INTERVIEW: Nadine Shah | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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It’s impossible to talk about Nadine Shah’s new record, Filthy Underneath, without discussing the trauma that it was born from. It’s harrowing and complex, and as a journalist, you agonise over whether you’re striking the right tone, or being exploitative or sensationalising something deeply personal. Then you speak to Nadine, and she’s so candid and darkly funny and unapologetically unashamed, that you realise it would be wrong not to talk about it, because Nadine has achieved an astounding feat in piecing her life back together and creating something so life-affirming in the process.

I thought I did a pretty good job of hiding it, but it turns out I wasn’t at all,” recalls Nadine. “Friends around me said it was like watching a fast-speeding train and there was nothing they could do to stop it.” The timeline of the beginnings of the record is somewhat blurred. Unbeknownst to Nadine she was suffering from PTSD after the death of her mother in August 2020, a time when the usual processes for grieving were unavailable, and unable to tour her universally acclaimed 2020 album, Kitchen Sink, she found herself without purpose. “When I’m not working as a musician I feel so lost, like my identity has been robbed. Like many creatives I have a very busy mind that needs to be kept fuelled and that keeps me right.”

Desperate to get back into the studio to work on her next album, Nadine ploughed ahead as soon as restrictions allowed, though it was clear to all around her she wasn’t doing well. It culminated in an attempt to end her own life in Easter 2022, but thankfully an unplanned last-minute Tweet to say goodbye resulted in her being found in time. “I went to a rehab facility for two months, which is the best thing that I ever did, and while I was in there, I started writing lyrics, not with an album in mind, mostly cathartically. When I came out and went back to the studio, I took this collection to my producer Ben Hillier. People already had an idea that I’d had some kind of breakdown, so I wasn’t afraid or ashamed to be writing about such personal subjects, plus being in the studio is a form of therapy for me, it keeps me well.”

In rehab, Nadine wasn’t a musician. She was a regular young woman, and she had to figure out how to exist outside of being a musician. “There were lots of harrowing times but also lots of fun times, I’ve never laughed so much. The objective was ‘you’re here to get help and we’re here to help you’. You live there, you eat, shit and sleep with everybody: we had to share rooms and I was always stuck with a snorer!”

Although the subject matter is macabre, I didn’t want this record to be downtrodden or defeatist

Not only did rehab equip Nadine with the tools to keep her mental health in check, it also provided inspiration for some of Filthy Underneath’s most memorable songs, including electrifying lead single Topless Mother, which recalls her relationship with a counsellor with a rather unorthodox method. “She had this technique where, if she couldn’t get me to cry in a therapy session, she would cry, and I was like ‘haad on lady, this isn’t how it works!’ I’m not being scathing or mean, we just didn’t get on, it was mutual! It’s a very immature song – I’m making fun of myself as much as I am of her.”

Then there’s Twenty Things, which Nadine describes as a “love letter” to all the people she was in the rehab facility with. “I’m very aware of the privilege I have in being able to get the help that I did, but I met people from all walks of life and there was something very beautiful about that. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, from pauper to king it can take hold of anybody. I realised I couldn’t not write about these people, I quickly fell in love with them all – everybody has a great story if you take the time to listen to them, and they had many.”

While the subject matter of Filthy Underneath may be difficult, there’s something about its sound that feels almost primal at times, with rhythm and movement leading the way. Topless Mother uses tribal beats to inject a glorious sense of wild abandon, with the same urgent, ritualistic drums present on the opening of the theatrical Greatest Dancer, while the sensual hypnotic sway of Food For Fuel draws from Nadine’s Pakistani heritage, her voice enchanting and otherworldly.

I still want you all to dance,” laughs Nadine. “Although the subject matter is macabre, I didn’t want this record to be downtrodden or defeatist. I’m also a bit of a piss-taker and find it difficult to talk about emotions without a bit of humour injected, which is definitely a Geordie thing.”

Even in the album’s slower, more subdued moments, metronomic rhythms are placed front and centre, whether it’s the skeletal skittering of Twenty Things or the hypnotic slither of You Drive, I Shoot. “This is the fifth album Ben Hillier and I have worked on together and he’s an incredible drummer. We started the drums first on this album, so that’s why the rhythm section is so present.”

When asked about her relationship with the North East, Nadine proudly declares that she has moved back to Newcastle, having signed to new label EMI North. Having found her world dismantled and pieced back together again, there is one final piece left to reclaim, and that’s touring. “Touring is a very healthy space for me, the dangerous place for me is when I’m on my own and not working. I’ve told my management company and label that I’m going to gig this album loads, it’s really important to me. So, if I’m going to be dealing with this heavy subject matter, I don’t want the music to be dour. I played a few shows recently with Young Fathers and I was worried about becoming emotional on stage, but that didn’t happen as I was enjoying the music at the same time. I want to have a nice time and keep myself well.”

Nadine Shah releases Filthy Underneath on 23rd February via EMI North. She performs at Newcastle’s Boiler Shop on Friday 26th April.

 

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