Two years ago, the world got a little more wonky when Nao unleashed her genre-bending album, ‘For All We Know’. Since shaking up the scene with her fusion of glossy R&B, peppery funk and rugged electronic production – or ‘wonky funk’ as she dubs it – Nao has returned to rattle the scene again with her new otherworldly album, ‘Saturn’. An ode to the internal growth she’s undergone these past few years, ‘Saturn’ is a nod to the astrological idea ‘Saturn Returns’.
“Saturn is in one place when you’re born and takes 29 years to go through orbit,” Nao tells me, when we meet up in East London and get right down to business, “Saturn is the planet of lessons and growth, so when it completes this orbit at around 27 to 29, they say you experience a lot of changes… you transition from being a young adult to an adult“. However, before we delve into these changes and the ways in which they have manifested in her new album, we reminisce about Nao’s meteoritic rise.
Becoming a well-known artist was not something Nao initially envisioned, in fact, she didn’t seriously consider becoming an independent artist until a few years down the line. After studying at the prestigious Guidhall Jazz school, she joined The Boxettes – an all-female beatboxing group – before turning her hand at being a backup vocalist for a range of artists. “I’ve literally done every type of singing – backing singer, wedding singer, choir singer, vocal coach, vocal teacher… everything” Nao chuckles. I ask her what her favourite one was “Backing singer” she replies, “there was less pressure – you got to sing with amazing people and go to amazing places, but if it fucks up, it’s not on you” she says with a playful giggle.
Nonetheless, finding herself more and more creatively frustrated, a chance meeting with her manager at a low-key gig set off a chain reaction which made all this just “kinda happen“, according to Nao. Well, when you have such a dazzling flair for creating mesmerising music, this upward trajectory does seem only inevitable.
However, initially it wasn’t as seamless, with Nao even establishing her own record label ‘Little Tokyo’ to help put out her music. “I always wanted to have a record label. From young I just always thought ‘that sounds so cool’” she laughs before explaining, “it came about because I wasn’t signed in the beginning, and needed a way to put out music… and as I said, I always wanted my own record label“.
Deriving it’s name from a pokey cafe found in the crevasses of Tokyo that served whiskey and obscure vinyls, she wanted her label to emulate the wholesomeness of this cafe – and she did a damn good job of doing so. Since its inception, it has given her the power to choose her track lists, release her albums, and eventually make it bigger than her. “It’s not about releasing artists who are going to bring me in millions of pounds, it’s about finding artists who are not fully formed but deserve a platform as they have amazing potential“, Nao explains; and with its strong slate of up-and-coming artists, it looks like she is delivering on these words.
Another striking element about the Nao we’re meeting now is the way she finally appears ready to presents herself to the public. When we were first introduced to Nao, it was only through photos of her hands and arms positioned delicately against white blocked backgrounds. At the time her debut album ‘For All We Know’ was released, we were only given a glimpse of Nao’s gorgeous face, but still it remained largely hidden behind her luscious mane and some strategic cropping. ‘Saturn’, on the other hand, sees a full-length Nao boldly standing against a pink hued desert backdrop, elegantly gazing at a bunch of white balloons that trail over grey clouds.
Hang on you’re talking about not being represented, but yet you’re not willing to show yourself to other people who may be able to find themselves within you.
I ask her about this transition, and why she’s become more open to showing her face, “I had to make a conscious choice for my fans as there was a disconnection between people relating to me as an artist, and I felt that showing my face would help people connect to the music better“, Nao pauses before continuing: “also, I would talk a lot in interviews about how when I was growing up I didn’t see anyone that represented me, especially in British music… and then I thought, hang on you’re talking about not being represented, but yet you’re not willing to show yourself to other people who may be able to find themselves within you – who would look at you and think ‘oh someone normal like me can do some shit.
We move on from the cover and sink our teeth into the actual content of the album. From the beautiful and harrowing tracks, ‘Another Lifetime’ and ‘Make It Out Alive’, you can sense there’s been a noticeable shift for Nao these last few years. “I was in my Saturn Returns when I was writing this album… and I think I’m still going through it“. The beginning of the writing process for album coincided with a break-up, and her healing process is definitely reflected throughout the albums lyrics: ‘Why you show me that cold love? Hate that chill‘ (‘Make It Out Alive’) to ‘You remind me of a love who outgrew me too’ (‘Orbit’).
However, Nao’s Saturn Returns consisted of much more: “There was definitely a lot of internal growth during this time – becoming a woman, understanding my own ways“, but she stresses that her greatest learning curve was teaching herself how to say no: “It was a big thing for me, throughout my life I have always been a yes person and a people pleaser, so saying no and learning how to put up boundaries was a big part of growing up for me“.
As we talk, it becomes evident that Nao has established these boundaries – she’s brimming with self assurance, complemented by a humble, warm aura that makes her a delight to chat with. Still, there’s no mistaking that Nao does things her way. When commercialising her sound to more mainstream audiences could have been all too alluring, Saturn remains unapologetically unique. From Afrobeat bops such as ‘Drive and Connect’, to jerky funk beats in ‘Gabriel’, Nao is cementing herself as a genre-blender with a talent for weaving her signature ‘wonky funk’ sound within each song, no matter how varied they are.
With ‘Saturn’ fast establishing itself as a worthy follow-up to Nao’s acclaimed first album and a world tour on the horizon, its seems that life after Nao’s Saturn Returns is looking positively celestial.