and it’s quite strange to get that sort of attention from people who listen to my music. It’s really nice to know that the music is spreading and that people are loving it, but it is weird to wake up in the morning and find hundreds of tweets and people messaging me. I’m just like, “Oh, gosh! This is so strange!” But, it is cool as well. I think it’s definitely important not to let it go to your head and to just take it day by day. I’m not quite Beyonce anyway. Right now, we’re in a small van driving across Holland. It’s not glamorous at all. There’s no tour buses or anything like that. It’s all still pretty old school.