It makes me wanna cry,” Nao says. “Like... is that how I thought?” I’ve just read back a remark the self-described “wonky funk” artist made a few years ago. “I have a good voice,” she’d said. “But maybe that’s not enough.”
In 2014, the artist born Neo Jessica Joshua was a near-faceless singer sharing her music with fans on Soundcloud, earning plaudits from the Mobo awards, the BBC’s Sound Of poll and the Brits along the way. Then she released her second studio album, 2018’s mesmerising and finely wrought Saturn (inspired by the transitional period of your late twenties, known as the “Saturn Return”), which was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. People began recognising her. But even then, she was still more concerned with what others thought than trusting her own instincts.
She struggled in an industry that places ludicrous body-image expectations on its female artists. “We’re going through a period of hyper-sexuality again now, especially when it comes to pop music,” she says. We’re speaking over Zoom – the 33-year-old is curled up on her sofa at home in Hackney, east London. “You need to show parts of yourself, show your sexuality. More people are getting plastic surgery – the bigger bottom, the smaller waist.” She believes social media reinforces these unrealistic standards but predicts that fashions will have changed again in another few years. Perhaps this is why women feel compelled to change their looks every time they announce a new “era” of music, I suggest, while artists like Ed Sheeran have got away with the same scruffy jeans-and-shirt look for years. She laughs, but there’s a sigh in there, too. “And he’s richer than all of us!”
Her remark about not feeling “enough” had a lot to do with those pressures. But that’s all changed, she says. “Now I trust my own voice more than anyone else’s.“
And so she should. Her new album, And Then Life Was Beautiful, is her best work to date. Nao has abandoned the shuffling electronic rhythms and celestial synths of Saturn in favour of more organic sounds, from the hypnotic ripples of piano and sizzling guitar solo on “Good Luck”, to the exquisitely layered harmonies and wandering bass motif on the title track.
The lyrics, too, speak to the changes in Nao’s life. She’s become a mother – she gave birth to her daughter during the early stages of the pandemic, when partners were only allowed to be in the room for 20 minutes. “It was a difficult experience, and I don’t think that helped my transition to motherhood,” she says. She also faced challenges during the pregnancy, both as a Black woman and as a patient at an underfunded local surgery. “Loads of stuff during my pregnancy got missed that I’m assuming wouldn’t have been in a well-to-do area,” she says. “If you’re from a low-income area, or you’re a person of colour, or if English isn’t your first language, the system works against you. It isn’t an easy thing to navigate.”
Nao was holding her daughter – “She was in a phase where she only wanted to be held by me” – when she recorded the playfully empowering “Woman”, a collaboration with Lianne La Havas. “Getting back to music after giving birth was so healing,” she says. “I loved that I had something to focus on during the pandemic. It lit a fire in me.” She sounds renewed on “Woman”, as she sings in her otherworldly croon: “Baby, I’m living in this magic place/ It’s showin’ me that God’s a woman/ So maybe you should worship me/ Yeah, I’m reigning the skies.”
Collaborating with her peers seems to have helped her work through past issues. Nao was one of several Black female artists to appear in Little Mix star Leigh-Anne Pinnock’s BBC documentary, Race, Pop and Power. In it, Pinnock describes being conditioned to feel the problem lay with her after feeling “invisible, the least favoured, the least desired” out of the four (now three) band members. It’s a situation that feels particularly endemic to the UK. When former Sugababes singer Keisha Buchanan listed examples of successful Black and Brown-skinned artists, they were all American: Lauryn Hill, Mary J Blige… The first time Nao performed at Glastonbury, it was as a backing singer, and while she has managed to succeed as a solo artist, many others have not. Just a few weeks ago, the BBC was criticised for choosing former Girls Aloud singer Cheryl, who is white, to host a podcast about R&B music over artists such as Gabrielle, Jamelia, Leona Lewis or Nao herself. “I would have loved to do that podcast,” she says.
One thing that gives her hope is how fan-led the music industry is becoming. “As much as the industry still has a part to play, the fans are the ones choosing [what they want to listen to],” she says. “Back in the day there were limited beliefs about what the public wanted, but social media has shown there’s space for everyone.”
Nao is creating spaces for artists of colour herself. On the gorgeous “Postcards”, she and experimental US musician serpentwithfeet – whose own songs often celebrate love between Black men – depict a more vulnerable side of masculinity. In quavering tones, serpentwithfeet sings of his lover spending “lazy days sharing poems with me”, over gospel-inflected piano notes. Each a fan of the other’s music, they first met when he opened for Nao in New York and left her a touching “thank you” note. Their collaboration came about organically years later, when he happened to be in London at just the right time. “Within the Black community [love between men] can still be quite taboo, so to have us singing about that so freely and so beautifully felt like quite a strong statement to make,” Nao says.
In her press material for this album, there’s mention of the song “Burn Out”. It is described as though it was inspired by a period of exhaustion she has since recovered from. Even now, she initially describes it as something most people in their late twenties experience. But then I ask if she’s touring after her album is released. She hesitates.
“A really big decision that I’ve made is not to tour next year,” she reveals. “I was supposed to be doing a world tour, but I’ve been burnt out for three years and I’m still not better, and I have to put my health first.” It was a horrible decision to make; she loves live performances. But touring would be the worst thing she could do to herself: “If you’re a healthy person and you go on tour, you come back and you’re absolutely f*****.” Fortunately, her label RCA has been completely supportive, she says, and had already been planning fewer shows when she was still considering a tour.
She wonders if this is part of the changes that have transpired in recent years, particularly after the death of Amy Winehouse in 2011. “I think everyone has learnt more compassion and more empathy for artists,” she says. “There’s still a long way to go, but I’ve had nothing but support for my decision, and that made me feel better about not doing it.” Her decision was also another landmark in her personal growth as a more confident person. “As women, we’re definitely conditioned from a young age that we have to be ‘yes’ people. So this was a really big moment for me to say, ‘Actually, nah, I’m not gonna do that.’”
One day I was getting up to go for a run and I just couldn’t move my legs. And quite quickly, my body began to deteriorate
The first symptoms of burnout emerged during the release of Saturn, she says, a tumultuous time both for her career and personal life. “I’d been dealing with insomnia and going and going for such a long time, and one day I was getting up to go for a run and I just couldn’t move my legs. And quite quickly, my body began to deteriorate.” She told herself to push through the rest of her tour, but by the end of it, she felt even worse. The way she describes her symptoms makes me think of a family member who has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – I tell her this, and she pauses again. “I actually have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I was saying burnout because… I’m not sure. This is the first time I’ve really spoken about it to anyone who’s not my friends or my family. I find it really difficult to explain because I don’t think a lot of people understand what it is.”
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), is an incredibly complex condition that is still not fully understood by the medical community. Diagnosis often requires months of tests and frustrating dead ends, and there are no approved medications or therapies to help treat it. “You go to the doctor and they do their best to find out what’s wrong with you, but all your tests come back and say you’re fine, so you go away feeling like you’re crazy,” Nao says. She hopes that a silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic will be a better understanding of CFS, given how similar the symptoms are to those of long Covid. “Hopefully there’ll be some more answers soon.”
It’s one of Nao’s most endearing traits, one that shines through on And Then Life Was Beautiful. She always has hope.
‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’ is out on Friday 24 September