Last year, Japanese soul and R&B phenomenon Nao Yoshioka broke several industry molds when the U.S. re-release of her 2016 album “The Truth” (her third record in three prolific years) received overwhelmingly positive reviews across the board, making her the first Japanese soul singer to cause major waves in the birthplace of the genre. Rolling Stone had called the album “impeccable neo-soul” and the lead single “I Love When” had jumped to #32 on the Urban Adult Contemporary Billboard chart, signaling that American audiences were eager for the earnest, soulful style she was bringing.
Nao recently dropped her fourth album “Undeniable” in August on Sweet Soul Records. With a dream-list of producers and musicians curated to align the perfect musical collaboration for each theme, paring Nao with producers and musicians who resonated with the message behind each song. In addition to bringing on key collaborators from her last album like Musicman Ty, producer of “I Love When” and Khari Mateen (Jill Scott, The Roots) back at the engineering helm, Undeniable adds King of Indie Soul, Eric Roberson, Lorenzo Johnson (Ledisi, Maysa), Chris Dave and The Drumhedz keyboardist Daniel Crawford, and A Touch of Jazz production team alumni and Grammy-winning producer Vidal Davis (Ne-yo, Usher) to the lineup. The album also features young and upcoming producers/artists like Devin Morrison and Kiah Victoria.
I got the chance to interview Nao Yoshioka after her performance at WBLS Circle of Sisters, check it out below.
Interview with Nao Yoshioka at WBLS Circle of Sisters
We are here with Nao Yoshioka. She just killed her performance here at WBLS Circle of Sisters. How are you feeling?
I feel great! I feel great. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to perform at the WBLS Circle of Sisters, and I had so much fun performing out there – so thank you so much for having me!
For those who may not know who Nao is, can you give some insight to who you are for the fans?
I’m from Japan, but I put out my first album in the United States in 2015 – it’s called The Truth. Last year, I finally moved to the United States and fully started my career here. I put out my newest album, the third album in the United States – it’s called Undeniable, out August 16th.
Okay, so are you excited about that?
Oh my god, yes. I’ve been waiting for this moment.
You’re originally from Osaka, Japan – a place with a lot of culture. Can you give us a little background into what it’s like growing up in Japan?
I grew up in Osaka, Japan and my family has an art background. My mother is a dress designer, my father is an interior coordinator, and both of my sisters are painters. Growing up, I thought I would become a painter or something, but my sister was a big fan of international music – like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. At that time, Sister Act 2 was huge in Japan. That’s when I discovered gospel music and Lauryn Hill, and I started to listen to that kind of music and always wanted to sing it. When I turned 15 years old, I joined a band and started to sing in front of people – that’s where I felt like, “Oh my God, this is it. This is what I’m looking for.” When I was 21 years old, I moved to New York and studied soul music, gospel music, and blues.
So you talk about your sister. Is she the introduction between you and gospel music – well, you and soul music?
Yeah, I think so! She was a big fan of watching the MTV Awards and MTV. There was little international music out there, and that was the only chance she had to listen to that kind of music, so she definitely raised me that way.
Growing up in Japan, who would you say were some of your soul idols that really inspired you to make music?
Soul idol would be Aretha Franklin. I practiced so many times to just sound like her. I wanted to sing like her for a long time – I remember practicing “Natural Woman” in my room.
And your album Undeniable – your fourth studio album just dropped August 16th. Can you give us some insight on that album, what you’re talking about, and maybe your favorite track?
This album is about re-discovering myself again. I couldn’t make an album the past two years because I’ve been releasing new albums almost every year – I was constantly doing the tour, or doing the festivals, recording, and putting out the music. All these things were happening, but I needed to step back and focus on myself: what makes me happy and who I really am. I couldn’t answer a simple question at the end. So, making this album was a kind of rebirth and rediscovery of my true self again. There are so many feelings in this album. It’s so difficult to pick one, but I think message-wise, “Liberation” was a very important song for me.
Can you describe your transition from Japan to America? I know it was a big jump, both culturally and just how people are.
Yes! Before releasing my debut album, my dream was to become an international artist. Luckily, I met the amazing label Sweet Soul Records, who has the same dream as me. When I put out my first album in Japan in 2013, my album was all English. We were aiming to spread this amazing music out to the world.
Moving to the United States was always something I wanted to do. In 2016, I had a chance to perform at the Capital Jazz Festival, and it was my first time performing at a huge festival in the United States. Lalah Hathaway performed on the same stage hours after I did. I was the opening act for Lalah Hathaway, Marcus Miller, and Eric Roberson. All these amazing artists were there, and I felt the calling – my gut telling me that I have to live with my desire. I have to make an action to change my life and achieve my real dream.
The next year, I had the chance to perform at the Capital Jazz Cruise, then I met Robert Glasper and all these other artists. I had a chance to talk with them. It was a life-changing experience: I realized “you have to come here”, and there is so much more that I can grow into.
Then, last year, I signed with a booking agency called Maria Matias, and it was the biggest reason why I moved to the United States to start my career. It was a big, big decision, but it was necessary and I feel so happy that I did it.
Any last words?
Thank you so much for listening! I just put out my album Undeniable on August 16th. I put my soul into this album. I really believe that a lot of people can relate to this album’s messages, and I hope to see you guys somewhere! Please find me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter – and just message me! I’m going to have a lot of shows in the United States and I hope I can see you guys there! Thank you!
Be sure to follow Nao on Twitter (@Nao_Worldwide) & Instagram (@Nao_Yoshioka)