NAO Visits BIMM Institute London for Exclusive Masterclass

26 November, 2021

At BIMM Institute London, we were fortunate to host a Masterclass with NAO, the singer-songwriter, producer and proud East Londoner. Under The Bridge was packed for this one as she spoke about mental health and production nuggets.

NAO’s sound has been described as soul combined with electronic music, funk and R&B, although NAO herself coined the term ‘wonky funk’. She studied vocal jazz at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London and went on to be a function singer. After gigging extensively, she became a backing vocalist for Kwabs and Jarvis Cocker whilst singing in The Boxettes, an acapella group.

NAO’s hard work paid off. She carved herself a solo career, leading to a Grammy nomination, collaborations with Stormzy, Mura Masa, Chic, and three successful albums. She released her debut album, For All We Know, in 2016, her second album, Saturn, in 2018, followed by her 2021 album, And Then Life Was Beautiful.

BIMM Institute London students at an exclusive Masterclass

Our BIMM Masterclass with NAO:

After a brief introduction, NAO explained how she became a singer: “When I was at University, I studied jazz, and alongside this, I did every sort of gig you could think of: weddings, birthday parties. I was teaching vocals and singing on other people’s projects. Whatever gigs came up, I would do because they were paying. Functions pay. I made a bit of money to live on, but also, I was improving my stage performance, which has helped me now.”

As she developed into a solo musician, she recalls an early collaboration with enigmatic brothers Jai and A.K. Paul: “There was a moment when SoundCloud was the go-to space. I was lucky to be creating music at that time in that world. I put out a song called ‘Back Porch,’ which nobody heard. Like, what is that even about? I was trying to be cool. Two people did listen to it. Jai and A.K. Paul. They were making weird, wonky R&B demos. Nobody could tell if it was good or bad. I made a song with them, which went a bit viral. It was called ‘So Good’”.

Creating production nuggets

NAO delved into her own experiences on production duties and how self-producing helped her in sessions with other producers: “I used to produce more than I do now. Being in the studio with producers was a bit scary – I knew what I wanted but didn’t have the vocabulary to explain it. So I started making shit beats on Logic. They weren’t very good, but it was just about enough to describe what I wanted to say.

“I called these nuggets. I would take them into sessions and try to work on them with producers. They were only about 30 seconds to a minute long, but yeah, I just used Logic. I had a MIDI keyboard and would just make whack ideas. Paired with the right person, they could be magic. Some of my nuggets became ‘Bad Blood’, ‘Adore You’ and ‘Inhale Exhale’.”

Carrying on, she started to explain her relationship with social media and how it’s detrimental to her mental health: “I grew up without social media. I don’t cope very well with it. It takes a toll on my mental health. When I’m on social media, I am often comparing myself to others, and the only thing that social media reminds me of is that I am not good enough. The way I cope with it is that I don’t use social media. I talk about music and show everyone what I’m doing, and then I sign out, and it makes me stay more grounded.”

“Be careful what you wish for”

NAO recounted a memorable yet grounding experience at a Coachella after-party: “I will never forget the time that I performed at Coachella, and I was at an after-party, and I walked into this backroom only to find a famous rapper in there, surrounded by gift bags from Burberry and Moschino and all that. I remember him sitting on his own and he seemed lonely. He couldn’t go to the main party because ordinary people were there; he was too famous to go in. I felt this was a strong sign, saying be careful what you wish for. The higher you get, the lonelier it is. I have always remembered that and carried that message with me.

“The beauty of music and creating is in the stuff that you think is rubbish. My studio is in a small windowless basement, but this is a creative space for me. I’ve been into massive studios with huge desks and all the gear, but I just don’t feel as creative as when I’m in my basement. There’s some magic in that.”

NAO signed off with some final words of wisdom: “I wish I trusted my own intuition a bit more when I started out. You often have a lot of people around you pulling you in different directions. I feel like I missed out on some great opportunities when I was starting out because I didn’t listen to myself. I’ve learnt to listen to my gut and my intuition, so I always go with my gut now.

“I also have a best friend. She just tells it to me really straight, like ‘the song is whack’ and that. Sometimes it’s hard to know if what you’re doing is good. In the moment, you’re like ‘wow, this is amazing,’ and then you come back to it an hour later and you’re like, ‘wow, this sucks’. But my friend is always there to tell me how it is.”

Thanks for joining us NAO – you’re a legend! Check out more from our amazing, exclusive BIMM Masterclasses here.

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