"Always Looking For Hope" NAO Interviewed

"Always Looking For Hope" NAO Interviewed

Motherhood, her new album, and searching for joy...

If doctors could prescribe music, as the leaves turn red and nights become darker, Nao’s voice would be the healing sound appointed for the seasonal change. ‘...And Then Life Was Beautiful’ is a love letter orchestrated by Nao as an ode to life after the so-called “happily ever after”. One thing the English singer-songwriter and record producer from East London would like to make clear is that ‘...And Then Life Was Beautiful’ is a hitch-hiker’s guide to the resurrection of the soul - after everything that’s happened in life. The album features a sonic backdrop mastered by Nao’s melodic tone effortlessly glowing amongst soulful instrumentals.

Recruiting Lucky Daye, Adekunle Gold, Lianne La Havas and serpentwithfeet, the songful goddess has legioned a cult of 2021’s most soulful prodigies. A full-bodied lineup of Nao’s “wonky-funk” genre, seen in her previous projects such as ‘Saturn’ and ‘For All We Know’, brings a full-spherical moment to solidify her knowledge in both break-up politics and acrobatic R&B. Furthermore, the gravitas at which the project weaves poetry and diversity in its features throws the album into a well-thought-out relief.

A conversation with the queen herself feels royal, truthful and wholesome. Now a mother of one, Nao wanted this project to be her piece of something away from the mundane - yet beautiful - chores of being a provider. ‘...And Life Was Beautiful’; a relief for those in the most tragic state, a songbird for those floating through pre-COVID life and an ear-worm for Nao fans looking for the next chapter in her mother nature jukebox. 

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Since ‘Saturn’ and the pandemic, this album is the outcome; what was the mood for this project in particular?

I should probably say that first of all, that this album is actually the anti-motherhood album. I know the title is confusing, but yeah, I didn't want to make an album about motherhood and when I announced that I was pregnant everyone was like: okay... and thought it would be a mom album or a guide to be a mother. I definitely didn't want it to be because I found the transition into motherhood quite difficult, having my daughter during the lockdown in the pandemic. It was like no family could visit, you know... we couldn't get any help.

So I found it was quite a difficult early motherhood period and being able to kind of write music and sing every day was really easy for me and really helped me for that period of time. Being a new mum is all-consuming... so much so that I didn't want to make an album about it. So my daughter got one song on the album which is [for her] but the rest is about life in general.

You got Lucky Daye and so many names, at any point did you struggle with Zoom calls and trying to create magic while being so far away from people?

That track was actually made before lockdown. I was nominated for a Grammy and he was nominated for a Grammy and we just saw each other on the red carpet! We were mutual fans of each other, we just met on the red carpet there and then. Then a few days later we hit the studio and we made ‘Good Luck’. So that was back to the beginning just before lockdown, It was February 2020 and it was complete just before we were locked up.

There was ‘Antidote’ which was done purely through Zoom. Adekulne Gold who is usually in Nigeria was stuck in Texas at the time and then Sarz, who produced it, was in Nigeria so we were all back and forth on Zoom. We worked on Whatsapp, sending each other voice notes.

We hear some wonderful interludes from poet Sophie Thakur, what’s the meaning behind the poetry throughout the project?

She wrote two poems on my record, one at the end of a song called ‘Glad That You're Gone’. I spoke with Sophia and I was like: I really love interludes on albums anyway, I feel like they put a record together and make it cohesive. And I thought I wanted to have an explanation of what the album was about. Realising that life is beautiful, in all of its ugliness, all of them really, really shit stuff. All of the beautiful moments, all of the searching, being lost, like everything that is life, all the ups and downs.

When I step back and look at it, this is a strangely beautiful painting. And so I kind of came to that realisation, coming out of lockdown, and coming out of being a mum and the stuff that I had been through like prior to that. Wow, life is so strange. Like, it's so weird. We're taught from a young age that there's an endpoint like, happiness is the endpoint. That's what we're doing this all for. We all grind, we’re hustling because we're all looking for happiness. And when we get it, that’s it, we're good. But I had so many epiphanies. We don’t realise that happiness isn’t a destination. It's just something that shows up every now and then... for like five seconds today. And it could show up for 10 minutes tomorrow. But it just comes in little splashes. All the tough stuff and tough moments are also strangely beautiful.

So I guess, that's why the album's called ‘...And Then Life Was Beautiful’. It's just coming out of those dark moments or coming out of those tricky times and just realising that I kind of learned a lot through that. Or I see the beauty in that even though that was really, really difficult.

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Let’s talk about ‘Postcards’ and the themes of love explored on that track.

‘Postcards’ is a song with feet. And this one is it's honestly it's so low, because first of all, he’s gay. And he's Black. And in this song he’is talking about loving another man and giving him the keys to his apartment, you know, and he talks about his love of London, which I love. And that in itself is just really incredible. Like, how obviously within the Black community homophobia is really present. And so I feel like for him to be singing about loving someone of the same sex and just being so poetic about it is so courageous. I just love his part of his story within that song.

And then I guess I'm telling a parallel love story of inviting someone into my life and wanting to give him the keys then saying goodbye to someone. I guess just kind of realising that even though I said goodbye to you, I still think you're amazing... like a breakup doesn't have to mean that everything we had was shattered. Just because you have broken up doesn't mean that everything was terrible. Things are really great. And I still think you're amazing.

You’ve recently cancelled touring for this album, can you explain why?

Because I have a health condition called chronic fatigue syndrome; it’s basically what it says on the tin. Chronic, chronic, chronic fatigue. It's really hard to get through the day, like a normal person would, without feeling really, really exhausted and really tired. So you can only do really small amounts of things. You could maybe have a shower, go for like a 10-minute walk or something, and then that's so exhausting you have to go back to bed. I've been dealing with that for like three years. So right now I'm about 50% better. But I knew if I went on tour I would just be back to where I started three years ago. So I had to make such a big decision. It’s a really big decision for me because that's how the music really connects, when I'm on tour.

I recently read an interview where you opened up on the pressures young girls face on social media?

I just kind of feel like we’ve just entered a period of social media where getting likes is everything. Everything feels really hidden. I don't know, I think it's become a bit detrimental and I think we as women and young girls are really kind of feeding into the mental health pressures of that. Getting certain plastic surgeries done or having to conform their bodies in a certain way in order to fit what's sexy. I do feel like we are in a period of hypersexuality and that's really entering the unknown.

So the theme for this project was sunflowers. Why sunflowers?

So, sunflowers are just lovely. In ‘Saturn’, I had the white balloon representing a planet setting and just hopping around. In my first album, I had the colour gradient. Sunflowers are just... really special! and I love how they are just like always looking towards the sun even in the darkness. When it's night-time sunflowers are still searching for the sun; every other flower closes or droops down, and the sunflower is still up, right? And will keep searching all night long. Until eventually - obviously - the sun comes up. And if there's another sunflower next to it, we'll turn to the other flower instead to try and get a synthesis from it. So I thought that was such a beautiful metaphor for the album. ‘...And Then Life Is Beautiful’ is always looking for hope and always looking for brighter days.

A lot of artists don't always admit to this, but what are you listening to at the moment and have you heard a song where you're like: damn, I wish I'd have written…

I’m listening to Yebba’s album, I just love her. I've always loved her musicianship, it’s incredible. The song is called ‘Louie Bag’ - I wish I wrote that song. But you know, I'm not from St. Louis.

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'...And Then Life Was Beautiful' is out now.

Words: Thandie Sibanda

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