Interview: Nadine Shah

For a musician, there could be no greater compliment than having your name mentioned in the same sentence as PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. One of the artists who ranks among those lucky few, Nadine Shah talks to James Manning about her latest album Fast Food

Nadine Shah

Tall, dark and dressed from head to toe in black, Nadine Shah looks every inch a rock star as we sit down at a gothic bar/curiosity shop in Hackney. She’s a hypnotic presence on stage, too, singing dark and sweepingly beautiful songs backed by clamorous alt rock. She’s attracted endless comparisons to PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, particularly after the release of her second album Fast Food: a bold and gorgeous record that has deservingly won her hordes of new fans.

So things have changed since her parents (one Pakistani, one Anglo-Norwegian) used to drive her around the U.K. to take part in tacky teen talent contests. Back then she was “obsessed with fame” and in love with Whitney and Mariah. Then she discovered Nina Simone and moved to London to become a jazz singer. After a spell at Camberwell College of Art, she teamed up with producer Ben Hillier (famous for work with Blur and Depeche Mode) to write her debut albumLove Your Dum and Mad. Now she’s a rising star – though she doesn’t talk like one.

“I have verbal diarrhea and a mouth like a fishwife,” Shah warns me, and in the next 40 minutes she does an uncanny impression of Tim Westwood, calls one of the U.K.’s biggest festivals “shit” three times, and confesses to getting plastered in Ikea. Ladies and gentlemen, Nadine Shah!

You’ve spoken before about the influence of the Urdu music your father listens to. Have you always loved that sound?
“No, I used to hate that bloody music because my dad would play it in the car! I don’t speak the language and I hated being Pakistani when I was younger: I was the closest thing to the foreign kid in my year and there was a bit of racism, so I rejected every part of my dad’s culture. But I love that music now. I feel lucky to have been privy to two cultures.”

Tell me about your most recent album.
Fast Food is a collection of portraits, essentially, of people I’ve loved or do love. I’m nearing the end of my twenties, and I’m so much more relaxed in relationships now – whereas previously I’ve been insanely paranoid, insanely jealous and mean: fucking mean to people.”

So these songs are all autobiographical?
“Yeah. My lyrics aren’t laced in metaphor; they’re in plain speak. So when I’m asked to describe songs, I’m like: ‘Really? Have you heard it?’ It’s called ‘Divided’ – ‘your city and my city’ – it’s about a long-distance relationship, and I’m a bit upset about it. Like, do I really need to go into more detail?”

Is it uncomfortable, exposing yourself like that?
“It’s so weird, because the first album is about the death of two very close friends – but I found that easier to talk about. Now it feels like you’re hanging out your dirty laundry, and these people that I’ve written these songs about all know it’s about them. One of my ex-boyfriends rang me straight away.”

It’d be easy for an album about your exes to be an emotional wallow.
“I didn’t want it to be. There’s one recent album that describes perfectly what I didn’t want to do: there’s a wonderful female artist that I think is a brilliant talent, but she made this album and every single song is so defeatist! She’s a really strong, cool girl, but on this album it’s just so pathetic.”

So why Fast Food?
“Because the album is about short-lived, intense love affairs, which are really wonderful but really bloody bad for you. And because of how the album was made: the first album took so long, partly because we had no record label so I had to steal time in between Ben Hillier’s other projects, but this time I spent a really intensive period of being a total hermit at home, writing songs and drinking loads of gin. Then we made the album within about two months.”

And what was Ben Hillier’s role?
“Well, Ben and I: it’s 50/50, if I’m going to be completely honest. The melodies and the lyrics are all me, but Ben added this character to the song that nobody else would have. It’s a complete collaboration. He’s like a partner in crime.”

So will you work with him for the foreseeable future?
“I’m going to work with Ben until one of us croaks it. There are so many producers that I’ve met who, as soon as they hear my voice, they want to do the Adele thing. They don’t get that the vocal isn’t the be-all-and-end-all.”

Is that just part of the shitty deal that women get in the music industry?
“I’m quite lucky, because I only work with really fucking cool people and I’ve never been exposed to sexism in music that I know of. But one thing that irritates me is that because my band name is my name, people assume that it’s going to be a girl in a pretty little dress playing a ukulele. We’re a band, we make a big sound, but I think sometimes the nature of my name has held me back. ‘Female solo artist’ has now become a genre, which is mental. It’s pretty appalling, considering the plethora of amazing women musicians out there.”