Nadine Shah

British singer-songwriter Nadine Shah is an avid promoter of mental health, gender equality, and tolerance for ethnic and religious minorities. To anyone who may find her social engagement unwarranted, she simply says, “I’m an artist, and I’m not well versed in politics, but I’m a member of this society and, surely, I’m allowed to comment on the world we live in.” In Holiday Destination, Shah’s third studio album—out August 25 via 1965 Records—the 31-year-old tackles intolerance and fear of otherness, as it relates to the global refugee crisis as well as a more personal struggle against social conformity. “Evil,” the sixth song on the record, which we are pleased to premiere below, is evidence of Shah’s ability to translate this inner and outer turmoil into an arresting indie-rock sound, accompanied by her low, pensive voice.

When Interview recently spoke with Shah by phone, she was in the garden of her London home. Under dreary weather but in good spirits, preparing for a tour around the U.K. and Germany, Shah spoke of her regimented songwriting process. As she explains, she’s as committed to crafting her sound as she is to disseminating political messages.

ZUZANNA CZEMIER: You’ve said that “Evil” was inspired by Philip Larkin’s poem “Days.” What does this poem mean to you?

NADINE SHAH: It’s a really short poem, it’s great. Within just two stanzas he sums up all the problems with people’s attitudes towards mental health or anybody who lives outside the norm. He says, “Brings the priest and the doctor / In their long coats / Running over the fields,” which means that religion and medicine and society are going to judge you. It’s where [“Evil”] came from, but also my own and my friends’ experiences with mental illness.

CZEMIER: There is a verse in the poem that goes, “Where can we live but days?” which can be interpreted as a comment on the mundane but necessary cycle of life. I was wondering if you’re the type of person who tries to escape the quotidian or conversely, do you find a sort of peace in routine?

SHAH: It’s a mixture of both. The industry I work in isn’t necessarily the norm. It’s a very different routine to a lot of other people and a lot of my time is spent in isolation. I will be in a studio or in my bedroom by myself, working. My friends and my boyfriend all have “proper” jobs, if that’s what you want to call them. I hate being called lazy, so when everybody gets up at half seven in the morning, I’m up at the same time. Everyone goes to work and I’ll do a few hours of writing, then I’ll mess about for a bit and come back to it. By the time I go home I’m done. I think it’s really good to keep that kind of a routine with writing. I find that when I don’t do that, it’s really hard to get back into that headspace of writing.

CZEMIER: Where there any specific musical influences behind Holiday Destination, or do you prefer to draw inspiration from other mediums, like poetry?

SHAH: What happens when I’m making a new album is I try not to listen to music that’s coming out at the time. I turn off the radio and don’t read any music blogs, because I tend to get really distracted by new music. When I hear it, I think, “Should I be doing that?” But I listened to Talking Heads a lot; they influenced the sound of this album. Because [in Holiday Destination] the topic is quite heavy, politically, I wanted the music to be energetic and upbeat. Even though it’s a political message, I wanted it not to be dour; I wanted it to inspire hope.

CZEMIER: The album cover photo is pretty clear reference to photos from Iraq and Syria that we see on the news a lot, which ties into the theme of Holiday Destination. Can you say where it’s from?

SHAH: It was taken in Gaza by a guy named Christian Stephen, who is a war correspondent. He’s been in war since he was 17 and he’s 22 now. He’s such a brilliant mind. I met him at a party and we were talking about his work and the new album. We met later and I asked if I could use one of his images for the album cover. He showed me a whole bunch of them and most, I’d say 98 percent of them, were too painful. I couldn’t use them. They were the saddest, most harrowing images I’ve ever seen. What this particular image had is that it instills hope. There’s this young boy, who’s 11 years old at maximum, and he’s standing in this building, which has been destroyed by war. The front facade of the building is missing and you see him standing on the top floor, kind of triumphant, and flipping a peace sign. Despite all the travesty that’s going on around him, every disgusting thing that this boy must have seen, he’s still standing there flipping a peace sign. 

I think that’s what I wanted to do this this album: despite all of this happening you want to instill hope. We’ve been talking about the Syrian refugee crisis a lot, in the news in the U.K. and possibly the U.S., but it isn’t the only refugee crisis that is happening at this minute. There’s something like 22 million refugees in the world. There are people from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, and so many other places where people are living in complete turmoil. It was important to me that we showed a place other than Syria, which is why we chose that image.

CZEMIER: In Fast Food, [Shah’s 2015 album,] you sung about mental illness, whereas in Holiday Destination you focus on the current global refugee crisis. Does immersing yourself in heavy subjects like these take any sort of emotional toll on you?

SHAH: It was something that one of my older brothers pointed out years ago when my first album came out. He was saying that watching me perform—I’d get really emotional on stage—was really uncomfortable for an older brother. He almost wanted to step in and tell the audience, “Go home, there’s nothing to see here, I’m taking her home and we’re having a cup of tea. People shouldn’t be watching this.” But I think I have an on-stage persona that is very different from how I am now on the phone or even between songs. Sometimes I’ll finish performing and tell a joke, because you have this moment of realization when you’re like, “Oh shit, I just hung out my dirty laundry for everyone to see.” You’ve exposed yourself and it’s a moment of embarrassment almost, because you’ve revealed so much. But it’s been six or seven years of me doing this and I’ve started to find techniques of how to live a healthier life within this crazy industry. I think I’ve got a pretty good balance now.

CZEMIER: What’s the atmosphere like at your shows? Do audiences react in similar ways?

SHAH: It’s been changing from album to album. I’ve been noticing that not only is the audience’s reaction changing, but the demographic of the audience itself. With this album there’s a lot more young women coming to the shows, whereas for the first album it was mainly middle-aged men. I was wondering why that was, why weren’t there more women. Thankfully, there’s so many more women at my shows now. I’m really thankful for that, because, a lot of the times, I’m writing songs to women.

We played a show the other week at this festival and it was an audience that I’d never normally play in front of. That’s one the greatest things about festivals: you don’t always get your audience, you get people who just pop in out of curiosity. The reaction was amazing; there were people dancing, which we’ve never had, I guess because the message is pretty powerful and the performance is a lot more visceral than it has been previously. The audiences seem to be reacting to that really well and it’s a wonderful thing, because at a performance you really bounce off your audience.

CZEMIER: You have previously voiced concern about how homogenous the indie music scene in the U.K. is. Do you feel like that has changed as well?

SHAH: It’s now a topic that people are starting to speak about, thankfully and finally. The music scene has been dominated by white males for way too long. So many of my peers and good friends are females from all different kinds of ethnic backgrounds making great music. It seems to be something that has been avoided a lot of the time. If you look at festival lineups in the past few years, they have been dominated by white males. That’s not me saying they’re not good musicians, they’re amazing, but there has been a severe lack of female musicians in lineups. Even when I’m talking to some of my peers who are male musicians—some of them are very good friends and I can speak quite frankly with them—I discuss things like how much they’re getting paid. Some of them are artists who are at the same level as I am and have been getting paid more than I have, so there’s even a pay gap. It’s disgusting. But as soon as you get one person speaking out about it then you’ll get other people coming out of the cracks saying, “Actually, me too.” I’m starting to see and feel a bit of change in the industry now. It’s long, long overdue, but it’s a beautiful thing to see and it’s just going to get better as the days go by.

CZEMIER: Do you have any favorite current musicians?

SHAH: Female or male?

CZEMIER: Let’s go with female.

SHAH: This girl called Anna B Savage put out a beautiful EP about two years ago and I’ve only just revisited it and I love it. I’m a big fan of St. Vincent; maybe not of the newest album, but Strange Mercy is an album I revisit all the time. Solange—I think she’s a powerhouse. I’m still in love with [A Seat at the Table].

CZEMIER: You’ve worked with the producer Ben Hillier on two of your previous records, Love Your Dum and Mad [2013] and Fast Food. Did he contribute to the making of Holiday Destination as well?

SHAH: He’s still my partner in crime. It’s so difficult to find somebody you’re that comfortable with. On the first album I must have went through at least seven or eight producers before I found Ben. We worked together on this album. I loved making the album with him and I’m really happy with what he has done and how it turned out, but maybe in the next one I might finally be brave enough to venture out and work with somebody else.