Tyne and Wear’s latest gift to the music world, Nadine Shah, is nothing like what either her music (rich, dark and foreboding) or appearance (all razor-sharp cheekbones, plum lipstick and black eyeliner) would suggest to the casual observer. Based on those two factors alone, you could quite reasonably expect to find Shah holed up in some sort of gothic lair with a grand piano and a lot of dark velvet upholstery, snapping at anyone unlucky enough to intrude on her artistry. In fact, she’s been cruising the supermarket aisles on the weekly shop – despairing at the almost-empty baskets of the various twig-like girls she’s encountered in there – and exhibits all of the unforced, bubbly friendliness attached to the Geordie stereotype. Thank Christ for that.
When you think of music that’s come out of the North-East recently, it tends to be either all-male indie bands – the most famous being Newcastle’s Maxïmo Park and Sunderland’s The Futureheads – or television talent show contestants such as Joe McElderry, half of Little Mix and of course the Nation’s Favourite, Cheryl Cole (‘wor Chezza’, to locals). Raised in the windswept seaside village of Whitburn, just up the coast from Sunderland, Nadine Shah is definitely neither of these – though she does recall being encouraged to enter various talent programmes when she was younger. “People were just trying to be helpful. ‘Eee, ya should audition for that X Factor’.” She never did: instead, she relocated to London as a teenager to sing in jazz clubs. From thence onwards Shah pursued a musical career on her own terms, rather than Simon Cowell’s, allowing her to explore a far more individual and compelling sound than would doubtless be the case if she’d wound up on the X Factor fame merry-go-round.
“I heard a good quote the other day by Philip Larkin which I think sums up why I make ‘dark’ music – ‘Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth’.”
– Nadine Shah
While many mixed-race female artists are pushed by PRs and record labels (and, indeed, TV talent shows) to pursue a more commercial R’n’B route than they would necessarily like, Shah – who is half Norwegian and half Pakistani – has fortunately never encountered any of this kind of stereotyping. “I’ve never had any problems with that; no one’s ever wanted me to go down the Bollywood route… I wish!” She doesn’t think her exotic parentage has particularly influenced her songwriting: “My parents aren’t very musical. My father can sing well, but only in his own language. He sings these gorgeous religious songs called ghazals – if you take away the religious aspect of the songs you are left with just beautifully sad love songs. Maybe that subconsciously influenced me.”
The description ‘beautifully sad’ could certainly be applied to Shah’s music, even if she doesn’t especially think her father’s ghazals have been much of an influence. Her debut album, Love Your Dum And Mad, is a collection of 11 deeply beautiful and deeply melancholy songs that range from the industrial clatter of opening track Aching Bones to the echoing, gothic piano balladry of album-closer Winter Reigns, all tied together by Shah’s gorgeous soulful voice and an atmospheric darkness that pervades each song. “When writing and recording, I was never thinking to imitate other artists – I didn’t have a diverse breadth of musical knowledge to draw from. I was more inspired by sounds and atmospherics. I heard a good quote the other day by Philip Larkin which I think sums up why I make ‘dark’ music – ‘Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth’.”
This darkness extends to the album’s striking title and cover art, which on first glance seems fairly innocent and childlike, all colourful doodle figures and the sort of entertaining linguistic errors that small children make. Look closer, though, and it becomes a little more disturbing: what are the figures doing to each other? Why ‘dum[b] and mad’? The words ‘psychotic shopping mall’ and ‘I don’t think you should be around people’ are scrawled on a bilious yellow background, with spiky shapes and skull-like apparitions floating in between them. “All of the artwork is by my friend Matthew Stephens-Scott who suffered from mental illness. A lot of the paintings were produced soon after his time in hospital. There definitely is something very childlike about his work, a bit like Basquiat. That probably makes it all the more poignant though.”
Although Shah herself found success after making the move down to the capital, she has no time for musicians from the region who grumble that their isolated geographical location makes it harder for them to be noticed nationally. “It’s a touchy subject for me. I hear a lot of local bands complaining that that is the case, but it is just not true. We’ve some brilliant resources in the North-East, like Generator, a non-profit organization which helps to nurture and promote local artists – they’ve been a great help to me. If anything I think it can be an advantage not being from London, as there is less competition around you.”
Despite the gulf in sound between the all those noughties indie bands and her own music, Shah points to them as an influence of sorts, specifically with regard to the use of her own accent when singing. “I used to imitate people like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston when I was younger and there was no way you’d recognize my singing voice from my speaking one. I suppose maybe it was bands like Maxïmo Park and The Futureheads that made me realize the beauty of singing in your own accent. I have done so ever since; even when I was a jazz singer I sung with my silly accent.”
‘Silly’ she may call it, but Shah’s accent undeniably adds something extra to her intense, haunting sound. In an age when many female solo artists seem to adopt a faux-American twang or Mockney affectations and most listeners are unused to hearing regional accents in pop music, Shah’s drawn-out north-eastern lilt comes as something unfamiliar and even unsettling, a vibe that fits in perfectly with her music. Although she doesn’t live in the area any more, she still feels a strong emotional and musical attachment to it, referring to it as ‘home’.
“I’m back so often that I never really get time to miss it! I like showing the city off to my friends when they travel up there with me to shows – they’re very impressed by the scene down in the Ouseburn Valley,” she says, referring to an area of Newcastle regenerated in the past few decades as a creative cultural hub for the city, with galleries, art and music studios, pubs – and, of course, The Cluny, one of the country’s finest small music venues. “Even though I don’t live there, I still consider myself a part of its music scene as I regularly gig there.”
With her profile rising fast and adulation from the critics pouring in, Shah’s next big assignment is supporting Bat For Lashes at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in August. “I’m so excited for that show – it’s at a beautiful venue, too.” When the oft-drawn comparisons between herself and Natasha Khan, as well as PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, are brought up, though, a little insecurity shows through. “All the comparisons to other musicians are unbelievably flattering but I sometimes worry that people will hear my music and feel let down. I’d rather be compared to someone rubbish!”
With the quality of the music Shah has so far produced, she has nothing at all to warrant this insecurity. We’re sorry, Nadine, but if you carry on being this good, we’re going to carry on comparing you to brilliance – and you’re not going to be found wanting.
Nadine Shah’s debut album Love Your Dum And Mad is out now through Apollo. She supports Bat For Lashes at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 13 August and tours the UK in September and October 2013.