Singer-songwriter Nao has taken third place on the BBC Sound of 2016 list, which highlights the most exciting new music for the coming year.
Part of a large family from Hackney, she studied jazz at the Guildhall School of Music before dreaming up her own style, which she calls “wonky funk”.
“It’s just a fusion of everything,” she says. “I can’t tell you what, really. It just is.”
Speaking to the BBC, the singer discussed her influences, her musical education and why she does not want to reveal her surname.
Were you surrounded by music growing up?
There were five children in my mum’s house and we all shared rooms – so it was very tight circumstances, but we all loved music and we were all playing it every day, from morning ’til night.
Everyone was into different things. My brother was really big into US hip-hop, my other brother loved UK grime, pirate radio stations, jungle. So all of this was going on in the house and now, with hindsight, I can see all of it was a really big influence on me.
Did you have to fight for control of the stereo?
No – we all had our own devices. Walkmen, portable CD players. I had a karaoke machine so I could play tapes on that! And we had a piano as well, which I spent a lot of time on jamming and improvising.
Did you take lessons?
I had lessons in classical piano but I quickly realised that wasn’t what I wanted to play, so I started teaching myself chords and harmony. I really loved gospel, so I ended up playing that.
What was the first time you thought, I don’t have to play other people’s songs – I can write something of my own?
I suppose I’ve always known that I could write – but I needed the confidence to actually step out of the shadows.
Before that, I’d always sung other people’s music – from doing Aretha Franklin at functions and parties, to singing music my friends had written.
You studied jazz at Guildhall. What did that teach you?
It taught me loads but, funnily enough, I don’t know if it taught me to be more creative. Jazz is an amazing language and musical form, but you need to study that, and only that, to get your head around it so I didn’t spend much time writing my own music.
But it taught me discipline. I needed to wake up at 5am each morning to practice theory, harmony, singing… everything.
Was there a lot of competition between the students?
I think so. You feel guilty taking a break – because in every room around you, you can hear someone practising and aiming to get better. But I think it’s a good thing. I became a better musician.
What happened after you graduated?
I was making my way as a professional singer – and that involved doing sessions or adverts or singing for other people.
I really loved it. I never thought I could make money just being a singer without being, like, a pop star.
How did you become a solo artist?
I happened to be singing for someone in a nightclub and my now-manager was there. He hit me up the next day and was like: “Have you ever thought about doing your own music?” So the stars aligned and I was able to put everything down and start writing.
The first song that got you attention was So Good – how long was it between that nightclub performance and writing that?
About four months.
Did you know it would take off the way it did?
No! I call that sort of music “wonky funk” and I didn’t know if people were really going to get it. I remember I put it up online and went into a rehearsal and turned off my internet and my phone’s 3G. When I turned my phone back on eight hours later, it literally exploded. I’d never seen so many messages.
Is wonky funk the dark side of Uptown Funk?
Haha! I’ve never thought about it that way – but I like that because Uptown Funk is so energetic and happy whereas Wonky Funk is a little bit left field, a little bit darker, even a little bit cooler… even if I do say so myself.
How well do you know your funk? Are you into George Clinton and Bootsy Collins and Donald Byrd?
Yeah, I am! I saw George Clinton this year in concert. It was absolutely crazy – about 100 people on stage. And I love Prince, I love Earth Wind and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone. All these bands.
You have a clear sense of your sound – but what sort of artist do you want to be?
I’m not sure if I’m the type of act who’ll dress up and wear loads of make-up. I’ve only just sorted out how to be myself, so I’m going to stick with that.
That seems to be a theme with the artists on the Sound of 2016 list… I wonder why?
We’re in an age where people have millions of followers on Instagram and they spend all their time taking selfies so they get that one perfect shot. But I think it’s nice that we see normal people, just doing stuff that’s good and cool without it being about the image.
And yet you maintain a certain sense of mystique. You don’t tell anyone your second name, for instance.
Yeah! I’ve been a singer for a long time, so I just wanted to have a clean slate. I wouldn’t say it’s mysterious, it’s just a way of keeping a clear line.
So there’s early, embarrassing stuff online that you don’t want people to find?
No! Everything I’ve done is fine But there’s a lot of it! I’m singing other people’s music and fans could misconstrue that as my own stuff. So for me it was about starting again. And because I’ve got such a distinctive name, it’s not hard for people to find me.
Except if you Google your name, you end up with a pages of results for the National Audit Office.
I know! People tweet me about the National Audit Office every day!
Your debut album is due in the summer. How close is it to being finished?
I wonder if an album is ever finished? If it was up to me, I’d keep writing.
You have a lyric on Golden: “Perfect is over-rated.” Is that how you feel about writing?
I think so. There is no perfect sound because, hopefully, you’ll keep growing and changing and learning. That’s why I said perfect is over-rated and that’s why I think an album can never really be finished. All you can do is capture the moment.
And presumably the music develops when you play it live.
Exactly. That’s so true. The songs on my EPs are totally different when I play them live because the bass player is changing his line and the drummer is doing some extra kicks and snares. So it’s always changing, it’s really cool.
Every date on your UK tour sold out last month – how did that feel?
I could understand it in London because that’s where I’m from and I could drag people along – but across the UK I didn’t know people would know the songs and come to the show. It’s really lovely.
The Sound of 2016 shortlist so far:
More on the Sound of 2016: