From her debut moment back in 2016 with the release of her debut album, For All We Know, there hasn’t been a moment where Nao’s work failed to impress her audience. From her tender voice to her sharp songwriting as well as her ability to create an enchanting picture with her projects, there’s no doubt that the British singer takes tedious care of her artistry and it results in very memorable bodies of work.
It’s why her 2018 sophomore album, Saturn was one of the best R&B projects from that year. The 13-track release saw Nao shine brightly on solo records and collaborative efforts alike. Almost three years later, she’s back in action with And Then Life Was Beautiful, a project that watches Nao take another step upward thanks to life-changing moments she experienced over the past couple of years.
On And Then Life Was Beautiful, Nao receives help from Adekunle Gold, Lianne La Havas, Lucky Daye, and Serperntwithfeet, with each providing just what the singer needed to complete this work of art. In an interview with Uproxx, we spoke to Nao about the new album, motherhood, what makes life beautiful for her, and more.
Your 2018 album Saturn was based on the concept of Saturn’s Return, a period set for “letting go of what doesn’t serve you – relationships, jobs, and past regrets,” as an interlude on that album says. What results from this return made life beautiful as this album discusses?
I think that time of being in my Saturn’s Return, which is what the album’s about, it was a tumultuous time. Lots of crazy things were happening — good, bad, and confusing. Stepping out of that, being a few years old, and looking back, in hindsight, I really understand that life is beautiful. I understand now that all the good, the bad, that sort of ugly and sticky bits that come up from under the carpet, all of that mixed in with life’s happy and beautiful moments. It’s all beautiful and it’s all one big painting and I really understood that coming out of my 20s and into my 30s. I just wanted to put that train of thought into this project.
You labeled And Then Life Was Beautiful as a “hopeful album, in an honest way.” You added, “It’s hopeful in that through every rough patch, every dark patch or struggle we always come out again. That’s what life is. You keep going.” It’s an important message, especially when you realize it was born during a pandemic year. What were the events in your life brought you to this revelation?
You’re right, the album is about offering hope and I basically have a sunflower theme that runs through the album, photos, videos, and things like that. When I used to go on walks during the pandemic last year, the sunflowers were blooming and I just started reading about them. Some flowers always look for the sun, and no matter what direction they’re facing, they’ll always turn to face the sun. They do it in the nighttime as well. So when the sun is down, they’re constantly searching for it and they never give up until the sun rises again. I thought that was a really beautiful analogy of hope. As we all go through this pandemic, and obviously it means lots of different things to everybody, like everybody experience the pandemic in different ways, I think most people can take from it like some tough moments and food for thought. I love the idea that the sunflower offers hope, so that’s kind of that in a nutshell.
For me, I transition into motherhood during that time as well and I found that transition quite difficult. Again, going on my walks with my daughter, seeing the sunflower, and just knowing that while these moments might feel infinite, they don’t last forever, everything passes.
“Burn Out” is one of the early standouts to me cause it strikes me as perhaps one of the more clear results of your Saturn’s Return. It’s a record that I feel has multiple ways to understand it. What inspired this record and what’s the general idea you wanted to get across on it?
For me, it’s talking about being young, especially in your 20s or your 30s, and just being on the hustle and the grind, constantly having these boxes to tick, and having to somehow present that all on social media. We’ve grown up in an age where social media really intensifies our lives, even if you’re not a person to show your life on social media, you’re still absorbing it, you’re still watching other people, and you’re still comparing it [to yours]. I feel like all of those things are leading to burnout in adults at such a young age. People shouldn’t suffer burnout anyway, if it does happen, I would expect it to be people in their 50s or their 60s who’ve been working all their life with five kids and two jobs and have gone through health issues and all those sorts of things, but it’s not happening. That’s something I’m experiencing physically, so I wanted to write a song about it because that’s how I understand what it is that I’m going through. I think it’s more about finding the lesson in it. It’s to go slow, it’s to prioritize, it’s to put boundaries up, it’s to say no, it’s to reevaluate like what’s important to you and you only. What does success mean to you? That’s what I wanted to explore with that song “Burn Out.”
I found a connection between that record and “Better Friend.” In the sense that for someone who has a busy life filled with things that require your attention, what did it take for you to realize that you needed to be that better friend?
It was just being busy with things and things going so fast that I was just missing small details that are important to my friendships. I had a conversation with one friend and she was just like, “Where the f*ck have you been?” and I was like, I don’t know. Just thinking that I had been a good friend, but realizing that I hadn’t really been a good friend at all. I knew the surface stuff of what was going on in her life, but I didn’t really know where she was at and what she needed for me. That’s the message, you know? Now that we’re coming back together, I can better friend for you.
When you recorded “Woman,” your collaboration with Leanne De Havas, you said that your daughter was in your arms because she was in a phase of only wanting to be held by you. What other unique moments occurred with your newborn as you recorded this album?
A big one was recording “Antidote” with Adekunle Gold. He had put out a song called “Something Different,” I was listening to it at the time that my daughter was born, and that was the only song that she would stop crying to. The first time it happened I thought it was a fluke obviously, I was like that’s not real, but she would really stopped crying every single time I would play it. She stopped crying and I thought wow, there’s something really special about his voice. I took it as a sign to hit him up and see if we could make a tune together. I hit him up, and funny enough, he had also had a daughter just three weeks after me. It felt like a really lovely sign that it was the right time for us to do something together and we made “Antidote.” I feel like that in a strange way that was a little gift from my daughter.
Songs like “Antidote” and “Nothing’s For Sure” bring so much flavor to the album at just the right time. What’s your thought process behind including and placing these songs on the album?
“Nothing’s For Sure” was the last song that I wrote for this record. Once I had picked out all the songs, and just listening to them as a whole, I just realized I needed something that was lighter, more tempo, and that breathed a bit more with a subject matter that wasn’t heavy. I purposely sought out that song because I wanted something that was more easy-breezy. So that was my thought process behind that.
Which song on And Then Life Was Beautiful would you say is the most memorable or unique in your eyes?
“Amazing Grace.” I wrote “Amazing Grace” back in 2018, everything else was fairly new, like late 2019 or 2020. So “Amazing Grace” feels like a different time, I was in a different space when I wrote that song, so I think that one kind of stands out to me as quite unique. At that time, I was really battling with the fear of failure, that’s probably why I’m pushing myself above and beyond. When I come to that record now, it’s kind of sad, it’s melancholy. It’s sad that we have to deal with that in our lives and be scared of it and that we’re not taught from an early age from school and from our parents that like failing is okay, failing is safe. When you fail, you just start again, and more times than not, you end up in a better place. I wish that it was grounding for us growing up. Now I listen to that song and I’m happy that I’m past that moment, but I still feel like that was an important life lesson that I wanted to share which is why “Amazing Grace” made the album.
Shifting back to the album’s message of hope, there are many songs (“Wait,” “Good Luck,” and “Nothing’s For Sure”) that tackle hope from different angles. From having it to knowing it’s needed and more. What’s something you hope your listeners gain after listening to this album?
That’s such a good question. Oh, I don’t know, I guess I hope that they get something from it. Whatever they’re going through or whatever transition they’re in their life, I hope that they feel like they have a friend, a diary, and a person on the other end of the phone. I hope that these songs can really hug people when they’re going through these life journeys. Yeah, that’s all I could ask for.
You have your daughter, you have a new beautiful album, what are some other things that make life beautiful for you?
Being able to spend more time with my family and friends. That’s something I haven’t been able to do for quite a few years, that’s pretty beautiful. I think stepping back, and just for once, saying well done instead of the opposite which usually “that’s not good enough.” I think that’s quite beautiful. Probably the last thing is I really got into growing vegetables and fruits in my garden and just being closer to nature. That, to me, feels really beautiful as well.
And Then Life Was Beautiful is out now via Little Tokyo Recordings. Get it here.