An In­con­ve­nient Truth

Q (UK) - - Nadine Shah - Pho­togrg­ra­phy: Tom Barnes

A con­fi­dent young An­glo-Asian woman with strong po­lit­i­cal be­liefs: fire­brand singer-song­writer Na­dine Shah shouldn’t feel alone in British mu­sic, but when she looks around she feels to­tally iso­lated. Rachel Aroesti trav­els to New­cas­tle to hear Shah’s cry.

In an arts cen­tre

on the out­skirts of New­cas­tle city cen­tre, a con­gre­ga­tion of hap­pen­ing young cre­ative types trail out of an au­di­to­rium and make a bee­line for the vege­tar­ian lunch buf­fet. These fledg­ling singers, song­writ­ers and pro­duc­ers have spent the morn­ing im­bib­ing the wis­dom of lo­cal girl done good Na­dine Shah, who’s shar­ing the lessons she’s learnt over a decade in the mu­sic biz. The 32- year-old, how­ever, is nowhere to be seen among the buzz cuts, puffa jack­ets and in­ter­est­ing trousers that flood the foyer. Even­tu­ally, Shah is dis­cov­ered on the street out­side, grin­ning, wav­ing and wield­ing a fag – her one-woman wel­come party ra­di­at­ing warmth through the nippy North-Eastern af­ter­noon. That preter­nat­u­ral friend­li­ness is Shah’s most im­me­di­ately strik­ing qual­ity – from de­liv­ery men to vis­it­ing jour­nal­ists, she has an un­canny knack for mak­ing to­tal strangers feel like old friends. But to­day her dress sense comes a very close sec­ond: the mu­si­cian is clad in white jeans and a white T-shirt with the word “im­mi­grant” em­bla­zoned in block cap­i­tals across her chest. It is ex­actly the sort of state­ment piece you’d ex­pect Shah to be wear­ing. Since re­leas­ing her lat­est al­bum, 2017’ s Hol­i­day Des­ti­na­tion, she has es­tab­lished her­self as one of the most out­spo­ken and po­lit­i­cally en­gaged indie stars on the scene, min­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences and eth­nic­ity (her fa­ther is Pak­istani, her mother British) to craft in­tri­cately lay­ered post-punk songs that gaze un­spar­ingly at Is­lam­o­pho­bia, the refugee cri­sis and an un­savoury po­lit­i­cal land­scape. It’s a mode that has won her crit­i­cal ac­claim and, in July, her first Mer­cury Prize nom­i­na­tion, an ac­co­lade she says she’s “al­ways dreamed of get­ting”. Yet Shah’s com­pul­sion to speak truth to power ex­tends even to the bod­ies be­hind awards she’d very much like to win. “I don’t mince my words about it, when I heard the list I was dis­ap­pointed,” she says, now snugly en­sconced in a nearby record­ing stu­dio (the North-East is liv­ing up to its rep­u­ta­tion: it’s Au­gust and it’s coat weather). This year’s line-up was roundly crit­i­cised for fea­tur­ing in­dus­try be­he­moths such as the Arc­tic Mon­keys and Noel Gal­lagher at the ex­pense of up-and-com­ing acts, but de­spite Shah’s per­sonal dis­gruntle­ment, she’s hop­ing it will be good pub­lic­ity. “I’m re­ally glad that we’re on it with huge com­mer­cial artists, be­cause maybe their au­di­ences who would never hear what I’m say­ing might learn about some sub­jects,” she says. “I’m hop­ing we get big­ger ex­po­sure on the night and there’ll be some South Asian young girls who are like, ‘Oh, I could be in a band.’” En­cour­ag­ing young women to make them­selves both seen and heard is some­thing of a rai­son d’être for Shah – es­pe­cially when it comes to girls who share her her­itage. Early on in her ca­reer, the mu­si­cian was re­luc­tant to let her mixed-race sta­tus be­come a talk­ing point, but once she be­gan see­ing the re­sponse her suc­cess was prompt­ing in girls of Asian des­cent, she quickly changed her mind. She wells up at the me­mory of a Round­house gig where she spot­ted two young hi­jab-wear­ing women watch­ing her per­form Out The Way, a song about im­mi­gra­tion. “One of them clasped her hands to­gether and mimed, ‘Thank you!’ And then her lit­tle mate just put her thumbs up,” says Shah, eyes glis­ten­ing. “I al­ways cry when I talk about that, sorry. They were lush.”

Over the past week, Shah has been con­tin­u­ing to shape the minds of young women, al­beit on a slightly more per­sonal scale. To­day’s mas­ter­class is top­ping off four days of men­tor­ship ses­sions, which have seen her help a small group of bud­ding fe­male mu­si­cians find their voices and com­mit them to record in this

very stu­dio. Shah gushes about the abil­i­ties of her charges – “they’re all su­per­stars and phe­nom­e­nally tal­ented, it was very in­tim­i­dat­ing for me!” – but still feels she has help­ful ad­vice to im­part re­gard­ing the nitty-gritty of the mu­sic world. “Un­for­tu­nately, the mu­sic in­dus­try is still heav­ily dom­i­nated by men,” she ex­plains. “I want them to be able to be con­fi­dent enough to speak out and say, ‘No, I don’t want this. Yes, I do want this.’ Be­cause there are a lot of women that I know who are in­tim­i­dated by a very dom­i­nant male pres­ence.” Shah speaks with in­dig­na­tion about the lack of gen­der par­ity in her cho­sen field, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to money – she was re­cently hor­ri­fied to dis­cover that she has been paid up to 50 per cent less than her male peers for com­pa­ra­ble slots at the same fes­ti­vals. In gen­eral, how­ever, she counts her­self lucky that most of her ex­pe­ri­ences of sex­ism have been con­signed to life out­side the stu­dio, and is keen to talk up the “great men” within it who have con­trib­uted to her suc­cess. One par­tic­u­larly cru­cial fig­ure is her long-term pro­fes­sional part­ner Ben Hil­lier, a vet­eran pro­ducer who helmed Blur’s 2003 al­bum Think Tank. A be­spec­ta­cled, sweetly funny man, Hil­lier is also in at­ten­dance at to­day’s mas­ter­class, and later this af­ter­noon will take great plea­sure in de­con­struct­ing Shah’s song Re­lief for the pro­duc­tion heads in the au­di­ence, while charm­ing ev­ery­one else with his Blur anec­dotes (the one about Out Of Time al­most be­ing canned is es­pe­cially good). It was Hil­lier’s indie pedi­gree that prompted Shah to ap­proach him as a 20- year-old, a move she made af­ter scan­ning the cred­its of her favourite al­bums to find her dream pro­ducer. See­ing that Hil­lier’s name kept crop­ping up, she sent his man­ager a demo and the pro­ducer liked what he heard. Nowa­days, the two of them are in a com­mit­ted mu­si­cal part­ner­ship – the pair of­ten use the term “we” when dis­cussing tracks that bear the Na­dine Shah name. If that seems like a rather seam­less tran­si­tion from fan­girling over al­bum sleeves to work­ing along­side sea­soned pros, it should be noted that by then Shah had al­ready been through the ringer ca­reer-wise.

“I was on this ra­dio pro­gramme re­cently about how there’s all these bands mak­ing po­lit­i­cal mu­sic: they had me, IDLES, Life and Cab­bage and that was it. I don’t think we should cel­e­brate the fact that a few of us have done it, be­cause why the hell are there only us four?”

A tal­ented singer from a young age, as a child she dreamed of be­ing a bona fide pop star in the mould of Mariah Carey or Whit­ney Hous­ton – un­til ex­po­sure to Nina Si­mone’s lugubri­ous tones turned her world up­side down. Her sub­se­quent move into jazz singing led her to leave South Ty­ne­side for Lon­don at 16 to take up a reg­u­lar gig at the unin­spir­ing­ly­monikered yet ac­tu­ally very pres­ti­gious Piz­za­Ex­press Jazz Club – but hear­ing her con­tem­po­rary Amy Wine­house’s trail­blaz­ing take on jazz con­vinced Shah that she was wast­ing her time per­form­ing stan­dards. She de­cided to pack in the croon­ing for art school, where she be­gan work­ing on her own ma­te­rial, be­fore re­leas­ing her first al­bum with Hil­lier in 2013. Ti­tled Love Your Dum And Mad, it was a record partly in­formed by the sui­cide of a male friend. Then came 2015’ s Fast Food, whose lyrics dealt with love and panic at­tacks, and, two years af­ter that, her feted third, a col­lec­tion of songs about Trump, the plight of sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants and the in­hu­mane treat­ment of Syr­ian refugees sung in a style both un­der­stated and im­pe­ri­ous.

At present, Shah is in the early stages of writ­ing Hol­i­day Des­ti­na­tion’s fol­low-up, spend­ing her days in a state of tor­tur­ous iso­la­tion that will be all too fa­mil­iar to any­one who works from home. She cur­rently lives in a flat in Tot­ten­ham, North-East Lon­don, along­side a house­mate with “a proper job, so I al­ways want to be up at the same time to show her I’m not lazy,” she laughs. “At half-seven I’m like, ‘Morn­ing!’ Then she leaves and I’m back in bed for an hour.” Shah might be strug­gling to keep of­fice hours – and re­sist Bar­gain Hunt marathons (“I proper love telly, like crap, day­time telly”) – but she’s not short on ma­te­rial. “At the minute, I’m mainly fo­cus­ing on in­spi­ra­tional women, be­cause I’m just sur­rounded by loads who are a lot older than me. I’ve got loads of re­ally great bud­dies who are up to the age of 72,” she ex­plains. “It’s in­ter­est­ing see­ing the op­tions and routes these women have taken. That not ev­ery­one wanted to be a mother – not ev­ery­one could be a mother – be­cause I was look­ing at my own fer­til­ity.” The rea­son Shah was think­ing about her own re­pro­duc­tive po­ten­tial was be­cause she was suf­fer­ing from en­dometrio­sis, the no­to­ri­ously painful con­di­tion which causes tis­sue usu­ally found in­side the uterus to grow out­side of it, lead­ing not only to pain but po­ten­tial in­fer­til­ity (Lena Dun­ham fa­mously strug­gled with the ill­ness and this year re­vealed that she’d had her womb re­moved in or­der to mit­i­gate its ef­fects). The ex­pe­ri­ence also served to aug­ment Shah’s ex­ist­ing hor­ror at the bal­loon­ing in­equal­ity plagu­ing the UK – she found her­self re­sort­ing to pri­vate health­care in or­der to have an op­er­a­tion that dealt with the dis­com­fort and pre­served her fer­til­ity. “Luck­ily my par­ents could pay for it,” she says. “It was £ 4500. I went to the NHS and was de­nied the op­er­a­tion, I went in again beg­ging. I went in for a third time and had to tell them I was try­ing for a baby now in or­der to meet the cri­te­ria]. They fi­nally did say that I would be able to maybe have it, but not for a year and half.” Wait­ing that long didn’t feel like an op­tion for Shah. “I felt sui­ci­dal at times with the pain and the men­tal health ef­fect of it with my re­la­tion­ship and loads of other things. It makes you ques­tion so much, it was re­ally aw­ful.” The episode made her even more de­ter­mined to loudly voice her con­cerns about the crum­bling wel­fare state. “If we don’t, the NHS is slip­ping away right in front of our eyes,” she says. “Peo­ple start to shout about things when it’s gone, but it’s go­ing.” As any in­ter­viewer will tell you, a few years ago it was nigh-on im­pos­si­ble to en­gage an indie mu­si­cian in pol­i­tics-re­lated chat; nowa­days it seems ev­ery­one’s stan­ning Jeremy Corbyn and pro­fess­ing their con­tempt for the Tories. When asked what her take on the shift is, Shah is hav­ing none of it. “I’m go­ing to stop you here, but name the bands that have made po­lit­i­cal mu­sic,” she de­mands. “We’ll get them on one hand. I was on

this ra­dio pro­gramme re­cently about how there’s all these bands that are mak­ing po­lit­i­cal mu­sic: they had me, IDLES, Life and Cab­bage and that was it. I don’t think we should cel­e­brate the fact that a few of us have done it, be­cause it dis­tracts from the point of why the hell are there only us four?” Shah is also keen not to let straight­for­ward chart-pop off the hook. She’s pre­vi­ously ex­pressed an in­ter­est in writ­ing cur­rent af­fairs-based songs for bands like Lit­tle Mix, but says her ef­forts in this area have not been ap­pre­ci­ated by the in­dus­try. “I’d talk to record la­bels about how I could maybe work with some of their artists who are re­ally poppy, and they’re like, ‘Oh no, po­lit­i­cal mu­sic, that won’t sell,’” she com­plains. “There’s this song [ Take Me To Church] by this fella called Hozier about ho­mo­pho­bia – it is a po­lit­i­cal song, and it was huge. I hate this as­sump­tion that the gen­eral pub­lic are stupid. If you’re fed shit, you’ll eat it.” Shah says that her keen en­gage­ment with the is­sues of the day has led to some dispir­it­ing re­sponses, es­pe­cially on so­cial me­dia. She openly ad­mits to not be­ing to­tally at home with the gran­u­lar de­tail of British pol­i­tics and says peo­ple have crit­i­cised her for dar­ing to make a po­lit­i­cal al­bum while hav­ing gaps in her knowl­edge. “Or it’s the op­po­site, where peo­ple say, ‘If you’re so po­lit­i­cally ac­tive, why don’t you be­come an MP?’ And I’m like, ‘Hang on, am I not just al­lowed to have an opin­ion on the world that I live in?’” In fair­ness, a side­ways move into pol­i­tics doesn’t seem en­tirely ridicu­lous – Shah cer­tainly has all the raw in­gre­di­ents. Not only is she hell­bent on broad­cast­ing her prin­ci­ples, she’s also got the gift of the gab. Upon our re­turn to the arts cen­tre, she ap­plies her charm of­fen­sive to a woman man­ning re­cep­tion, man­ag­ing to ex­tract her full life story, plus hopes and dreams, in around 10 min­utes, leav­ing the lat­ter flat­tered, charmed and, pre­sum­ably, a life­long fan. Back in the au­di­to­rium, her salt-of-the-earth charisma is on full dis­play while an­swer­ing ques­tions from the as­sem­bled ad­mir­ers, dol­ing out ad­vice on top­ics from net­work­ing (“shy bairns get nowt!”) to be­ing an artist from a Mus­lim back­ground. Af­ter­wards, au­di­ence mem­bers crowd around Shah ador­ingly, but the mu­si­cian has to cut loose – there’s a car out­side wait­ing to whiz her over to the other side of town where she’s due to speak on a panel along­side an en­gi­neer, an en­tre­pre­neur and an ac­tual MP. It’s a gig that makes it even less dif­fi­cult to en­vis­age Shah get­ting on the cam­paign trail her­self some­time soon – and with her im­pec­ca­ble ideals and com­mon touch, there’s lit­tle doubt that Corbyn and co would be lucky to have her.

“Peo­ple say, ‘If you’re so po­lit­i­cally ac­tive, why don’t you be­come an MP?’ And I’m like, ‘Hang on, am I not just al­lowed to have an opin­ion on the world that I live in?’”

Bat­ten down the hatches: Na­dine Shah, Hack­ney, Lon­don, Au­gust, 2018.

Mak­ing her­self heard: (right) on newly adopted home turf in Lon­don, 2018; (be­low) with her Mer­cury Prize nom­i­na­tion for 2017’ s Hol­i­day Des­ti­na­tion.

Agit pop star: (above) Shah, aspir­ing to in­spire; right) live at the Blue­dot Sci­ence And Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, Cheshire, ( 2018.

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