Chris Wells meets Nao Yoshioka.
Supported by Debra Debs’ band, Nao Yoshioka’s UK stage debut at Streatham’s Hideaway club in the middle of last month suffered a little from lack of rehearsal time, but was certainly well-received by those present. It was another important step for an artist determined to break away from the all-conquering J-pop of her homeland – one that’s further enhanced by the recent UK release of her 2013 debut album, The Light, on Sweet Soul Records.
Nao’s story reveals that she’s become used to moving beyond her comfort-zone to make progress. Growing up in Osaka, her teenage dreams of becoming a singer were constantly thwarted by talent scouts suggesting she sing only in her own language and make pop for the Japanese market. At age 19 she even gave up on her ambitions for a couple of years. Then a trip to New York – the deepest of deep-ends for any budding soul vocalist – brought her back from the brink.
“I really fell in love with soul music after I went to New York,” she tells me the day after the Hideaway gig. “I’d grown up listening to my sister’s Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey albums, but in New York I heard so many great singers. Many of them were a lot better than me, but I knew if I practiced hard, I could make it too. I realised soul music could change my life.”
Even at her most discouraged, Nao had never seriously considered jacking it all in for a nine-to-five: her whole family is into the arts in one way or another – mum is a dress designer, dad an interior designer, both sisters are painters. So she took the plunge and sang at an open-mic night at Village Underground.
“I sang Natural Woman, trying to be like Aretha Franklin, and they gave me a great reception. That helped my confidence. But I still didn’t know anyone in the city, so I used social media and sent a message out to all the Japanese people who lived in New York who had any kind of music connection. Luckily, that led me to a meeting with a very good vocal coach, Stacey Benson, who became my mentor for the next two-and-a-half years. He’s a great pianist too: he played with Patti LaBelle and others. He advised me to take an audition at the Apollo, so I did that.”
That’s right: the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where Amateur Night has broken the wings of many a budding artist before they’d had a chance to fly. But not Nao: she came second on her first attempt. And then she also did well in the McDonald’s Gospel Fest.
“It was great, I was very happy, but New York life was… I felt like I was still a student. Even after the competitions, nothing happened, life didn’t change. So I decided to go back to Japan, and see what I could do there with what I had learned.”
Which is were she ran into Naoki Yamanouchi, boss of Sweet Soul Records, who now takes up the story.
“Nao came back in 2012. She didn’t know anyone in Tokyo at that time. My label is known in Japan for neo-soul, soul, R&B and jazz, and that’s rare back home, because 95% of music is J-pop. Anyway, Nao came to one of our shows and we talked and then I went to see one of her shows too.
“At the time, I was planning a first compilation on my label made up of tracks from around the world, but I also wanted to feature one Japanese artist singing an original song on it. I had held some auditions, but when I saw her live… in fact, on her show she said something between the songs that made me think. She said that major labels in Japan had all told her to sing in Japanese and do J-pop, but she didn’t want to. She sang A Change Is Gonna Come, and then it hit me that she should be the one to make the change for herself. And that’s how the song Make The Change by Nao Yoshioka became our first original track on Sweet Soul.”
Nao’s first complete album soon followed. The Light is half cover songs/half original material, and was recorded in three different countries – the US, Japan and The Netherlands – with artists from five different nations. Guest contributions include Shirma Rouse [Netherlands], Brian Owens [US], ORLY [Australia], Sacha Vee [New Zealand], Dani Elliott [US] and Takuya Kuroda [Japan], the Blue Note-signed trumpeter based in New York who plays a central role in José James band.
Her second album, Rising, we review in our May issue and has been available in Japan since April last year. It concentrates on original material, featuring 12 new songs and only one cover. Nao wrote a lot of the material herself.
“We are aiming to develop my career carefully in the different countries around the world,” says Nao. “The second album will be released in the UK when the time is right. For now you have The Light. I’ll be back in London soon, though, you can count on that.”