Finally Nao: The Soulful Brit Makes Her Debut

The East London singer discusses her futuristic R&B album

On mornings at home in East London, before she brushes her teeth or eats breakfast, Nao has a creative ritual to take care of. “I’ll stay in bed and get my MIDI keyboard and my laptop and just sort of chuck out ideas,” the singer-producer says over the phone from London about her favorite time to write music. “Anything, really — it could be a drum-and-bass tune, writing lyrics. The brain’s not woken up yet, it’s not thinking ahead or worrying about what you’ve got to do that day. I find that really amazing.”

Working in that magic hour is what led to the hopscotching opening verse of “Bad Blood,” the first single from Nao’s long-awaited debut, For All We Know, out this week. That song’s intro is just one of several moments on the album in which Nao’s fluid voice — high-pitched and ringing with clarity, but able to dip into a smoky lower register in the same breath — reveals hints of her past: early days growing up in gospel choirs, jazz vocal training at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama, teaching voice lessons in South London schools. For All We Know is built out of that polarity of sound, and bound even further by a danceable backdrop of funk, R&B, and futuristic pop, with personal touches to boot. Threaded through with iPhone-recorded voice memos from studio sessions, the album doubles as a glimpse into Nao’s rigorous working process, where jam sessions with friends and collaborators (Jungle, A.K. Paul) are just as crucial as those quiet moments experimenting at home.

“I would just leave my phone recording for a long time, because often you jam one idea and then you move on quickly to the next,” she says. “But having your phone there to record it, it means that when you listen back, you can hear little ideas. I can hear the bass line developing, and I can hear myself beginning to find the melody.” For All We Know crackles with that improvisatory energy, whether interpolating Stevie Wonder’s “Jungle Fever” into the funky “We Don’t Give A” or quoting a guitar lick from D’Angelo’s “Lady” in smoldering third single “Girlfriend.”

“That comes from studying jazz, because that’s based on quotes,” Nao explains. “Improvising is a language, and you listen to all the great people who’ve come before you and you take that information and interpret it for yourself, too. So I kind of did that as well in this album, but instead of taking jazz, I did it with soul and R&B records.”

As an example of Nao’s layered approach to songwriting, “Girlfriend” is exquisite: Following along a building, pulsing beat and a winding melody, the song’s lyrics openly admit to insecurities (“Could you like someone that's hoping that they crawl out of their own skin for a time?”) while remaining optimistic about finding someone to temper them. “One thing that we all have, I think, is insecure moments,” Nao says of the song. “Often you need someone to carry you for a little while if things get tough, you know? I thought that was a nice idea. There’s something melancholy about it, but there’s also something quite hopeful.”

Though For All We Know is rife with intermingling emotions, it’s also filled with songs that call back to high-energy standouts from her previous EPs and gigs providing vocals for songs by U.K. electronic acts Disclosure and Mura Masa. But where the presentation of those earlier efforts were shrouded in a certain amount of secrecy (see: the enigmatic contorted limbs and gestures on previous artwork), For All We Know finds Nao front and center. “As a rule I’m quite a private person, so then to start putting your private thoughts out there for people to see, it was quite difficult,” she says. “But I remember the first time I did that I saw how much people responded to it because they could relate to it, because it’s real. I realized that actually maybe that’s what they need from me. That’s how we’re gonna interact together. They want to see a real person behind it. That made me comfortable.”

Though her profile is quickly rising — her February 15 EP highlight “Apple Cherry” soundtracked a Chanel ad starring Willow Smith last month — Nao is simply happy to have a completed full-length to her name now. “I suppose my main goal was to write something that I was proud of. I can say, well, I like the album, and I feel like it represented me well. I feel like I achieved that,” she says. “Anything else that happens afterward is a definite bonus.”