Never mind chart placings and platinum discs. For Nao, the true measure of success is how high you come in an internet search. “At the moment, the National Audit Office and a Japanese robot are both more popular than me on Google, so I’ve got a lot of work to do,” she confesses.
I know who I’d rather have an hour’s chat and a glass of rosé with. Nao the 28-year-old singer-producer (It’s pronounced “Neigh-yo”) is warm and friendly, dressed down in a checked shirt and with more hair than your pet’s favourite chair. She’s graciously meeting me near her Hackney home on her day off, 24 hours booked to be free from singing because “I saw Stevie Wonder in Hyde Park last night and absolutely lost my shit.” Hers is one of the most striking new voices in music, high, fluid and feline; her sound a raw kind of electrofunk, heavy on the bass and with lots of space between the notes. If you’re missing Prince, she can offer some comfort.
She’s having to get used to being in third place though. At the start of this year she was named behind Jack Garratt and Alessia Cara on the BBC’s Sound of 2016 list, usually an excellent barometer of soon-to-be successes. She also sang on a wonderful song, Firefly, by the fifth placed act, Mura Masa. That was the moment when she realised that she might be going places. “I think it changed people’s expectations,” she tells me. “Before, I was maybe a bit more underground, building a following organically. Afterwards I’d been elevated to this position and people started to expect something big.”
A major label record deal with RCA and a slinky, sexy debut album, out later this month, ought to justify those expectations. But while Nao seems happy for nice things to land in her lap, she isn’t gunning hard for superstardom. I’ve rarely met a more modest solo artist. At one point she says, “I do have quite a distinctive voice,” then immediately qualifies that with, “Sorry, I’m not patting myself on the back when I say that! It’s just everyone tells me.”
Perhaps this is because she’s spent a long time close to, but not actually in, the spotlight. In her early twenties she was a backing singer for both the reunited Pulp and a solo Jarvis Cocker. “When I was doing BVs [backing vocals] I never thought, ‘I wish that was me at the front.’ There’s a nice safety in being a backing singer. You walk out and see all of these people in front of you, and a part of you thinks: ‘Thank God it’s not me who has to entertain them.’”
Before that she studied jazz vocals and piano at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama, a place for gaining serious chops, not training to top the pop charts. While she was there, a bass student from the year below, Belle Ehresmann, invited her to join her all-female beatboxing group, The Boxettes. As Bellatrix, Ehresmann has been named the world’s female beatbox champion three times.
“It was super fun. I was astounded, as a singer, by the skill needed to do something beyond singing with your voice – to make whole drum kits, basslines, everything,” says Nao. “There were five of us, just doing it as a different spin on a function band, doing corporate gigs to put a bit of money in our pockets. But then it took on a life of its own and suddenly we were doing the London Jazz Festival.”
At the same time she was teaching singing and piano in one-to-one lessons at a secondary school in Bermondsey, doing session work and singing for adverts. It sounds like simply being able to make a living from music was more than she ever expected. By the time she was discovered at a gig by her manager and released her first single, So Good, in 2014, she still wasn’t imagining great things. “This is going to sound really bad, but I set the bar quite low for what I was going to achieve as a singer. I thought it would happen quite slowly, thought I’d probably be a Radio 6 artist. I was really excited about the thought of Gilles[CORRECT] Peterson playing my song just once.”
She wasn’t completely naïve about all this. She did put some thought into her presentation at least, though that was mainly to do with obscuring her identity. Hands and arms are all you see of her on her early EP sleeves, and only half of her face is on the album cover. As she launched her solo career she changed her professional name to Nao from her real name, Néo Joshua. Sometimes it’s written in capitals, though she’s not sure why, as it isn’t an acronym. “I’d done so much other stuff, always on the hustle, so this was a chance to draw a clean line and say, ‘This is me now.’ So when people look for me they’ll find the music I make now rather than all the stuff I’ve done since I was 16.”
And the National Audit Office. But if you get the right Nao you’ll hear some remarkable music, sparse and tough but full of soul, and far from what you might expect from a jazz-trained musician. She made it herself using the production software Logic, then finished the songs for her album mostly with the assistance of London dance producer Daniel Traynor, who trades as Grades. “Jazz can be very beautiful but it can also be beautifully complicated,” she says. “I had a moment last year when I just stripped everything back and made things simple on purpose – really simple beats and basslines, but strong. It was quite hard to rein it in and streamline everything, but it’s all about saying what I want to say in the simplest way.”
If it doesn’t turn her into the next Adele, she seems content with how things are going all the same. She’s got a big sparkly ring on her finger to mark her engagement to her boyfriend, a charity worker, though they won’t plan the wedding til she works out how much touring she’ll have to do over the coming year. She still lives not too far from where she grew up, in South Woodford. She was the youngest of five children in her Jamaican mother’s house, but is the only child of her mother and father, who raised her “as friends” between London and Nottingham, where he lives.
It was the success of someone closer to home that made her believe she might get somewhere with this: her friend Kwabs, who studied jazz at the Royal Academy of Music and whose debut album reached the top 30 last year. “It felt like this was something that happens to other people. So when I saw it happen for him, it suddenly felt more tangible. Then I thought, oh, actually this can be for me.”
It will be. There’s only one Nao worth seeking out this summer.
For All We Know is released on July 29 on RCA.
Nov 3, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk)