Nine Songs: Nadine Shah
Nadine Shah’s singing voice has a story to tell. Its travelled through an array of songs, genres and venues, which has taken her from smoky jazz clubs to festival stages.
The power of singing is a recurring motif in the pivotal songs in her life. After discovering she had a huge singing voice, Shah started performing show tunes at school, but the Cole Porter songbook instilled a love of jazz that saw her move from her native North East to London to pursue a career as a jazz singer.
She found a stage for her voice in London’s jazz clubs, but the appeal of the capital’s bright lights waned. “I was singing at one of ten Pizza Express restaurants every night, I was paid £50 and a meal. I had no money, so I ate loads of doughballs and got really chubby.” Moving back to the North East, Shah became entranced with indie music and clubs, but the machismo of the scene and her Mum’s love of ‘60s girl groups, saw her spreading her musical wings once again.
As she talks us through the songs she loves in a pub in North London, Shah’s fascinating stories, as well as highlighting her love of singing, underline the importance of her cultural heritage, politics and why female singers and Scott Walker are, of course, amazing.
"When I started singing I was doing show tunes and musical theatre, if you’re a kid at school with a really big voice you get pushed into that kind of stuff but I got bored of it. I wanted experiment with my voice, so at every talent contest I’d sing things like ‘Hero’ by Mariah Carey and ‘I Will Always Love You’ by Whitney Houston, which were awful. Somebody suggested I sing gospel to use my vocal more, so I played around with that and I stumbled on jazz and became obsessed with the Cole Porter songbook.
"I moved to London to be a jazz singer when I was sixteen or seventeen. I went to a jazz place at Pizza Express in Dean Street in Soho to watch a show with my Mum, I think it was Stacey Kent. My Mum always carried my demo CD’s around with her, which had a really cringey photo on the cover that made me look fifty-five because of all the make-up. Someone gave a CD to the owner and they called my Mum and said they wanted to work with me.
"I hung out there every night and watched great artists I loved, like Mose Allison, Georgie Fame and I got to hang out with them, all my mates in London were old fellas in jazz clubs with an average age of sixty-something. That’s when I fell in love with Nina Simone.
"I can push my voice to sing in a high register, but it was always more comfortable to sing in a lower register and Maria Carey or Whitney Houston hardly ever did that. So when I heard Nina Simone’s voice it was otherworldly, it was like nothing I’d heard before, I thought it was a man when I first heard her.
"She invented a genre, incorporating classical piano with jazz, it was amazing. I learned about her history and struggle and I was super-inspired by it. All the jazz musicians I was listening to, like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, weren’t really writing their own stuff, but I loved that Nina Simone did that. I think it was her spirit that made me want to write my own music, she’s the reason I quit jazz, I was tired of singing the Cole Porter songbook.
"‘Love Me Or Leave Me’ was the first Nina Simone song I sang and now I always sing it as a vocal warm up or if I’m at a dinner party and my Mum and Dad say ‘sing a song’, that’s the one I always sing."
"A really good mate of mine was trying to convince me that Joni Mitchell was great. I never used to like her or Kate Bush, I think the reason was their voices are so high and I couldn’t sing them, so I kind of dismissed them. I revisited Kate Bush and I love her now, I sing her songs an octave or two lower, but the only Joni Mitchel songs I’d heard then was stuff like ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and for me they were a bit saccharine and sweet.
"My friend said ‘Let me play you two songs, one is her singing as a young woman, it’s called ‘A Case of You’. It was beautiful and the lyrics were great, I like any song where drinking is a metaphor for love. Then he played me the version from Both Sides Now, which she sang as a more mature woman and it’s heart-breaking, I can’t listen to it without crying my eyes out.
"I loved hearing them both side by side, but on the Both Sides Now version you hear a woman that’s lived, lost and suffered, she’s a smoker like me and her voice sounds so weathered. She’d really lived by this point and the amount of great stories that she does and can tell is amazing, but on this it’s just her voice alone tells the story.
"We don’t hear many older women in music, who have we got? There’s Marianne Faithful and Joni Mitchell, but not so many in comparison to men. I find it really inspiring when I hear an older woman singing and I think the version she sang when she was older is the most perfect song, it’s my favourite.
"I played at The Royal Festival Hall on International Women’s Day this year, it was a night celebrating her album Hejira, women in music and immigration. I sang two songs from Hejira but I said I’d only play if they let me sing ‘A Case of You’, so I got to sing it with this beautiful orchestra.
"It breaks my heart every time I hear it and it reminds me of my very good friend who played it to me, he’s still my music guru that I go to all the time for advice. It’s beautiful that there’s this wisdom coming from this more mature woman, you feel like she’s passing on a baton and giving you advice."
"When I wanted to start making my own music, to get away from jazz I’d go and watch indie bands. When the indie scene was really big I was a proper indie kid, but 2003 to 2007 was a time where there were loads of indie bands who were ‘cock out on the table’, kind of lad bands.
"Black Wire came out at the same time and they were the first ones I thought weren’t cock rock, they had great tunes, their performances were super visceral and they were all bloody gorgeous. They’d snog on stage but they were all straight, they were the complete opposite of the stereotypical lad band.
"This song was the reason I heard about them. I was obsessed with them, me and my mate would follow them all around the country. I had friends who knew them but I refused to speak to them because I didn’t want to look desperate, I was like ‘if they really like me, they’ll talk to me’, but they never did.
"I ended up becoming really good friends with one of them who did another band called Lord Auch who were amazing. Then I started dating one of them, my boyfriend was in Black Wire and I find that hilarious, if the eighteen-year-old me knew I was going to be dating one of them, I’d be off my tits. He has a Black Wire tattoo on his arm and now and again in the morning I’ll see it and start giggling like a silly little girl.
"They’re a great band and inspired loads of good things, like The Horrors and some other good bands and some bad things like "I Predict a Riot", so they didn’t just do good!
"This song reminds me of my youth and drinking snakebite. Whenever it came on in an indie club everyone would get on the dancefloor and start moshing about, I love it. The whole indie scene in the North-East reminds me of this band."
"My mum loves bands like The Shirelles and The Shangri-Las,‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ is her favourite song and she’d play it all the time.
"I’ve got quite a powerful voice and it’s quite a good voice, but I can’t make this song sound good when I sing it. It has no vibrato whatsoever and it’s almost slightly out of tune, but what’s beautiful about the vocal delivery is that it’s not perfect.
"Me and my Mum saw the Carole King musical recently and there were loads of songs in it that I’d no idea Carole King had written. I still love musicals and as soon as this song came on my Mum was holding my hand and we were both crying our eyes out, they did an amazingly beautiful rendition of it.
"I’m a massive fan of Carole King, she’s a genius and the melody of this song is perfect. She might have just written the melody and her partner at the time wrote the lyrics, I don’t remember what his name is, I just call him ‘that tosser’, but Carole King is a legend and this song is a product of her being a legend.
"Sonically, that era of girl bands, like The Crystals, The Shirelles and The Shangri-Las are arguably my favourite genre of music ever. I love the sound of the recordings, there’s a romanticism with these songs that’s almost movie-like. The first time I went to America I’d point at things like a yellow taxi or the sidewalk and start laughing and say ‘Ah, the movies’ and for me, those girl band songs are the movies, they’re lots of things I grew up with."
"The Velvet Underground and Nico is one of my favourite albums, especially ‘Venus in Furs’, it’s this relentless wall of sound and I love the repetition. It’s in my music as well, I like things to be very repetitive. I loved the Velvet Underground and because of them I got into John Cale, somebody gave me his solo album Fragments of a Rainy Season and I fell in love with his solo stuff.
"’Femme Fatale’ isn’t a wall of sound, Nico has one of those voices, like Nina Simone, that I can sing because it’s so low, I’d always sing it around the house. A few months ago I got an email saying ‘This is a weird one Nadine, but John Cale wants to know if you’d be interested in doing an anniversary show of The Velvet Underground and Nico album?’ I immediately replied with ‘Fuck off’, I thought it was a joke. My mate replied with ‘I’m not joking, he’s heard your voice and he wants you to sing it.'
"When I got to rehearsals, I was so excited but also terrified of John Cale. I always say ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ when I’m nervous, it’s just embarrassing. I said ‘Sir, it’s an honour to meet you’ and he just looked at me and said ‘My hands are full.’ They were full to be fair, but it was so blunt I was knocked down. So I was ‘all right then, no jokes for you mate.’
"We started doing the song, he was hardly looking at me and kept giving me notes, like ‘No, don’t come in then, come in now’. I was like, ‘Fucking hell, John Cale is no-nonsense, a strict mistress, he’s miserable and mean.’ So I said ‘Wait a minute, let me get my phone and record it so I don’t fuck it up this time.’
"I did a Tina Turner walk on the way back to the microphone and he burst out laughing. It was ‘Ha! I’ve got him. I know this guy’s sense of humour now, he likes a funny walk, he likes slapstick.’ So during rehearsals, every time I’d see John I’d do some daft walk and he’d keep laughing.
"When I sang ‘Femme Fatale’ the audiences’ response was amazing and when I finished he gave me a wink and started clapping. After the show he came up and said ‘Hey trouble, thank you very much for making my song come to life.’ To share a stage with one of my heroes, someone I never thought I’d meet, I was completely overwhelmed. I was 'you know what? I can quit now, I’m done.’"
"When I was younger I was singing Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey all the time and I’d sing with all these trills, if a word had two syllables I’d give it twelve, all those kinds of vocal acrobatics. I thought that was the most important thing about singing, that you had to show off and it was about doing tricks.
"I got a singing teacher when I was thirteen who tried to get rid of this uncontrollable vibrato I had in my voice and he made me listen to K.D. Lang over and over. Every time I’d sing a trill he’d say ‘No! Stop! Do it again.’ He made me listen to K.D. Lang relentlessly in every lesson until I could sing straight and get rid of this affectation I’d inherited.
"When you’re learning how to sing, you learn by listening to other people and K.D. Lang is a really important artist to me for that reason, she taught me how to sing and this was my singing teachers’ favourite song.
"I love her aesthetic. Lots of women musicians get a focus on their weight, you go to a photo shoot and they say ‘Oh, we thought you were size 6?’ And I’d say ‘I’m actually a size 10’, which is actually pretty small but they’ve only got size 6 or 8 clothes. I’ve had that in the past, but now I’m very vocal about photo shoots and I normally dress myself.
"K.D. Lang wasn’t this skinny, long-haired beauty. I think she’s stunning, she was very masculine, with her short hair and of the musicians that were out at the time she stands out aesthetically as well as sonically, with her beautiful, unaffected vocal which is like velvet, she does a beautiful cover of ‘A Case of You’ as well.
"I think she’s a legend and I’m surprised no one has ever picked up on me singing like her, I’ve never heard people talking about it, if you listen to it now I sound a little bit like her."
"Googoosh is an Iranian singer and a friend of mine who’s a DJ, played this at a club about five years ago and I loved it, it’s the coolest pop song. We forget that whatever movement is popular here is popular in other countries and there are versions of it, this is like psych and funk and I love that about it.
"I’ve got some Iranian friends, I spoke to them about this song and they told me about her. She was an inspiration to women, she was very political, very outspoken and what she was doing in Iran at the time for a woman was just so revolutionary. A woman singing onstage was unheard of, they were vilified and she was very inspiring.
"One of my Iranian friends told me about the translation and ‘Talagh’ means ‘divorce’, but it sounds really upbeat. If any of my friends don’t know about music from other countries, this is a song I always play them. It’s either the first or last song I’ll play If I’m DJ’ing, it doesn’t matter if people haven’t heard it before, it’s one of those songs that gets them dancing and when they hear it they’re automatically in.
"She’s a legend, a force of nature, she was a pioneer like Nina Simone. As a Muslim woman I find her endlessly inspiring. No other woman was doing what she was doing in Iran."
"Scott Walker is my favourite artist of all time. A musician friend of mine heard my first ever demo, ‘Aching Bones’ years before it was released and he said there was a night on in town about a musician called Scott Walker, they were showing a film called 30th Century Man and I should come down because he thought I’d really like him.
"I watched the documentary, listened to his music and went outside for a cigarette. My friend asked what I thought and I said ‘I know I’ve just heard Scott Walker for the first time tonight, but I can tell you, hand on heart, he’s my favourite artist of all time’ and he still is. He could shit in an envelope and I’d like it.
"’Plastic Palace People’ reminds me of when we were on tour driving from Italy to Switzerland, going through the mountains. It’s the most stunning drive, the landscape is intimidatingly beautiful and you feel so insignificant. I played this for the whole of the journey because it matched it, the melody goes up and down and matched the roads winding in and out. He’s talking about the character Billy and he’s floating above the clouds and I felt like we were floating above the clouds, it was the perfect soundtrack.
"I saw Jarvis Cocker do a version of it at the Proms at The Albert Hall and I loved seeing someone perform a song that I love in the way that they loved it. I met Scott Walker that night, he walked into this bar after the show and I didn’t know what to do. My friends have got screenshots of me texting them asking them to come and help me to speak to him.
"I had all these things I wanted to say to him, but as he was leaving I just said ‘Scott, I’m really sorry to bother you, I’m a musician, you’ve really inspired me, I just wanted to say thanks very much.’ He was like ‘You’re a musician? How’s it going? I said ‘It’s alright actually’. He said he was very happy for me and to have a lovely evening.
"He chatted my Mum up when she was younger, she was working in this place in Scotland, he asked if he could buy her a drink and she said no. I’m still angry with her to this day, he could have been my Dad, my Dad’s great, but he’s not Scott Walker though is he?"
"This by a Sufi singer called Abida Parveen, she was a student of a very famous Sufi singer called Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Massive Attack remixed one of his songs and Jeff Buckley covered one of his songs perfectly. He was her teacher and she had the most powerful voice, again, in a very low register.
"It’s really unusual, because in all of the music I’ve ever heard from my Dad’s culture, the female voices are really high, when you hear Hindi music in the movies, the female voices are so high you could never sing it. I don’t speak Farsi or Urdu and I haven’t got a clue what the lyrics are on this but there’s hardly any music that moves me as much as this, and that’s saying something, her vocal delivery is so awesome and so powerful.
"I’m not a religious person at all but I think the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience was going to a show of hers. I saw her in Newcastle with my Dad and I love anything that connects me with his culture that we get to experience together. This is me and my Dad’s song, he’s always said that if I ever get married he’s going to have her sing at the wedding. I met someone that booked her and she’s about two hundred grand, so my Dad had better get saving.
"It’s music I would have heard and hated when I was younger. It’s a curiosity, and I find this with friends who are second generation immigrants, but the older you get the stronger the pull towards your family’s culture and the country where they’re from is, wanting to learn Urdu, go to Pakistan, learn about Pakistani politics, the poetry and the music.
"Abida Parveen is one of the greatest examples of the beautiful culture of Pakistan, which something not a lot of people hear about."