IN THIS PHOTO: Nadine Shah/ALL PHOTOS/IMAGES (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images
Why I Feel Nadine Shah Should Win This Year’s Mercury Music Prize
A few days back…
at the AIM Independent Music Awards; it was good to see some great artists celebrated. The reason why the awards are more credible and impressive than any others is that of the variety and quality of artists acknowledged. The awards saw the likes of Peggy Gou and Tracey Thorn walk away with gongs. Thorn was presented with a lifetime achievement award whilst Peggy Gou saw her track It Makes You Forget (Itgehane) celebrated as the year’s best. IDLES won an award for being the hardest-working band - ironically, too busy working to collect it! – and it was pleasing to see so many great artists, who would be excluded normally at the mainstream ceremonies, get their props. The speech and award that caught my ear was that given to/by Nadine Shah. She saw her latest work, Holiday Destination, win the award for the best album and her speech was filled with humour and great lines. The album itself, as I shall explore, is one that asks big questions and takes risks. It is not your usual safe and routine album that looks at relationships and never really pushes the envelope. Whilst there is plenty of melody, uplift and great tunes; the reason why the record is successful and gained huge reviews is that of the talent of the woman who wrote it.
The Whitburn-born artist is a second-generation immigration and knows how hard it is for immigrants to feel welcome and like they belong in the country. Their plight is difficult and many risk their lives to be here. I will return to the subjects of Holiday Destination and why the album warrants a Mercury win (the ceremony takes place on 20th September) but, look back at Shah’s previous album, Love Your Dum and Mad, and you can see themes emerging. That album tackled mental-health issues. She spoke to journalists after the album was released and stated that two of her close friends/former boyfriends took their own lives; Shah wanted to shine a light on mental-health being seen as a social stigma. Released in 2013, the record saw critics and observers ask her to speak and have her say. Earlier this year, when speaking with the Evening Standard, she revealed how hard it is being in a rather unique situation:
“I’m finding it quite difficult at the moment,” she tells me. “I’m a female musician who’s made a political album, and my first album was about mental health, and I’m a Muslim. So I get asked to speak at so many things that I have to start saying no”.
Love Your Dum and Mad was released in 2013 and 2015’s Fast Food saw Shah’s stock rise and more eyes come her way.
One of the reasons Nadine Shah has gained a lot of love and is standing out is because of her empathy and reflecting on something serious. In the same interview, she talked about artists who write escapist music and why it is important to go beyond that:
“There’s definitely a place for artists who want to provide escapism as well,” she says, “but I think the reason you’re an artist is you have a heightened sense of empathy. You can see something and kind of feel it. So you tell people’s stories. I think that’s your main job”.
Holiday Destination seems to be her most personal and angry album. When tackling mental illness and suicide; you knew how much those words meant and how she wanted to disintegrate the stigma out there. Immigration and feeling displaced have been part of her creative consciousness since the start. I will bring in more-recent interview snippets but, when speaking with The Guardian, as she promoted Fast Food (2015), Shah discussed her experience:
“The only reason why I was so determined for people to hear that I was Pakistani was so my nieces – my cousin’s children, two beautiful girls – could have Pakistani role models,” she says. “We didn’t have any growing up. So I think it’s almost wonderful that they can see it’s realistic and achievable, I can be from this culture and making this music.”
“…Her relationship with her father’s Muslim heritage was not always easy. “[At school] I loved being a bit different. I’d get a day off for Eid. Or at show-and-tell I could bring in these amazing outfits that my aunts would send over. It was only after 9/11 that there was lots of racism. From then on it was awful to be Pakistani and I would lie about it. I would say I was Persian. Arabian. Anything that wasn’t … but then finally leaving Newcastle and moving to London, a really multicultural city, I’m 10 a penny!”
Her family experience and understanding of the immigration crisis around the world feed into music. She has stated in interviews how, as an act of resistance against President Trump, she is applying for another visa and will not be pushed down. Shah wants to see more commercial artists talk about political subjects and tackle areas that are being unexplored. Her success has provided her with a larger platform on which to campaign; exposure has provided her with the chance to write music about something more substantial and rare than having a broken heart. That unique position she is in – a political Muslim woman in music – is something she always has to take into consideration. Speaking with NME earlier this year, she spoke about Islamophobia and the rise in nationalism – her desire to see more artists do what she is doing:
“Not in an arrogant or vanity way, but I’m glad that my album is present because I wanted to see some political artists,” Shah told NME. “I think that part of my job is to document the times that we live in. I wanted to speak about the rise in nationalism and a decline in empathy. Also, as a Muslim female in this industry – there’s not very many of us. I wanted to speak about Islamophobia for one; it scares me and it scares my family”.
I have listened to Holiday Destination repeatedly and a few things strike me. It is full of nuance and has so many layers. You hear something new when spinning it but it is those stark images and that emphatic voice that gets into the head. We need a political album to win the Mercury and set an example. The prize is designed to recognise the best albums and artists that do not get big mainstream applause – and are able to say something important and change music. Previous years have not seen a lot of socially-aware and important albums take the prize. We have to reflect quality and the best album but, in the case of this year's rundown; the best album (from Shah) is also one that delivers a big punch and plenty of food for thought. I would consider it an outrage if she does not walk away with the award on the night - the effort she has put in warrants true recognition!
Shah ticks all the boxes and, to boot, she has the personality to take her music as far as possible. She is open and natural in interviews; always funny and intelligent and has a great beauty - not important but it is hard to find a flaw or anything wrong with her. I am always blown away by the energy she brings to interviews and how fascinating she is to listen to. I will finish by conveying my feelings regarding the album but music awards like the Mercury are designed to boost artists that are doing great work and are not the go-to option when it comes to the big radio stations and magazines. Shah might not court the same attention as Nicki Minaj or Taylor Swift – one feels she wouldn’t want to hang with them and would be a bit put out by their entourage and rather delicate demeanours. Every interview I read Shah had given, at some point, seems to involve a drink and a cheeky grin – that’s the kind of person you want leading music and showing the way! Nadine Shah has given a fresh interview with The Guardian and has spoken about her progression and award nomination.
PHOTO CREDIT: Katherine Anne Rose for The Observer
I will crib a photo from that shoot – legally and all fair, guv! – but there are revelations and insights that show why Holiday Destination is the result of an authentic voice. Shah talked about her experiences with racism at school and how she was outcast and alienated by ignorant peers (a Guardian quote that sees Shah cheekily swirling a drink!):
“I’ve never been white enough to be white, or brown enough to be brown. At Asian weddings, I’d get called ‘gora’” – a Pakistani slur sometimes used to describe a white person – “and in school I’d be called Paki.” On the single Out the Way she sings: “Where would you have me go / I’m second-generation, don’t you know,” because, she says, swirling her G&T, “people were starting to say to me on social media: ‘Go back to where you come from’, and I was like: ‘What? Whitburn?’”
She explained how she was disappointed certain artists made the Mercury shortlist (Noel Gallagher, for one) and was annoyed that artists like Gwenno did not make the cut. I thought Let’s Eat Grandma would be a shoe-in and felt Young Fathers and Shame would be among the chasing pack. There are some interesting nominations for this year’s awards but I feel, as Shah does, there are not many political commentators on the list. Given the fracture and friction around the world; the political divisions and racism rearing its head – why are artists still not looking beyond the bedroom and condoms crusting up their shoes?! You have mainstream artists pouring out their bleeding hearts or male bands talking about their bawdy adventures and recklessness. Genuine, rawer artists like are out there and a couple of recent albums, as I shall end on, have followed on from Shah’s lead and look set to be nominated for next year’s Mercury!
Shah, in the interview, said how she as bullied in a relationship when writing the album and, whilst great for lyrics and inspiration; perhaps it is best to walk away and take some time out. I mentioned how Shah would not hang around Taylor Swift but she has respect for artists who can reach millions and hold that kind of power – would we be out of the E.U. if Taylor Swift rebelled against it, for instance?! She knows artists like Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen do not need the award – given the themes they explore and the fact they are established and past their prime – and the songwriter is not keen to make another political album...even if she is one of the leading political songwriting commentators out there. It seems, as she stated in The Guardian, she is brewing with ideas for a new album and has opinions regarding gender visibility and bias:
“The first lyric of the album I’ve got so far,” she says, “is ‘Shave my legs, freeze my eggs / Will you fuck me when I’m old?’” She wishes there were more stories like these in music, as an antidote to the number of male musicians over 50 who still manage to infiltrate the charts. “Men, older men, they’re heard,” she says. “There’s hardly any older women by comparison. I want someone who is 60 to sing to me and say: ‘You know what? It’s like this. I had a terrible pregnancy, I couldn’t breastfeed, [the baby] didn’t latch’. I want someone to say: ‘Listen, I was 32, and I had endometriosis, and I was going to have to have all my organs out’. Or: ‘I got to 40 and I couldn’t have a fucking kid.’We need older women’s voices more than younger women’s voices right now. There’s a real lack”.
I feel Holiday Destination will win the Mercury in a year that has seen a few other artists come through and go beyond the predictable. This month has seen Anna Calvi and IDLES release career-best, year-defining records. The former, Hunter, looks at gender and the patriarchy; it explores women’s roles and the strength they have – a gusty and striking album from a virtuoso guitar player, songwriter and vocalist. IDLES’ Joy as an Act of Resistance looks set to break the top-five in the album charts and has been getting five-star reviews all over the shop. That record, like Shah’s, looks at subjects that are seen as stigmatising or controversial. They tackle mental-health concerns and toxic masculinity – delivered with fire and incredible tightness. I feel a movement has been started where artists are looking at something more important and hard-edged. It seems, even given these artists, Shah stands out alone! I cannot think of another female Muslim songwriter who is in the same position as her. That sort of pressure (if that is the right word?!) could be a burden or seen as an obstacle but, for Shah, it is a chance to change things and bring about progression. I am confident Holiday Destination will win for Shah and she will get to deliver a pretty epic acceptance speech! The record sounds haunting and stirring but it wants us to open our eyes and, as an alternative to the broken-hearts-and-spurned-relationships we see all over the place; it would be great recognising an artist who, unlike some of her peers on the Mercury list, is actually talking about something important. I would be disappointed if Shah does not win the award and, when she does, I would expect her to stride up, gin and tonic in hand, and provide one hell of…
A fuc*ing good speech!