Nadine Shah: ‘I was determined for people to hear I was Pakistani’

The theatrical goth-pop singer has always felt like an outsider. Now she’s using her newfound fame to speak out about mental health issues and why indie music needs a change

On paper, Nadine Shah seems something of an outsider. She was born to Pakistani and Norwegian parents, but grew up in Whitburn, south Tyneside, where she was the “foreign kid”. Among the north-east music collective – including Field Music, Frankie and the Heartstrings, Maxïmo Park and the Futureheads – she’s a lone female, who makes brooding, theatrical post-punk as opposed to the rest of the scene’s buoyant art-pop. Then, there’s the rest of the alternative musical landscape in 2015, which remains dominated by the same skinny-white-man cliche that allowed Johnny Borrell to ride a motorbike through Kirsten Dunst’s house at the height of indie’s mid-00s tight-jeaned boom. Shah is the anti-Borrell. For starters, she wouldn’t be seen dead in white denim.

Then, there’s her self-effacing wit and warmth. Or her kindness, a philanthropic instinct articulated in her work with the Samaritans and volunteering to speak at schools in east London as part of the Not In My Name campaign in which Muslims publicly state their opposition to the actions of Isis. She also works with Calm, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, and this month the 29-year-old gave a talk at Newcastle University on mental health. In the past 10 years, two of her former boyfriends have killed themselves, the first when she was aged 19, the second a few years ago.

We meet in a bar before she plays a show in London, and she is in full humility mode. “I’m like a bored housewife, honestly,” she says of her charity work. “Music takes up a lot of time when you’re in album cycle but, also, my writing process is very solitary so I’ve got to go out and be sociable. It doesn’t always feel that satisfying being a musician; it feels quite selfish. It doesn’t feel that great. You’ve got to keep yourself sane – when you can.”

Fool by Nadine Shah.

The central narrative of her debut album, Love Your Dum and Mad, covered the suicides of her boyfriends Stuart, who suffered from bipolar disorder, and Matthew, who was addicted to drugs. Following its release, Shah was contacted by fans who also were struggling with mental illnesses, and attempted to help as many as she could. She looks beaten by the experience: “I got too involved. I would reply too much, but I’ve stopped now. I’m not medically trained.”

It was Nina Simone – a singer with a similar sense of melancholy and low vocal range – who first inspired Shah to be an artist. Simone’s androgynous voice encouraged Shah to switch from replicating the pretty, overembellished warbles of Mariah Carey and the R&B divas and to embrace her own accent’s beautiful, warm vowel sounds. That desire to capture the truth is something she still relishes, from her critique of a former hipster boyfriend’s disingenuous fondness for Kerouac on Fool, to her scathing disregard for fancy knickers (“Now you’re dolled up at the party/ Hoping there’s someone to meet/ You are snatching and you’re grabbing/ You’ve got lace on underneath”, she sings on Living, while during The Gin One she sniffs at the woman who “threw the cottons out, and now my drawers are lined in lace”).

“I wear massive cotton underwear,” she reveals. “My mum always wanted me to be more feminine. She was always like: ‘Get a massage! Put some blusher on! Get your hair trimmed!’ And things about my underwear … ‘You could get knocked over by a bus! You’ve got to start wearing matching underwear!’”

In a rare act of karmic justice, Shah’s goodwill and raw talents have been rewarded by glowing reviews for both records. “It was ‘critically acclaimed’,” she says of her first album, “Which means that yes, we got some nice reviews, but nobody bought it.”

However, people are buying her second album, Fast Food, which came out in April. In the first week of the Official Vinyl Chart, it debuted at No 9, and Shah sold more on that format than Brit Critics Choice winner James Bay. For an independent, uncompromising albums artist such as Shah, the revolt against instant-consumption culture is hugely valuable. But she hopes that her presence in the mainstream will benefit more than her own career.

“The only reason why I was so determined for people to hear that I was Pakistani was so my nieces – my cousin’s children, two beautiful girls – could have Pakistani role models,” she says. “We didn’t have any growing up. So I think it’s almost wonderful that they can see it’s realistic and achievable, I can be from this culture and making this music.”

Her relationship with her father’s Muslim heritage was not always easy. “[At school] I loved being a bit different. I’d get a day off for Eid. Or at show-and-tell I could bring in these amazing outfits that my aunts would send over. It was only after 9/11 that there was lots of racism. From then on it was awful to be Pakistani and I would lie about it. I would say I was Persian. Arabian. Anything that wasn’t … but then finally leaving Newcastle and moving to London, a really multicultural city, I’m 10 a penny!”

The same can’t be said for her place in the homogenous indie scene, though. Does she agree that indie is a Caucasian preserve?

“Yeah, because my ears prick up when I hear an Asian surname or one that’s a bit different,” she says. She can count only a few artists who divert from the stereotype, too: newcomer Ben Khan, Joe Mirza of the Slow Revolt and Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan. Is this the industry’s fault?

“I think [the indie scene] is welcoming enough but I think it’s a cultural thing,” she says. “I think this generation is changing now; people who are older than me are having children who have been born in England and that’s their culture. There’s still a lot of pressure on a lot of my family, my first cousins, a lot of pressure academically from their parents because their parents were immigrants who moved to England to work and to succeed. And that’s really been instilled in me from a young age. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a really great thing, to want your children to be well educated.”

As we begin to meander into Shah’s fondness for ill-fated romance, hipsters and her mother’s disdain for her last album, a thought hits suddenly. By doing this interview, she’s avoided the rigmarole of helping her band unload the gear into the venue. “Ha, yes!” she says triumphantly, before going out for a celebratory fag. Looks like there’s a bit of Borrell in everyone, after all.

Fast Food is out now on Apollo.


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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