Nadine Shah: My dream is to play not Carnegie Hall but Palestine
Nadine Shah enjoyed a stellar 2017 with her politically-charged third album, Holiday Destination. She talks to Joe Nerssessian about her political awakening, the music industry and her thoughts on performing in Israel.
"YOU'RE asking a Geordie to watch your bag?'' quips Nadine Shah when a stranger in the cafe where we meet asks the singer to mind her belongings as she nips to the loo.
It's typical of Nadine. Friendly, cheeky, constantly beaming, interested and chatty. A joke is almost always only a sentence away.
Three albums in, and the singer-songwriter has made herself ubiquitous across the music industry – and not just for her art. After breaking through with 2013 debut Love Your Dum And Mad, she's used her platform for wider issues, from the Music Minds Matter campaign – a new mental health hotline for musicians – to continuing to fight for refugees' rights.
She also confronted festival boss Melvin Benn – the man behind Reading and Leeds, V Fest, Wireless, Download and others – over a lack of female-fronted acts at his events.
And people listen to her. Benn – who has faced similar criticism in recent years – finally acted and even roped in Nadine to take some responsibility for a new female artists' mentoring campaign he launched.
She may not admit it, but she's also got a fair number of music pals. She describes Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan and Martin Gore as like a pair of uncles, is good friends and has collaborated with Mercury-nominated Ghostpoet, has been nicknamed "voice'' by Loyle Carner and was once almost bailed out of prison by Billy Bragg.
We meet in an east London cafe for a half-an-hour interview that becomes two hours of generous conversation. Nadine is engaging company and her mind wanders from UK politics to global issues like US president Donald Trump or, as she described him on her latest album – the dark but compassionate Holiday Destination – a "fascist in the White House''.
The record is her most acclaimed yet, and rightly so. She ditches the theatrical voice of her first two albums for a brooding post-punk glower and jumps from gentrification, to the refugee crisis, to the failure of politicians in the north of England and to her own changes as she reached 30.
The emotionally charged Mother Fighter, a track about a Syrian woman Nadine saw in a documentary, garnered her favourite response to the record when the woman in question got in touch.
"It was lovely, just a heartwarming, appreciative message thanking me for telling her story – and that was my job. So the best thing hasn't been selling out venues or being included in end of year best album lists, it's been that comment.''
The album saw her team up with producer Ben Hillier (Depeche Mode, U2, Blur, Elbow, Suede) for the third time and Nadine is deadly serious as she calls it a "partnership for life''.
"If it's not broke, don't fix it,'' she says. "It's really difficult to find somebody you can spend that amount of concentrated time with in one small room. He's a collaborator, it's all 50/50. I just put my name on it and take most of the credit .. cos I'm a cow,'' she cackles.
Born in the coastal town of Whitburn in the north east of England to a Pakistani father and a Norwegian-British mother, Nadine's world view was informed from a young age by her older brother, a journalist who spends a lot of time covering conflict.
"I've been very, very aware of right-wing nationalists from a very young age,'' she says. "I don't know if that's because I'm half-Pakistani; I just think my eyes have always been open.''
Although it took until her third album for those ideas to creep into her music, Nadine has been protesting against the far-right for a lot longer. She was arrested around 12 years ago after crashing an English Defence League rally.
"I was dating a political activist and he used to take me to demonstrations with him, and we were at this EDL march and obviously were opposing it. There was about 100 of them and 2,000 of us.
"We got kettled and I ended up getting arrested; it was really mad. Billy Bragg nearly had to bail me out, it was very funny,'' she says. "I was in Lewisham prison for seven hours. The police said they took us in for our own safety.''
Her politicisation has come from a strong sense of solidarity with Palestine from a young age. It remains a dream of hers to perform there.
She's also intrigued about the debate surrounding artists performing in Israel which has seen the likes of Nick Cave, Lorde and Radiohead come under pressure from groups lobbying for a cultural embargo.
"Loads of artists I know won't play Tel Aviv and I've said for me it's different. I wouldn't want to, but if someone with a Muslim surname was invited to play Tel Aviv that would be quite significant,'' she says thoughtfully.
"But it's a dream of mine to play Palestine. I speak to musicians about where their dream places are to play and they'll say Carnegie Hall or Royal Festival Hall or Olympic Stadium in Berlin, but genuinely, mine is Palestine.
"It would be very difficult for me to go but, hopefully, one day I will.''
She moved to London at 17 and has spent almost half her life in the capital, first arriving in Camden where she will return next month for a show as part of the Roundhouse festival, In The Round.
"Whenever I go back to play gigs in Camden, it's really exciting, especially when it's the Roundhouse. It's pretty cool. I'm like, 'I made it'.''
But it's not all smooth sailing. It took a long time to find herself a space to feel safe in the music industry and she admits it is a continuing struggle.
"It took me six years of doing this to work out how to exist within the music industry in a healthy way,'' she says, smiling but serious.
"It's a really unhealthy environment. It can be amazing and there's bits I love, but it's also f****** awful, and I hate it, I really hate it.''
:: Nadine Shah plays the Roundhouse, Camden, on February 2.