Her name is pronounced "neigh-oh," and you'll want to get it right, because soul singer Nao is one of the most buzzed-about voices to come out of London in years. The one-time backup vocalist has already made it to the BBC's "Sound of 2016" roundup of innovative new musicians — with little more than a year under her belt as a solo artist.
Born Neo Jessica Joshua and raised in Nottingham, Nao traveled all over the U.K. before finally settling in East London. The 31-year-old grew up loving Nas, Missy Elliott and Brandy, and developed a particular love for gospel. "I just listened to gospel all the time because the singers were the most amazing," she says. "Aretha Franklin is a good example of someone who was a gospel singer but then made it mainstream. She let her voice just completely rip; not many could do that."
Inspired by Aretha's vocals, Nao started writing and singing her own music. That led to her first job at 16 — still in high school — teaching other kids choir arrangements and harmonies. As her college career began, she hit a crossroads.
"Around the age of 18 most people want to decide what they want to do: They go into university, and you have to choose your subjects," she says. Bored by her law classes, Nao immersed herself in music, studying jazz composition.
In 2014, a manager discovered her singing in a nightclub and asked why he hadn't yet heard of her. Soon after, she left her teaching and backup singing pursuits behind and started recording demos. Her first track, "So Good," came out in October of that year, to be followed by the EP February 15 in May 2015.
"It was quite a beautiful moment actually, stepping from behind the scenes to the front," she says. "Never when I was a backing singer did I think, 'I wish that was me.' I was so happy in that role. But when the moment came for me to do my first performance as myself, up front, it was just a completely different energy which I hadn't experienced before, and it was really special to have people in the audience know your songs. I was kind of like, 'What was I doing all of those years before?'"
Nao's debut album, For All We Know, is out now. Hear more of her conversation with All Things Considered at the audio link.