Having flown the nest at 17 to pursue a career as a jazz singer in London, Nadine Shah is well known for her formidably individual tone and fearless approach to songwriting, as she holds nothing back with her politically infused lyrics. Influenced by artists such as Nina Simone, The Beach Boys, Dolly Parton, Frida Kahlo and Arthur Russel, her sound has often been described as a blend between PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, with her brooding, intensely atmospheric cocktail of stylish gothic pop and jazz-kissed indie rock nodding to the likes of Anna Calvi and Richard Hawley. 

brooding, intensely atmospheric cocktail of stylish gothic pop and jazz-kissed indie rock

Nadine has issued a series of evocative singles and a couple of EPs, Aching Bones and Dreary Town, before releasing her debut album Love Your Dum and Mad in 2013. Her 2015 follow-up Fast Food explores both the passionate and dark side of relationships as well as the stigma that surrounds mental illness. 

On her third studio album Holiday Destination, released last year, Nadine’s darkly powerful and classy post-punk holds little back as she explores the relentless cycle of doom broadcast on the news these past few years, covering everything from the Syrian refugee crisis, Trump’s election, the EU referendum and the rise of nationalism. 

Released via 1965 Records, Holiday Destination is Nadine’s most political album to date and was nominated for the Mercury Prize alongside some big names in the business including Arctic Monkeys, Jorja Smith, Lily Allen, Wolf Alice and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. 

Nadine’s darkly powerful and classy post-punk holds little back as she explores the relentless cycle of doom broadcast on the news these past few years

Nitelife had the pleasure of chatting to Nadine about her third studio album and its influences, her Mercury Prize nomination, as well as what’s in store for her Bristol show on 3 December at SWX. 

Nadine Shah interview

It is clear that Nadine has always been socially and politically aware; her first two records touch on topics such as identity, as she explores her own personal experiences of racism and feeling culturally adrift, as well as serving as a reflection upon the complications of relationships and a world obsessed with instant gratification. In Holiday Destination, Nadine takes a step away from writing lyrics based on her own perspective to document the plight of others.

Holiday Destination is a bit of a departure from the other two albums in that it’s more visceral and has more of a political message’, explains Nadine. ‘It’s been a bit of a bizarre year for the album. Despite the fact that it was released last year, it keeps growing, it’s like the plague, it just keeps getting bigger! It is a lovely thing and I think it’s down to the fact that people are generally really frustrated. The political climate is becoming worse and worse and people want their musicians and artists to voice their frustrations for them.’

The political climate is becoming worse and worse and people want their musicians and artists to voice their frustrations for them

Unsurprisingly, more and more artists are dealing with political themes and many more young people are getting engaged in politics. In Bristol we are seeing this via bands such as IDLES who are well-known for their aggressive approach to current affairs, presenting political issues that we rarely see from other bands. While the past year is said to have signalled a new dawn for the rock’n’roll protest record, Nadine believes that there are still not enough artists making music that reflects upon the current times;

Political artists that have been celebrated, I could count on one hand

‘Political artists that have been celebrated, I could count on one hand’ says Nadine, ‘as much as there are bands like IDLES and myself and Shame, really scraping the barrel here – Fleetwood Mac to an extent, Maximo Park… there really hasn’t been that many political artists around, which honestly, I’m pretty appalled by.

‘I respect people’s decisions to not make a political album’ continues Nadine, ‘because it can be quite daunting to do so, because it divides people so much. Though I hope that’s changing, I hope people look at what IDLES are doing and take inspiration from that.’

As a British Muslim with Norwegian and Pakistani heritage, Nadine is all too familiar with prejudice and exclusion surrounding concepts of ‘home’. Her brother Karim is a documentary writer and by the time she started writing Holiday Destination, he had been producing films on the refugee frontline for years. Predominantly working for Al Jazeera, Karim was making documentaries before the Syrian refugee crisis was on our screens and it was this that sparked Nadine’s concern and inspired her to write her most politically charged songs to date. 

‘I always found the work my brother did very inspiring and I’m very lucky to have been brought up in that household. My brother’s humanitarian work and political work has always been very present in my life growing up and I’ve always been very aware of how lucky I am in comparison to many others all over the world. Also having a Pakistani father who comes from a very poor background has meant that since a very young age I’ve been aware of other people’s sufferings and have always been reminded and encouraged by my family to work for other people.

It was pretty difficult in 2016 to write about anything else, to be hones

‘It was pretty difficult in 2016 to write about anything else, to be honest’ Nadine continues, ‘seeing those really harrowing images of people on the shores of Greece after having made that treacherous journey across the sea. Also, there has been this rise in nationalism and decline in empathy, and being a Muslim woman in that climate is a scary time, so that’s also part of what motivated me to make this album.’

Nadine Shah Holiday Destination

It was a 2014 news report that inspired the album title; as thousands of refugees and migrants arrived on the Greek island of  Kos, tourists were interviewed complaining that it was ruining their holiday.

the pair’s latest work showcases more of an up-tempo beat than the gothic introspection of her previous records

The album itself is a brilliantly courageous record and is a collaboration with producer and co-writer Ben Hiller, known for having produced albums for Depeche Mode, Suede, Elbow and Blur. Hiller has produced all three of Nadine’s albums and the pair’s latest work showcases more of an up-tempo beat than the gothic introspection of her previous records. This time round there is the introduction of a saxophone, courtesy of revered saxophonist Pete Wareham.

I didn’t want it to sound super down in the dumps

‘Because there is heavy political rhetoric present on the album, I didn’t want it to sound super down in the dumps’ explains Nadine, ‘I want it to instill hope and inspire people. I was listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder, who is one of the most political writers of all time, but a lot of people don’t realise that, because his music is very uplifting and funky and groove-led. Songs like Living for the City and Higher Ground are hugely political songs and that’s kind of what I wanted to do.

‘I wanted to play these songs to a room full of people and for them to leave with their activism charged rather than feeling hopeless. It was really important that we made the music more energetic than my past albums, so we introduced elements like the saxophone and the faster pace. I took inspiration from lots of afrobeat, Talking Heads… all that kind of stuff.’

With her music tackling such weighty injustices, I asked Nadine whether she’s ever been nervous about releasing a record that could potentially create such divided opinion, though the Mercury Prize nominee says that she’s mostly preaching to the converted. 

‘I guess if I were a bigger artist there would be more of a divided opinion, but the simple fact is that I’m an artist that gets played on Radio 6 Music. A certain type of paper writes about me and I exist within an echo chamber to an extent. That’s only started to change because of the Mercury Prize nomination, so I’m starting to speak to people outside of that echo chamber, which is a really lovely thing.

the simple fact is that I’m an artist that gets played on Radio 6 Music. A certain type of paper writes about me and I exist within an echo chamber

‘I was never too nervous, because I was very aware of where my music’s place would be in the world’ Nadine continues, ‘I knew the Daily Mail weren’t going to write about it, so I felt kind of safe in the knowledge that I’ve got a really lovely, kind, sound fanbase. I was mainly worried about seeming opportunistic more than anything, that was my biggest worry – people thinking that I was using other people’s stories to my own advantage. But that wasn’t the case and the reception was really lovely and super positive.’

Holiday Destination received much critical acclaim and, as well as the Mercury Prize nomination, was named by BBC Radio 6 Music as seventh-best album of 2017. I asked Nadine how she felt about being nominated:

‘It was about time!’ she says laughing. ‘I was super happy about it, but shocked because every album I’ve released, everyone’s said “this is the one you’re going to get nominated for” but it never happened. One thing I learnt, almost like a defence mechanism, is not to expect anything, because it’s not the most reliable of industries. I never really believe anything is going to happen until the day it does.

‘But it was amazing and I’m glad that it was this album, because to me it feels like the best work I’ve made and I was proud to nominated as a British Muslim woman with a political album alongside much bigger artists, so I was just really proud to be included on that list.’ 

I was proud to nominated as a British Muslim woman with a political album

Holiday Destination hasn’t just received critical acclaim either, her audiences are connecting to it too and her brooding indie rock is finding a swelling fanbase. 

‘The responses from the live shows have been pretty beautiful’ says Nadine, ‘and for each album the demographic has grown. I’m noticing more people of colour in the audience, more young women than we’ve ever had before. It’s a really hippy thing to say, but there is a really loving vibe – a kind of solidarity in the room. It does feel like when I’m talking to people after the show, or I’m watching people talk as they leave the venue, that people are leaving with their activism charged. I feel like there is this knock-on effect of positivity that the album has instilled in the audience.

Nadine Shah Holiday Destination interview

Nadine will be coming to Bristol on 3 December to perform in SWX and deliver her powerful state-of-the-world address. I asked her what we could expect: 

‘Well hopefully Big Jeff will be there, as he’s my good luck charm! I’ve never played a show in Bristol where he’s not been in the audience. So, if he’s not there (she says laughing) I’ll be very disappointed. I have this amazing artist supporting me, her stage name is Du Blonde and her lyrics are funny and really smart. There is something really inspiring about her and I’m really looking forward to performing together.

hopefully Big Jeff will be there, as he’s my good luck charm!

‘We’ll be trying out some new material, so I’ll be urging the audience to put their phones away for those ones, because they’re going to be a bit ropey’, she jokes. ‘I really love trying new stuff out live and seeing how they go down with the audience. It’s such an immediate response and people are always kind, but you can tell if they really like something. We’re having loads of fun with the live shows now; the more we play together with the band, the stronger the set is getting.’

Being one of the most visible Muslim women with a guitar, Nadine is constantly asked how she feels about the lack of women of colour in indie music, but it’s a discussion she’ll never get bored of;

‘I find it pretty shocking’ she says, ‘it was the Women in Music Awards the other night and I was presenting Skin from Skunk Anansie with an inspirational artist award. She was a huge inspiration for me growing up, I remember watching her on TV religiously. The genre of music that I loved was always made by men, white men – brilliant white men, even – but there was a real lack of women of colour. Then along came Skin and there was nobody that looked like her and her performance was so visceral – and I think she’s a hugely important artist in that sense. She did a very beautiful speech about how difficult it had been for her and how difficult it continues to be. 

it’s really important that these people are more visible to encourage other women of colour to get involved in the music industry

‘But I hope that’s starting to change’ Nadine continues. ‘We get some lovely responses from young South Asian women and young Muslim women who have seen us on TV. This sounds really cheesy, but there is this “if you can see it, you can be it” mentality and I think it’s really important that these people are more visible to encourage other women of colour to get involved in the music industry.

‘One thing that I want to say to young women that aspire to get into the music industry currently is that it’s actually an exciting time for us. There’s a new solidarity among women that’s not always been present within the music industry, because we were conditioned to be very competitive with one another. We were fooled into thinking that there was only room for one of us in whatever industry, but there’s a space now for young women to get into the industry and it’s a really exciting time.

‘I want to encourage those women to look out for all the funding and opportunities available, because there are so many of them’ Nadine continues,  ‘and I know a lot of people are missing them because they don’t know where to look. Go and check the socials religiously or the PRS foundation and UK Music – there are so many different organisations. I really want to encourage women at the moment to just go for it.’

I really want to encourage women at the moment to just go for it

Nadine Shah – 3 December, SWX
Tickets // swxbristol.com


nadineshah.co.uk
@nadineshah

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