Is being a songwriter all about living the rock ‘n’ roll dream? Or is it something altogether more artistic? And how much do the words matter? Sunderland lass and super-talented songwriter Nadine Shah tells us about writing in bed, dealing with bad reviews and how being a musician is a bit like being prime minister.
Tell us about your approach to words? How important are they in your songwriting?
They’re an integral part of what I do. Before I started writing my own songs, I was a jazz singer, singing jazz standards in bars and restaurants. I’d always said that I would never make my own music until I actually had something of worth to say. Lyrics are the backbone of what I do, and if/when the day comes that I’ve got nothing left to say, then that’s the day I’ll quit.
Did you always have ambitions to be a musician/ writer/ creative type of person?
I either wanted to be prime minister, or a documentary photographer, or a musician. It’s taken me a long time to realise that you can be all those things at once (not prime minister, exactly, but political!). Being a musician enables you to be creative in so many different ways – with your music, your videos, your performance – and you can also be political with your lyrics. I think I’ve found my perfect job!
Tell us about your journey to becoming a professional musician
I started out by joining musical theatre groups: there, I was classically trained vocally. That’s probably the best vocal training I ever had – I was taught how to look after my voice and how to really get the most out of it. Through a love of gospel music, I discovered jazz and shortly after moved to London when I was 16/17 to be a jazz singer. It was nothing glamorous – just in bars and restaurants. I started to get tired of singing other people’s songs, and had a real urge to make things myself (in this case painting and photography), so I went to art school.
It was only at art school where I was encouraged by a tutor to make music as a kind of project – “to take the most intimidating instrument and compose a song with it” – and that’s how I started out making my own music. Turned out people liked what I was doing, so I made more and more, and gigged every stinking pub back room that would have me. Eventually, I met my now-collaborator and producer Ben Hillier, and we’ve been working together ever since… I think it’s been 6/7 years!
Do you write everyday?
No way! Most though – I give myself weekends off. I treat writing like a proper job and am really disciplined with it. It’s good to keep in the habit of writing regularly to avoid writer’s block.
Do you have a “place to write”?
Almost anywhere but honestly the majority is made sat on my bed!
Do you work with an “end” in sight (e.g an album or a project), or do you do whatever you like and hope it’ll get used somewhere?
Mostly with an end in sight. Albums – in my opinion – should be a coherent body of work. So I start writing with a kind of spider diagram: an overall subject in the middle and heaps of ideas linked to that subject surrounding it. What I hope to achieve with each album is a sort of conclusion to whatever subject I’m writing about, mostly personal stuff. It’s a kind of therapy of sorts!
How do you balance all of the “other stuff” that comes with being a musician (going on tour, press stuff, videos, recording etc. etc.) with finding time to write?
An album cycle isn’t so intense, for me anyway. I can always find time to write. Touring is perfect for it; hours and hours of long drives and waiting around are a great opportunity for either listening to other music (the more you hear the more you learn!) or lyric writing.
What’s the best thing about being a songwriter?
Even if I have to wake up at 4am to travel to a show, I am still smiling. I don’t know if there are many jobs that would make me (or anyone) do that. Those of us who are able to do the thing we love day in day out are a lucky bunch. Not one bit of it is lost on me!
And the worst?
I suffer from chronic anxiety, so sometimes the stuff that goes along with being a musician can really get to me. Things like awards, nasty comments on social media, bad reviews, just the general pressure of sustaining my career.
What beliefs do you think people have about musicians/ songwriters and are they true?
That we’re lazy. Truth is, some are and some aren’t and it’s easy to spot who isn’t!
What advice would you give the 15 year-old Nadine if you could whizz back in time?
I’d say “play that piano that’s collecting dust in the lounge instead of illegally going to rubbish nightclubs that play awful music and have revolving dance floors that make you throw up your blue wkd on the quayside. Go to gigs at the uni instead! Oh, and in two years time, your idol, Nina Simone, is going to die so try and watch her play live before then.”