“I’m happy to see that people will want to listen and I’m proud of it.”
NAO buzzes excitedly (and nervously) about her upcoming album, which is finally upon us come July 29. I’ve been lucky enough to hear it early, and I reassure her that I’m certain fans will absolutely love the smooth melodies bursting with gorgeous little details and flowing around the beautiful words sung by her interesting sounding voice. I was given the opportunity to chat to her about For All We Know, as well as her musical journey so far.
Earlier in her life, she studied jazz and classical piano, and while this background provided her technical knowledge, it hasn’t specifically guided her sound. “I suppose jazz influenced it, but not so directly.”
She continues to explain: “I kind of left it behind after a while because I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to say musically. With my own music, jazz creeps in there in beautiful ways. I like improvising a lot before I write a song. I spend a couple of hours just jamming around on the piano […] and scatting.” She described her improvisation technique as “freedom in its purest form”.
She was also involved with a beat-boxing group, which adds another element to her back story. She described the experience as a lot of fun.
“When I was studying jazz, one of my good friends now is actually a wicked beat boxer, and being a vocalist I was astounded by what she could do beyond singing with her vocals, she could make really flat bass lines, do really wicked percussion and she just taught me a little bit,” she recalled.
I found this to be an interesting combination and took it as a reminder that it’s important to use the things we love to wind down and step away from our structured side of our work to keep our spirits high and the waterfalls of our passion flowing. Unlike jazz, she said she does use the skills she learned as a beat-boxer in her music. “In some of the tracks, I do a little bit of percussion with my vocals.”
While researching for this interview, I found that one of the most remarkable things about NAO was her determination and drive to be a musician. She didn’t try to push it aside and try other things to earn a bit of cash, she just went for it and decided to use music in her career. She didn’t, however, dive into the music industry to try her luck as a recording artist straight after school. “I just sort of floated around as a singer, as a teacher, as a backing singer.”
She said that she met a lot of people on the way who gave her a lot of great advice; many of them were busy creating their own music, which echoes her current life. Among all the pieces of advice she received, she found something that has stuck with her as she worked on this album. “I think that the best piece of advice I was given was ‘never put out a song unless you’re happy with it yourself.'”
The most perfect piece of advice for anyone looking to pursue their dream of creating something wonderful. “You might fail,” she continues, “but at least you love it yourself.”
Her hard work and ability to learn as she worked obviously paid off because we see her as she is now, playing shows around the world for her adoring fans with her debut album on the way. “I really appreciated that journey, that I was able to do that and make a living from singing.”
I acknowledged how passionate she seems across her whole album, which she agreed was an important part of her that she needed to convey. “I feel like that’s who I am as a singer and musician. I can be quite passionate and quite intense,” she said with a laugh. “I feel like sometimes it should be more dance-y and more fun, but that is just who I am.”
Although she said jazz didn’t influence her sound, it still has an important role in the album’s story. I discovered this from learning the meaning of its title. “For All We Know is actually my favourite jazz standard. So perhaps jazz did influence me in some way.”
She mentioned the song was quite old, and has been sung by many artists over the years including Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. “But there was one singer who I loved most of all, that’s called Donny Hathaway,” she said. “I just think he has one of the most beautiful voices on earth.”
I hadn’t heard this song before, so I told her I’d check it out. I kept my promise, turning to Spotify the next day where I found so many of the versions she spoke about, including my favourite sung by Billie Holiday. Needless to say, there were a couple of tears shed while I sat at my desk listening to the beautiful music pouring through my headphones. I understood exactly why she loved it.
“The sentiment of the song is what I love. I love that it says ‘so love me// love me tonight// tomorrow was made for some// tomorrow may never come for all we know’. It’s that idea that tomorrow’s not guaranteed so what we should do is live for today and I feel like that’s what this album is about,” NAO explained.
In the production of her music, she goes by the simple mantra of ‘first thought, best thought’. It seems like a great idea for creatives, who tend to be perfectionists, spending long periods of time chopping and changing parts that might not feel good enough, often forgetting about the importance of rawness and allowing the natural processes of creating art that falls freely.
“When I’m improvising a song and just jamming along, it just kind of falls out and I just kind of think ‘oh it’s too cheesy I’ll change it later’, but soon you kind of realise that was always the right thing to say, it was always the right feeling in that word and that moment so usually I just keep it,” she said.
“One thing I did do for that record is little nods to other people. So [the] song We Don’t Give A, there’s a line in it that says ‘we’ve all got jungle fever’ which is a line from a Stevie Wonder, or in a song called Girlfriend, I have a line in it ‘when I’m your lady’, which is a little melody from D’angelo.”
When you look at the album’s track list, one interesting thing that you’ll notice is that it is listed as having 18 tracks. That’s not exactly the case. “It’s actually 14 songs. I separate them with interludes and stuff.”
She says she didn’t want jam sessions and improvisations at the beginning of each song, which is why it comes across as having 18 tracks. Everything she put onto the album is there for a reason. It’s part of the story the album tells. “I just kind of put on the album what was right, flowed together well as a setlist and what told a good musical story.”
Aside from the album, it sounded like the rest of her year is fully booked with tours across the world. “I go to America in September and then I do the UK and Europe in October and November. So that’s pretty much the rest of the year.”
NAO also reveals that she’ll be in Australia for Laneway Festival 2017. As to whether or not some headline sideshows are on the cards? “Hopefully.”
For All We Know is out now.