Nadine Shah: ‘My creativity comes from my time in hospital’

The singer, 35, on childhood traumas, gaining confidence, losing her mum and her love for the northeast

I lost my mum last year. She was brilliant, which is what’s so hard about it. Her name was Heather, and it would have been easier if she’d been a bit shit. My brother named her “the patron saint of misfits”. She was understanding and kind. She had time for everyone. I have a mantra now: “Be more Heather.”

Social media divides us, but I don’t know where I’d have been without it during the pandemic. Sometimes I find myself on Twitter thinking: “There she goes, writing about her mum again,” but hearing from other people who’ve lost people, hearing that I’ve helped, it’s been so good for my head.

I spent a lot of my childhood ill. When I was seven, my immune system weakened and I lost the use of my legs for a time. I was in hospital on and off for years. It meant that I had to be more cautious than other kids. I think my creativity comes from all the time I spent inside – and it was great preparation for the events of the past year.

The northeast is so important to me. Nobody is funny like people from the northeast. I went to quite a hoity-toity school in Newcastle and when I moved to London I’d completely lost my northern accent. Some girls said to me: “You don’t sound northern,” so I immediately adopted this thick, Cheryl Cole-esque accent because I didn’t want to disappoint them. I’ve kept it up ever since. We’re nice like that. Funny and nice.

Confidence can be learned. When journalists or fans used to tell me they liked my music, I used to blush and tell them to check out Anna Calvi, as she was much better. Now, I normally manage a “Thank you.” I do think I’m pretty good!

The moment I really thought things might be working out was being on tour with Depeche Mode. Actually, it was while playing table football with them. I remember being in the plane to support them in Cologne. My guitarist told me to look out of the window and you could actually see the venue we were supporting them in, it was that big.

I always wanted to be famous, but I didn’t think I’d even write my own songs, that just sort of happened. Sometimes, when I’m at the coast, I’ll find myself looking at yachts. I’ll pretend I’m Tony Soprano and think: “That’s the one I’ll have.” But these days I’m much more interested in being good at what I do and what I make than I am in being famous.

I wish I’d finished my education and not dropped out of university. I was under the impression that I had to sacrifice everything to be a musician. I don’t always think the sacrifices I made outweigh the benefits. There are more important things to me than my career.

Nadine Shah will play live from the Barbican on 18 July (


James McMahon

The GuardianTramp

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