Published Jul 29, 2016NAO wants to set the record straight. "Essentially, everything about the album — and I don't think it's arrogant to say — the album definitely stems from me," she tells Exclaim! between rehearsals for the release of For All We Know, out now on Little Tokyo/Sony. "The conversation about collaboration comes up a lot; I don't want that to detract from the album."
It's hard to imagine liner note details detracting from her incredibly powerful record. It's even harder to imagine anyone thinking this isn't the work of someone who knows exactly what she's doing.
"When you listen to a Drake record or whatever, if you look at that, there'd be like 18 people that would've worked on that song, like five songwriters, six producers, two mix engineers, but no one ever talks about that. It's just like, here's a Drake tune," she laughs. "This album didn't have that many people, it was only ever me and one other person per track."
The British singer-songwriter, born Neo Jessica Joshua, started garnering attention in late 2014 with the release of her So Good EP. The following year she released her acclaimed February 15 EP, which included the single "Inhale Exhale."
"I was learning about my sound quite publicly," is how she characterizes her evolution. "The first EP kind of jumped around sonically, because I guess I'm trying to find out what it is I wanted to say. When I arrived at the song 'Inhale Exhale,' I was like, 'Ah, I think I've got it!'"
"Inhale Exhale" is the linchpin between that EP and For All We Know. It is one of the four pre-release songs made available — singles if you will, although NAO would prefer you not.
"I just don't like singles, basically. I don't like the pressure of what it means. If it were my dream world, I wouldn't have put anything out. I would have just put the whole album out and let the audience decide which was their favourite tune."
NAO's seemingly carefree chuckle punctuates every third sentence, revealing an inner peace with all the hustle and bustle of pre-release promotion.
"I feel like I've been so busy that I haven't really been able to comprehend how I'm feeling. I think the most important thing I recognize is that I'm not stressed. That is definitely something that appeared in my life at the beginning of the year, just because this is such a new place that I'm in. I've never done this before. It's such a new thing that I didn't quite know how to handle all the decisions and people having opinions on me and my music."
Best new artist accolades have always been a bit discordant with the actual time spent before recognition sweeps in. For years NAO worked as what she describes as a session singer, for artists like Kwabs and Jarvis Cocker, before her solo career began.
"I did it because that was a natural thing I started doing at uni, and also you're making money while doing it. You're not raking it in, but you can pay the bills. I was always very relieved that I was singing as a living and to pay the rent — that was enough for me.
"I'd never really thought of my solo project, or perhaps I had, but I was sort of okay where I was. I had a rhythm of things, regular work, regular pay."
It wasn't until she met her manager at a gig in South London and discovered their shared artistic vision that she decided to strike out on her own.
"I remember the moment where I had to stop everything. I mean, who earns money from records nowadays? So I was a bit baffled. Things just kept working themselves out, which is something that has always happened to me as a musician. You don't know when your next paycheque is coming, but it kind of works itself out month by month. That's how it's been going."
With the release of For All We Know one imagines NAO should be able to cover the rent for August without difficulty. Sonically and vocally, it is one of the most dynamic R&B records to emerge in 2016, and is sure to cement NAO as one of the dominant new voices of the genre.
Check out the video for "Fool to Love" below, as well as all of For All We Know, below.