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Link Up: Maribelle x NAO

Self-made and slaying it

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East London has long been the birthplace of some of England’s greatest musical exports and we are hyped to have all-round talent NAO in Australia right now for Laneway Festival, and a couple of (sold out) headline shows. After gaining serious attention with 2014 mixtape, NAO firmly cemented her place as a singer/songwriter/producer with the excellent album For All We Know in July last year. As an incredibly talented woman successfully navigating her own path through music, we only thought it appropriate to pair her up with our friend, and a fellow self-made musical force, Maribelle, for a chat before she kicks off her Australian shows. Read on as they speak on collaborative processes and geek out about production hardware.

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Maribelle: So it’s your first time in Australia?

Nao: Yeah my first time in Australia. We got in yesterday. We went for some drinks and saw this jazz band. They were called Jazz Party. I was dancing around because I used to be a jazz singer. They were a New Orleans style band so it brought me back a bit.

Maribelle: So you’re really influenced by jazz?

Nao: Yeah, that’s what taught me my musical education because I studied jazz when I was 18 for four years so when I came to write my own music I used a lot of those principles to help me write.

Maribelle: Who else would you say you’re influenced by?

Nao: So many people. Literally. I like the older stuff and then like ’90s and hip-hop. I love bands like SWV and TLC. I like the production of Missy Elliot and N.E.R.D who were just really in your face and original. I also really like new stuff – I saw that Acclaim just did a piece on Kaytranada.

Maribelle: Would you ever collaborate with him?

Nao: Yes. We did something actually for my album but I didn’t get my shit together.

Maribelle: It all takes time.

Nao: I’m putting out a remix EP and just asked a few artists and producers to pick their favourite tunes from the album and remix them. Kaytranada picked a tune called ‘Get to Know You’. It’s like a deep house mix.

Maribelle: He just has that groove kinda down.

Nao: Yeah he does. Who else have I got on there? Do you know Mura Masa?

Maribelle: Yes, of course! I love that song you did with him ‘Firefly’. I think that’s inspired a lot of other songs. Have you heard the Ariana Grande song?

Nao: Oh yes!

Maribelle: It sounds so similar!

Nao: There was a bit of Twitter beef going down which I stayed well clear from. But I think it’s cool that the tune has influenced people. I think it’s nice. When I write my music, I always put on something before I write a song and think ‘What sort of thing do I want to make today’? So I’d imagine that Ariana Grande brought the tune into the session and said ‘This is cool, let’s write something like this’. Maybe it was just a bit too close.

Maribelle: How does it feel to have somebody that big use you as inspiration for their songs?

Nao: It feels cool. I think that one thing that Mura Masa and I want is to be cultural artists. I’m not amazing at writing hits.

Maribelle: Oh please!

Nao: [Laughs] I’m not sure I’m going to be that type of artist but I do love cultural icons. Like Solange has been really great at that. Releasing her album end of last year and being really strong in their sound, bands like Little Dragon, artists like James Blake. You know their music when you hear them. They have a really particular sound and it’s really cultural and people copy that sound. You hear it in other songs and you’re like ‘That’s a James Blake tune’.

Maribelle: It’s funny that they never become hits, but people use them as reference to shape their own sound

Nao: That’s cool, isn’t it? It influences other people. I think ‘Firefly’ was good for that.

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Maribelle: Who is someone you would like to be in the studio with? Dead or alive?

Nao: That’s a good question. Who would you like to be in the studio with?

Maribelle: I’d love to have been in with Michael Jackson. I’d love to experience that. It would be amazing.

Nao: I was watching a documentary about him the other month. I couldn’t believe how geeky he is. So much musicianship from when he was tiny. I think I would join you. Me and you, and we would go and see MJ.

Maribelle: We could make some cultural, inspirational music [laughs]. So you’re playing in Melbourne [tonight]. How does it feel to have a sold out show in another continent?

Nao: It sold out? That’s cool. I didn’t know. That’s sick. I’m excited. I love performing, it’s my favourite thing to do. I think the music comes across even stronger live. I started performing first, before I started writing or being in the studio. I just love the energy that we can share together, for just one hour or however long it is. We all come together from all walks of life. I know it sounds cheesy.

Maribelle: When people sing your songs back to you. Does that feel amazing too?

Nao: Everyone has their own experiences with song. It means one thing to me and it means something entirely different to somebody else. I have a song called ‘Apple Cherry’ which is a song about unrequited love and to this couple in London, they fell in love to this song. The girl in the relationship called me and said she wanted to propose to her girlfriend could you sing ‘Apple Cherry’ while I do it? I was like ‘Really? That’s not a love song about getting together’.

Maribelle: So she proposed at your show?

Nao: Yeah, she surprised her girlfriend with some tickets and after the show was done we set up the backroom with some candles and got a guitar – I didn’t play guitar. My guitarist was playing it and I was singing as she walked in. It was so emotional I could barely get through the song. It’s quite high as well so I was breaking my voice a bit.

Maribelle: Do you have any pre-show rituals that you have to do before you go on stage?

Nao: No, just warming up my voice. I don’t wear my shoes. For the first time in three years I wore shoes in Singapore for Laneway Festival because it was absolutely raining cats and dogs. I felt so uncomfortable and nervous, my knees were knocking together because if I can’t feel the floor I feel unsteady singing in front of so many people. I like to wear no shoes so I feel centred.

Maribelle: Is that part of your rider? Absolutely no shoes?

Nao: Yeah, someone comes and takes them off me!

Maribelle: Do you prefer performing or being in the studio?

Nao: It’s really close but performing takes over because being in the studio is two things; the first thing is that it is really beautiful to improvise and jam, but afterwards it becomes hard because it’s very rare that a song will come together quickly. Most of the time it’s back and forth and trial and error. You start questioning whether the song is good or not. So that can be quite tough. Whereas when you perform, the song is done. The music is out. People know it already. You can interpret it differently, the band can perform it differently, so I like the freedom of performing.

Maribelle: Less stress, you’re just jamming out on stage.

Nao: Yeah, you’ve already done all the hard work.

Maribelle: So when it comes to songwriting, as I know you produce as well, what is your process? Do you write the beat first, do you sit at a piano – what’s your go-to?

Nao: It’s always the beat first, usually some sort of harmony – bassline or chords then drum downs for the feel of the song. Then I can start adding vocals.

Maribelle: Do you always start from scratch or do you have the beat sent to you?

Nao: I always start from scratch. I should probably have some beats sent to me it would be a lot quicker. Maybe just some samples so I can jam to them instead of my usual go-to stock sounds.

Maribelle:  What are your must have plugins?

Nao: The ones I have are Komplete by Kontakt and in there they have endless plugins. They’re my ingredients. I like Drum Lab which is cool. I have some Arturia plugins with some cool synths in there like the Wurlitzer or Rhode sounds.

Maribelle: So, the expensive ones.

Nao: They are expensive, aren’t they? But it’s your art though. It’s a lot of money but it’s your instrument – imagine buying a bass for just one sound and then a bunch of pedals. So in comparison it’s not that much.

Maribelle: I know you have your own label ‘Little Tokyo Recordings’. I also have my own label called ‘Crush Club’ so I’m really interested to know why you started yours?

Nao: I wasn’t signed and I don’t know if anyone was particularly interested in me. So I had to put my music out and started my label and put my EPs out on there. And then people became interested. So I signed my label to a bigger label. It was helpful because I could bring other acts up. Which I’ve started to do now that my album is done.

Maribelle: I heard that song you put out recently by Tom Tripp. ‘Aurelia’ is so good. How did you come across him?

Nao: He’s from London, so he’s a Soundcloud find.

Maribelle: They always are.

Nao: I heard ‘Aurelia’ and I hit him up and he was like “It’s so weird that you’re in contact because you have a song called ‘Adore’ and that’s what inspired ‘Aurelia’. There’s some chord in the bridge that inspired my song.” And I just thought that is weird. So that’s how we found each other. He’s a talented human and plays heaps of instruments and is super young. Damn! Damn him. So you’ll hear more from Tom definitely.

Maribelle: Are you proactively looking for talent or do you wait for people to approach you?

Nao: Tom is someone we found online. I’ve just come across another wicked producer called Narx who is also from London. I only stretch my tentacles as far as my own street. But there’s so much time and he’s a wicked producer in the same vain as Kaytranada and Mura Masa. So we’ve got in the studio soon. I don’t think there’s any prescribed way of finding artists. If it feels right, it just comes along.

Maribelle: With your label would you say you’re more part of the creative process or the business process?

Nao: It’s definitely both. I’m quite hands on but with Tom Tripp ‘Aurelia’ was already made and he has loads of demos. It’s up to the artist really but he wants to get in the studio and do some rearranging of some stuff and strengthen some songs. With Narx he is primarily a producer and wanted a singer for some lyrics and melodies so that’s something I can help with. It’s up to them how they want to be as artists. I can only do so much. I can organise things such as photos and stuff but they have to come up with their own creative ideas themselves because they know themselves best.

Maribelle: Do you think you will be part of that project?

Nao: I don’t know. I’ll be part of it in a writing sense, I don’t know if we will do a duet that could be fun. Maybe for his album?

Maribelle: How exciting. What can people expect from you in 2017?

Nao: New music for sure. I’ll probably do an EP before the next album and explore music outside of the world I’m in. I’d like to collaborate a bit more.

Maribelle: Branch out beyond London?

Nao: Yeah!



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