Backup singers are usually a vital part of any album that is made, but their contribution often goes unnoticed. Unfortunately, most will remain in the shadows while few will ever make it front and center. Neo Jessica Joshua, better known as NAO, is a former backup singer who was able to avoid falling through the cracks of obscurity and has made her way front and center with the release of her debut album, For All We Know (debuted at #17 on U.K. Charts).
The singer-songwriter from East London was a former backup singer for Jarvis Cocker (Jarvis (2006)) and Kwabs (Love + War (2016)). Her background in music also includes, having studied jazz at the world-renowned Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Ms. Joshua had decided to become a solo singer after being spotted singing at someone else's show by her now manager, whom made her realize she had the talent to go solo. NAO went off to release two EPs, So Good (2014) and February 15 (2015). She even ranked third in the BBC's Sound of 2016 poll. Her history in music has been leading her up to this moment: releasing her own album.
For All We Know, is a mix between old-school funk and soul with new school electro R&B and the closest current artist comparison would be SZA (7 (2014)).
The uniqueness of NAO's voice is a sonic embrace that commands you to listen and fully appreciate that you haven't heard anything like this before. Her lyrics invite you to escape with her as she explores themes of love, infatuation and heartache. In the album, NAO collaborated with A-list producers: Jungle, A.K. Paul, Royce Wood Junior and GRADES all who helped showcase who NAO as an artist.
Beginning with "Intro (Like Velvet)", it sounds exactly as you'd imagine: soft and smooth. Although she is not singing about her voice in the song, the lyric, "Feels just like velvet" perfectly describes her soulful voice. It feels textured, yet soft. At only 37 seconds long, it is enough to instantly make you want more.
And we get much more.
Among her 18-track list, NAO includes shorter tracks ("Voice Memo 161", "Voice Memo 162", and "Voice Memo 164 (Say Yes)") that are bursts of her jam sessions in the recording studio. It's an attempt at providing a personal touch that offers an image of feeling like you are in the studio with her.
NAO's lyrics may be about modern love but she avoids clichés. Her lyrics are not only vulnerable, but relatable as well. They are about longing to be someone ("Girlfriend," "Adore You"), about regretting a certain relationship ("In the Morning," "Fool to Love"), and about how to shake yourself free from them ("Bad Blood," "We Don't Give A"). Her lyrics are carefully crafted and create an accessible experience.
The songs "Happy" and "Fool to Love," sound like they could be songs from the 80s or 90s, yet they don't feel so old that it's misplaced. The electric combinations to the R&B bring you back to 2016. They feel nostalgic, yet refreshing.
While we live in an age where we have continuously been teased with when Frank Ocean will finally release his long overdue album, For All We Know can fill that void; and in the process we can learn to appreciate the work of a woman taking control of her own destiny. If NAO wasn't on your radar before then she should be.
Put on your headphones and get ready to consume, For All We Know.