NAO's Debut Album Is a Statement of Intent From a Rising Star

NAO's Debut Album Is a Statement of Intent From a Rising Star


Credit: Phil Smithies for Pigeons & Planes

By Jamie Milton

Nao’s London upbringing was anything but ordinary. She was, in her words, “on the cusp” of two worlds. On one side, culturally diverse Walthamstow, on the other, traditional Woodford, home to jellied eels and old school East End fellas. Her friends were from Woodford, but she’d always travel to the other side of East London.

“That’s where I could get my make-up, where I could get my hair done,” she explains. “That’s where I learnt to sing.”

Her upbringing is central to For All We Know, a daring pop hybrid of a debut album that arrives after two years of steadily increasing hype. The album title is taken from a beloved jazz standard, originally written in 1934 and sung by numerous artists, from Aretha Franklin to Nao’s favourite musician Donny Hathaway. Two tracks consist of iPhone voice memos, one dating back to her past as a backing singer. “See—I look after my phones! That’s the moral of this story,” she jokes.

Back in those voice memo days, Nao had to decide whether to pursue teaching full-time or give life as a solo musician a shot. “I loved teaching,” she remembers. “When I was younger, music in school was so boring and unrelatable. When I was teaching in South London, kids were telling me what they were listening to, so I arranged a Miguel song for the choir. They could relate to it, but they could also learn about techniques and chords.” Still, she decided to leave that world behind, and within months she was on every industry bigwig’s lips, thanks in part to her debut track “So Good,” a head-spinning collaboration with A.K. Paul.

“I didn’t see my name in lights,” she claims, despite a notable slot as tour support for Little Dragon swiftly following the success of “So Good.” “Even up to this moment, sitting talking to Pigeons & Planes, this feels really cool and unreal.”


Credit: Phil Smithies for Pigeons & Planes

We’re speaking in a Stoke Newington cafe, perched right next door to a studio space she’s made home ever since the industry took notice. The studio’s other inhabitants include alt-pop pioneer Gwilym Gold, and it’s decorated with framed Michael Jackson LPs. There’s also an arcade machine commissioned by The Beatles for “Yellow Submarine.” Being surrounded by this much musical history is enough to keep Nao grounded, and there are enough pillows to mimic the comfort of home.

In June, just a couple of weeks before her album completion deadline, Nao tweeted, “I think being an artist in any form can often bring you to the brink of insanity just gotta learn how to bring yourself back…” It was a rare moment of self-confession amongst ticket plugs and excitement about playing on Later… with Jools Holland. She remembers exactly where she was when she wrote those words.

“Maybe it was an amalgamation of a few things,” she says, admitting that it’s easy for pressure to build. “I had to make a lot of decisions. It was stressful. And every decision was about what other people would think. ‘What if I put this song on the album?’ ‘What are people going to think about me?’ Those sort of thoughts can make you stressed. It can make you lose your mind. If you worry about what other people think, you basically won’t do anything.”


She compares releasing music to exposing “a piece of your soul,” and For All We Know captures all the experiences of Nao’s 28 years in a seventeen-track time-capsule.

A futuristic blend of funk, soul, and shameless pop is as a thread running throughout this record. Nao collaborates with A.K. Paul once more on the splintering strut of “Trophy,” and it’s easy to imagine her track with Jungle, “Get To Know Ya,” grabbing all the headlines. Familiar faces may appear, but linking together the songs is a signature style that Nao is still in the process of developing.

“A lot of the production started with me. That should be the focal point,” she states, adding that she’s always felt more like an album artist than someone who churns out singles or dominates playlists. “I’ve got a few things to say in a lot of different ways. An album is the way to explore that.” True to the title of the song “Get To Know Ya,” this LP is essentially an extended meet-and-greet session, but without the awkward handshakes and lucrative fees. By the end of it, Nao’s true identity is clear.


Credit: Phil Smithies for Pigeons & Planes

The title For All We Know may reference her jazz roots (Nao used to study jazz, before teaching music), but it is also open-ended. It suggests that just about anything could be around the corner. Rooted in her past, but paving the way forward, this album is the kind of mission statement that debuts often fall short ot.

The only worry now is that Frank Ocean might decide to put out his next record on July 29, the same day For All We Know comes out. “Obviously we’re not on the same level but Frank, please give me a chance,” she jokes. “I never started this journey thinking about an album, because there was nobody there to listen. After two EPs, I felt like I’d worked out my sound and I wanted to sum it up in an album. I’m not J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar, but hopefully an album will bring more people to my music.”

One day she might go back to teaching, but that’s not going to happen soon. “Erykah Badu is still smashing it, and she’s in her forties. You don’t have to be just one thing—you can do a few different things. I might go back to teaching, I might do workshops on tour! I think of myself as a tree. We’re all trees, with lots of different branches. This career is a branch, and that’s kind of cool!”

Nao’s For All We Know is out July 29. Pre-order here.


Credit: Phil Smithies for Pigeons & Planes


Credit: Phil Smithies for Pigeons & Planes