And Then Life Was Beautiful

Nao

And Then Life Was Beautiful

On 2018’s Saturn, Neo Jessica Joshua further broadened her sound (self-described neatly as “wonky funk”), exploring fame, spirituality, and romantic turbulence through a luminous astrological lens. The problem that beset preparations for studio album three in November 2019, therefore, was fairly ironic. “I just didn’t have any space,” Joshua—better known as Nao—tells Apple Music. “My own studio in East London is really, really small. So I hired a bigger space and invited loads of musicians and friends down just to jam and create and make interesting ideas.” Within 10 days, the nucleus of And Then Life Was Beautiful had formed, followed by periods of creative tinkering sparked by the unsettling (a pandemic) and utterly joyous (the birth of her daughter, in spring 2020). Fittingly, the final album honors change in all aspects (including breakups—a subject tapped into majestically on tracks including “Messy Love,” “Glad That You’re Gone,” and “Good Luck”) and triumphantly toasts femininity (see the Lianne La Havas duet “Woman”). It’s an album that bears its creative and personal liberation and wisdom well—bolstered by spoken-word interludes from UK poet Sophia Thakur. “It's a really cool way of tying a project together and providing a bit more context,” she says. “I love interludes, and I can remember them being on so many great albums, like Kendrick Lamar’s [good kid, m.A.A.d city] and old-school albums from Jill Scott [Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds, Vol. 1], where they often play around with poetry or conversations.” Below, Nao talks through her triumphant third album, track by track.
“And Then Life Was Beautiful” “The first lyrics are ‘Change came like a hurricane, 2020 hit us differently/And even though I didn't want it, the slow life got ahold of me.’ It’s about us all going through the pandemic at the same time, but also a reminder that better days are ahead.”
“Messy Love” “This is a song about creating boundaries. I think everyone has experienced someone in their life that's not good for them, whether it’s a girlfriend-boyfriend situation, a family member or friend, and when they're around you, they bring negative energy and create situations. It's not something everyone’s born with, to be able to put up boundaries or learn how to say goodbye to these people. So this song, and the track after, pays homage to that.”
“Glad That You’re Gone” “This track is about moving on and finding the people that pour life into you and water you. I've been through enough to know what I can and can’t deal with—and so I’m better at spotting red flags [in relationships]. If I see a couple from early, then I’m cutting it, dead.”
“Antidote” (feat. Adekunle Gold) “My daughter loves Adekunle—when she was born, I would use his songs to stop her crying. And I was excited, like, ‘This is a sign to reach out!’ I did, and discovered he had also just had a baby. So this song came together really quickly and easily. There was something about listening to Adekunle when my daughter was crying and her stopping and how it changes the energy in the room and lifted our spirits. And I wanted to recreate something again like that, so an Afrobeats vibe felt like the right space to finally meet each other.”
“Burn Out” “I’ve been like diagnosed with a condition called chronic fatigue syndrome, which is quite hard for a lot of people to relate to. But I basically don't have very, very much energy at all and I can't really get through the day doing ordinary tasks without having to sleep or rest for long periods of time. And so it's been this way for three years. In my first year I thought: ‘It’s just burnout?’ I would say burnout is kind of a lesser version of that. A similar feeling, you're knackered, but if you take a month off you’ll be back up on your feet. And so it was easier for me to sing ‘Burn Out’ than singing ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.’”
“Wait” “This song represents lessons that I never knew and if I had known maybe situations would be different. For me, in this relationship situation, I ran away instead of staying and working through it. And learning the lesson that we are human and we all humans make mistakes. The way to deal with them isn't to run away. Going through rough times in a relationship sometimes means that it can end up being stronger. But I guess this song is almost like an apology to myself in a way.”
“Good Luck” (feat. Lucky Daye) “The songs with features came about very organically as we were thrown together in some way. I met with Lucky Daye last year; we were both nominated for Grammy Awards. I met him on the red carpet. We were mutual fans and in that moment agreed to get into the studio. So two days later, we came up with 'Good Luck.’”
“Nothing’s for Sure” “This track is a reminder to live in the moment. With the pandemic, you don't really know what's around the corner, so you learn about practicing being present and going with the flow.”
“Woman” (feat. Lianne La Havas) “This track brings together the idea that there's space for more than just one girl. Lianne is someone I've been a fan of for a long time. We kept bumping into each other at festivals, as the two British female and Black sort of alternative soul artists. And we agreed to work together, when the timing was right. Being a female artist can sometimes feel like only one woman can be big at one thing. I remember back in the day: ‘Oh, is it Rihanna or is it Beyoncé?’ ‘Is it Nicki or is it Cardi?’ So we’re playing with that notion, because actually there is space for all of us—to wear our crowns and celebrate women as a whole, just the fucking incredible species that we are.”
“Better Friend” “I won't go into the personal story here, but I guess we all have those friends that we were really close with and somehow we drifted apart from. This song serves the idea of sending that person a message, like, ‘I hope you're thriving in life, I hope you're smiling, I hope you're getting everything that you've dreamed of.’ That’s where my head was at when I was writing this song.”
“Postcards” (feat. serpentwithfeet) “This song is two love stories happening in parallel to each other. serpentwithfeet is welcoming a man into his life; they're in London, and they're looking at the gray day, and it's all really beautiful to them, and it's really exciting. Mine is about letting go of someone. I’m going through old memories and thinking about how I still think the person is an amazing human. It's unusual that you're going to have a Black man sing about loving another man on music, and having space for that, I think, is really beautiful.”
“Little Giants” “This track is about finding out someone is not the person you thought they were—and explores the different emotions around that. I think that's really prevalent now, in the age of social media, and especially online dating when you're planning on meeting a person, you don't really know what you're getting or who you're really speaking to.”
“Amazing Grace” “I was working with [UK producer] Maths Time Joy. He was playing guitar, and the lyric 'Amazing Grace' kept coming to me—like it's sung so beautifully on the chords. But I was like, what does it mean to me? I took that and turned it into this idea of facing one's fear of failing—I think that's definitely one of my biggest fears. This song's just exploring the fear of failure, and what happens if actually you do just go for it.”

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