From the moment NAO and her band hit the Thunderdome stage at St Jerome’s Laneway festival, the hotly tipped East London musician had the audience in the palm of her hand. Leading the proceedings with the skill and flair of someone who has spent a lifetime on stages, she took the cathartic connection her music has been quietly building with listeners to the next level. Singing and dancing her way through a series of songs that reframed the spirit of Neo Soul and RnB inside festival-ready instrumentals indebted to the aesthetics of UK Garage, Grime, Dubstep, Bass Music, Beats and Afro-House, NAO hit sweet spot after sweet spot. Several hours earlier, we sat down with her at The Langham Hotel in Auckland to talk about her background, musical independence, songwriting and collaboration, Jarvis Cocker, Jai Paul and A.K. Paul’s Paul Institute, and the EP releases that paved the way for NAO’s breakout debut album For All We Know.
By Martyn Pepperell
Sniffers: You weren’t born in East London, but I guess it’s where you became who you are in a lot of ways?
NAO: Yeah, I’ve spent most of my life there.
For people who haven’t been to East London, or spent much time there, could you tell us a bit about the parts of it that are important to you, and what it is about somewhere like East London that would make someone like you want to do what you do?
I was really lucky to grow up in East London. It’s one of the most diverse places I’ve been, and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot. It’s just a melting pot of everyone, and it’s got so much history. It has huge Jewish, Black, Indian and Asian communities, and we’re all in it. We’ve just all thrown together in this weird part of London. There are lots of markets, lots of cafes, lots of culture, and lots of music. Obviously, you also have the local people who aren’t from other countries but grew up there. This is where I was brought up basically, in the middle of all this.
There are a couple of places there that are really important to me, one of them is Walthamstow. I used to go to a singing club there. It was kind of like Glee for RnB [laughs]. It was this really geeky club in the middle of Walthamstow Market. I used to go there every Thursday. That’s where I learned how to sing. I would do performances and get paid five pounds a time [laughs]. I was pumped because that meant I didn’t have to do a paper round anymore. I was doing that, and I just kept following my nose really. Then I went and studied in Leyton, which is also in East London, and I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which is again in East London. I didn’t really get very far [laughs]. All of my musical roots are there. It’s always changing and evolving. I don’t think you could get bored there.
Two things, London has this longstanding tradition of local sound system music, which has manifested itself in different forms through reggae, acid house, jungle, garage, grime, dubstep, etc. At the same time, however, London has always had this love affair with African-American led music styles like jazz, soul, funk, hip-hop and RnB. To me, your music has a Mid-Atlantic feel, as in it seems to draw on both of these traditions.
Absolutely. You’re right about all these palettes, colours and ingredients of music that have been seeping through where I’m from in London anyway. When I was growing up, we had loads of different types of radio. We had pirate radio stations, which were illegal. They were where you were going to hear your grime, jungle and garage music. I have older brothers who were listening to that, stations like Déjà vu FM. Then we had stations like Kiss FM. It’s changed now, but Kiss used to be the hub of RnB music and hip-hop. It was what my sister was listening to. I was super young in the 90s, so my brothers and sisters were doing all the listening work for me. In terms of hip-hop and RnB, it was stuff like Missy Elliot, Nas, Mobb Deep, TLC, Aaliyah; it was all that stuff. I don’t really know what to say, all the music was there in its own medium, and I had access through my brothers and sisters.
While you’ve been involved in music your whole life, being an artist is something that you seem to have come to a bit later in life. Why do you think it took you a bit longer to get there?
It’s a good question. To be honest, I never thought I could be an artist. I used to feel like you had to have something really amazing about you. When I look at Beyonce or Rihanna, as well as having amazing voices, they’re also extremely beautiful and photogenic. I felt like that was what you needed to be an artist. Luckily for me, I was raised in a time when the internet was becoming its own record label in a way. It was through websites like Soundcloud and Myspace that I was able to start my own thing. I was basically a singer in every way imaginable before I became an artist. I’d done my ten thousand hours [laughs].
Were there people you saw out there who didn’t fit the star mould but were still having success?
Absolutely. In 2010 and 2011 when I was really just stepping out, I discovered James Blake. This was also when I discovered Little Dragon and a whole bunch of alternative artists who weren’t conventional but still had a large following. They weren’t compromising, and they were making it about their art. They were wicked musicians with interesting visuals, and it wasn’t about branding or how beautiful they were. I thought, fuck, this makes sense to me. This is what I want to do. I started to follow that trail.
How sick are you of people asking about the stint you spent doing backing vocals for Jarvis Cocker and Pulp before you started focusing on your songs?
I’m so over it. I was literally just ranting on to my friend about it the other day. I had a dream that I had to apologise to Jarvis Cocker. We only did four shows together. They were really special shows for Jarvis and Pulp. They just wanted some backing singers. The media has taken this whole story and turned it into a big thing when there were only four shows. I hope Jarvis doesn’t think I’m trying to ride off the back of his name.
You’ve released a couple of EPs and followed up with an album. Did you have much of a plan coming into all of this?
No [laughs]. I wouldn’t say I was winging it, but at the time there wasn’t a label involved. It was just my manager and me. We were just doing what feels right, you know? I wrote one EP while I was working up my sounds and didn’t know what I wanted to say. I just wrote it, put it out, wrote a second EP, and that was honing in my sound. So after that, it just felt like, right, let’s do an album next.
How important is independence to you?
Hugely important. It’s mad important. I think being a little bit older is helpful for me as well. I started my own record label called Little Tokyo to put my two EPs out. Now Little Tokyo goes under Sony which is obviously a bigger label, but it got to a point where I needed that extra help. Basically, I get to A&R my own records, because it’s all under my own label. That’s a really great feeling.
When it comes to making the music, do you go and work in the studio with people, or do you have music sent to you? What’s your process like?
It all stems from me really. I can’t just get a beat and write to it. It doesn’t feel like my song then. My process is to jam by myself, improvise, make beats, basslines, chords and lyrics. I will never finish a song because it’s nice to be able to bring in a producer to finish it with. That’s how all the songs started really.
The people you work with, where do you find them? Are they from our community or do you find them online? Does it have to be natural, or can it be arranged?
So far it’s been natural. They’ve been people I’ve met on my journey. LOXE and John Calvert, who are both on the record, I studied with them. I was part of their projects before I did my own. Someone like GRADES, I met back in the myspace days. It’s just people I’ve met along the way. You get suggestions as well, like why don’t you go in the studio with this famous person or that person. These people are amazing, but there is so much talent that hasn’t been honed in on yet. I think it’s more about the relationships you have with musicians really.
How sick are you of people asking about Paul Institute?
[Laughs] That’s not that bad actually. In the very early days, people used to always ask me where Jai Paul was, or if Jai Paul was A.K Paul? They don’t bring it up that much anymore. You’re actually the first person to mention Paul Institute to me.
When you work with artists like these brothers, who are notoriously private, do you feel more of a pressure to be careful in terms of what you say about them in interviews?
No, not at all. The Paul brothers are like, how do I put this? If you were asking me a personal question about any musician I work with, I wouldn’t answer, because that’s not my story to tell. Those two guys, though, they’re just brilliant musicians, and I think they aren’t that into the music industry side of things. As a result, it means they’re tucked away in the scene, which creates an air of mystery. But, they’re genuinely just like, we’re not playing that game. If people want to make tunes with us and we like them, we will.