After a gushing BBC review of her first gig, three years passed before the release of Nadine Shah’s debut EP Aching Bones last month. "I needed time to write more, to play live and to just practice my trade”, says Shah. “I'd never considered myself a proper musician before, I just thought of myself as someone who could sing well."
To say that Shah can sing well is a gross understatement. Of Pakistani and Norwegian parentage, Shah – a former jazz singer – possesses a voice that blends the resonance and smoky soul of her heroes Julie London and Billie Holliday with a shape-shifting melodic intensity gleaned from the Hindu Ghazals sung by her father. The result is a balance of poise and mournful passion that is all the more striking for the subtlety Shah employs to control it.
After hooking up with Ben Hillier, the man behind Blur's Think Tank, the South Tyneside artist’s piano compositions emerged backed by a more complex sonic landscape. “I wanted to add some element to the instrumentation that would make the songs less 'pretty' and organic sounding”, says Shah. The collaboration is strikingly effective, with Hillier’s bass rumbles, icy waves of synth and shimmering Eastern chords providing a menacing backdrop to Shah’s vocals.
Shah’s collaboration with Hillier has drawn comparisons with an ever-expanding – and not-to-be-sniffed-at – list of artists. Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Massive Attack, Portishead, Nine Inch Nails, Marianne Faithful and Shirley Bassey have already been mentioned in relation to the tracks that will make up debut album Love Your Dum And Mad.
For Shah, those comparisons are surprising: “I never listened to PJ Harvey or Nick Cave – or most of the artists mentioned in fact – before making this album; my record collection is far from cool.” More than any direct musical similarities, what Shah's music really shares with the members of that venerable roll call is a rich and at times devastating emotional intensity – that and occasional hints of a Bassey-esque snarl.
Shah describes her father's Ghazals as "wonderfully sad" and it’s hard to sum up Aching Bones more succinctly than that. Love Your Dum and Mad won’t be released until later this year – Shah seems determined to keep fans waiting. In the meantime, an EP release in March should draw more attention to an artist who promises to be one of 2013's most compelling success stories.
Words by Paul Tucker
WHAT: Mournful, icy soul.
GET 3 SONGS: Aching Bones, Are You With Me, Never Tell Me Mam
UNIQUE FACT: As a child, Nadine mimed to pop and R&B covers at Gateshead’s Metro Centre. Her predecessor was a young Cheryl Tweedy. “I re-recorded all the songs she sang when she was there”, says Nadine, “and one day she came in the studio and tried to beat me up...because she was and still is a scumbag.”