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.
But the fact that Nao Yoshioka had not produced a new album in two years at the time betrayed an underlying creative discontent with the already substantial success she’d achieved up to that point, both in Japan and on the international festival circuit. That restless yearning for authenticity would serve as the catalyst for Yoshioka to take bold action and relocate herself to the U.S. in 2018 to make her name where the soul and R&B that she’d been singing her entire career had originated.
The result is Yoshioka’s much-anticipated fourth album Undeniable — released in August via Sweet Soul Records — which celebrates that universal existential moment of coming back home to the core of oneself, rediscovering one’s own intrinsic and undeniable true nature after losing it somewhere along the way. In addition to bringing on key collaborators from her last album like Musicman Ty and Khari Mateen (Jill Scott, The Roots), Yoshioka also worked with the likes of Eric Roberson, Lorenzo Johnson (Ledisi, Maysa), Chris Dave & The Drumhedz keyboardist Daniel Crawford, Grammy-winning producer Vidal Davis (Ne-Yo, Usher), Devin Morrison and Kiah Victoria.
I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with Nao Yoshioka and highlights from that interview are below. More on Undeniable and all things Nao Yoshioka can be found online at www.naoyoshioka.com.
Undeniable is your new album. How long did you spend making it?
Nao Yoshioka: When we started recording the album, it took about 8 months — it was a long process, including coming up with the core concept. I began to think about the concept and started writing lyrics more than a year ago, around 2017. It took longer this time because this album is the story of me rediscovering my true self. So, emotionally, I needed to overcome all the feelings that I had as a person.
I’m glad that I did it, because after I made this album, I really feel that I know myself better. I have more confidence, I know my story and I know who I really am. It was like therapy. This album definitely made me stronger, moreso than my previous albums.
Do you remember which song you wrote first for the album?
Nao Yoshioka: The single “Got Me” was the first song that we wrote, with Musicman Ty. The concept of this album is “the undeniable feeling that comes from bottom of my heart and I can’t deny it,” so I needed to dig deep and face my true feelings. So, the first thing that I did was to look back at my worst relationship, something that I never even wanted to talk about before. I had to face my pain and try to understand what it was. It was a hard process but I’m glad that I did it. The song became very emotional and powerful.
Undeniable is your third album in three years, I believe. Is writing something you try to do every day?
Nao Yoshioka: No, I couldn’t write for a long time. Those 3 years were a very difficult time for me. After I released my last album in 2016, I kind of lost my way. I didn’t know what I wanted to talk about or what kind music I wanted to sing. I wanted to do some dope music that would be a hit in that moment, but I wasn’t me. I couldn’t find my desire, my heart was empty. So I started by asking some very simple questions. What makes me happy? What makes me excited? What are my goals? I stepped back from what I was doing and I realized I was living someone else’s expectations.
My career was going amazingly well. I had my fans who loved my music, and I had a label who loved me unconditionally. But I started to force myself to make them happy, instead of what I wanted to do unconsciously, so I felt that I had lost my way. When I received an offer to perform during the Capital Jazz Fest and Capital Jazz Cruise, it inspired me so much. People like Eric Roberson, Lalah Hathaway, Robert Glasper, and Marcus Miller were performing, and I was preforming on the same stage as them. I also had the chance to talk with them, it was an eye-opening experience.
My motivation came back, and I wanted to make more good music and grow! I wanted to do music on the same level as them, so I decided to move to New York to follow my undeniable feeling coming from my heart. I needed to experience all the emotional things to be able to create this album. It became a story of me redefining my true self. I am proud of how much I’ve grown while making this album.
What do the coming months look like for you? Is a lot of your life planned out in advance?
Nao Yoshioka: I am going to open for Eric Roberson and Liv Warfield at end of September and during October. It will be 7 shows in 5 cities, so I am extremely excited! Also, I’m going to release a vinyl version of my new album Undeniable. I will keep making more music, so I’m hoping to release new music next year. I am fully-charged right now, so I will keep making and sharing my music with you guys!
Do you like being described as a “neo-soul” artist? Or is there a way you preferred to be thought of instead?
Nao Yoshioka: I consider myself to be a “soul singer,” because I do a lot of different styles of music, but it all comes from my soul. I sing from my soul. Soul music won’t ever die, it won’t get old, and it will live forever. I want to sing and make that kind of music.
Is there a career accomplishment that you are most proud of?
Nao Yoshioka: When my music went to #32 on Urban AC charts, I was so happy, but more than that I was extremely proud of my team. For this album and my last album, I released with the label called Sweet Soul Records based in Tokyo, Japan. I also work with a amazing radio promoter and PR team in United States.
Even though my label is a small independent label based in Tokyo, me and my team have some really big dreams and will make history someday! That’s what makes me so excited! It wasn’t easy, but we will keep making good music and go higher and higher! So I am so proud of my team. And as long as I am with them, I believe anything is possible, because we have faith and love the music that we create!
When not busy with music, where does your free time usually go?
Nao Yoshioka: I usually go to a café and do some writing, sometimes I paint. Also I love — love, love — makeup, so I’m always checking makeup YouTube videos and going to cosmetic stores trying new products!
What was the last concert you attended for fun?
Nao Yoshioka: The Roots Picnic in Philadelphia! OMG, it was so much fun. I love seeing Ari Lennox and Tank & The Bangas perform! I especially liked seeing H.E.R. She killed it. She was confident, beautiful, and the music was just grooving! It was an outdoor stage, beautiful weather, and everyone was singing along with her music. It was such an amazing day!
Finally, Nao, any last words for the kids?
Nao Yoshioka: First of all, big shout-out to The Hype Magazine for the questions! And thank YOU for reading this article. I just released my new album, Undeniable, which I put my entire soul into, so please check out my music. And If you feel moved, please let me know on my socials. I would love to hear how you guys feel it. I will do shows soon, so if I’m in your town, I hope to see you guys there! Thank you so much!