Nadine Shah: “There’s nothing a man hates more than being laughed at”

The alt-rock musician on T-shirt politics, poking fun at misogyny and her new album, Kitchen Sink.

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“If you’d told me when I was 22 that I’d be 34, unmarried and without children, I’d have not believed you. I just always thought it was a given.”

Nadine Shah is assessing how her life matches up to the one society envisioned for her. Alongside mainstream misogyny and the policing of women’s bodies, it’s a recurring theme on her fourth album, Kitchen Sink, released on Infectious Music today. Speaking over Zoom from a sun-filled room in her parents’ house in Whitburn, South Tyneside, the alt-rock artist is typically astute and as playful as she is sharp-witted.

Usually based in London, Shah has returned home during lockdown to care for one of her parents. Music is keeping them all sane. After a family dinner, she’ll link up her Spotify to speakers and play her mum’s favourite artists – Sixties girl bands like the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las – as well as introducing her parents to newer music she loves. “I get compared to Nick Cave and PJ Harvey a lot – it’s the slicked-back hair, big nose, the fact that I’m miserable… I’ve been educating them about those two as well.”

Shah deftly tackles complex subjects through her music: her first two records, Love Your Dum and Mad (2013) and Fast Food (2015) dealt with crises of mental health – Shah’s own, and those of two friends who died by suicide. These records introduced her distinctive talent: from the soaring vocal force she honed as a jazz singer in her early twenties, to the jarring guitars and dissonant piano that have become her trademark.

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On her third record, 2017’s Mercury-nominated Holiday Destination, she unflinchingly surveyed anti-immigrant feeling in the UK, drawing on her own experiences as a person of Pakistani and Norwegian heritage. “Where would you have me go? I’m second generation, don’t you know?”, she sang on the brazen call to arms “Out the Way”

She reluctantly admits that she writes protest music, though feels wary about the weight of that term. She wrote Holiday Destination at what seemed like the height of the refugee crisis, its title a nod to the tourists who were outraged when refugees washed up on the Greek beaches where they were holidaying. “I’d always wanted to make an album of that sort, at some point,” she says today, “and then afterwards I thought I’d never want to do that kind of album again.”

Promoting the album prompted new anxieties. “When it came to interviews, I was worried about what I was saying: am I being responsible? Even news channels would ring me, asking for my opinion on a topic. I thought, ‘Ask that politician, don’t ask this numpty musician!’ I didn’t feel I was properly able to be that voice.”

She acknowledges that there are “political undertones” on Kitchen Sink too, though it’s more “social commentary” than anything else. The album’s title is a nod to the realistic, non-glamorised genre of films Shah grew up watching. That style mirrors her no-nonsense approach to writing lyrics too (“Shave my legs / Freeze my eggs / Will you want me when I am old?” is one of the album’s best triplets, although it’s a close call). 

But it's also a very personal record: it arose from conversations she has long been having with similarly aged female friends, and the presumptions – about marriage, child-rearing – that are so regularly imposed upon them, by family members and strangers alike. For all the talk of fourth-wave feminism, expectations that a woman will raise a family in a traditional manner still prevail. Kitchen Sink subverts that. It’s Shah’s attempt to change the conversation.

“Rather than saying, well, when I’m 26 I’ll get my eggs frozen… no! Now I’m asking: why were those my life goals? I can live a perfectly happy and full life without having a child and without getting married. And that’s not to say that I won’t do those things, but I’m trying my hardest to make sure they aren’t at the forefront of my mind all the time, otherwise I’m constantly torturing myself.” 

It’s important to Shah that she is not assumed to be speaking on behalf of all womankind. “I’m especially talking about western womenm,” she says, “I am not speaking for every woman all over the world.”

The personal nature of the record allows Shah to have more fun with its musicality than ever before, taking power back by laughing right in the face of sexism. Kitchen Sink sits, she says, “somewhere between Sesame Street and Dr John”. It’s often tongue-in-cheek; you can hear it in Shah’s vocal delivery.

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On “Club Cougar” she takes on the role of a seductive older woman with no time to waste: the song is littered with bombastic saxophone breaks and even cat calls. “I’m taking the piss out of misogyny because I find it ridiculous. And there’s nothing a man hates more than being laughed at,” she says.

Elsewhere, it’s matter-of-fact bluntness that fits the bill. “I am aware of the passing of time,” she sings, enunciating every syllable, on “Dilly Dally”, a song about the supposed ticking clock that is a woman’s body. 

“Political” music is a pretty full arena these days. Last year’s Mercury Prize shortlist was hailed the “most political in years” by industry experts, featuring as it did the punk-derived Idles, rapper slowthai (who wore a “Fuck Boris” T-shirt to perform at the ceremony), and the ever-outspoken 1975. Shah was wary, she says, of seeming “opportunistic” when she put out Holiday Destination in 2017. But speaking out on political matters has always been at the core of her personal identity, not just her music.

She doesn’t name names, but calls the faux politicism of a certain swathe of white male bands' “T-shirt politics”. “Some of them, I’d see the T-shirts they’d put out with political slogans on them, and they weren’t donating to charity. Or even bands that hadn’t made political albums but made political slogan T-shirts. How does that relate to your work? How does that go in line with anything else you’ve ever said? I don’t understand it.

“I’ll only align myself with a cause if it’s one I truly believe in and one that I know I can follow up on. And I will continue the conversation; it doesn’t just stop at a post. You won’t find me often talking about environmental subjects online, because there’s only so much of myself I can put into a cause. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want my touring to be more environmentally friendly, of course I do, but if people are gonna look to me as a political voice in the music industry, I can’t dilute a conversation. I’m dedicated to talking about our immigrant population, speaking about refugees all over the world, in civil wars. I’m dedicated to talking about those subjects still.”

Social media has made it easy to sell a philosophy without it necessarily resulting in action, meaning, or helpful consequences. Following the death of George Floyd in the US and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests worldwide, on 2 June many artists, record labels and industry executives participated in “Blackout Tuesday”, posting a black square to symbolise their solidarity with the movement and signifying that they were taking the day to pause work and instead educate themselves about anti-racism (although critics argued that silence was not the answer). Shah posted a black square on Instagram, writing: “I don’t like being told or encouraging others to be quiet when I think we should be louder than ever. But I do appreciate this time for reflection.”

She reasons: “I see a lot of artists tagging onto something because it’s trendy, and it makes you look like a good person. It can be a good thing, if you have a really big following. It’s important to promote good behaviour. But then you have to follow it up and encourage people to stay by a cause. You have to be accountable and responsible.” 

She highlights one of Billie Eilish’s Instagram posts in support of Black Lives Matter as the golden standard. “What she wrote is glorious. There’s real vitriol in there, and I believe her. Conviction is like a rat, you know? You can smell it a mile off. You can tell that some artists aren’t genuine. But I believe Billie, and I believe she will inform change because she has such a big reach to talk to so many people, people that I could never reach.

“I’m sure I’m gonna trip up again at some point and I’ll learn from things that I say. But that’s what we all need to do, you have to keep checking in with yourself now and again. I’m 34 and I still have to have a word with myself on numerous occasions.” 

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s culture assistant.

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