Nadine Shah has always relished her independence.
From album to album she’s struck a formidably individual tone, and nowhere is that more evident on her biting, searing, politically infused full length ‘Holiday Destination’. Tackling politics both local and global, it veers from the plight of refugees in Syria to the struggle of working class women right here in the UK; a remarkable album, it won Independent Album Of The Year earlier this week at the AIM Awards.
Visibly emotional as she picked up the award, a still shaking Nadine sat down with Clash backstage for a quick catch up.
The entire evening is clearly something that means a lot to you, we offer. “Yes! It does!” she exclaims. “I think mainly because of my team. I’m always very paranoid that I don’t give much back in terms of finance. The first one was about mental health. The second one was – I guess – slightly more commercial lyrically, writing about much more relatable subjects. Relatable? That’s arguable!”
And the third is a potent political statement, perhaps her most invigorated, striking, and effective statement yet. “I do genuinely believe that there is a place for artists who write songs that are going to make you escape, and make you dance, and artists that write songs that soundtrack your heartache,” she insists. “I think they’re both important. But I also think it’s important that artists document the times that we live in”.
“People keep saying to me recently: oh, there’s been a lot of artists making political music! And I keep saying to interviewers: name them! And they can’t. I’m not bigging meself up but there’s me, and there’s IDLES, and there are some artists who mention it a bit… like t-shirt politics. I don’t believe them. And there’s not enough. There’s not enough. And I don’t get it.”
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Bristol group IDLES also won a trophy at the AIM Awards, with their second album racing into the Top 5 – it’s a week that upended expectations. “I love the fact that IDLES are writing about the NHS – I recently had to pay £5000 for an operation which meant that I could have a child because the NHS denied me it. And I need artists to sing about this, I need older females to start singing about fertility, not being fertile, having babies, growing old.”
“I need people to be more political in general,” she argues. “My dad’s an immigrant – I needed to write songs for him. I needed to write songs for my cousin’s who have the brown skin – I’ve got the light skin. I needed to write songs for people with brown skin who get spat at in the streets. We needed to do it, and it was impossible to do anything else.”
It’s possible that the answer to this famine of political content is down to the shrinking economics of underground music; with the pot growing ever slimmer, less risks are taken. “I completely understand,” she nods. “So many of my peers who have the same political beliefs that I do haven’t made political albums and I don’t judge them for not doing so. Because it’s scary. With social media you have an immediate reaction from people and it can be so vile.”
“I was really scared to what the reaction to what I was saying would be, but of course I exist within an echo chamber – 6Music, the Guardian… I’m not going to get many people with a negative reaction towards immigration. I generally get people who believe in the same politics as I do. “I hope that more people who would never normally hear it, get to hear what I’m saying,” she continues. “They’re scared, and I hope they hear what I’m saying. Of course it’s not commercial to speak about these subjects, but again… why isn’t it? Look at Stevie Wonder - ‘Higher Ground’, ‘Living For The City’… massive songs. There’s been so many political songs historically that were huge, and we still sing and celebrate now, and they were pop songs.”
Nadine’s head pops round as Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson enters the room, having helped dish out another gong. “I know Tom Watson very well,” she explains. “I have campaigned for Labour for many years – I nearly quit music to work in politics, but I’m not well versed enough and it’s not my place to be in that field. I think I’m much better used in the position I’m in as a musician than I would be in any section of parliament.”
“It’s been a really exciting time for the kids. I live in Tottenham and I teach a lot of the young kids there, and they’re so politically active. It’s the first time ever I can talk to young people about politics! So that’s a new thing. And the kids in Tottenham… they’re being shat on. Every day. There’s been two riots in one decade, and there’s all this money being pumped into a new stadium and they know there’s an injustice, and they know they’re not being served properly, there’s nothing for them.”
“I want to work more with them but there’s no money being put in there,” she says. “Where do they put their frustrations? They put it into violence. Where they could put their frustration is into music. They are so eloquent, and they are so smart. They teach me everyday. I am proper inspired by the kids that live in my area. There needs to be more money pumped into music for these kids to voice their frustration. That’s why IDLES are doing so well – that’s what they’re doing, they’re voicing that frustration. People need it right now, and there’s not enough artists doing it and it kills us.”
With ‘Holiday Destination’ also receiving a Mercury nomination this feels like a breakout moment of sorts, but Nadine is careful not to position herself as a ‘political songwriter’ - she writers about politics, but that’s because she cares so deeply about it, alongside other topics.
“I wouldn’t say I was generally a political artist,” she insists. “But then again Billy Bragg says he isn’t a political artist as well. I guess I worry about being pigeon-holed after this. I’m writing about my shit love life again! I’m surrounded by women in their 30s – same age as me – who are having the same problems I’m going through.”
“Like I was saying earlier on, I need women to start telling their stories in music. The things I had to go through in the past six months was hell – and so I’m speaking a lot about that on my next album. So I guess I am making another political album. I was nearly satisfied with this album and wanted to stop and just go into teaching. I think maybe I might make one more.”
Really? You could give up music?
“I was always an art student… when I could afford to be one,” she chuckles. “Unless I’ve got something to say I’d rather step out of the way and make room for someone else and teach somebody else.”
“I believe with my album what I really it to do is to soundtrack other people’s activism,” Nadine tells me. “I was talking about the Syrian refugee crisis, but then by the time it’s released look at the Rohingya people, look at Yemen, look at what’s happening all over the world. My album can be used in a different context.”
“I can still be singing these songs – unfortunately – until the day I croak it. I don’t think there’s a need for me to make another album of that kind but I will keep singing those songs if people ask me to do it.”
With the Mercury still to come, Nadine Shah can rest assured that with her potent songwriting chiming perfectly with the times there will be a host of people asking her to sing.
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