“I didn’t write there, I went there to do nothing!” cackles Nao, speaking about progress towards her “underway” debut album. “I think it’s just important to get breaks in, because you can overwork, can’t you?” she asks. “I went to India for two weeks, and being able to turn your phone off, realising it’s not going to be the end of the world if you don’t look at that tweet - it was really good.” she says. “In fact, the day after I came back, I wrote [first debut album preview] ‘Bad Blood’”
Nao’s recent technology detox caps off a gradual couple of years, defined less by calculated roll-out, and more by relaxed experimentation. Her two EPs, ‘So Good’ and ‘February 15,’ are journeys, Nao playing with various creative directions along the way. She may have played just a small smattering of live shows this year, and she might hide obscured behind carefully hands in every single press shot, but Nao doesn’t see it as a mysterious agenda.
“I’ve been working on my music quite publicly, I think, through the first two EPs,” reasons Nao, having emerged from DIY’s smoke-filled, blue-drenched photo studio for a chat. Up until now she’s kept a fairly low profile; today, she’s full of the excitement of piecing her debut together. “I didn’t know what I wanted to say as an artist yet,” she justifies. “I felt like the first thing I needed to get right was the music.”
Get stuck into said music, and any sense of mystery surrounding Nao evaporates instantly. Her love of jazz and soul pours crystal clear through every melody, everything she writes stemming from spontaneous improvisation. Songs like ‘It’s You’ and ‘Adore You’ make no attempts to conceal the real people, and emotions, they’re addressing. “Most of my songs are amalgamations of stuff that’s happened, and about my life,” nods Nao. “It is hard to put yourself out there personally,” she starts, “but the audience respond to that. I think the only thing that plays on my mind is my family listening to it, going ‘Ooo, that’s what happened with that boyfriend! Ooo, she never told us about that!” she laughs.
Shadowy mystery might not have been Nao’s intention, but the recurrent arms that feature across everything she’s done so far, on the other hand - that’s entirely deliberate. “I like things with themes,” she says, “I remember Massive Attack had flames, that fire which you may or not notice. I’m also not that comfortable in photographs, so I thought hands would be a good way of distorting them,” she goes on. “I also wanted to bring hands into the EPs in that way because they’re quite homemade.”
“I sang the vocals in my cupboard at home,” she smiles. “When you’re in a big studio with lots of people watching you behind a glass screen, and this red light comes on, suddenly you just choke. I don’t feel I can get personal with myself, knowing people are watching. I sing into my cupboard because it’s a good bit of dead space to record into,” she laughs, “and no-one’s complained about the quality yet!”
After growing up in a busy house filled with all manner of genres - garage, soul, classical, gospel, grime, jungle, and her first love, jazz - pelted from all directions, Nao went on to study at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music. “I’m not really sure how I got in, I think it was just luck,” she dismisses. “I spent a lot of time ticking boxes, and, actually, I don’t think I was very creative in that time. I think it taught me to be progressive musically,” she ponders, “take risks and stuff. It gave me a really good work ethic, too. Maybe a bad work ethic.” she hoots uproariously. “I think I work too much.”
“I’ve got all the time in the world,” Nao grins. “I had to unlearn being stressed. I had to have a bad work ethic! The easiest thing to say is what comes naturally. First thought, best thought, I think.”
“I think it’s hard to reach perfection, anyway!” she continues. “I’d rather say it doesn’t exist. I think people’s imperfection is what makes them incredible. I found this word actually, Wabi-Sabi, which embodies that. I really like that word.”
Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese word, to do with beautiful things being flawed. For things to really exist, they have to be incomplete, impermanent, and imperfect. They have to falter, question, and change their minds every two seconds. Being relaxed about perfection, and letting soul take over, is a current that runs through all of Nao’s music.
“There’s no wrong answer, you just give it a go!” concludes Nao. “You can just go anywhere, and you don’t limit yourself. You can push your own boundaries.”
Photos: Phil Smithies. Taken from DIY’s Class of 2016 issue, out now.