Holiday Destination is Nadine Shah’s most political work to date. Before her upcoming UK tour, we caught up with her at her performance at Jäger Soho on Soho Radio.
DiS: Your parents are both from different immigrant backgrounds, what’s their backstory?
Nadine Shah: My father’s Pakistani, my mother’s father was Norwegian but she was born in the UK. My dad came to England in 1971. I guess the term is “economic migrant”. The West always sells this story in films, in music, about how the West is the best, how the western lifestyle is so great, and of course, people buy into that, all over the world. But as soon as they come, we’re like, “get out”. It’s unfathomable.
My dad just really wanted to live in England. He prides himself on being super English. You’ll never see him casually dressed, he only ever wears a suit, with a handkerchief in his pocket matching his tie. And he’s done really well for himself. He came over when he was super young. I always assumed his journey was just getting on a plane from Pakistan and landing in the UK like: “Ta-da!” It was only when making this album that I actually asked about his journey, and it was pretty treacherous. He didn’t have to go over the sea or anything, but he had to go through so many different countries. And for a young man to do alone, it’s pretty terrifying. He worked a bunch of shitty jobs in factories, then his elder brother came over, and they both started curtain businesses.
And he’s done really well! When they hear my accent, people assume I’m from a really working class background, and my mum and dad are, but my dad was quite affluent. So I went to awful private schools because my dad thought that was the best thing to do for me. And, in hindsight, I probably would’ve been better off going to the comprehensive down the road; it was five minutes away, and a great school. But he just did whatever he thought was best.
How did your proximity to their stories inform your sense of nationality and identity? Does that inform your politics?
I hope I’d have the same politics despite where my parents are from. My mother’s cultural heritage was never super present at home; she doesn’t speak Norwegian. She can say a few nursery rhymes and swear words, and I’ve been brought up eating raw herring, but that’s as Scandinavian as we get.
But we’ve got loads of Pakistani family in the North East, so being Pakistani was a massive part of my growing up. I hated it when I was younger. There were certain things; I wasn’t allowed to wear anything above my knee at school discos, I wasn’t allowed to date boys, stuff like that. But I also used it to my advantage when I was younger, which I loved. So I’d say: “Dad, all the other kids are going clubbing” when I was 15. And of course my English friends weren’t allowed to go, but he always wanted me to fit in. My dad’s a very relaxed Muslim; he’s pretty laid back. But being Pakistani was a massive part of my identity because I was the closest thing to the foreign kid. That was great at times, but then also the worst thing, because anything that makes you different at school – your hair, what you’re wearing – is gonna be something that kids pick up on.
You sing in a strong North East accent. Is that important for you in expressing your identity in what you’re singing?
When I was younger I’d always imitate lots of singers, with this thick American accent, which is really cringeworthy. Then, when I started doing jazz, I started using a Geordie accent. It was kind of a joke at first, really, but then I realised that I could get these huge vowel sounds. And they translate really beautifully. And it’s an accent that a lot of people kinda laugh at, but I didn’t want it to sound novelty. The Futureheads sing in their accent from Sunderland, and theirs was a bit playful, but I wanted to make the accent beautiful.
As opposed to how Kenickie used to do it…
Yeah, but I bloody love Kenickie, they’re ace! Lauren Laverne’s a legend!
So singing about being a second gen immigrant in your Geordie accent, are both those parts of your identity equally important to you?
Yeah! I love where I’m from! And also I really hated when people pointed their fingers at the North after the referendum. They tarred them all with the same brush, said they’re all stupid, ignorant, racist. Which isn’t the case at all. I’ve experienced some racism in the North East, but no more than I would’ve experienced in any other city. There’s a song on the album called ‘Jolly Sailor’, my local pub, and my dad and me, we’ve been drinking there every Christmas Eve for the past few years. And my dad is probably the only brown guy in Whitburn, where we live, but he’s always been welcome in the community just like everybody else. So there’s a bit of me that’s pleased that there’s a northern voice out there, saying these things. Just like Maximo Park made a great political album recently, and his accent is from Billingham. So I suppose those two go hand in hand.
Do you experience different versions of racism depending on where you are, or do you find it’s the same everywhere?
This is one of the things that’s unique to second-generation immigrants; I get it from both sides, from the Pakistani community, and from the English community as well. It sounds pretty crude to say it, but it’s like: “Not brown enough to be brown, not white enough to be white.” And I think there are a lot of second gen immigrants that have this kind of identity crisis when they don’t know what to call themselves, or who they are really. But I’m one of hundreds of thousands of second-generation immigrants, and we embrace multiculturalism. It’s a beautiful thing.
What about within the UK, are the ways people’s racism manifests different in the south to the north-east?
I don’t think so. I’ve lived in London for 16 years, and it’s one of the most multicultural cities in the world, so I haven’t been privy to any racism here because everybody’s from everywhere. But also, in Newcastle, I don’t keep the company of bad people, so I’ve never experienced much racism there. I’ve heard of it, but then again I have in London too. So no, I don’t find it any different between the South and the North at all. And that stereotype of the north-east being racist is just archaic and stupid.
Of course, I’ve heard stories about it, but it’s not something I like to advertise because I don’t want people thinking about the North East like that. Sometimes in Sunderland, I hear the odd racist term, but I don’t think these are evil people saying these things; I think it’s ignorance. But that’s just because they haven’t been around multiculturalism, and that’s because no bloody money’s been put into Sunderland. But they’re going for the City of Culture bid and making a conscious effort to bring artists from all over the world with this new multipurpose arts centre, and that’s what Sunderland needs.
Your song ‘Evil’ sounds very playful on this album. Was that a conscious effort to add levity to what you’re singing about?
Very much so. It’s based on that theme of being the outsider. So I originally wrote it to do with my own mental health, because I’d get called things like crazy, and people were very unsympathetic towards people with mental illnesses for a long time. And still are! It related to a poem I loved by Philip Larkin called ‘Days’. So day represents normality, and he talks about anything or anyone who lives outside of the day bringing the priest and the doctor in their long white coats running over the fields. And that for me is anything outside of normality or regular structure. It brings religion and science questioning you. ‘Evil’ then applies to anybody who is other, like a migrant or a refugee, and I wanted it to be playful so we could laugh at how ridiculous that is.
You sing from a lot of different perspectives on Holiday Destination, so ‘Evil’s quite powerful in its first-person perspective too.
That’s like lots of songs on the album. On ‘Mother Fighter’, I’m singing about a woman named Ragda, who I love. She featured in this really beautiful, personal documentary called A Syrian Love Story by a guy called Sean McAllister. You always hear about people as figures, and he made this documentary about a family who’ve had to flee Syria and end up in Turkey. And Ragda received a lot of criticism after this documentary aired, people saying: “I can’t believe she just left her children by themselves” - well she didn’t, she left them with her husband, and she continued to be a political activist elsewhere. And I think she was a really inspiring woman in that she’s a political activist and a great mother. She’s not fighting literally, but she’s fighting for her children’s home.
So I speak from her point of view there, the first lyric is “Listen to me”. Because we wanted to play a tiny part in humanising the dehumanised, and the only way to do that is by getting people to empathise. So the only way I could tell her story properly was by embodying her character. She’s heard about the song and she was super moved by it, which was amazing! Knowing that it meant a lot to her, to know that story’s being told, I feel like the job’s kinda been done. If that’s all the album’s done, then I’m satisfied.
I love that concerted effort to humanise the dehumanised. Some people say the collective term “refugees” can be dehumanising itself in its otherness and vagueness.
Yeah, and when people say “the refugee crisis”, people are generally just talking about Syria. And actually, there are hundreds of thousands of refugees all over the world, people leaving war-torn countries for whatever reason, civil unrest or political reasons. And I’m also singing about Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, so many other countries people are having to leave due to civil unrest. Which is what I keep saying in interviews, and also emphasising the importance of economic migrants. Because it’s just as legitimate a reason for migrating. But I guess it’s just easier to say refugees to get people to empathise, and that’s a term that everyone understands, so that’s why I’m using it so much.
But on the front cover of the album I purposefully didn't use a photo from Syria. I met this guy called Christian Stephen, the world’s youngest war correspondent. He showed me a bunch of photographs he’s taken over the past five years, from lots of different countries, and the one I picked is from Gaza. I’d say 98% of the photographs he showed me were too harrowing, they’ve stained my mind. And I didn’t want that on the cover of the album, cos I also want the album to instill hope. And it’s a really hopeful image; it’s this young boy, he must be all of, what, eleven years old, and he’s stood in this building that’s suffered the devastation of war, the whole façade is missing, and he’s flipping a peace sign. So god knows what this boy could’ve seen happen to his family, his best friends, his school, but despite all of that he’s stood upright flipping a peace sign. Which I think is the most important message to send out, that there is still hope. And that’s what I want to do with the album, so that people go out and keep talking about this subject
That sense of hope really comes through on ‘Yes Men’, with that stark contrast of the despair of the sound and the hope in the video.
The ‘Yes Men’ video is something that’s really close to my heart, cos it’s the miners gala in Durham. I filmed it in 2016, which was a really poignant year cos it was the shutting of the last mine. And these people have to be remembered in history, what they did, and their cause. It’s a very important day for the North East and their culture, you see some of the most beautiful things there. My favourite thing was loads of young women and girls wearing t-shirts saying “proud to be a coal miner's daughter”, “granddaughter”, there was one “great-granddaughter”. And this old miner was there as well, who must’ve been in his 90s, and everyone was really celebrating him.
And yet, other moments on this album are angrier than I’ve ever heard you sound.
It’s weird, because to me it’s the most energetic piece of work I’ve ever made. My equivalent of a dance record! That’s what I wanted to do, make the music more energetic than it’s been previously, I wanted to make people move. If we’re gonna inspire hope, there’s nothing more beautiful than looking around the room, and, rather than having people stood there stroking their chins, people are dancing and embracing. I didn’t want it to be too insular, I want people to look out, and enjoy the album together.
But ‘Out The Way’ is probably the most visceral thing I’ve written apart from ‘Aching Bones’, and it really needed to be. But that’s the only point on the album that’s really pure anger, because it’s a subject really close to my heart.
You often sing about people you’ve met, witnessed, known, rather than solely your own experience. Are you more naturally inspired by empathy?
Yeah! It’s an artist’s duty to document the times they live in, and to tell other people’s stories. And if you’re gonna be any good, you have to be a good listener, and be able to properly empathise. My brother’s a documentary maker, he works predominantly with Al Jazeera, and he’s the real star, people need to interview him, his work’s amazing. He’s going to war-torn countries and relating first-hand testimonies to me. I did lots of research online, but I spent time in Turkey, which was one of the first times I’d seen so many displaced people, especially Syrians actually, living in the worst environments cos the country can’t cope.
Political engagement within any sphere can feel like walking a tightrope cos there are so many ways to get it wrong. Did your confidence in the validity of your contribution ever waver?
Yeah, one of my biggest worries when releasing this album was coming across as opportunistic. But it was impossible to write about anything else. And I’ve got more of a direct link to the subjects than many other artists, but I don’t think that makes my point any more valid than anybody else’s. In fact, Maximo Park released something about this, and I had this fleeting moment where I thought “that’s my subject!” and then realised how disgusting that thought was! And I would be opportunistic if that’s how I was gonna think. When in fact the most beautiful thing, and what I want, is for everybody to write about this subject. And more people are – Ghostpoet, She Makes War, even Father John Misty.
But I think it’s important to have that second generation immigrant voice there, at the same time, and maybe from a female’s point of view as well. Gender makes no difference to me, but if you look at punk music in the UK, there are so many male-fronted bands. I’ve invited one on tour with me called Life, and I’ve told them the most punk thing they could do is not support other bands like them, not speak to that echo chamber. Support a female solo artist, we’re writing about the same subjects.
Coming back to that idea of the artist having that duty, do you feel similarly obliged to engage in politics online?
I kinda despise social media. I see people who use it very well, but it’s a different generational thing to me. And it’s the worst thing for my mental health. It makes me very paranoid. Especially cos I have BPD, it increases my anxiety, I think it made my eating disorder worse, so I don’t work so well on it. So some of my social media is taken over by my management.
It’s difficult, cos when I’m drunk I’ll rant on twitter sometimes, I’ve gotta learn to not do that, because I can speak without thinking. And some of the responses to when I say something political have been pretty mean.
But there’s this thing that I hate...I heard this awful musician talking about musicians being political, saying: “If you care so much about politics, why don’t you become a politician”. You could say that to anybody! To someone who works in a pub! No. I exist within this society, and I’m allowed to comment on the world that I live in. And artists historically have been political. And there was a real void of politics in music for a long time, but now you’ve got loads of exciting things! Stormzy backing Jeremy Corbyn!
And Jeremy Corbyn backing Stormzy!
Yeah, he’s a legend! I love Jeremy Corbyn, I think he’s a proper good one. And sometimes I don’t like what he says, but sometimes my mates don’t like what I say. I don’t think he’s just a lesser of two evils, I think he’s one of the most decent people I’ve ever met. Out of all the politicians that I’ve met, he’s the most honest, consistent and decent of all of them. Second to Tony Benn, who’s my hero.
But yeah, there is a danger of that backlash when you say something political. I tend not to rise to it. If someone has a different opinion, they’re entitled to it, and I’m never gonna respond with anger to anyone. What I’m gonna do – this makes me sound like a massive hippie – is show people love, try and understand them. I wanna understand why they’ve got that opinion, and I think that’s the best way – the only way – we’re gonna make a change.
While it’s important to recognise not everyone has got the time, the energy, the spoons, it does seem like the duty of those of us able to do it.
There was this guy saying some pretty fruity things regarding immigration at this house party where I was the only “foreign” person in the room. Everyone was getting really angry at him, and I was like: “Can you all leave the room and can I just talk to him?” And I showed him compassion, and we had a great conversation. And I understood much better where he was coming from. Cos it’s important to know your enemy and work out how they got like that.
Doesn’t it take quite a toll on your mental health to show compassion to people who are being horrible to you?
Nah. My mental health isn’t affected by that, it’s affected by body shaming on Instagram and telling me I have to do yoga, and boring, archaic gender standards. I’m really not asking for a fight. But when it comes to this album, there hasn’t been any negative response so far, everyone’s been very kind. But then again I exist within an echo chamber, I’m a Guardian-6Music-sweetheart, you’re not gonna find many bigots there. I wish I was as big as Adele, so I could use my influence better. In a lot of ways I feel like this album has failed, cos I haven’t reached a larger audience, which is what I tried to do, and why I tried to make it sound more poppy, but I can only do what I do.
So do you prefer to let the songs speak for themselves then?
No, and actually it’s a frustration of mine with PJ Harvey. I’m a huge fan of hers, but I wish she’d speak out more. In fact, I’m calling her out on it. Cos she writes these brilliant songs, but we need her voice. But I understand it’s a scary place to be in when you’re talking about political subjects. I just wish she would.
The songs can speak for themselves too, but some of them are more literal, and others are up for interpretation. A friend joked that ‘Out The Way’ could be taken for a rightwing march and sung at migrants, I was like oh god no...it’d be like when the Tories used that Morrissey song!
I don’t think Morrissey minded as much though.
Yeah, Morrissey’s a fucking bellend. He's made some amazing work, but what a disappointment Morrissey is...he’s gonna make me eat meat again.
Holiday Destination is out now via 1965 Records. For more information about Nadine Shah, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit her official website.
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