Interview: Nadine Shah
Nadine Shah’s latest record, Fast Food, released in April of this year, follows her debut Love Your Dum and Mad . It is an incisive, lustrously gloomy look at the messy nature of human relationships and of a world based upon instant gratification of desire. She says “a large part of what Fast Food is about, is the sudden realisation that you’re never going to be anybody’s first love ever again.” It’s Shah’s uniquely rich, decadent and expressive voice which commands centre stage in her music, transforming her sharp indie rock backdrop into the theatre set upon which to stage her brooding, operatic persona. She began her musical career in jazz when she moved to London thirteen years ago, singing in dingy basement bars and pizza express restaurants, gradually fattening up on dough balls. It’s funny to peer beneath the larger-than-life voice and discover a charming Geordie lass who loves to describe everything as ‘lovely’. Chatting with Nadine feels like having a natter with a good pal. We talk writing, frizzy hair and being miserable.
Shah tells me that she wrote Fast Food from a very insular perspective, it was ‘miserable and solitary to write’ yet simultaneously therapeutic. She laughs that it’s very obvious within her friend circle who the songs are about, as she uses snapshots of real life to portray her characters, but ‘they’re not meant to be perfect portraits of people’. Her stock phrase when discussing whether she feels exposed by her music is ‘it’s a bit like hanging up your dirty laundry for everyone to see.’ Whereas, debut album Love Your Dum and Mad was more inspired by film and literature; she notes Italo Calvino and Philip Larkin as a couple of her favourite authors. Drawing a lot of inspiration from film dialogue, she proclaims herself a huge fan of world cinema, the diverse film scene and array of film festivals being one of the major draws of London for her. Fast Food’s art work and that of its respective singles ‘Fool’ and ‘Stealing Cars’ are consistent in striking, block colours. Shah tells me it was inspired by the artwork from 70’s Italian horror films. She was going for the “femme fatale” look: dramatic beauty, slit throat; perhaps she’s the fated female of her own music, her raw, naked emotion bleeding out of her.
While she describes Love Your Dum and Mad as portrayal of mental illness, ’harrowing’ to write; she says she never finds writing an enjoyable activity, as her ‘writing process is so solitary.’ Naturally, she gravitates, as so many do, towards the morose, the macabre, finding it most compelling. With Fast Food, she didn’t make a conscious decision to make an unpolitical album, but instead she picks up on the injustices in all our complex human relationships.
On ‘Nothing Else to do’ Shah sings just the one lyric ‘there was nothing else to do but fall in love’ for five minutes yet it never gets repetitive, as deep and shadowy as the echoing well of her vocals are. Each time her voice resounds you are drawn back down into that dark cavern, magnetised by those luxurious satin tones. She’s at some times stifling, snarling in her fork-tongued delivery, you can often feel like her cutting lyrical remarks are directed at you; ‘and you my sweet are a fool/ you are plain and obedient…you called yourself a poet, tattooed pretence upon your skin so everyone will know it.’ Sometimes you get the sense not that you’re under her skin, but that she’s creeping under yours.
The darkness in Fast Food also seeps from the instrumentation; while her debut was mostly piano-led, on the new record Nadine takes up guitar for the first time, creating some unnerving, jarring high-pitched guitar cries. She’s often compared to PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, who she refers to as ‘damn Nick Cave’ on ‘Fool’ and ‘old misery guts’ in conversation with me. Perhaps the comparison is getting over-familiar. Though, she is a self-proclaimed huge fan of Nick Cave, also pointing to Depeche Mode as an influence (who she went on tour with, a surreal experience for her.) ‘I love lots of miserable music, I love it.’
Shah also leant her silken vocals on two tracks of Ghostpoet’s excellent 2015 album Shedding Skin: album hit ‘X Marks the Spot’, in which she also features in the music video, and ‘That Ring Down the Drain Kind of Feeling’, after meeting eachother at one of Shah’s shows. Shedding Skin is an enrapturing fusion of softly spoken/ drawled word and post-punk inspired, melancholic guitars. She laughs as she tells me what a ‘bunch of goths’ the pair are, completely clad in matching black when they see each other around. Though Ghostpoet, aka London-based musician Obaro Ejimiwe, may be a fellow melancholic soul, Shah tells me that he is ‘probably one of the friendliest guys in the music industry’.
It took quite some time for me to track down the constantly shifting whereabouts of Shah, as at the time of my speaking with her she was on her European tour, and had just arrived in the cutesy dutch city of Nijmegen, with Paris and Brussels dates under her belt. She seemed a little overwhelmed by the response from the fans; this is the first time she’s sold out shows. The strangest part she says is having her lyrics sung back to her by hundreds of strange faces; those deeply personal words in the mouths of others, surely a very vertiginous sensation.
We talk festival performances a little. Shah will be appearing at both Latitude and End of the Road festivals, plus one secret (obvious) major UK mystery festival. She laughs that she must be in the wrong industry because she hates festivals. Mostly, she’s concerned that her natural unruly curly hair will break free of its sleek black goth confines and she’ll turn into a Katie Melua lookalike which ‘doesn’t go with the kind of music I make.’ Far from being preoccupied with image however; she complains of the changing festival clientele, the fashion-oriented hipsters of recent years and refuses to ever airbrush her photos or videos, even if it means her mum tells her she ‘doesn’t look very nice there’. She’d rather surprise people by being better-looking in real life. Shah sure is a woman of surprises, her soft Geordie accent belying that deep, lustrous monster of a voice which oozes its way out of her, dripping with delicious darkness.
Nadine’s second studio album, Fast Food is out now on Apollo Records. Catch her at Latitude and End of the Road festivals this summer.