An Inconvenient Truth
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.