Before starting your first national tour promoting your new album, you owe it to yourself to relax and mentally prepare yourself for the gigs ahead. Nadine Shah was doing just that, as she spoke to me in the afternoon, still wearing her pyjamas. “I’m really nervous but really excited!” she admits, “I’ve never done so many shows consecutively before. So, I need to take care of my voice for the time being.” Her critically acclaimed debut album Love your Dum and Mad has been lauded near universally as the bold arrival of an artist still fresh, but in control of her sound and the direction her music career will take. Despite this success and attention then, it’s refreshing how down to earth she is as we discuss her music, her inspirations, comparisons and the music industry in general for a new artist.
The music on Love Your Dum and Mad is a dark and expressive backdrop to the rich timbres of Shah’s voice, and the personal and heart-breaking nature of her lyrics. It is unsurprising then that journalists have likened her music to a mixture of PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, which Shah sees as hugely flattering. However, neither of the songwriters were immediately influential on her debut, and she herself doesn’t see much of their influence on her work. “Unfortunately I discovered them very late in life! It was only after writing that I was told to listen to them, and my reaction was always ‘Oh yeah, who’s that?’” But, she acknowledges that there exists a connection between the three of them. “To be honest, the main connection between myself, PJ Harvey and Nick Cave is that I possibly look like I could be their child.”
When I asked her how she would best characterise her music and style of writing, she found it difficult to put into words her own opinions on the tracks. She instead uses the words of another, a Twitter user who was recommending Shah’s music to a friend. “’Imagine Shirley Bassey playing Interpol.’ I like that! That’s pretty much how I would describe it.” The description is really accurate, the sparse instrumentation and rhythms of Interpol are heard in tracks like ‘Aching Bones’ and ‘Runaway’, and the unctuous jazz inflections of Bassey is heard throughout Shah’s vocals. The influence of jazz singers is prevalent throughout Love Your Dum and Mad, and on tracks like ‘Dreary Town’ you can hear the mournful but transfixing power of singers like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Shah acknowledges that she used to sing in jazz bands before she started writing, and loved it, but “the songs weren’t mine. I went to art school and I wanted to make my own stuff, wonderful as the jazz music was.”
The lyrics and stories told on Shah’s debut are equally as moving as her sound and delivery. Love Your Dum and Mad deals with mental illness, the death of loved ones, relationships, both good and bad, and drug use personified in ‘Used it All’. It takes guts to really open yourself up on record, and so I ask Shah about her motivations and how she went about writing. “I think I’ve always wanted to write, but for a long time there was nothing I really wanted to say. There was nothing really compelling to draw upon. I suppose it was the death of my friend which drew me to writing properly.” The friend in question being Matthew Stephen Scott, a painting whose artwork adorns the cover of Shah’s debut and gave the album its unusual name. Matthew suffered from mental illness and took his own life, and many of the songs on Love your Dum and Mad are dedicated to him. “I loved all his paintings, I used his work as cover art for my singles ‘To Be a Young Man’ and ‘Dreary Town’ as well. The album cover has had some mixed reactions, but I like that about it.” It is touching to think how the death of a friend could have such an impact on Shah’s music, and how her use of album art and choice of topic again pay homage to her friendship.
On the subject of “mixed reactions,” I ask Shah about how she feels as an artist with a new album, beginning to make waves in the music industry. “The internet is important to a lot of artists actually. People can complain about it, but I think they’re wrong- it kind of taking that middle man out of music. Where before you need a record label to show yourself, now you just need YouTube or SoundCloud or similar.” However, she is wary of the problems having an online presence can have. While the internet can get your music out there for an unprecedented audience size, it does very little for the musician aside from publicity. Spotify, for instance, pays incredibly little royalties to the musician for the number of plays a track gets. In addition to this, there’s a danger of being locked into a time zone, where everyone knows you from a certain point in your career, to the extent that however you change and grow they will always have that image of you in their heads. “So there are parts of it that I really don’t enjoy, but it’s a part of the job,” she concedes, “I do the same thing to people I like.”
As I thank Shah for her time, I mention her gig at Oxford at the O2 Academy Sunday October 13th, as part of her nationwide tour. Nervous as she is about her first tour, she’s looking forward to heading back to Oxford, after supporting Eels at the O2 in August. It promises to be a stellar night too; if Shah’s vocals are as captivating as they are on record then all in attendance are in for a proper treat.
It’s clear that with Nadine Shah’s voice and engaging writing style she’s destined for big things. Before you buy a ticket for her show on October the 13th, get her album Love Your Dum and Mad, and be prepared to fall in love with a new, enthralling voice and artist.