Nadine Shah lives to love

Steven Arroyo

Nadine Shah has noticed a depreciated spirit in the eyes of strangers lately. “It’s like the most, if not one of the most, expensive cities in the world, and you can feel the strain, and you can see it in people’s faces,” she says of her hometown, London, where she’s lived for 12 years. “People just look really, really tired recently, and quite sad. I think that London is very quickly losing a lot of its beauty and its charm because lots of the creatives are moving out of the city.”

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Shah, 29, knows she has a reputation for morose. Her formal 2013 debut LP, Love Your Dum and Mad (“mum and dad”), was a warmly-received winter storm, anchored by her voice and split into two parts; one half performed with her band, and the other by herself, mostly on piano. The album was dedicated to two close male friends of hers who fell victim to depression, one of whom was the artist behind its unsettling cover art.

On her forthcoming sophomore album, Fast Food (Apollo Records), Shah amplifies. Now inseparable from her full-time backing band, her songs sound darker and more fully formed, some contorted combination of her biggest influences, Mariah Carey and Scott Walker, with a constant wall of accompaniment behind her. Fast Food, like her debut, was produced by Ben Hillier, who’s worked on records for the likes of U2, Depeche Mode, and Blur. His presence is both more obvious and effective this time; single “Stealing Cars” is Shah’s most massive-sounding song yet, and it’s also her favorite from the album. She expanded over Skype from her new home neighborhood of Tottenham.

What was the nature of your upbringing in music?

My family isn’t particularly musical. There’s no one in my family that’s a musician, but my father has a really beautiful singing voice. He’s a businessman, though. He’s Pakistani, so the music he would listen to is from his own culture. He listened to loads of that when I was growing up, and I really fucking hated it. But whenever I was in the car with him, that was like his time, his space, and his music. So I had to tolerate it, and I think now I’ve grown to love it.

Being interviewed has almost been like some kind of counseling or therapy. It’s so weird. People will say, “Oh, I think you must have taken inspiration from your father’s music.” And I’m like, “No, not at all.” And they’re like, “No, no, we can hear it.” So maybe I’ve been subconsciously influenced by his music, but I’ve never made a conscious effort to emulate the things that I was hearing growing up. Music was kind of a thing that I had to discover myself, really, and I think when I was at art school was when I really started getting into music. My art teacher, my lecturer, she had heard me singing and said, “Why don’t you incorporate that into your artwork?” And then I went, “OK.” That’s when I really started writing my own compositions, when I was about 19.

Prior to that, I always had a big singing voice, so I would just sing pop tunes all the time, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, and then joined a gospel choir, and then I started doing jazz music.

Were you 19 when you decided that this was what you’d be doing for a living?

I think I decided that from a very young age, like 11, which is why I didn’t excel academically in school, unfortunately, because I was so distracted and also had quite an arrogant approach. It’s weird. I always thought I’d be a singer, and I think when I was younger I thought about being famous a lot. Whereas that changed when I was 19, and I wanted to be an artist, and I wanted to be a musician. But yeah, I was pretty dead set on the idea from 19 onwards.

I’m nearing the end of my 20s, and I’ve found myself becoming a much calmer person and quite reflective. When you start nearing your 30s, I don’t know about everybody else, but I’ve become very reflective on my past.

It’s been two years since your debut. Overall, are you satisfied with how it all went – the process, the reception, the rewards? Was there anything you were dissatisfied with?

The only element of dissatisfaction with the first album was that I actually completed the album in 2010, and it wasn’t released until 2013. But I’d also written the songs quite a while before 2010. So when that album was finally released, it didn’t feel like a very clear representation of where I was musically at that time. Because I’d started playing guitar, I’d started listening to other music – although I was so, so happy and really pleased with the reception the album got because I was very aware of the fact that it wasn’t a commercial-sounding album. It’s written in two parts. It’s quite an odd piece of work, and it’s very, very macabre. But despite that, not being on a major label or anything, we still got quite a lot of critical acclaim and quite a big audience, so I was overwhelmed with the response to it, and quite surprised, actually. But yeah, there was quite a lot of frustration with that album, just in that it took so long to facilitate making it and then releasing it.

That album was dedicated to two friends of yours who had recently taken their own lives.

Yeah, it was quite a political album, I suppose, because especially in interviews afterwards, I was having to talk about mental illness a lot. And also, I had to learn a lot about mental illness, having lost two friends to this horrible disease. So now I’ve kind of become like a spokesperson for mental illness, but because of that responsibility, I’ve had to educate myself a lot on the subject, that I know what I’m talking about and I can offer good, helpful, useful advice, and safe advice as well.

Another friend of mine also took his life last year. It’s a really sad thing, but there’s a lot of people I know who have had it happen to them as well. It’s such a sad, sad thing, but it’s one of these illnesses that, unfortunately, in medicine we don’t know so much about it yet. It’s still quite alien. So that’s one of the positive things of that album. I’m very pleased that I wrote about that type of thing.

Did you find that the memory of your friends carried forth in any way? Were they still playing a role in this album?

Yeah. It’s weird – I’m nearing the end of my 20s, and I’ve found myself becoming a much calmer person and quite reflective. When you start nearing your 30s, I don’t know about everybody else, but I’ve become very reflective on my past. Especially where relationships are concerned, and this album is all about a succession of short, intense love affairs. And all the songs are essentially portraits of all these people that I have loved and do love. And three of the boys that I know that aren’t with us today, a few of the songs are portraits of them as well, so yeah, I can’t see myself stopping writing about them yet.

So that still carried through, although there’s a few more characters that play a part in it as well. Some recent ex-boyfriends. It’s mainly about people that I’ve dated – and a lot of them are still living! I was speaking to my manager about it, and I’ve got a really bloody dark sense of humor so you’ll have to forgive me, but I was saying to him, like, “fucking hell,” and he went “What?” And I was like, “I can’t talk about this in the press because people are gonna think that either I’m cursed, I’ve driven them to it, or I’m some kind of black widow, you know? Nadine Shah! Don’t date her! You’ll die!” But it’s because I’m always attracted to a certain type of person: disenfranchised, very creative, beautiful humans. And yeah, a lot of them have suffered from these mental illnesses.

As far as the sound of Fast Food – it’s more of a “band” album. There’s a lot less of you alone on the piano.

I think that performing live, taking the first album on tour and performing that live, that really informed the sound for this album. There were certain songs on the first album, the heavier side, ones like “To Be a Young Man”, whenever I played those live, I’d get a real kick out of it, and I could see my bandmates around me really enjoying what they were playing because they got to – oh God, I don’t want to say “rock out.” Shit, how else can I say “rock out”? They really got to rock out! [laughs] They could make full use of their instruments and their talents on those songs, and so I was bearing that in mind when I was writing this album. So when I was writing bass parts with Ben Hillier, my producer, I was thinking about my bassist at the time, thinking, “I want to write a bass line he’s going to really enjoy playing.” So there’s a track on the new album called “Fool”, and my bassist, he can’t help but grin when that bass line comes in. He loves playing it.

Because I’m essentially a solo artist and I have session musicians playing these songs, I want to make it as enjoyable as possible for them. And yeah, on this album, it really is, and that’s how we recorded the album – we recorded it all live, so in a really huge, live room, and we’re all in a really massive circle, and we’re all facing each other when we’re playing, and it’s great. Because it’s recorded live, the tempos increase when everyone feels it and they decrease when they feel it, and I think it feels much more natural, and I prefer that way of recording.

You’ve had a big-name producer behind both albums in Ben Hillier.

Yeah, the guy’s a fuckin’ legend [laughs]. I was terrified of him when I first met him. First of all, I was shocked he agreed to work with me. He hadn’t really worked with many female solo artists before. We met over a cup of coffee. He’d heard one song I’d put on YouTube, and luckily it’s been taken down because it’s so cringe-worthy. It was awful. I’ll put it back up at some point because I think it’s quite sweet. 

But yeah, he’d only heard one song, and it was kind of over this cup of coffee that we decided we were going to make the whole album together, without hearing any more music, just because we have the same kind of ethos in our approach to making music. So much of our musical taste is the same. Can is his favorite band, and possibly my favorite band too. I love the work he’s made before, previously. I mean, the reason I wanted to work with him was because of Think Tank that he made with Blur because I think he really captured the environment and the landscape they recorded in better than anybody else I’d ever heard do that before. He’s a proper talent, and I’ll be working with him until one of us croaks it.

My first album and this album are the first albums where Ben has actually had as much creative involvement, so I consider everything that we’ve made together a complete collaboration. Ben does add to the melodies, and he will add guitar parts, bass lines. A lot of that is Ben – I can’t take full credit for it all.

It sounded to me like with this album, you were more prepared for a lot of people to hear it. It seems like a more deliberate coming-out project for you. Do you agree with that?

Yeah, I do, and I suppose a lot of it was me trying to prove a point and make some kind of a statement in that – people wouldn’t be aware of it, but the passing of time between writing the first album and writing this album is years. There’s years in between it, and I wanted to make a clear distinction between the two. I would never, ever have considered putting my face on the cover of an album. I hate that, I really don’t like it.

Who convinced you to do that?

My management company. It didn’t take too much convincing this time around because it made sense. The lyrical content is all so personal, and then I did kind of consciously want to make some kind of a statement, in that this really is a true representation of where I am musically at this point, and that I do feel a lot more – not cocky confident, just confident in the sense of, yeah, I’m a proper musician now, and this is my trade, and this is my job, and this is what I do, and here you go, type of thing. But yeah, my main worry with putting my face on the front of an album was my friends – I mean, if they see a poster anywhere, they’ll just draw a penis on my head. Or a moustache. You can think of other horrible things they could draw on my face. That was my main concern.

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