Bathed in red light, with thick curls cascading to her waist, NAO almost mirrors an actual Phoenix — the name of the Toronto venue she’s headlining.
NAO doesn’t so much as take the stage as flies. She bounds from behind a curtain, emerging already mid-dance, wearing flowing harem pants and belting “Happy” from her debut album For All We Know.
Her airy, almost fairy-like voice floats out live the same way it does her recordings. NAO’s naturally buoyant vocals are balanced by her full-bodied band.
“I am so sorry it took me so long to get back here,” she says in a speaking voice identical to her singing one, only with a more pronounced British accent.
NAO throws her hands up, arches her back, two-steps, hip-rolls and swings her waist-length hair.
The last time the U.K. artist, whose full name is Neo Jessica Joshua, was in Toronto, was nearly a full year ago for Canadian Music Week. She came with a few EPs and a thriving Soundcloud catalogue in her arsenal, and teased at a few would-be singles from her first studio album. This time around, she’s months out from For All We Know’s summer 2016 release and has plenty more to play with.
Her well-paced show transitions from up-tempo hits including “Inhale Exhale,” to her slower, more contemplative ballads, like “Adore.” The mix keeps her energy up evidently. Throughout the set, NAO throws her hands up, arches her back, two-steps, hip-rolls and swings her waist-length hair.
Live, she doesn’t meddle or experiment much with her songs’ arrangement, but she delivers a skilled and precise copy of what her fans have heard through their speakers at home. Songs, which on their own, are impressive enough.
NAO has written her own chapter into neo soul. She’s added modern electronic sounds and funky drum kicks to vocals that echo the early 2000s. The result is something unlike either the past or present, but with enough familiar hints of both to please music lovers with their ears tuned to any era. She aptly calls her sound “wonky funk.”
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 14 years,” NAO tells the crowd. “I’ve been singing since I was 14, so it’s taken me a long time to get here.”
It was in university that NAO steered more definitively down an artistic road. Uninterested in the law degree her parents hoped for, NAO instead studied vocal jazz at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. From there, she became a backup singer for U.K. musicians Kwabs and Jarvis Cocker and lent her vocals in a girl group.
“When you get to the top it’s really hard to stay there, so I think it’s better to grow slowly.”
But by 2014, NAO struck a path on her own. She’s released her first EP, So Good the same year. She’s recorded that, and every body of work since then through her own recording company, Little Tokyo Recording — her full-length debut released in partnership with RCA Records.
Now in her late 20s, the former backup singer has European tours and a global tour added to her list of solo achievements. But what she’s hungry for, is growth.
“I’m happy to play the long game, in that, you grow and grow and people join you and they’re like ‘Oh, I didn’t know about this girl,’” she says in a behind the scenes video that accompanied her album release, later adding, “When you get to the top it’s really hard to stay there, so I think it’s better to grow slowly.”
With her unmatched brand of electro funk, NAO has charmed masses of audiophiles. But she still seems mystified by her reach.
Back at her show, during breaks, the crowd erupts. NAO grins and shyly twists her body toward her band behind her when she addresses the audience without a melody. She seems genuinely humbled by the number of fans who are packed into the venue.
When NAO finishes with but without so much as a nod to her moody single “Bad Blood,” an encore’s almost guaranteed. And sure enough, she yields to the thunder of cheers and delivers the hit that plays like a melodic diary entry.
She ends on a high, perfecting this stroke of her mark on soul music, hinting that she is surely ready to pick up the pen again.
Photos © Angelyn Francis & Urbanology Magazine