Nadine Shah is texting me from a Wetherspoons. ‘I’m gonna duck out of this shithole and call you in 6mins. That ok?’ Half an hour later, we’re wrapping up with a discussion of their gin palace. (She’s got a double waiting inside.) Somewhere in between, we cover the Syrian refugee crisis, British nationalism, the current Tory government, immigration, gender, and revolution.
Her new album ‘Holiday Destination’ is a caustic appraisal of domestic attitudes to foreign humanitarian crises, an unflinching look at the atrocities that inconvenience our leisure time. It is bold, smart, uncompromising. That line from album track ‘Mother Fighter’ sticks in my head, partly because it verbalises our tendency to dichotomise the roles we occupy: immigrant / local, man / woman, terrorist / hero.
Partly, though, it reminds me of the artist herself. In conversation, as anyone who’s spoken to her will tell you, Nadine Shah is the funniest, warmest, most down-to-earth person you could hope to find. Whenever the conversation slips back onto beer or cigarettes, she admits a faux-lad ‘waaaaaay!’ which I suspect isn’t entirely sarcastic – she regales me with stories of sending previous interviewers home bladdered, and I believe her.
Because there’s Nadine Shah the artist, who talks urgently and passionately about why it took pictures of dead children to wake up the British public to the horrors of the Syrian war. But there’s also just Nadine, the Tyneside lass who is dealing with turning 30 while all her friends turn to yoga.
It’s this unpretentious attitude that renders the serious comments more accessible, and the funny anecdotes kind of poignant. As it turns out, she can do both.
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Inevitably a lot of the focus has been on the political nature of the record. While I wouldn’t call either of your first two albums light or apolitical, ‘Holiday Destination’ is explicitly addressing things like the Syrian refugee crisis, attitudes to immigrants, "fascists in the White House", and so on. Was there a particular event or a moment where you thought, ‘I need to be louder about this’?
There was this news piece a few years back about refugees and migrants coming into Kos, this island off Greece. The news piece was interviewing holidaymakers there, cos it’s a really popular, ahem, holiday destination.
There was this one couple, and they’d said, "It’s really ruined our holiday". And I was like, you know what? I can understand, when you’ve saved up, when you’ve gone away somewhere to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet and forget all your worries, and then you see all these harrowing things in front of you. No one can have a nice time then, you’ll just have this constant guilt, right? But I think what really alarmed me was their unashamed way of saying that on national television.
That’s something I see happening a lot recently – people thinking it’s okay to come out and say these disgusting things. There’s been a real rise in nationalism, and a real decline in empathy; that kind of ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitude, which is just sickening.
If someone’s in need, you’ve got to fucking help them! But we’re seeing that within a Tory government, for example. It’s not really the most vulnerable in society that people seem to care about.
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There’s been a real rise in nationalism, and a real decline in empathy…
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My brother’s a documentary maker, and he was working at the time for Al-Jazeera. He made a documentary about this before it was all in the news. Suddenly everyone was seeing these really disturbing images of Syrian refuges – predominantly Syrian refugees, but also Eritrean, Afghans, Pakistanis, people from all over the world. But it was especially the Syrian refugee crisis that was in the news all the time.
My brother was making this documentary in the refugee camp on the border of Syria and Turkey, and I made the music for it. That was the first time I was really aware of the situation – and that was a few years ago, before it was in the papers all the time.
That triggered something in me: firstly, why the fuck do I not know about this? Why is there not a massive appeal? It takes a photograph of a father holding his dead baby on the shores to get everyone’s attention. It’s the most upsetting image I think I’ve ever seen, but it galvanised people to think, ‘I could be that person.’
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I spoke to Ramona Gonzalez of Nite Jewel recently, and we were talking about what constitutes political music. She put forth the view that all music is political, in the sense that she was female, identified within Latin and queer communities in America, and so forth – but equally, that a Taylor Swift record is political, in a normative sense of being a privileged white American. Do you see your identity as being part of your art regardless of content?
Yeah. I was a bit angry when my first album came out, it seemed like a press thing. ‘Oh, and she’s half-Pakistani, half-Norwegian!’ I was like, can you just write about my music? And then I realised the importance of that, because I would get young Pakistani girls getting in touch saying, "There’s no other Pakistani singers". And all of sudden you become a role model for kids who have nobody else in those positions who look like them.
There were so many second-generation immigrants like myself who really had no one to identify with in that field, a lot of it was dominated by white males. I’m not saying they’re shit and they shouldn’t make music, but they’re definitely needed to be room for other ethnicities, for it to be a lot more diverse.
At the moment it feels like there’s a real resurgence of people talking about things like gender equality, ethnicity, and so on. I think it’s about time. So I hope it doesn’t seem opportunistic, but I think it needs to be said. I mean, I played Glastonbury the other week, and I can’t think of any other South Asian females that were playing. Not that spring to mind anyway. So yeah, I do need to shout about it a little bit.
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What could be a more beautiful thing to do as a mother?
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I’ve had ‘Mother Fighter’ on repeat for the past half an hour. Do you think women are still being held to that whore-saint dichotomy that you rail against in the song?
Yeah. It’s a really tired concept. The stuff I’m writing at the minute, for the next album, a lot of it is about being a 30-something-year-old woman, and the weight of expectation that lies on a 30-something-year-old woman – you know, to have babies, the ticking clock and all this kind of bullshit. But that song in particular is about this amazing woman called Raghda. There was a documentary called A Syrian Love Story by a guy called Sean McAllister. He follows this family around, for a few years I guess. The main woman in it was the mother, Raghda.
After it came out she got quite a lot of criticism online – I was looking on Twitter and stuff like that – and people were saying how irresponsible she was to leave her children to go back to Syria and fight. And I just thought, first of all, she doesn’t leave her children alone. She left them with their father. And secondly, she went back to fight for her children’s future. What could be a more beautiful thing to do as a mother?
But you can be both.
Of course. You can be everything. Look at Patti Smith – after she had children, she made some of her best work. It’s a bit of a ridiculous concept that you can’t do both.
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There’s a line on one of the tracks: ‘Since turning 30 I don’t know what’s happening to me.’ Would you say that’s a personal lyric about your own self-doubt, or is that a character voice?
Yeah, it’s me and my friends, the people that surround me. A lot of it’s quite tongue-in-cheek, but I want everyone to look out and look back in. I want it to be relatable, not just talking about the other all the time, but to also talk about your own personal turmoil, as futile as it may seem.
You know, last year was one of the most politically interesting years in a long time. Musically it was a fucking travesty, having lost a lot of our idols. And for me it was a fucking nightmare, because I turned 30 and went a bit nuts. I got really nervous, like what am I doing with my life? At the same time, with this political backdrop going on, you think, well this is nothing in comparison to what’s happening. But I still make my own woes! They’re still worthy. You can still have your own shit going on at the same time.
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The best way to spread a message is through positivity.
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The music also feels quite abrasive to match, almost post-punk – ‘Yes Men’ for example. Was that something that was intentional while you were writing the album?
With the lyric being so heavy and political in parts, I wanted to instil hope at the same time. I didn’t want it to be super doom and gloom, because the best way to spread a message is through positivity. So I wanted the music to be energetic. I didn’t want to be Billy Bragg political, but I wanted to be Stevie Wonder political. Look at ‘Higher Ground’ or ‘Living for the City’ – they’re heavily political, but they’re also musically fucking fantastic, beautiful songs. I
think it’s important to remember that I’m still a musician, and I’ve still got to exercise that muscle, pushing myself sonically each time as well. My producer Ben Hillier and I were listening to loads of Fela Kuti. The rhythm sections are phenomenal, and I was sonically very inspired by lots of that rhythmic stuff – Talking Heads, too.
I heard you were a jazz singer originally. I can hear a lot more jazz influences on 'Holiday Destination'. Do you think that background still informs your music today?
It’s still a genre I listen to a lot. I think it might be something I do when I turn 50: the jazz album! It’s not something I consciously think about. But my training was in jazz, so a lot of the lyrical phrasing I use tends to be quite a familiar jazz structure. I still listen to Nina Simone almost daily, so there’s a probably a bit of that in there.
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‘Stealing Cars’ was something of a hit from the last record, getting a lot of airplay across various BB 6music, but also Radio 1 and Radio 2 – were you ever tempted to create a more radio-friendly follow-up?
No. Because of money, you mean? Because it’s not the most lucrative of industries to be in.
Popularity in general.
Radio 2 gets the biggest listenership and has a wider audience. 6music will play me a lot, and I love them for it, but it’s quite hard to branch out of that. Especially with this album, I did make a conscious effort to make it slightly more poppy-sounding. So the vocals are a lot further forward in the mix than they were previously, and there’s a lot of cleaner sounds. We didn’t record the album live. It’s a studio album, as opposed to the last two that were all recorded live.
I wanted it to sound more poppy and polished-sounding. I wanted it to reach a larger audience, with it having a political message. So I was bearing in mind that I wanted this one to be more radio-friendly. But I don’t know if I’ve really achieved that! I wanted it to be poppy, but I always get distracted in the studio with Ben. We’re always going to go off-kilter.
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I wanted it to reach a larger audience, with it having a political message.
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Does Ben contribute a lot creatively?
Yeah, shitloads. These first three albums I consider a collaborative project, entirely. It just happens to have my name on it. Whether we’ll make the next album together, I’m not so sure. No fall-outs or anything like that, but maybe I might want to go and do something different at some point. It’s so difficult to find someone that you can work with though, in these intense environments, because it’s hours and hours together in the studio.
It’s not just about their technical, musical ability; it’s also, like, do they annoy you? And do they understand you? And Ben and I get on really well, we have a very similar approach to music-making – which is why we started working together, and why we’ve made three albums together now. I imagine we’ll probably carry on making records together till one of us croaks it. Probably me first!
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Before I was a singer, I wanted to be a photographer…
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Do you see the new album going in a different direction?
Yeah, it’s pretty different so far. It’s a lot more personal I think, a lot more tongue-in-cheek. On the first album, you’re always very aware of what your audience think. There’s this constant paranoia about revealing too much, being too experimental. You want to play it a bit safe. But the longer you’re in the industry, the more confident you become. Lyrically, personally, I think it’s going to be a lot bolder. Musically, I want to strip it back a little bit. I’ve been listening to way too much Tom Waits…
Do you have any aspirations beyond music, or do you think that will that always be your focus?
Before I was a singer, I wanted to be a photographer. But I don’t know, it just seems much more saturated now, that industry, and probably harder to get into than music. But within the musical world, I recently scored some music for a theatre production, and I love doing that. I love working outside of our own project, and collaborating with different artists. I’ve been collaborating with a really big band recently, I don’t know when that’s going to come out, maybe next year. But they’re huge and I love them.
You can’t tell us who it is, presumably?
No, I can’t! But I do love scoring music for theatre pieces, that was a joy to work on, and there are more on the way – possibly next year and the year after. There’s a lot more to come from me.
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‘Holiday Destination’ is out August 25th on 1965 Records.
Words: Matthew Neale