In her music, NAO fuses the best of parts of funk and R&B and uses her vocal range and songwriting skills to emote the complex realities of life and love.
Born Neo Jessica Joshua, the 34-year-old musician grew up in London and studied vocal jazz at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. NAO began her professional music career as a background vocalist for other artists before releasing her debut EP, So Good, in 2014, and her second EP, 15 February, the following year. She was then nominated for Best Newcomer at the 2015 MOBO Awards.
Since releasing her first two studio albums, 2016’s For All We Know and 2018’s Saturn, a lot has changed for the singer. She’s since become a mother and released her third album, And Then Life Was Beautiful, this past September. The record includes features from Lucky Daye, serpentwithfeet, Lianne La Havas and others.
VIBE caught up with the London-bred vocalist and learned more about her evolution since For All We Know and Saturn, the story behind her latest release, and her journey as a new mother.
This interview had been edited for length and clarity.
VIBE: You have such a distinct voice. When did you discover it?
NAO: I discovered it, I reckon, when me and my friend used to do a fake radio station on my karaoke machine. I remember listening back and thinking my voice sounds really weird. So… Around nine years old, probably my first [time] thinking that I had a distinctive voice.
What’s the story behind And Then Life Was Beautiful?
And Then Life Was Beautiful is kind of like an offering of hope. I felt like coming out of 2020, in the world stopping, the pandemic, I felt like it was just a real kind of dark time for everyone in so many different ways and I felt like, universally, it’s nice to have something to kind of look forward to and just know that hope is on the way. That’s kind of what [the album] is. [An] offering, but also at the same time, it was me taking a step back and realizing that all things good, bad, dark, and ugly and all the beautiful and intricate moments in life is all [a] big, beautiful painting. I just realized and accepted that, yeah, life is beautiful in its entirety, not just the good moments.
What was life like for you during 2020? And did you ever find yourself stuck creatively?
I didn’t write it fully in the pandemic, but it came together [during that time] and I became a mom. The transition from being a mom was really difficult and [I found myself] wanting to find a piece of myself again. Being able to write and record music at home was really healing for me and really helped me through that time. In 2019 when I was trying to write ideas, it wasn’t really flowing, but by the time 2020 came and I became a mum for some reason, I needed that creatively. I had a lot to sing about.
What would you consider your favorite or most personal track on the album?
My favorite track on the album right now is “Glad That You’re Gone.” I just love how empathetic it is. My most personal track is probably “Burn Out” just because that’s something I’ve been going through from my twenties and my thirties.
How do you feel you’ve grown since your debut?
I’ve just grown up. It’s a big transition from your twenties into your thirties. It’s a real growth spurt. Again, I don’t really know how I’ve grown because I kind of don’t have hindsight yet. Know what I’m saying? I’m still in my early phase, so I don’t really know what’s happened, but I know that I’m more just comfortable in my own skin. Looking at the record, the music shows that it’s a lot more organic now and less electronic, which is something that I did in my first album. It’s more like coming back to my live instrument roots. I studied jazz and things like that, so, sort of keeping it a bit more organic.
Who specifically did you study in the genre of jazz?
I studied everyone because I did a whole degree in it. So, everyone from Charlie Parker to Sarah Vaughan. The full works.
What do you want fans to take away from the album?
I hope they take away the sense that they have somebody with them as they transition through life, through all the different things that we go through. Just all the lessons we learn through life and that’s what I sing about. I hope that they feel like they have a friend with them in their bedroom or in their headphones or in their car when they’re just going through it. You know what I’m saying? In a good way or a bad way. I hope that I can just be there for them to help them a little bit.