Nao has spent more than half of her life gigging, but the East London-based musician never imagined she’d be performing her own music in front of an audience — let alone touring the world.
“I didn’t even know if my mum would come,” the 29-year-old said, laughing while recounting her first shows in the spotlight.
The electronic-funk-soul singer-producer, born Neo Jessica Joshua (her moniker, pronounced “Neigh-yo,” is a spin on her forename), is currently unwinding in the countryside outside of London. “Just resting and writing before I go on the road,” she said by phone last week.
Nao could use a bit of an unwind. She’s coming off a whirlwind year that saw her break in the States after a set of EPs — 2014’s “So Good” and 2015’s “February 15” — made her a rising star back home and caught on here largely in part because of her enchanting yet peculiar tone and a knack for blending R&B, soul, funk, electronic and jazz textures in the music she issues via her own Little Tokyo imprint.
Her profile rose with the release of last year’s debut, “For All We Know,” a sprawling, bright collection of funky electronics and slinky, retro R&B flourishes that landed her on critics’ year-end lists and placed her in front of sold-out audiences across the country on a headlining tour as the beguiling single “Bad Blood” became a sleeper R&B hit.
And her debut at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival kicks off a spring tour that includes a recently added date at downtown’s Mayan Theatre on April 19 (her L.A. debut last fall was ravishing).
She’s still getting used to the attention — and the affection.
“It blew my mind. It was really surreal, a real high,” she said of the reception she got here during her debut tour last year. “The response was insane … the energy everywhere. It was the first time with a tour bus and we were driving across America and it has the most amazing landscapes. It’s something I will definitely remember for the rest of my life.”
Singing since she was 14, Nao had done it all before she ever did music for herself.
Having studied vocal jazz and piano at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama, she was a background vocalist for Kwabs and Jarvis Cocker (including a reunion with Pulp), taught choirs, did session work and performed with an all-female a cappella group called the Boxettes.
“I kind of thought that’s what I’d be doing as a singer,” she said. “I always had a creative spirit [but] I didn't really have the confidence or trust that people would actually listen to my own music. I didn’t really have faith that mine would like cut through.”
Eventually Nao got a push from her manager, and she took her own music seriously.
Her first recording, a funky off-kilter number called “So Good” (which her 2014 EP is named after) was a collaboration with A.K. Paul that racked up 50,000 spins on SoundCloud and was played by Zane Lowe.
The music pulls from a myriad of influences. Jazz, standards from Cole Porter and Bernstein, gospel, funk, grime and the artists she grew up loving because of her older siblings — Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Brandy, Nas, SWV — are deeply embedded in her work.
It’s that eclectic mix that led to Nao pegging her sound as “wonky funk” as she promoted the heavily eclectic “For All We Know.”
After teaming with Disclosure, Kaytranada, Jungle, Mura Masa and SBTRKT among others, Nao is working on a collaborative EP that will pull from the “vibe … and musical spirits” of artists she’s into (a record with alt-R&B outfit the Internet is already complete) — but she’s not in any rush. For now she’s enjoying the wave and taking her time.
“I still feel like I’m in the neck of the first album. I don’t want to stress myself out, so I’ve just been taking it easy, writing by myself and trying to come up with new ideas and jamming … without any intention in mind,” she said. “It’s a nice place to be.”