Music

Nadine Shah: To Be a Young Man

The former Mariah Carey wannabe tells us about songwriting, making art while female, and her days as a teenage troublemaker.

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All photos by Eleanor.

The London-based musician Nadine Shah is still green, but she’s dark green. Imagine Marianne Faithfull getting together with Nick Cave in the hollow space in your head that hurts when you can’t think anymore—that’s what her music sounds like to me. Her 2012 EP, Aching Bones, had normally cynical music critics in England saying gushy things like “The emotional and sonic depth she attains…is the work of a singularly unique artist” (the Mirror) and “In an ideal world the new James Bond film would be in black-and-white, all in Russian with no subtitles, while Nadine Shah croons the soundtrack” (the Independent) and “If all live debuts were as breathtaking as Nadine Shah’s then the walls of the music industry as we know it would crumble to dust, and in their place proud palaces of hope and beauty would spring forth” (the BBC). Shah’s debut LP, Love Your Dum and Mad, comes out today on Apollo Records. On it Shah and her producer and right-hand man, Ben Hillier (who’s worked with the Horrors, Blur, and Depeche Mode), explore the beauty and power of sonic simplicity, letting her strong melodies, brooding lyrics, and darkly amazing voice shine through.

You can listen for yourself on this track, “To Be a Young Man”:

(You can buy that song or the whole album here.)

I talked to Shah recently to find out how the former Mariah Carey wannabe became a universally gushed-over musician and songwriter.

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MISH WAY: What were you thinking about when you wrote the songs on this new album?

NADINE SHAH: The subjects are all quite macabre. Two friends of mine passed away when [I was working on it], so there are some songs [“Used It All,” “Remember,” “Dreary Town,” and “Floating”] about them and the mental illnesses they were both suffering from. They are not the cheeriest of songs.

Why did you start playing music?

This sounds really cheesy, but music chose me. It was something I could do well. I’ve had a big voice ever since I was young. I suppose I was better than my peers at singing and it made me stand out and feel good, so I followed it. Eventually I was singing loads of shit, pop-tart stuff—Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston—and in an American accent, as well!

Really?

Yeah. It was the worst American accent! Then I heard Nina Simone and fell in love with her voice. It was ugly in comparison with every other female voice I have ever heard—it was so honest. She inspired me to be more creative with my vocals. Then I took up piano and started writing [songs].

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So you’re completely self-taught?

Unfortunately.

No, it’s a good thing!

It sounds better on paper. If you actually hear my piano playing, it’s not that impressive. If I was a greatly competent musician it would be a better thing to acknowledge. My playing is really simple. I’m trying to work on it.

But songs don’t have to be complicated to be good.

I was in a studio yesterday and I was listening to a guy mix this track and the band was just putting so much stuff onto the song and I was like, “Can you mute that? And that? And that?” Then it sounded wonderful. It gave the track so much space.

How did you manage to go from mimicking Mariah Carey tunes as a kid to manifesting a career?

It’s weird, because I don’t have a romantic story. I wrote a song about my friend who had passed away and I played it for some of my other friends. One of them said, “It’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad.” So he passed the song along to this manager he knew, who I then began working with. And that manager but me in touch with my now-producer Ben Hillier. That was about three years ago. In the interim, I had to go off and perfect my trade. I had to play a fuckload of shitty gigs in tiny pubs.

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What were you like in high school?

I was friends with the popular girls—you know, the proper high school popular crowd. But I remember one day just getting bored with them. In my school you had separate common rooms, and one day I was walking through and saw a bunch of girls reading the latest issue of NME, which had that band Hot Hot Heat on the cover. I walked past and I just said, “Oh, I like that band. That song ‘Bandages’ is great.” They were so shocked that this girl who they assumed was an airhead bimbo knew anything about alternative music. I ended up spending most of my time with those girls. We went to indie clubs. I had a good time in school, though. I reckon I was quite the attention seeker—a total handful.

After high school, you went to art school—what did you specialize in there?

I began with painting, but I left it and started taking photography. I never completed my studies. I got distracted by music.

Photos by Eleanor.

That’s the best kind of distraction.

Not at the time. My parents were really ticked off. But now it is starting to pay off.

When you tell your parents you want to be in a band it’s like telling them you are joining the circus.

Completely. I know so many people in big bands in London who still work full-time jobs! If someone is able to finance [their own music], that is wonderful. I have no idea how the hell they do it, though. Music is all-consuming.

On your Twitter I read this tweet:

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I can’t believe you read that! [Laughs] I was on this train going to play a show. The train stops, so the murmuring begins in the car, and then there is this announcement: “I apologize for the delay, but there is a suicidal female on the line.” I suppose it was just the phrase “suicidal female,” but then there was this uproar of laughter that filled the train. It was so sinister! Fuckin’ hell! You guys think it’s funny that there is some poor girl trying to kill herself? Sorry to inconvenience you, but at least you got a giggle out of it. It was sick. This guy beside me turned to me and said, “That’s really funny, isn’t it?” I said, “No it’s not, and you are a cunt.”

Do you think it’s harder for women to be respected in the music industry?

I think we are at a point now where what we need to do, as women, to prove that we are brilliant is to just be brilliant. We don’t need to state it or make a big hoo-ha. Make art, make music. The praise will come. ♦

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Mish Way is a Canadian-born writer and musician. When not hunched over her computer, she is on tour with her band, White Lung. She is 100% West Coast and refuses to wash her hair.

7 Comments

  • Sophie ❤ July 22nd, 2013 7:02 PM

    Both the song and interview were amazing!

    http://theneonpapaya.wordpress.com

  • Kaetlebugg July 22nd, 2013 7:06 PM

    not only is she so incredibly honest & her songs amazing, but those photos are beautiful. It’s uplifting (for lack of a better word) to see someone take something so grim and sad and tragic as death and make art. I hope that doesn’t sound insensitive. I don’t think she is profiting from death or anything, just that she’s using art how its meant to be used – to deal with feelings.

  • Kaetlebugg July 22nd, 2013 7:07 PM

    also, on a lighter note, I LOVE the photos of her and I love the name Nadine!!

    embarrassingurl.blogspot.com

  • myy July 22nd, 2013 8:33 PM

    She is brilliant! What a voice!

    http://cactusflowerblog.blogspot.com/

  • Imogen_Miss_Tutu July 22nd, 2013 8:35 PM

    Everything about this interview was great. Nadine seems like a smart and strong woman. I’ll have to listen to more of her songs. She’s so honest and real, it gives me goosebumps.

    On another, I really didn’t get the thing about the “suicidal female”. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I’m not even talking from a moral point of view. I’m truly puzzled by humans’ macabre humour.

    http://leblogdimogen.blogspot.ca/

  • abby111039 July 22nd, 2013 10:44 PM

    Okay, so I had no idea what to expect from this song. But even when I listened to it for the first time, I was somehow still completely surprised. Nadine’s voice has such depth and richness that both make for a beautiful, haunting tone. “Beautifully haunting” seems like a good phrase to describe both Nadine’s voice and this song. So unique and unusual and just unparalled by anyhing I’ve ever heard before.

    On a very different note, I was completely appalled by the “suicidal female” bit. As a female who has been suicidal quite a few times in my relatively short life, I fail to understand how anyone, ANYONE, could find amusment in that. How utterly cruel. It’s times like these when my faith in humanity wanes a little more each time. I feel so jaded.

  • Roux July 26th, 2013 3:36 AM

    whoa, she’s beautiful :o