Eighteen months ago, NAO nervously uploaded her first song to SoundCloud from her bedroom. In collaboration with fellow Brit, A.K. Paul, “So Good” found a cozy spot on the World Wide Web. But NAO, who was initially unsure of how the song would be received, decided to turn off her phone in an attempt to avoid any and all notifications of what the masses might think. While she went about her day and found some down time in between a rehearsal, she caved in, turned on her phone, and what she only dreamed of happening actually occurred. “So Good” tallied over 50,000 plays during its debut, was named hottest record that same night by Zane Lowe on BBC Radio One, garnered a thumbs up from Disclosure on their Facebook page, and 2.8 million spins later, Nao is currently on a sold out tour in her native U.K. while she preps the release of her untitled album, set to drop this summer.
For the East London native, going along with the natural flow of things has brought her critical-acclaim and a budding fan base. With two sonically challenging EPs under her belt (So Good, February 15), NAO—her real name, Néo, means gift in Ghanaian—unwraps her layered vocals within every melody, instantly gripping you with her distinct soprano chords (“Apple Cherry”), but also clasps your eardrums with her stirring contralto range (“Good Girl”). The rising singer has produced those two bodies of work over the last 18 months, and said the journey has been rewarding, but not as gratifying as having a one-on-one lesson on honing her songwriting skills. When it comes to penning her absorbed lyrics, NAO sticks by her motto, “first thought, best thought,” adding that “there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to writing music.”
Using her current EP February 15 as an example, NAO said she’s finally reached the point in her career where not only has she found her voice between the lines, but she’s ready to embrace that discovery without any fear or doubt. “I finally felt like I knew what it was that I wanted to say musically and what sound I wanted to create sonically,” she says over the phone from her temporary Cali quarters. “Hopefully the album will be an embodiment of that, almost like a conclusion to this journey that I’ve had over the last 18 months.” NAO actually has been on this sonic trip since the age of 11, penning her first song to the tune of a built-in instrumental on a keyboard under the name “Everything For You.” Growing up in a Jamaican and Aruban household, NAO, who studied vocal jazz for four years at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, was exposed to a melting pot of music, thanks in part to her siblings who played R&B heavy hitters like Brandy, SWV to hip-hop’s revered lyricists like Nas, Missy Elliott, and Mobb Deep. For her own personal collection, NAO sought out hits from Prince, Donny Hathaway, and Michael Jackson. “I was quite old school actually in songs,” she says reflectively. “It was really an amazing mixing bowl of music and I feel like those are the ingredients now that I use to make my own music.”
There’s no textbook way to describe the East London native’s sound, and that’s a good thing. The non-ability to pinpoint which genre her music falls under allows you to soak in the melodies for what they are: a compilation of foot-tapping, head-swaying, feel-it-in-your-bones music infused with sounds reminiscent of ‘90s R&B. The 28-year-old artist manages to instill just a little bit of that era of music, but still stays true to her own personality without mimicking that period, saying, “It’s just a little nod to it, but it’s new age enough for it to be new and fresh.” She attests that statement to her birthplace and the burgeoning producers and fellow musicians who’re inventing a new sound across the pond. “In London or the U.K. at the moment there’s this really amazing movement of producers and musicians sonically pushing the boundary. We’re really making interesting sounds that aren’t conventional to pop music or normal song structures,” she says. “We’re just being experimental and that’s catching on around the U.K. I feel like I’m a part of that, and production-wise I can take some interesting corners.”
NAO joined forces with Disclosure in 2015, penning her featured song “Superego” for the dynamic duo’s sophomore album Caracal. If you missed the chance to be exposed to Nao’s voice then, you might’ve received a second opportunity to Shazam a mysterious track for Samsung’s Galaxy Note5 commercial. NAO’s multi-instrumental song “Zillionaire” was selected by the company to serve as the groovy melody behind their device, an occurrence that NAO said came as a surprise to her. “I didn’t really know what impact it would have,” she reveals. The 30-second short hit stateside first, and instantly NAO received more than a handful of tweets from people sharing their elation of finding her music. “I didn’t realize how powerful music and advertising, or having your music on a film or just a TV program, how important that is for discovery,” she says. “So many people have now discovered me through a Samsung advert, and now I’m really happy about it. Before I said, ‘Yeah it’s cool,’ but now I’m like, ‘Actually this is a really special thing.’
With a jazz background allowing NAO to push the boundaries and explore other genres within the aforementioned music category, the soft-spoken singer is ready to make noise within the industry. ”It’s really nice to watch the music grow and spread to new people,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the future.”