Ellis Earl has a conversation with Nao, one of modern Britain's most exciting contemporary artists, for the cover of March's GUIDE. She discusses the concept of the 'Saturn Return’ and how it relates to her new record. Photography is by Ronan McKenzie.
“After each show, everybody would stay around, strangers dancing in unity for half an hour.”
It was a Tuesday, late afternoon and Nao was on the other end of the phone. Her soulful voice ready to discuss all things music. She had not long returned from the first half of her Saturn World Tour and while you could hear the excitement in her tone I could tell she was fatigued. Nonetheless she spoke enthusiastically when she began to tell me about the rollercoaster ride she’s been experiencing so far.
“The shows have been mental. The energy has just been really something special. Everybody was there because they’ve been able to associate with the album, it’s touched them, it’s carried them through. They sing every word. We dance together. It’s almost like going to church. After each show, everybody would stay around, strangers dancing in unity for half an hour.”
Nao already has 19 dates under her belt and told me that mediation and yoga is the key to keeping her energy up.
“Anything that puts the body into a calm state, it helps me to recharge.”
While those practices aided in maintain- ing her sanity, it was excitement that really kept the East Londoner going throughout the first leg.
“You just run on adrenaline, when the moment comes, it kicks in and you just go!”
Nao’s spoken voice is as captivating as her singing. Soft, calming utterances were oozing through the phone with each and every syllable she spoke. We moved on to the crowds she’s experienced so far. She doesn’t have a favourite, yet.
“They were all just sick to be honest, the whole experience was merged together… I feel really lucky to do what I do for a living. In all, being an artist that tours, that writes their own music, it does take a lot dedication. It means that I miss out on lots of birthdays, weddings, spending time with my family.”
I liked this reminder of how down-to- earth Nao really is. As an audience member, it’s easy to lose sight of how a successful artist is just a regular person with a family, friends and chores. We talk about the album, ‘Saturn’, and enter a deeper discussion on the ideology and driving force behind what- feels like the artist’s most well-rounded body of work to-date. I mentioned that I’d heard elements of the project were centred on the idea of rebirth and I was keen to talk to her about the underlying messages of the record.
“It’s based on this concept called ‘Your Saturn Return’. When you’re born, Saturn is in one place and it takes about 27 to 30 years to come fully back around to the place you were born. When you’re hitting 30 you kind of wake up, like, ‘Woah!’, you might not be exactly where you want to be, work wise, relationship wise… But this can be a chance to deconstruct everything and start again, or even let go of stuff that isn’t working for you. Leave that job! Move to that country you said you were gonna live in! Make a move on that guy you’ve been in love with for 10 years!”
This is an album about the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
“It’s that point of accepting that I’m not this teenager anymore, I’m a full grown adult, I’m turning 30, and with that comes a lot of changes, which can be really difficult but also really liberating at the same time!”
Nao is undeniably an experimental and versatile artist. Although her sound is more progressive, she was often defined as an R&B artist, but she prefers the term ‘wonky funk’.
“I think because I’m a black singer, the media were kind of like, ‘R&B. Straight up’. I know there are elements of R&B in my music, but I think what I bring track-to-track is pretty varied, sonically. I think at the time that I used the term, ‘wonky funk, it was kind of like this melting pot of everything I grew up on, everything I was inspired by at the time.”
She speaks of her neo-soul influencers; Erykah Badu and D’Angelo and how artists like these and more aided the ‘wonky’ element of her output. She just loved their chilled out beats and it pushed her to experiment.
“With ‘Inhale-Exhale’, it’s like a really laid back snare, but how do I do that without it sound- ing dated? Like it’s just come fresh from 1998? So that was the wonky part of it, I’m just gonna mess around with the sound, but electronically, and make it more contemporary.”
A Nao track can often start out like this. She gets an idea and she’ll begin the production process before taking it to a second producer.
“Sometimes it works, and other times we just start from scratch. There have been people I’ve been really excited to work with and it doesn’t work, but usually it’s down to not having enough time together. We’re all so busy, so sometimes a lack of time just leads to a, ‘wow, we made whole lot of nonsense’ moment. Whereas in four to five days you might stumble across a few ideas to build on, sometimes it can be pot-luck.”
It’s been five months since ‘Saturn’ came out, towards the end of 2018. We talked about what a momentous year it had been for Nao and she recalled how humbled she had felt by the reception she received to her sophomore release. It’s filled with love and hard work, and now she’s reaping the rewards. Coming into 2019 she didn’t set any New Year’s Resolutions telling me cooly she canned that concept half a decade ago.
“As soon as I put any rules in place, for me, I immediately want to break them,” for Nao, it’s more about changing your life long-term for the better, as opposed to a temporary fix. I guess I want to live more presently. There’s so much happening around me, and it’s easy for us as humans to get lost in what we don’t have or what’s not good, but there’s some really cool shit going on! I think I’m just trying to be present each day and that’s probably the resolution I’ve being trying to follow through on for the past five years. I’m getting better, I think.”
Nao has still got big plans for the year to come. She even hints at new music.
“Since the album came out in October, creatively I didn’t really have much to say because I’d put it all in the record, and then afterwards I was kind of out of ideas. But I’ve just settled into my new home and I have my piano here, and suddenly the last couple of days I’ve just found a really nice mood. I think I’ve got a sense of what I’m gonna do for the next record. I might put something out towards the end of the year… Maybe!”