Turning The Page With Nina Nesbitt: Her New Album, Independence, And Growth

"I'm learning that uncomfortable is good because that's how you grow..."

Things are changing for Nina Nesbitt. As hard as it is to believe, the Scottish songwriter has been a part of the music landscape for 12 years now, and she’s just about finding her footing.

Hugely respected as a songwriter, Nina’s own work veers from gossamer chart-pop to dulcet folk and back again, a spectrum of self-expression that revels in honesty. New album ‘Mountain Music’ might just be her most personal statement yet – stripped back and raw, she recorded it in just 72 hours, using a remote cabin in Devon as a base.

Out on September 27th, it’s the first release on Nina Nesbitt’s own boutique label – titled Apple Tree Records, after one of her earliest songs. Marking her return with the autobiographical pages, she’s just shared new single ‘Mansion’ and sketched out a few more details on the upcoming album.

CLASH chatted to Nina Nesbitt over Zoom, the songwriter seated in her music room – a pair of Martin acoustic guitars placed carefully within touching distance, her piano in the far corner. Relaxing into independent maturity, she looked as centred, as balanced as we’ve ever seen her.

So, essentially a new era, a new chapter, how do you feel?

I feel excited! I definitely treat every album like a new era because I think you need to reinvent yourself to keep it interesting for yourself and also, hopefully, for your listeners. I feel very intrigued to see how it will go down, but I’ve had really good responses so far. So yeah, excited… a little bit nervous, I guess.

Do you think each album is a reaction to the last that you’ve done? Or do you think it exists in its own world?

I never really thought about that. I think I’ve learned different things from each album, musically, and also the reaction to them has made me think differently. I feel like on my last album – ‘Alskar’ – it was very much a bridge between pop and the more singer-songwriter element. It was a really tough album to make, so I think I learned a lot from making that album. I knew very clearly what I wanted to make with this one.

It’s never easy to make an album, but do you think this one was a little bit more straightforward? Was it more cut through in your ideas?

Definitely. I didn’t honestly even intend on writing this album. It happened by accident! Honestly, the easiest album I’ve ever written. It was lovely, an absolute joy to write. It just became really clear, what it was. Very fun to write.

Where did you write it?

In my writing room – the spare room in my house! So I’ve got all my guitars piled up, and then my piano there too. Last year, I just wanted to write for other people for a bit, so I did that. And then in the evenings, I would come home and be inspired to sit with a guitar or a piano. I started listening to a lot of the music that inspired me when I was younger, when I was like 15. And a lot of it’s very like US folk stuff. I felt really inspired to just try writing some of that. I think I got a brief for Bon Iver – that was a long shot – but I was like fuck it I’ll write the song, send it over, you never know. And I just loved writing this style of music. That kind of led me to the album, I guess.

It must be very refreshing to switch between the two. Is that one of the things that attracted you last year towards writing for other people? 

Yeah it is. I think in an industry and in a career where there’s no structure, you don’t necessarily have a boss that’s saying ‘you need to do this’… someone giving you tasks. So I treat songwriting as my job, my 9-to-5 in a way: I turn up on working hours, and I’m there to do a brief. Then when I come home, I treat it as a passion project, just whatever I want to do. I wrote a lot of the album just by myself, so whatever came out, came out on the day. It’s definitely two different head spaces

You touched on something that’s really important –  when you’ve been continually creative like that, everyone goes through periods where you do get writer’s block, you do get some stumbles, but being present is the most important thing, isn’t it?

I think so. And I think you become a better writer, the more you write, because you get all the shit out – so the good stuff does come! I didn’t have any pressure as well, with this album, there wasn’t any voices in my head telling me ‘oh, this isn’t good enough.’ It was purely just: write a song because you like it… which was really, really refreshing. Especially after being in this industry for so long.

You started in this industry incredibly young, it’s funny to look back now and think that you must have like a decade’s worth of experience. You manoeuvred yourself into a position of independence and being your own boss, do you think that’s important?

Definitely. Like you say, I’ve obviously been in this industry for 12 years now. I’ve had a lot of experiences and I’ve learned a lot. But also, I feel like any lessons that I’ve learned within a year or two, kind of become irrelevant… because the industry is changing so fast. So I don’t feel like I’m at a point where I’ve figured it all out and now I’m ready to do my own thing. It’s more just like… this album feels so personal, it would feel weird to give the album to a big label, I think. I think nowadays as well, so much of the work falls on the artist, and that’s fine but I may as well just embrace it and go for it. So yeah, it felt like the right time to start a label, and also a new challenge, a bit of an exciting project.

You’re right, young artists are expected to be their own promotion engine now – they’re own social media manager!

Yeah, exactly. Last year was lovely because I pretty much stayed off social media, and just wrote songs. I think it’s the happiest I’ve ever been, the most creative I’ve ever been. It feels quite overwhelming to be putting myself out there again, doing all the social media stuff at the same time, but like you say, it kind of is just part of the job at the moment. I’m just trying to embrace that and come up with ways to get more music out there that feels authentic to me, just get creative with it, really. It’s definitely a balancing act.

The music sounding authentic to you must be one of the most important things at the end of the day. When you sit down with something that’s got your name against it, you want to listen back and hear yourself, don’t you?

Yeah, definitely. I feel like, especially right now there’s so many people putting music out. I think it’s really important to say something with your music and make it as authentic as it can be. I do think growing up, I struggled to find representation of myself because I grew up with a lot of American pop music. So I guess I’ve always aspired to be like that, and listen to their stories. But with this album, I was like, maybe people find it interesting to hear about growing up in Scotland or have a female perspective on something that you wouldn’t normally hear about, or living in London. 

I guess just trying to embrace my own story and find the interesting parts of that, because I think a lot of the music that I listen to, it’s the little details that I love from other people. I’ve really tried to do that with this album, just because you haven’t heard it in a song before doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. I think it’s definitely a good time to really embrace yourself, whoever you are.

‘Pages’ is meant to be directly an autobiographical account of your 20s, it’s you looking back at these things. What made this the right time to write a song like that? 

I think again, listening to a lot of artists that were telling their own story, and really just specific details that paint such a picture. I wanted to, just as an experiment, try and do that with my own story. That song came out of that, and I really liked it. It was the first song that I wrote for the project so it kind of kick-started all that off. 

I think it’s cool to start with an autobiographical one. There’s definitely more listener inclusive ones coming up, but a lot of me and my listeners have grown up together as well, I think we’ve gone through similar things. It’s been nice to see people say ‘oh, I feel like I’m growing up with you, I relate to these things, too’. It felt like a good place to start, a big catch up, I guess.

Do you think it was quite a cathartic experience then to look back on the past ten years, and actually tell it with your own voice?

Definitely, Even from when I started, it was like I’m the female version of a male artist, or I’m someone’s ex-girlfriend, or my story’s told through a major label, just things like that. I think because I was so young and I am quite shy, I didn’t really want to say anything. But now that I’m a bit older, I do think I’ve had quite a roller coaster ride in this industry and I really want to tell my story and be comfortable with that as well. 

I do think there is part of me that is quite a private person and I think the older I get as well, the less I feel comfortable sharing. So it’s really been a challenge to put this out there and be comfortable being vulnerable. I think it’s also important in this day and age, like we say there’s so much music, I want it to be as honest as possible and hopefully people will connect to it. 

And the album was recorded in Devon, is that right?

So it was pretty much all written here and then I recorded all the demos here. I knew I wanted to record it very much live with musicians in a room, I guess inspired a lot by Nashville and how they do it there. But I was like, do I go to America, even if it doesn’t feel right? It’s not an American album. It’s very much a British story. 

I wanted to try and find somewhere here… and then through some friends found Peter Miles in Devon. So I drove down, went on a road trip to see the studio and met him. I’d never recorded like this before, it felt very alien and scary. I played him all the demos. He was like, ‘let’s just get in a room, record the tape. Let’s keep the notes that are slightly out of tune. Let’s create a moment’. It was a really liberating experience and exciting, something new. I feel like the album, sonically as a whole feels like one body of work, which is really nice. I think I’ve always struggled to achieve that on previous albums. 

That’s so refreshing to hear!

I knew I needed something different. I’m a huge fan of what he does, so I put all my trust in him and was like, either this is going to work or it’s going to be a disaster but I’m willing to see what happens.

What was the atmosphere like then? How quickly did it come together for one?

Well, we recorded the whole album within three days. So I think we recorded four tracks a day. One of the musicians, the guitarist, actually played with me on my first album, so we’ve toured a lot together. So that was like a full circle moment, having him back. And then the rest of the musicians I’d actually never met. So again, I just said to Peter Miles: ‘find the musicians, whoever you trust because you do this day in and day out’. So again, it was either going to be a disaster, or it was gonna be great! Luckily, everyone was just amazing. 

I was on edge the whole time but it’s a very tranquil place… it kind of looks like a cabin in Canada or something. So it feels quite isolated and you can just hyper-focus on what you’re doing. 

What was the biggest challenge making this record, then?

Biggest challenge…putting it out probably. It feels like very vulnerable and exposing but I think it’s what I need to do as an artist. The reaction so far has reassured me that whatever I’m feeling on the album, I’m not feeling it by myself, and hopefully other people will relate to it and connect to it in the same way. 

I think being in the pop music industry for so long has… I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist, but it’s made me very uncomfortable with having any flaws, if that makes sense. Vocally, I’ve really struggled to let go of trying to get the perfect take. Aesthetically, I’ve tried to scale back on the makeup and care a bit less as I’m getting older. There’s so much pressure to look a certain way, be a certain way, sound a certain way and it’s just quite unrealistic. So I’m definitely trying to embrace fully being myself a bit more, and that’s been quite uncomfortable. That’s been a bit of a challenge.

Are you someone who enjoys being uncomfortable? 

I don’t like being uncomfortable (laughs) but I think I just love the album so much that it’s worth being uncomfortable for. I think I needed a change in my career. I needed a challenge because I think I’d felt a bit stagnant. So I think I’m learning that uncomfortable is good because that’s how you grow, I guess.

Order ‘Mountain Music’ online now.

Words: Robin Murray

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine