NADINE SHAH has never been one to shy away from difficult conversations. The daughter of immigrants – a part-Norwegian mother and Pakistani father – she was born in Whitburn, South Tyneside and is a long-time spokesperson for mental health awareness. Her first album was written around the time that two close friends took their own lives, and she plunged herself into confronting the stigmas around depression and anxiety as a way of working through her feelings. After the Brexit vote and subsequent societal upheavals, Shah found herself in a similar position when confronting conversations around immigration. So, she channelled those thoughts – and often the anger they provoked – into her third album, Holiday Destination. Shah’s gothic vocals are more understated on Holiday Destination than on previous releases, but lose none of their substantial power in facing up to the serious subject matter.
Ahead of Shah’s upcoming Liverpool show, Cath Bore caught up with her over the phone to delve further into the background behind the record. The interview took place the day after Oprah Winfrey became the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award at The Golden Globes, which makes for a pretty obvious pace to start…
I read your tweets in response, and how inspired you were by Oprah Winfrey’s speech about #MeToo, privilege, and the rights of a free press…
It was bloody beautiful. With a lot of these awards shows everybody makes a speech and it becomes a bit ‘Oh well…,’ but hers, fucking hell! It was heartfelt and honest. It was lush. She was inspired by her mother, who inspired her, and goes on to pass on the baton to inspire younger women. That was the crux of it and it was beautiful have her stand there and say, ‘Enough’s enough.’ Very cool. You know, sometimes it feels like T-shirt politics? But, for me, [this] feels real. And there’s massive change happening.
What movement do you want to see in the music industry?
More diversity, and not just a gender issue… We have to make more of an effort to encourage those from ethnic backgrounds and minorities. ‘If you can see it, you can be it’, sounds like such a cheesy slogan, but there are young South Asian girls that get in touch with me because my profile’s getting a little bit bigger and they’re like, ‘Oh wow, there’s a South Asian girl that makes music.’ I think we need to nurture people from all different backgrounds.
You’re seen as more of a political musician because of Holiday Destination, the theme of immigration showing itself so strongly.
People were saying, ‘Ah, you’re a political musician now,’ but my first album [2013’s Love Your Dum And Mad] was a reaction towards those suffering with mental illness. I viewed that as a political album because people with mental illnesses needed to be taken seriously, to help dispel the stigma. So, I’ve always been ranting about something.
You’re a northern woman. It’s what we do.
[Laughs] I’m always complaining about something! It didn’t feel to me that I was doing anything different [with Holiday Destination], but as soon as you do something overtly political it does so many things. I was nervous about being perceived as being opportunistic, really nervous about dividing an audience, nervous about social media response, people trolling you, but the reaction’s been lush. Heart warming… it’s been really inspiring.
Why did you concentrate on the theme of immigration for the record?
Because ‘immigrant’ all of a sudden became a dirty word. There was a noticeable rise in nationalism, globally, and a decline in empathy. When did people stop caring about other people? I don’t understand it, so I wanted to write about it more. I don’t want to point the finger and say, ‘You’re wrong, racist, you’re this,’ because that’s not going to get us anywhere. I wanted to open up a dialogue and immigration has been such a hot topic, especially in the past couple of years, and it divides people. I genuinely don’t think the majority of people who voted to leave the EU are racist – [but] they get branded as it. There have been a lot of people who’ve been manipulated, the most vulnerable people in society have been targeted, told immigration is a problem, [but] it’s definitely not the biggest problem that we have!
Fingers were pointed, especially towards the North of England, and all these people who consider themselves very liberal, left wing and very well educated, were coming out and saying, ‘They’re racist’. That’s not an informed thing to say. It’s callous and it’s not opening a dialogue. There was no trying to understand why people voted to leave: was it a protest vote, or because this isn’t working and this isn’t working? Is it because they’ve been manipulated? No one was speaking about that. It was frustrating.
You went to live in London aged 16 with the intent of becoming a jazz singer, and ended up a very opinionated songwriter instead. What happened, Nadine?
I got bored of that quite quickly, because it meant singing other people’s songs and there wasn’t a very young audience. I was hanging out with people three times my age. And they were great, but I wanted to make angry music, as an angry teenager. It was difficult finding a producer for the first album. I met so many producers and all of them wanted to do the same thing: ‘OK, we’ll put strings on this bit and put your vocal really loud in the mix,’ and I think if I’d taken that route I’d have ended up, kind of… I mean, I love Adele, I’m not slagging her off – but I’d have made a safe album. I’d probably be more successful!
You’d be rich.
I wouldn’t be living in Tottenham! [But] I didn’t want to make commercial music and fame wasn’t a thing that attracted me. I wanted to make something more challenging.
As an ambassador for Independent Venue Week 2018 and vocal supporter of the Agent Of Change bill, it’s obvious grassroots music and venues are important to you.
Independent music venues are the backbone of the music industry, it’s where we nourish and grow potential talent. If you go through any archive of the greats, David Bowie or somebody, and look back at these tiny venues they played in… look at the 100 Club and the number of amazing artists that’s hosted. They really are in jeopardy. If we don’t take care of them it’ll be a sad thing.
Last year you composed music for theatre, a production of Get Carter. Is this a new direction for Nadine Shah?
It’s a completely new discipline to work to but it’s something I’m going to be doing more of this year and next year, working in theatre. My artist name is my real name but with that there are a few challenges. I can’t veer too far off the path in terms of the work I do because it’s almost like a brand. But there’s a bit of freedom when your name’s not the focal point on something, to be more experimental.
I’ve been listening to your radio show on London’s Soho Radio. You play a very eclectic mix of music. I know every radio presenter claims that, but you really do…
I’m watching more live music for it than I ever have, [I’m out] about three nights a week. And I’m getting sent new music all the time, and I’m having to listen to older music as well. It’s good for my trade. I treat my music like a proper job. It’s enhancing my knowledge. It’s given me a kick up the arse.
It’s good for girls and younger women to see female broadcasters talking knowledgably about music.
And having women play other women as well. I did a talk with Shirley Manson in Germany a few months ago and we were talking about women in music and one thing I’ve noticed is that I wasn’t getting a lot of support from other female artists. I was getting offered tour supports from male-fronted bands and I was wondering why that was. I don’t actually blame the women, I think we have been conditioned to think that it’s a competition and there’s only room for one woman. Female solo artists, oddly, have become a genre. It’s not a frickin’ genre! It’s been great having the radio show and being able to showcase amazing female talent – pretty humbling, actually – and I’ve had a great reaction from loads of young women sending me demos and stuff.
Your performance onstage has changed quite a lot over the last year, in part because you’re no longer playing instruments live.
It’s freed me up to perform properly. I think I’m doing my job better now, I’m not restricted by having to play piano. It’s a more visceral performance, especially with the nature of the new album; a lot more energetic, and I think my fans got a bit of a shock with this album performed live. Before I was quite static and giving a sombre, intense performance. It’s still as intense, but there’s a lovely energy; I come off stage knackered every night now, it’s like I’ve been to the gym.
You earn your fee!
Well, it feels like it now! It’s the only tour where I’ve lost weight. I’m like, why? I’ve been drinking loads, eating crap…! I’m so passionate about the subject of this album that it feels like giving any less than 100% live to an audience would be a massive injustice.
What are your plans for 2018?
I’m learning to play lots of instruments. My house is getting cluttered, my house mate hates it. Every day she comes in and says, ‘What’s that? Is that an accordion?’ And I’m, ‘No…’ My friend bought me back this instrument from India. It’s a little electronic box, like a weird modulator, and it makes these wild synth sounds so piercingly loud. It only does two volumes, one quiet and one very loud… so, obviously, it’s very loud all the time.
I want to have my next album out by next year, too, so I’m going to focus on writing. And I’ll be working with some younger artists in the North East, but it’ll be very much behind the scenes. It won’t be on Twitter and there won’t be news articles about it. So, this year I’m going to be a little bit quieter. A little bit…
Nadine Shah plays Leaf on 1st February. Holiday Destination is out now via 1965 Records.