The music industry could do with more people like Nerina Pallot. Actually, scratch that – the world could do with more people like Nerina Pallot. There’s a shy, kooky approachability to her that reflects a singer who over the course of her four studio albums has experienced the full extent of highs and lows the industry has to offer, and emerged in recent years sounding more comfortable in her own sound than ever before.
Polishing off her set at Islington’s richly decadent Assembly Hall with recent standout Put Your Hands Up, there was that sense of communion between artist and audience that comes from those stars divorced from the usual rat race of hype and sales targets, now content purely to exist on their own terms.
Are Pallot’s songs indulgent? Perhaps – but indulgent in the sense of the simple pleasure that comes from a creative medium letting us work out our own inner wrangles, and then externalising them. There’s an honesty to tonight’s proceedings – interspersed with frequent on-stage banter and quite a few sips of rosé – that speaks to the deep-rooted facets of humanity present in us all. Whether it be the biting sarcasm of Real Late Starter or the brutal openness of 2006’s Everybody’s Gone To War, Pallot’s songs are the little voice in the back of our head, expressing the things we’ve perhaps always wanted to say, but could never quite pluck up the courage to do so. It makes for quite the reflectful, melancholy show, but as Pallot herself tells us as we sit down for a quick chat, “Happiness isn’t very compelling, let’s face it.”
Her latest release – the Lonely Valentine Club EP – is a quaint six-track collection, helmed up by a cover of CeCe Peniston’s Finally, which sees Pallot transforming the ’90s dance classic into a devastatingly beautiful piano ballad. Cast in this new light, the song’s ruminations on love and the sense of relief at finally finding that ‘special someone’ (as all those dreadful dating websites seem to put it these days) provide a good deal of food for thought on that most torturous of human emotions. And it’s a topic Pallot is keen to expand on.
“The problem with love, or rather, the problem with lust,” she tells us, “is that once you’ve ‘got it’, it’s not actually that interesting. I’m much more interested in the journey. I think love is so different from romance and lust. And the thing is, when you write about love you make it so saccharine, don’t you? You devalue it. At the end of the day, all songwriting is effectively about love. All of the world… without wanting to sound like a hippy… well, everyone is motivated by love. Whether it be by money or sex – both of those are effectively about getting love.”
From wider philosophical discourse on the meaning of love, Pallot brings her thoughts on happiness back to a far more personal level: “I think I’m more aware of people feeling sad, and I’ve always had that since I was a little kid. I’ve had moments of depression myself, but luckily I’ve been naturally equipped with the tools to deal with it. I have family members and friends who probably aren’t as well equipped, and it’s just luck of the draw. You might have a mindset that’s able to get you out of it, whereas some people require a bit more help. I feel a bit like a sponge, I pick up people’s feelings, so I tend to write about it – even when I’m feeling ok, I still gravitate toward sadness.”
We suggest that the very nature of happiness means that as soon as we’ve achieved it in one aspect of our lives, we’re inclined to try and pursue another form of it elsewhere – essentially, a never-ending search for a kind of ‘true’ happiness that might not even really exist…
“That’s the human condition, isn’t it?” she agrees. “Unless you’re really enlightened and you’re totally together, there’s always going to be… ‘the next thing’. Otherwise we’d just stay in our rooms, in the ‘cave’. If man wasn’t motivated in some way we’d have never got out of the caves and moved on from hunting and gathering.”
Recent years have seen Pallot interspersing her own releases with tracks for other artists, including X Factor starlet Diana Vickers and – most notably – a duo of tracks for Kylie Minogue’s 2010 pop triumph Aphrodite. In that instance, both of the songs saw her co-writing with her husband, Andy Chatterley, with one of the cuts – Better Than Today – topping the US dance charts. One recent collaboration we were particularly intrigued to ask about though involved a certain Una Healy from The Saturdays…
“Yes! We had a day together and we wrote a song – Falling To Pieces,” Pallot explains. “It was just before she had her baby too, so there were lots of parallels; I’d been in the studio for like eight hours before I had [my son] Wolfie.” For Nerina though, writing collaborations are rare, as she goes on to explain:
“I don’t tend to write with other artists – as opposed to writing a song then giving it to someone else. It’s not something that’s ever really worked for me as an artist. None of the cuts with bigger artists I’ve had have ever been songs I’ve written with them. I’m just very self conscious and I’m quite shy when it comes to writing – I find I stop being myself the moment I sit in the room with someone and start writing a song, I clam up. The only person I’ve ever done it with where it’s been successful is my husband – and we tend to write remotely; so I’ll have an idea, he’ll work on it, and then I’ll write on it separately. But by and large, I’m just too shy. I would love to be able to do it – I’m in awe of people like Sia who are able to do it professionally as a job.”
We’re curious as to what her thoughts are on writing camps: “I just find that too premeditated. I couldn’t do it even if someone said, ‘here’s a million quid, go to a writing camp for a day…’ I can’t do it, it’s just who I am. Which is a shame, because I do get frustrated with myself because I think I have a pop facility in me, I can do that. I’m just such a contrary bastard of my own making that I sort of shoot myself in the foot.” It’s this sort of duality in Nerina that holds all kinds of fascination, and for all her self-proclaimed shyness, she’s certainly not without ambition. Launching into a passionate diatribe, she outlines what her plans for reviving HMV as a high street brand would be, centred around the concept of it becoming more of an ‘experience’ for the shopper.
“I think that should have happened ages ago! I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the States but on the West Coast there’s this amazing shop called Amoeba; they’ve been going for like 15 years. They’ve got these massive warehouse spaces where you can get loads of second hand stuff, and they’ve got stages and become gig venues – usually it’s more indie/leftfield stuff. It’s a gig-shop! It’s social, and it’s absolutely packed. I’ve gone there in broad daylight, got lost in a world of music, come out, and it’s dark.
“What you need is destination points – instead of having 300 HMV stores, you just have them in big cities. If I was called up and they said ‘come and run it!’, I’d be like ‘I know how to do this, it’s simple!’. You just have London, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, maybe Leeds – and you make them massive fucking 20-30,000 square meter warehouse places.”
At this point the enthusiasm in Pallot is palpable – like so many musicians we’ve talked to over the past few months, HMV’s troubles feel like something that’s hit them personally; an old ailing friend they’re willing to do anything for to see them back on the mend. “They don’t have to be on the high street,” she continues, “they could be just out of town, and you put a venue in there, and a big bar, and you just stack it full. Do the opposite, just go in as if record sales have never been bigger and just create this retail experience. The tragedy about HMV was telling staff not to show their tattoos – fuck that! I want to see people that are interesting! I want someone who knows there’s more to rock than just Biffy Clyro!”
If we were one of the well-heeled business people on Dragon’s Den and Nerina was pitching to us, we’d be sold. There’s a sense of curatorship to her; whether it be her schemes for HMV, her tasteful reinventions of classic tunes, or the way she can carry a stage in an utterly singular manner – treading the rather scholarly boards of the Assembly Hall’s stage alone, switching between piano and guitar as the mood takes her.
With the theme of Valentine’s Day thick in the air, she asks the crowd whether they see her as the kind of artist you’d bring someone along to on a first date in the hope of a quick fumble at the end of the night. The response is distinctly muted – it’s clear most in attendance are members of Pallot’s fiercely devoted fanbase, the kind that cue up 50-strong at the merch stand at the end, which Nerina – admirably – manned herself. Getting that last-minute experience in for her HMV masterplan, we imagine.
Nerina Pallot’s Lonely Valentine Club EP is out now, through Idaho.