What’s next for a woman who has already released two flawless studio albums? Well, releasing another one.
For those who don’t already know, Nao is one of the UK’s most treasured artists with no boundaries. After making noise with her genre-bending debut, For All We Know, in 2016, the soulful star delivered her emotional, Grammy Award-nominated sophomore album Saturn just two years later. After promoting and taking her music around the world, Nao found herself burned out from the four-year run of constantly being on the go. When it came down to thinking about her third studio LP in late 2019, Nao admits it was a struggle to get things going initially.
Nao previously described Saturn as a “coming of age” record that summed up the life of a woman in her late 20s. Her latest offering, And Then Life Was Beautiful, goes a step further and shows off Nao’s confidence as an artist who has reached a new creative peak in her career. Since Nao’s last album, the Nottingham-born singer has become a first-time mother and has had to deal with on-and-off lockdowns with the rest of the UK. And Then Life Was Beautiful was made in London during the pandemic and proves that there is always hope and a light at the end of the tunnel.
During a phone call with Nao, EUPHORIA. was able to delve into the creative process of the album, if motherhood has impacted her songwriting, and how touring will be slightly different this time around.
During the process of making this album, it has been said that you were “burned out” from touring non-stop. Would you say you had writer’s block or were you just exhausted from the constant traveling?
[laughs] Basically, I was just completely knackered from the previous five years of going at it. When it come down to writing the third album, I was creatively and physically wiped out. So, when I went into writing this album, I questioned whether I could do it. After about a year of writing, a songwriter called Dayyon [Alexander] came along, and he was like my songwriting angel. We wrote “Wait” together on our first morning and from that moment, I was creatively ready. I don’t know what happened, he just sort of sprinkled some magic dust on me. I’m still tired now [laughs] but at least creatively I’m back on track.
With the majority of the album being made during the pandemic, did you find it easier to create with fewer distractions?
The reason the record came together during the pandemic is basically that I became a first-time mom. I found the transitioning into motherhood really really hard. I don’t know if that’s because of the pandemic or if I just found it difficult anyway. But, one of the ways that helped me get through it was writing music, singing, and recording. It made me feel like myself again and being a new mom in the pandemic was really really intense. Even when my daughter was two weeks old, I was like, “I’ve gotta get out of here!” [laughs]. Even though I couldn’t go very far, I could go upstairs and put a microphone up in my bedroom and I recorded what I could. I found little pieces of myself again and that really helped during that time of my life.
Did motherhood change your writing process in any way or did it feel the same?
I think it’s exactly the same. I only wrote one song about motherhood or my daughter, which was “Antidote.” That’s because I and Adekunle Gold both became parents at the same time, three weeks apart. So when we collaborated, that was the natural thing we both had common ground on. I feel like I kind of intentionally stayed away from talking about motherhood on this record anyway because even though we all have mothers, or some women become mothers or want to be mothers, in a strange way, I feel like it’s a very specific subject and I like my music to be open to interpretation. I didn’t want to alienate anyone. This album is about transitioning from one life to another, I think we can all relate to that.
Was there a particular song you found most challenging to create that almost didn’t make the record?
Yeah, all of them [laughs]. I would actually say “Wait” was really challenging because me and Dayyon just wrote it voice and piano. I’m so used to taking those really strict back songs and making a really big beat against it or a really strong bassline. Songs in a similar world would be “Bad Blood” or “Another Lifetime.” I went down this whole production route with this song where I was like, “Nah, we need to make it have a journey, it’s gotta be big, it’s gotta be electronic,” and then it just wasn’t working. I thought the piano and voice version was really born, I thought people weren’t going to fuck with this because I felt it was boring. Fortunately, my manager was the one that pushed me and told me it was a really beautiful song.
What are you hoping listeners will take away from the album after listening to it?
I feel like when people listen to it, I hope they feel everything, like a whole emotional rollercoaster. I don’t know if people wanna hear that but that’s what they’re going to get [laughs]. And Then Life Was Beautiful is a step back in a look at life type of way. For me, it’s knowing that all the tough parts, all the ugly parts, and all the difficult parts of life are strangely just as beautiful as all the big moments and all the beautiful moments in life. As a whole, life is beautiful. Often, we’re taught we have to get to the happy ending for life to be great. We have to get the car, the kids, the right job, the family, the everything. As most of us have seen or experienced, those things rarely fall into the place at the same time and don’t equal happiness. Happiness visits us in the spare of the moment, maybe once a day for 30 seconds, maybe once a week for a day. If we can take life as one beautiful picture with all the good, bad, and ugly, then that’s a beautiful way of what this journey is about.
Is there a particular song that remains special to you or is your favorite for a certain reason? I’ve already written down some of my favorites: “Better Friend,” “Good Luck,” “Postcards,” “Messy Love,” and the album title track.
I forgot about “Better Friend” for a second there! I have this friend who is really special to me but he’s kind of disappeared from my friendship circle because of mental health. So, I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. “Better Friend” is a message for him, very specifically for him. For me, it’s kind of the idea of if you ever do come back, I still wanna be a good friend to you and I’m still trying to be a good friend to you even though you’re not here. I still think about him all the time and hope he’s doing really well. “Better Friend” is probably one of my favorites and really special to me on a very personal level.
The album features four collaborations. How did you go about choosing them and are you mindful about doing too many collabs?
Yeah, I think I am actually. I just wanna make sure the people I’m collaborating with are people I’m fans of. I love Lianne La Havas and I’m so happy to be collaborating with her on this record. Before I was an artist, I was a singer doing literally anything and everything — wedding gigs, pub gigs, and all these random things. I very much associated being played on the radio as someone who was a major pop star making real pop music. I just remember driving home from one of these charity gigs I was doing in Oxford and there were like 10 people there. I remember listening to Radio 1 and I remember hearing Lianne La Havas “No Room For Doubt” and I just stopped. I had never heard such a beautiful voice and such an organic sound with such soulful music being played on such a pop radio station. From there, it gave me hope that there was space for other music and sounds that aren’t “popular” to be played on commercial radio stations. I’ve been following her since her first EP, so to become an artist and be at a place where I can collaborate with her is really special to me.
Due to the streaming era we now live in, do you believe albums have lost their value?
Yeah, I think so. I think streaming and playlists have changed the way we listen to music. I think, myself included, when listening to music on streaming services, often you find yourself loving a song but you don’t know who the artist is or who is singing it. I think albums anyway for a while before streaming was already an interesting place. Probably because of the internet and how that shook things up. Also, as we grow older and new generations come up, we just don’t have the same kind of attention that we used to. The way that we digest entertainment is really REALLY fast.
With the album coming out, are there plans for a tour?
Yeah! I’m going to be touring all of Europe and North America. It’s going to be like my usual run but as we spoke about earlier, my body hasn’t been able to cope with the way I’ve been touring before. I’m definitely in a place where I’ve been burned out but I love touring so it’s going to look a bit different for me. It might not be as many shows or maybe I will be staying in one place for a bit longer so I can be kinder to my body and kinder to myself. Touring isn’t the best environment for a child so I want to accommodate for that as well.
And lastly, what is one thing you want to achieve that you haven’t already?
I’d love to perform on Jimmy Fallon and I would love to win a Grammy.