In many respects, 2015 has already been a breakthrough year for Nao. There were outstanding reviews for her second EP, most notably from Pitchfork, who hailed February 15 “Best New Music”. There were stunning performances at The Great Escape, Latitude and the Apple Music Festival. There was a collaboration with Disclosure, followed by a MOBO nomination for ‘Best Newcomer’. Now she’s set to cap off an incredible twelve months with her first headline tour.
If, to the casual observer, Nao’s ascent seems rapid, it’s worth stepping back and appreciating the singer-songwriter’s journey. Born in East London, Nao’s formative years were spent absorbing the musical tastes of her five siblings, which ranged from SWV and Jagged Edge to Mobb Deep and Missy Elliott. From there she studied vocal jazz at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and then spent several years post-graduation teaching singing to school children. It wasn’t until 2013 that she began writing original material, and it took a further year for her to share her debut EP.
Led by the superb A.K. Paul duet of the same name, So Good’s neon-lit strain of funk and neo-soul provided an intriguing introduction to Nao, both as a songwriter and as a vocalist. And what a voice it is: lithe and sweet, with a subtle power, it bathes every syllable in light. February 15 proved a much more effective vehicle for it, offering slicker production and increasingly inventive arrangements, characterised by sloping sub-bass and fractured beats. There was a wider stylistic range too, extending from the sashaying electro-funk of ‘Inhale Exhale’ to the sensuous R&B of ‘Apple Cherry’.
‘Bad Blood’ – the lead single from her forthcoming LP – is better still. Robust kick drum and syncopated synth flourishes provide a minimal base for Nao to riff across octaves and play with the space between notes. If the rest of the record is of a similar quality, 2016 will be the biggest year for her career yet.