NAO Is Going Through Changes, on Her Own Terms, on 'Saturn'

NAO Is Going Through Changes, on Her Own Terms, on 'Saturn'
Photo: Alex Colombino
Just over two years ago, London, UK singer NAO made a lasting impression with her celebrated debut full-length, For All We Know. Championing her unique sound, the self-described "wonky funk," NAO toured the world; at the same time, her life "started to shift in a big way, which is what [her second album] Saturn is about," she tells Exclaim! over the phone.
Saturn is a progression and an expansion of NAO's sound — no longer is she tethered to the distinct rhythms and vocal runs of her earlier releases; she is experimenting musically while reflecting on changes that have taken place in her personal life.
NAO describes her records as chronicles of her life: "For All We Know is kind of like, my early 20s, my mid-20s, and now, this is like late 20s, I'm becoming a woman, and it's like, all those experiences impacted the writing so much, and also impacted me from a creative point of view. It was like, I didn't want to repeat myself so much.
"I wanted to explore new things — that's why 'Drive and Disconnect' has an Afrobeat feeling, and I've got guitar ballads as well, and I rap in some tunes, like 'Orbit.' I just wanted to explore the different characters within me that I'm discovering now — not just as an artist, but as a person."
Saturn strikes a balance between fantastical imagery, as heard on the Thelma & Louise-referencing "Yellow of the Sun," and the raw, SiR-assisted duet on "Make It Out Alive." NAO takes an organic approach to feeling out the needs of her songs: "To be honest, I just kind of go with the feeling of what the chords give me, and I just consciously, I say to myself, 'Oh okay, I've spoken too much about love,' or I've spoken too much about a subject in a certain way, like 'me' and 'I,' like why not switch it up and tell a story, or tell it about someone else."
In doing so, she is able to tread the line between personally revealing and universal sentiments.
NAO employs a throughline on Saturn that mirrors the voice memos that strung together the tracks on For All We Know. This time, she utilizes the theme of the astrological Saturn return, which is a period of major life change occurring during one's late 20s, detailed in spoken word segments throughout the album.
"For some reason, I wanna have something that explains my myth of the album, cut-ins of people talking, or the creative process, because then it makes it feel like a body of work. Suddenly, it's not just like a collection of songs that I've just put together. For me, it feels like, 'Oh, okay, this is the journey through this, this is the story,' and it's supposed to all come together in a particular way, and so I think that's what makes [it] feel like an album for me."
Through her career as a solo artist, NAO has retained independence by releasing via her label, Little Tokyo Recordings, while licensing her music to RCA/Sony.
"I kind of feel like it's the best of both worlds," she explains. "I had to sign, because I just didn't have a way of touring — I couldn't afford it — and I know that my music transfers better when I do it live. I wanted to find a balance of how do I still keep my independence, how am I still the creative point between the writer, the producer, and also I'm the one that says what music goes on this record? No one else can override my decision. I've paid all the artists myself to release on the label, so that it stays independent. And so all the artists that come out on the label still keep the rights to their music. It's an interesting concept," she laughs, "but it seems to be working for the moment."
As she enters a new stage of her career — "I'm beginning to have some sleepless nights again," she admits — her biggest tour to date looms on the horizon.
"Some artists, as they get bigger, everything gets bigger. There'll be more dancers on stage, and the band will get bigger, and the lights and the staging gets more epic — which is honestly amazing," she enthuses. "But I feel like for mine, it'll be a step up, definitely, but it's still not overkill. I feel like where we're going, it suits the sizes of the venues — it still keeps that intimacy, it's still just me, it's still just the band. I'm growing as an artist — I'm trying to find new ways to present myself on stage, whether it's playing instruments, or dancing in a different way, and the staging will be different, but it should still keep the intimacy, because it's not like 'NAO on speed!'" she says, laughing.
And as for wonky funk?
NAO says that she "absolutely [wants] to honour it, 'cause I feel like that's recognizable. When people hear, like, that wonky funk sound, they know it's me, you know what I mean? They know, like, 'Oh, that's a NAO thing!' So I don't wanna lose that, because it's a really unique thing to be able to have — it's nice to keep your individuality. But I wouldn't call this album wonky funk at all. I don't know what it is."
Saturn comes out October 26 on Little Tokyo Recordings.