Becoming a superstar is not an easy process, and definitely not a universally shared one: you find pop juggernauts à-la Katy Perry, who – after impressively successful debuts – have been able to hold the momentum long enough, and one hit wonders who deliberately faded away to release qualitatively better works – Carly Rae Jepsen anyone?
And then, in the middle of this never ending pop dilemma, there’s NAO. She entered the pop world on her tiptoe, as elegantly as the music she proposes, with the stellar So Good EP – yes, it is so good – which despite the universal acclaim it was met with, failed to generate any kind of buzz or general public demand. NAO’s career went on with a second, less brilliant EP and still no hits and close to none radio/TV coverage.
And despite all odds, 2016 witnessed the rise of this young, but not so young, East Londoner to the status of next huge British pop sensation, as underlined by her nomination within the prestigious ‘BBC Sound Of’. But how so? Neo Jessica Joshua is the living demonstration that craftsmanship, talent and a true-to-yourself sound are the key to success, and you might miss the spotlight once or twice, but hard work always pays off.
For All We Know is titled after the 1934 popular song, written by J. Fred Coots and Sam M. Lewis and made legendary by Hal Kemp’s, Isham Jones’ and Nat King Cole’s versions. Such a choice is not by chance, but rather an homage to NAO’s – a jazz-trained singer – artistic past, a past that powerfully emerges throughout the record.
Just to be clear, For All We Know is not a jazz record by any means, but the way Joshua uses her voice in this 18-track journey draws fully from it: she plays rather than sings, fluctuating from a vocal register to one another with the confidence of a crooner from the 30s rather than a modern day popstar, sometimes riding the huge infrastructure surrounding her voice – “Feels Like (Perfume)” – sometimes letting it drown in a cold and sparse instrumental, transforming it into a velvet cloth embracing the listener’s body – like in “Blue Wine”, where the comparison with Aaliyah comes natural.
NAO’s voice is a one-of-a-kind, special gift: her almost childish timbre is quite disorienting and can even sound annoying, but it’s exactly what makes the record stand out from the plethora of artists these neo-soul and PBR&B waves have brought with them. She sounds confident both when her voice flirts with wobbly synths (“Inhale Exhale”, “Fool To Love”, “Happy”) and when it lets padded strings wrap every note she sings (“Adore You”, “Like Velvet”).
This complete and inextricable intersection between voice, live recordings and digital sounds is transparent with the interludes, wisely named after iPhones vocal memos: they are humid, stolen from sessions that sound so physically near that the listener could almost feel like he was standing there next to her.
This rather unusual situation, in a landscape where music is either entirely digitised or bands wrongly think they are above the average just because they don’t use synthesisers, is probably what made this album transition from a standard debut to a rare gem in pop.
Smartly using any element as a resource, NAO becomes a vocal troubadour capable of soaking every track with pathos just by juxtaposing an icy, synth-generated sonic wall, bluesy guitar arpeggios and the glossiness of her voice – in this sense, “Girlfriend” is pure bliss and one of those immortal tracks bound to influence generations of artists.
Yet again though, NAO is not done with experimenting with her voice and everything surrounding it. As a matter of fact, the biggest surprise on For All We Know is represented by a bunch of songs which abruptly shift from the overall synth-y soul feel of the album to an unexplored mixture of bass-driven funky and electro-blues (“DWYM”) where Joshua’s voice is finally capable of truly expressing itself.
“Get To Know Ya” – not by chance produced by the incredible JUNGLE – shows a new side of this little enfant prodige: flirting with a fat slapping bass which literally explodes in a way similar to the spectacular “New Jack” from the French duo Justice, the track oozes sexiness and her voice becomes an instrument capable for tortuous tricks only to then fade into the groove.
The second collaboration on the album, this time with the never-too-praised A. K. Paul, is a funk-rock gem that once again shows the incredible malleability of NAO as an artist: this time her voice is angry, dirty and almost spooky while she half shouts, half sings “If you think that I’m a trophy you better change your mind” over a raunchy guitar riff which feels like the natural continuation of “Landcruisin’”.
It is also serving as a perfect introduction to one of the milestones of the album – “Bad Blood”, which works exactly like “Girlfriend”, piling up and juxtaposing live instrumentation, synths and NAO’s voice to create a sense of anxiety and expectations echoed by prolonged moments of silence.
For All We Know is an impressive record, and a stellar debut, possibly because it doesn’t sound like a debut: NAO offered the public an opus, a sum up of her life and influences throughout her career in and outside the pop circuit. The result is insanely cohesive in its variety and doesn’t leave much space left for critiques of any kind. The record is a trip through what made music entertaining, what makes music interesting and what will make music our biggest companion.
NAO’s For All We Know album is out now via Little Tokyo Recordings/Sony Music, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Raffaele Buono