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Fraser Taylor Nadine Shah 7

Enraged and unapologetic

16 June 2020, 07:21

Never one to hold back, Nadine Shah is rewriting the rules of what it means to be a thirty-something woman in this ever changing world

Sardonic societal norms and archaic stereotypes are consistently thrusted upon women from an early age, but musicians like Shah are using their thunderous voices and chant-like refrains to try and shatter these rigorous expectations.

The follow up of the 2017 Hyundai Mercury Prize nominated album Holiday Destination, Shah’s fourth studio album, Kitchen Sink, is a politically charged open letter to women across the world struck down in their day-to-day lives by a system that constantly belittles their livelihood.

Produced by long-time collaborator Ben Hillier in his Agricultural Audio Studio in Sussex, the record sees Shah adopting a snarly character that shakes the belittling gender politics propelled onto women by the shoulders and tears them apart piece by piece. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics coupled with rapid beats and exhilarating melodies encapsulates the united feelings shared by women universally. Line by line, you can’t help by smirk at the unifying feeling created song after song.

Conversations these days seem to articulate themselves around one question: how are you coping with everything that’s going on right now? And, of course, it would be a lie to say that this familiar question didn’t arise at the beginning of my chat with Shah. “Some days are shit, some days are alright,” she exclaims. “It’s just one of those things where in the beginning it was kind of fun because I’m with my boyfriend in his flat in Ramsgate. So we’re by the sea and it all started out feeling a little bit like a holiday.

“Because we’re both freelancers, he’s a director and I’m a musician, it felt kind of fun and we were so used to working from home. It was alright for us because it’s not too out of the ordinary but now we want to kill each other,” she adds, laughing.

Right now, Shah admits she’s missing what it means most to be a musician: touring. “It kind of feels like we’re in a constant grieving process because there are things we’re missing out on,” she begins. “For instance, we should be getting ready for Glastonbury and then rehearsals.”

"I had to be really realistic and go right, well I can’t afford to be paying this much rent anymore and move out to somewhere that’s much cheaper while everything is going on."

With festival goers and gig enthusiasts across the country still juggling the idea that festivals and live music this year are off the cards, it’s the touring musicians who it really affects the most. “Not touring will break a lot of artists,” Shah admits, in a saddened, serious tone, a far cry from the chirpy Newcastle voice I’d been greeted with. “They’ll have to stop because their finances are gone, which I’ve found to be a real problem too. I’ve had to move out of my flat and leave London.”

It was here that Shah began opening up about the realities of life as a touring musician being forced to shut down due the current global pandemic. She continues, “Touring is obviously my main source of income, in fact, it’s a big chunk of my income so I had to be really realistic and go right, well I can’t afford to be paying this much rent anymore and move out to somewhere that’s much cheaper while everything is going on.” In the age of curated social media feeds and glitzy photoshoots, it was refreshing to hear such honesty from a musician and the struggling effects this global pandemic is having on their livelihoods.

Shifting the focus more broadly to the live music scene in general, Shah admits she’s an avid gig-goer herself. “I’m really missing going to see gigs because I had the luxury of living in London where there is so much on my doorstep, I would go to three or four a week.”

She continues: “I’m really missing it for the social aspect but also the live music. I think when gigs resume, and I don’t see gigs starting again until at least next year, I think there will be a surge in ticket sales. There will be a surge in people wanting to go, maybe people who wouldn’t have gone before even.” Shah explains, before jokingly adding, “Bloody hope so, because otherwise I don’t know what job I’m doing next.”

With the release of Kitchen Sink being pushed back and Shah’s festival appearances being cancelled, the journey for this album release has been far from easy. Having released the singles “Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love)” and “Trad” at the very beginning of this pandemic and the title track “Kitchen Sink” in the thick of it, it only seemed natural to ask how the build up of this album has differed to previous output.

“With singles, it’s usually phone interviews and there’s not so much face-to-face or live sessions, but it’ll really set in when the album comes out,” Shah says. “It is strange though. We’ve been told that more people are listening to radio at the moment. What seems to be happening is people aren't listening to that much new music. It’s almost as if people want to take comfort in nostalgic things and nostalgic music.”

Shah does reveal some anxieties about the upcoming release, produced alongside her long time collaborator and close friend, Hillier. Shah admits, “The worry is that you’ve worked really hard on something for it to just get lost…”

“Once this is over and we’re in the ‘new normal’ - is that what we’re calling it?” she adds, laughing, “people are going to be revisiting albums and there is going to be a longing to go to gigs later on. It may be the case that this album is then revisited next year by people. That’s what sort of happened on my last album.” It was following Shah’s Mercury Prize nomination that her political fronted album, Holiday Destination, became a sleeper hit and was given a new lease of life a year after its release.

With a reputation of producing political fronted albums, Shah confesses this album wasn’t, and still isn’t, intended to follow this string of themes. “It’s weird because my last album was really heavily political and I told myself I wasn’t going to make another political album, which it’s not. But people have said, well you kind of have made another political album,” she says laughing, before adding, “But I see this one being more of a social commentary.”

"I’m talking about such serious topics in this album too, like the policing of women’s bodies, sexual harassment and gaslighting."

While Holiday Destination delved deep into other people’s experiences through civil war, Islamophobia and the refugee crisis in Syria, it’s here in Kitchen Sink that Shah begins commenting inwards on personal issues surrounding gender politics. Shah begins by saying, “I’m talking about such serious topics in this album too, like the policing of women’s bodies, sexual harassment and gaslighting.”

It’s through the album’s opening tracks “Club Cougar” and “Ladies For Babies (Goats For Love)” that Shah begins positioning herself, or at least her lyrical character, taking a satirical approach through her observational and relatable refrains. Now entering her mid-thirties, Shah explores her personal story and the social pressures forced upon women when hitting this age.

This humorous, tongue-in-cheek persona is emphasised through the cackling echoed wolf whistle that greets us in the first track, “Club Cougar”. It catches you off guard, makes you smirk and undoubtedly eases you into the fun, energetic songs. Sonically, the production never gets flooded, with the album darting from clear, invigorating drum beats and playful melodies to bold, thunderous saxophones.

Shah admits Hillier and herself were hugely influenced by the toxicating rhythms of afro-beat and Talking Heads, but also by the addicting feeling possessed by performing live and the reaction of the crowd. “I found that there was something so infectious about playing live so that’s where a lot of the feeling and sound is dictated from,” she smiles. “When I’ve played festivals in the past and we’re playing the more upbeat songs, I can see the audience move and there’s something really infectious about that, I wanted it to happen more often. I really enjoy playing more kinetic kinds of songs.”

Shah’s dry, cold humour again comes into full focus throughout the opening verse of “Ladies For Babies (Goats For Love)” as she sings: “He wants his lady / To be a lady / Be care less, be hairless”, in an agitated, mocking tone. Societal stereotypes are constantly explored lyrically, with Shah seemingly having fun with the predicaments she is singing about. Shah explains, “I am able to laugh at sexism because I think it’s bloody hilarious that it should exist in 2020. It’s such an archaic and ridiculous thing to still exist.”

Shah is quick to iterate that although she’s taking a comical stance here, these subjects aren’t to be joked about. “These are not subjects to be laughed about at all, but because I’m speaking about them from my own perspective, I feel like I am allowed to make jokes and I’m able to laugh about these subjects,” she explains. “So often when you’re berated about something, you can then own the thing you’re berated about and you laugh at it yourself because you own the joke.”

Shah continues, acknowledging that, “from my point of view, when I write as a musician which is the art form that I’ve chosen to use, I have chosen to adopt a character. This woman who looks at things and she laughs at them because a man hates nothing more than to be laughed at.” Now laughing, she adds, “it can really belittle a person. In a lot of the songs that is a standpoint I take but it’s more tongue-in-cheek really.”

Hoping to create an album that commented on the societal norms and the exuberant pressures forced upon women throughout society, Shah knew that in writing about such subjects she would need to entrust an element of her own personal experience into the lyric writing process. She explains that, “In most things that I write there is an element of my own personal experience that I infuse onto whatever it is that I’m writing because I think it’s the power of empathy.

“It makes for a much more understood subject and helps make a subject hit home to people when you can empathise with somebody else’s misery or pain.”

Enraged by the subject themes, but also wanting to relay the stories with proper conviction, Shah began formulating these ideas into conversations with her friends. “I had an idea of what I was going to do and some kind of subject, and then I would just talk to friends over a dinner table, or in a car or cafe, and ask them about their experiences,” recounts Shah. “Of course I had to exaggerate certain stories to make the point more poignant and obvious, but I wanted to add some of their experience into the songs, coupled with some of mine.”

"You can take tradition and you can subvert it and turn it on its head to make it work for you,” she says.

It’s through starting these conversations with her friends that Shah began realising how universal these thoughts, feelings and experiences were, so much so that it became a shared experience between them all. Shah adds, “I feel I achieved a well rounded view of speaking to people in the early stages of writing. I think that’s something I’ll continue to do going forward.”

This album tackles how these stereotypical ideas are thrust at us from the moment we are able to formulate words and begin to string sentences together. Throughout, Shah consistently addresses these characteristics hands-on rather than metaphorically, often literally spelling out the phrases.

It’s showcased in the opening verse of “Trad” where she references women having to shave their legs and freeze their eggs in order to keep their femininity and fertility ever present. Shah points out that these ideas, “start manifesting themselves before you start writing about them from a very young age. You know, we’re taught to play ‘mummies and daddies’, and then we’re going off to play ‘weddings’,” she mockingly snarls as she reels off these childhood games.

Coming from a mixed-race background, Shah opens up and acknowledges that these stereotypical ideals weren’t particularly imposed onto her. “Tradition was never forced upon me,” she begins. “Marriage is a sort of property really. It’s to do with landowning and it’s not really necessary any more. Any weddings that I’ve attended of my friends in the past few years, they changed their wedding vows to suit them and it’s purely a declaration of love. There is no sense of ownership attached to it at all.”

Throughout Shah’s jovial lyrics it’s clear she’s hoping to convey stereotypes in a new way. “You can take tradition and you can subvert it and turn it on its head to make it work for you,” she says. “That’s what I want to do and that’s what I was trying to write about and to reinforce that there are these pressures that are put onto so many of us.”

In Shah’s song “Trad”, the beat never waivers, acting like the ticking time bomb that is consistently referenced to women’s fertility once they reach a certain age. Coupled alongside Shah’s boisterous, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, “Take me to the ceremony / Make me holy matrimony” and “Bathe my legs / Bake my eggs / Play nice and do as you are told”, it’s here Shah is allowing women to mockingly break down the stereotypical boundaries they are forced to encompass throughout their day-to-day life. Beneath the sarcasm, however, on other tracks we sense her yearning for the things that she’s been smirking at.

When asked what she hopes these messages hope to convey, Shah replies, “many of us don’t want to be married, many of us don’t want to have children. Many of us do want to have a child but can’t physically. We come in all different forms and we don't think alike but I think the narrative is changing now whereby we are in a landscape where we are very lucky where we have been born, in that we are able to change this narrative should it not suit us.”

She continues: “We can now choose to be a single woman if we want to. It’s just the case of letting everybody else be and do what they want to do, and that it’s not a slight if you choose a different path.” She says, before adding, “it would be a beautiful place if there was less pressure on women and if we weren’t told to adhere to these, what I think, are archaic traditions.”

Even if you if simply look back at Shah’s earlier releases, including her debut album Love Your Dum And Mad, 2015’s Fast Food, and of course, the AIM Awards 'Independent Album of the Year’, Holiday Destination, it’s clear to see she’s not afraid to raise her voice above the noise, challenge social norms and tackle subjects that aren’t typically spoken about in mainstream media, or even music in general. “Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of or haven’t heard many song’s subjects dealing with the issues that I have been writing about in Kitchen Sink,” she says. “I haven’t been hearing too much of that so I had a longing to create these songs myself.

“There is something so soothing and comforting to have someone else have the shared experience and tell your story. That’s what my job is. Of course there are plenty of people who don’t relate to it but I hope that they at least respect what I’m saying,” she longingly adds. It’s clear from just scanning Shah’s Twitter and Instagram comments that she’s engaging with audiences in a completely new way. It’s refreshing as both a fan and critic to hear these subjects being spoken about with such dignity, fire and conviction.

Kitchen Sink becomes so much more than an album. These songs transcend into rally-like anthems, a call to arms for women to be unapologetically themselves.

Shah wouldn’t be the musician she is today without raising these important issues and messages. Her music subverts expectations and in the run up to the release of the album, she’s doing this again in her brand new project, Payback. Every Tuesday and Thursday Shah turns the musician-to-journalist interview on its head, reversing these conversations so that they are focused on the rapid, vibrant and often hilarious stories that journalists behold on the music industry. Each hour-long interview delves deep into the music world through that select journalist's eyes, from Miranda Sawyer to music journalist Ed Nash.

Wildly intrigued, I ask what made her decide to divert into this conversation style. “You lot inspired it,” she enthuses, laughing. “I have always found it a really weird format where I go into an interview to be interviewed and it’s a one sided conversation. That’s just not the way I was brought up.”

She adds: “It feels almost impolite, having this person asking all of these questions, and often you’ve never even met.” Having started as somewhat of a lockdown project, Shah has enabled music journalists to pause from telling others stories to telling their own.

These in-depth, thorough conversations that Shah is now bringing to light grew out of the personal ones she had begun having after she had been interviewed for her previous albums. “What would normally happen, not so much on phone interviews, but when they’re face to face in a pub or a cafe, I’d say ‘do you want to sit and have a chat afterwards?’” she begins to explain. “I’d say now that I’ve got more music journalist friends than I do musician friends, and that’s because I’ve formed really good bonds with many, many music journalists from the back of these interviews.”

Of course, this distinct series couldn’t come at a more poignant time. “I think at the moment as well, during lockdown the people who work behind the scenes are being appreciated more than ever, whether that’s key workers or delivery workers,” she says. “They are the rockstars now and I’m not saying it’s the same kind of work at all but it’s the same sentiment that I’ve always really appreciated the music journalists and I don’t think they’re heralded enough. They are rockstars to me.”

Having spent the last forty minutes delving deep into her views on gender politics, rummaging to the solid core of what she’s hoping to express through Kitchen Sink and hearing her chirpy, energetic personality ripple through the phone line, it’s easy to see why fans constantly come back to hear what she has to say. In amidst the murky and confusing time we have all found ourselves in, Shah’s fearless energy beams as a voice of reason.

Whether she is on stage, recorded, talking over the phone or interviewing journalists on Instagram live, this honesty is something that you can’t help but find endearing. And as promised, as our conversation came to a close, Shah turned the focus onto me and for a few minutes I understood how intimidating the process really is.

Kitchen Sink is out on 26 June via Infectious Music
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