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From Grime to Guildhall to Nao: How The UK's Originator of Wonky Funk Found Her Voice

From her early years as a teen grime MC, to studying at Guildhall, to a career as a professional beatboxer, Nao has tread many musical paths before arriving where she is today.

by Daisy Jones
Aug 5 2016, 12:00pm

Nao was fifteen years old when she decided to be a grime MC. She’d show up at house parties in Bow and Walthamstow, and take part in clashes with the boys from her school. “Grime was super popular in my area and everyone wanted to be an MC. But I just did it because I really fancied some of the boys who were fit, and I wanted to impress them,” she recalls, laughing. “I wasn’t an amazing MC, but I definitely wasn’t the worst either... I don’t know if it was confidence [that made me do it], or just horniness.”

We’re both sat cross legged in her basement studio in East London. It’s a tiny, windowless space covered in rugs and plants, and Nao seems completely at home here. She occasionally takes breaks from our conversation to make cups of tea in the kitchen, cracking jokes and chatting with some of the other musicians and PRs who are floating around outside in the corridor. In many ways, she doesn’t seem much like the enigmatic, reserved singer I had come to associate with the name “Nao” – the same Nao who, until now, had only given a handful of interviews, and who is better known for the press image of her hands than her actual face. Instead, she comes across as easygoing and open, like an old mate. Her familiarity is contagious.

I point out that it’s pretty ballsy to spit bars in front of a crowd of boys at age fifteen – I couldn’t have done it. “Yeah, because they were young I would have expected them to be like ‘women, nah’ but if you were a female MC and you were good, they were actually like ‘that’s sick’” she says, “and I was good enough to hold my own.” I ask her whether she had an MC name. She did. “It was Jess. Z. J,” she tells me, stifling a giggle. “You had to have a ‘Z’ in there somewhere – I don’t really know why.”

Of course, over a decade has passed since Nao's “Jess. Z. J” era, and these days, nobody would associate her sound with grime. Her debut album For All We Know is a beautiful, soulful affair, smattered in an array of throwback influences, from R&B icons like Aaliyah and Janet Jackson to old school greats like Stevie Wonder, Prince and Michael Jackson. These are seminal artists, and a lesser album may have found itself bogged down or constrained by the stylistic flourishes of the past. But Nao's evolved through the groundwork these artists put in. In many ways, it feels as though she's taken all the sounds that came before her, coated them in a thick layer of futuristic gloss, and twisted them into something slicker, more avant-garde, more Nao. As she has described it, Nao makes “wonky funk”. Or rather, as she told the Guardian earlier this year, she “fucked up the basslines [of the past] and put some D’Angelo beats on it”.

The ambitious, 18-track record – which includes co-writing credits from A.K. Paul, Jungle and GRADES – is overwhelmingly tight and layered. Each track is pinned together with squelching grooves, honey-sweet vocals and electro-soul beats that churn and slither as if they’ve got a life of their own. Yet while the Nao we hear on her debut sounds quintessentially her – a fantastical mixture of 1990s R&B, golden-age funk artists, hallowed gospel music, and lilts of hip-hop – it took a while for her to find her true voice. Her journey is one that's soared through

Nao was raised by a single mother in a house she shared with four siblings. Initially, she had dreams of becoming a serious concert hall artist, like Nina Simone. “When I was a teenager, I realised I wanted to not just become a better singer, but a better musician. I wanted to be able to play, write and compose music.” She voiced these aspirations to her college teacher at the time, who convinced her to apply to a four-year vocal jazz degree at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, one of the most prestigious music courses in the country. “The people who go there are trained to the highest ability from when they’re young, and that’s the standard, so when my teacher said [I should apply] I was thinking “how on earth am I going to get in there? It’ll never happen!” But all you can do is give it a go, so I gave it a go, and I got in.”

However, when I probe Nao about her time at Guildhall, she looks a little deflated. “Yeah, it was cool…” she says, trailing off. There’s a pause, as if she’s thinking very carefully about what she’s about to say next. “I just felt so different to everyone else,” she says, fiddling with a stray curl which has let itself loose from her huge pile of hair. “Things like the way I spoke, what I wore... I was a teenager from East London, and we all spoke in slang. So when I went [to Guildhall] I was like ‘What you sayin’, fam? Wagwan!’ and they were all like ‘sorry, what was that?’ I also felt like I hid loads about myself which would have been super useful,” she adds. “Like all the music I was listening to; all the 90s tunes, all the hip hop, all the gospel. I felt like it didn’t have a place there, and because everyone was so into classical or jazz, I thought that what I was listening to must be bad.”

Like every other graduate who has been sold the rose-tinted dream of life post-university, Nao was taught to believe that she would fall straight out of Guildhall and into the arms of her perfect career. But she soon discovered that she’d have to take some detours first. Right after leaving Guildhall, she joined an all-girl beatboxing troupe called The Boxettes. Far from being a side hobby, The Boxettes began to gain traction, and soon they found themselves performing at the London Jazz Festival, touring around the world, and earning enough money to live off. If you search The Boxettes on YouTube, there are still countless videos of them performing acapella covers of artists like Sam Smith and Rudimental. But Nao didn’t want to be performing pop covers, and she didn’t want to be sidelined in a group. “It was supposed to be a bit of fun, but it started taking on a life of its own,” Nao tells me, shrugging. “And then, after a few years, we were like ‘actually, we want to do our own music’, so we sacked it off. We all arrived at the same decision at the same time, and that was that.”

It was a decision that wound up being crucial, because if Nao hadn’t left The Boxettes, the events that followed may never have happened. It was around this time she started associating heavily with a core group of artists on Soundcloud, lending guest vocals to the likes of Kwabs, and becoming enamoured with the more leftfield sounds of James Blake, Little Dragon and Frank Ocean. However, it wasn’t until she started working with A.K. Paul that her own music started to take shape. It was A.K. Paul, Nao says, that gave her sonic clarity, like a pin on a compass finally settling into stillness.

“I sent him some early demos and he listened to them, then we got together in the studio,” she tells me. Their collaborative efforts spawned “So Good”, an incredibly intricate, colourful-soaked creation with almost 3 million plays on Soundcloud to date. “It was an important moment for me because the stuff I’d been doing was so dark, and his stuff was so bright and warm. When I wrote with him, the lyrics came so naturally. From then, I started taking that idea and making it my own... I didn’t want to sound like Jai or A.K. Paul, but I used that sound as an influence to arrive at where I think I am at today.”

Yet, while Nao’s sound may be rooted in the fractured, Prince-like R&B of the Paul brothers, lyrically, her music has more in common with old gospel tracks. From comparing the breakdown of old friendships to the bitter taste of bad blood, to exploring mental illness with visceral biblical imagery, it feels as though the album was crafted from her heart and senses rather than anything more cerebral. “I worship you like holy days, lying on my back, seeing clouds and rays” she sings in “Bad Blood”, her voice gliding over the rich layers of an electric organ. Ultimately, take away all the sex and swearing, and For All We Know is an album that wouldn’t sound out of place in a church. It’s an influence, Nao says, that came less from the church itself and more from her mother, who “loved gospel” and would have artists like Kim Burrell blasting through the speakers at home all hours of the day. “My brothers were into hip hop, garage and grime,” she adds. “my sister loved R&B, and I just loved people who could sing well, like Aretha Franklin... Without knowing it, all of that came out in my own music.”

Nao's music – which she writes, co-produces, and releases through her own label Little Tokyo Records – is like nothing that’s around right now. Sure, you could try and scrawl her name up next to the alt-R&B sounds of artists like Mabel and TĀLĀ, or the electro-soul of Mura Masa and Lil Silva, but that wouldn’t give credence to the uniqueness and creativity that fizzles through her album like a hard-wired current of electricity. When I caught her Glastonbury set earlier this year, for instance, it didn’t feel as if I was witnessing just another buzzy filler plucked at random from the BBC Sound of Poll. As she strutted up and down the stage, her voice permeating through the hot, sticky Somerset air, I felt like I was witnessing an artist teetering on the edge of real success. Nao isn’t so sure though. “[My music] isn’t shiny enough, or my voice is quite different, so it’s not neutral enough, do you know what I mean?” she says. “Someone like Sam Smith or Adele have voices that sit in your ear in a really nice way, but I have a weird voice. It’s like ‘where does this sit?’”

Indeed, where does Nao's voice sit? In the grand scheme of things, the lack of strict placement is what lays at the root of her burgeoning career. The best artists slipstream into a lane all of their own, which is exactly what Nao has been doing. From her days as a teen grime MC, to her experience as a serious music academic, to her stint as a professional beatboxer and backing singer, it feels as though Nao has tread many paths to get to where she is today. But even though she's spent years trying out her many musical talents for size, from where I'm standing, it feels as though she's only just getting started. As she continues to carve out her niche, the highway she's speeding down looks set to stretch far into the distance.

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