Nadine Shah: “I do worry about being seen as a ‘role model’; I don’t want to be a spokesperson on the subject of suicide”

Forever an open book, Nadine Shah remains completely candid on her new, fifth album, Filthy Underneath. Written whilst in rehab, following years of addiction and a very public suicide attempt, she’s no less forthcoming in discussing her past few years – the the grief that devastated her, the humour she clung onto, and her return to the North East that made her  

Warm from the very moment of introduction, Nadine Shah has always been one for calling things as they are. Dialling in from Ramsgate with a comedically-oversized mug of fizzy water in her hand, the Tyneside-born singer-songwriter instantly launches into anecdotes of interviews past, including her own pandemic-era Payback series, where she challenged the inherently one-sided power imbalance of the typical journalist-musician exchange.

“I find it quite impolite, actually,” she says. “I’m a big fangirl of so many music journalists; I’m like, yeah, ask your questions, but you have the better stories; can you just tell me some shit too?”

Over the years, Shah has built a Mercury Prize-nominated name due to her ability to take measure of the macabre, to use her commanding, theatrical voice to find flecks of humanity and nuance in situations that many of us struggle to confront. Interviews have normally been fun for her because of the nature of her music; there’s always been a way for her to “mine the humour in songs, or bring some lightness.” But with her new record, Filthy Underneath, she fears that levity might be a little more difficult, shaped as it is around the circumstances that culminated in a 2022 tweet which alerted people to her plans to take her own life. “I initially dreamed of being an artist with mystery,” she ponders, a wry smile on her face. “But I think I ruined that a long time ago, well before that tweet.”

Through both a stay in rehab and time away from the industry, Nadine has thankfully found ways to keep going, to cultivate habits that allow her to live on a more even keel. But as she embarks on her own version of “starting again”, she shares an understandable degree of anxiousness about re-entering the public sphere, asking me to bear with her if she pauses to consider how she might want to talk her thoughts or creative process through. But within even a few moments of conversation, it’s clear that she is someone who has come to know her own work with the same wit, courage and hard-won resilience that has allowed her to claw her way back from personal brink, spelt out in the album’s unflinching title.

“It’s the dirt under your fingernails, the stuff that you don’t see. It’s the person on Instagram, projecting the shiny life but suffering offscreen, the smile when there’s tears behind it,” she explains. “I wanted it to be quite plain speaking. I guess I always kind of am.”

JW: A lot has happened between 2020’s Kitchen Sink and now; more than would be fair or really appropriate for me to attempt to paraphrase on your behalf. How best would you fill newer listeners in on the context of your life over the last few years?

NS: I think I’m aware that now – because of the work I was forced to have to do on myself – that I’ve probably always had underlying mental health issues, but I’ve been able to mask a lot of them enough to get by. But in 2018, my mother was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, which was essentially a death sentence. She was my best mate, and so I dropped everything; I left London and I moved home to be with her straight away. She lived two full good years, and it was a real privilege to be able to spend that time with her. She died a month after Kitchen Sink was released, and it was lovely that she was able to see that happen. But once she passed away, I didn’t have the tools available to cope. I was heavily self-medicating with substances, and with Covid the normal avenues of grief were not available to so many thousands of us. We weren’t allowed a proper funeral, I wasn’t able to work and have the comfort of touring my album and being with my band on the road. As I was isolated more and more, I got more and more unwell.

The substance abuse got worse and worse until my mental health was at enough of a low in 2022 that I decided to take my own life. It’s tough to talk about. But I’d planned it, and I’d written a letter, then at the last minute, I also did a clumsy tweet. I make jokes about it now, that I didn’t even spell it correctly. But people who knew where I lived saw it, an ambulance and police turned up to my door, and at that moment, it was really a relief of like, “I can stop pretending [I’m okay] now.”

My manager insisted on me going to rehab. I thought I would go for a week or two at most, but I stayed two months, I worked and I realised how poorly I was and I got better. And now I’m a better daughter, a better sister, all the rest of it. It’s constant work. Pain in life, unfortunately, is inevitable. But I feel far better equipped now to cope with those things in a much healthier way than I would then.

JW: I’m incredibly glad to hear it. But as you say, it’s also important to recognise that rehabilitation and recovery isn’t a one-time fix – it takes real work and commitment to find ways to stay well.

NS: Oh yes. Sometimes that work is enjoyable, making sure you go for a walk that day, making sure that you connect with people and don’t isolate. These are beautiful things. But I’m just far more aware now of how fragile the human mind can be. There are certain things in the industry that I know I will need to keep me well, and certain things that I know I can’t have around me. But you’re right; I’m still a work in progress, 100%.

JW: Do you think your awareness of those boundaries has changed the scale of what you want to achieve, careerwise?

NS: I mean, I never, ever wanted to be very famous. I’m quite comfortable with the level I’m at, kind of, you know, mediocre C-list [laughs]. But now, anything that makes me feel uncomfortable or kind of lowers my self-esteem – if I’m offered a certain spot at a festival and I believe I should be higher billed or paid better, for instance – I would say no to. Unfortunately, [artists] don’t always have that luxury, because of finances or whatever, but I think learning the power of no is a very important thing.

JW: You’ve spoken in the past about being somebody who is constantly writing. When did you realise that you were able to put some of these experiences to page in a way that might become a record?

NS: There are songs on this album that are incredibly graphic if you know what they’re about. ‘French Exit’ – I wrote that for myself when I was in rehab as a form of therapy and never intended it to be on the album, but there it is. I do worry about being seen as a ‘role model’; I don’t want to be a spokesperson on the subject of suicide. I’m not a medically trained professional – I’m just an artist who documents things, giving my version of events.

That said, I also really want to dispel the myth of the great tortured artist. I was so high and so unwell at the time of Kitchen Sink that there’s a lot of it I cannot remember writing. And that scared me, because it was my favourite album, and I thought well, I’ll never be able to write like that again. But I want to say to anybody; if you can write a good song drunk, you can write a brilliant song sober. I think people could look at me and go, oh, she needs this pain, because I wrote an album about the refugee crisis, my first album was about two of my close friends who took their own lives, and ironically, it’s then me ten years later trying the same thing. But then I wrote my new song ‘Twenty Things’ in the best place I’ve ever been, sober, out of rehab, with real mental clarity. And you know what, I’ll say it; if I don’t get an Ivor Novello nomination for that, I’ll be deeply upset.

JW: Rehab is quite an interesting environment for a writer in and of itself; being able to put so much time and concentrated focus into examining your experiences and emotions is a pretty powerful thing, whatever the circumstance.

NS: It’s kind of beautiful for that. I’d gone in deciding that I wasn’t even going to be a musician anymore – I was so embarrassed that people would know about what had happened. But on the second day in rehab, one of the nurses showed me around the building, and was like, “Here’s the music room.” I walked in and I pissed myself laughing, because it looked just like a pub; dark wood mahogany panelling, red velvet seats everywhere. It was quite triggering. But I got so bored in there that it was only 10 days in when I started using the piano – I re-taught myself to play my first album, got my relationship back with that instrument. So then I did my first ever sober concert in rehab.

JW: Did the crowd go wild?

NS: Ha! Well, you know, they were also bored. They said they liked it; addicts do have a tendency to be great liars. But it helped me remember why I loved music, how it can nourish the soul. I got a massive kick out of that. Loved it.

JW: You’ve spoken about really wanting to emphasise a feeling of melody and movement on this record – what was the motivation there?

NS: I’ve always tended to underplay my vocal, only singing in my lower register and holding it back loads because I thought that was cooler. I’ve really fallen in love with singing again, and I push my vocals so much more on this album than I have on any of the ones before.

Melodically, all the rhythm comes from Ben Hillier, my producer and collaborator. He’s a drummer primarily, and then he’s a producer and all the rest of it, talented bugger. But we have very similar tastes, and the stuff that I was listening to at the time was very upbeat, and very rhythmic. Since my mum’s passing, it made me too upset to listen to music that was slow-paced or morose, and so a lot of the playlists I sent to Ben were disco. The song ‘Greatest Dancer’ came about because I was listening to a lot of glam rock. I use Sesame Street as a reference in my work a lot, and I wanted to push towards those kinds of childlike rhythms and melodies more than we ever had before. It feels very freeing, a massive release of sorts.

JW: You definitely get that Sesame Street feel from ‘Topless Mother’ – the word association in the chorus and the playful energy of the music video. Why did that song feel like the right lead single for this new era?

NS: There is something in the nature of that song which is very similar to another song I wrote called ‘Fool’. On the surface, it’s this very scathing description of a person I don’t like, but I’m also making fun of myself all of the time, being tongue-in-cheek. With ‘Topless Mother’, it was about a counsellor that I had in rehab. I had such a dislike for her; she had this technique where I felt like she would go in and she was trying to make me cry, and if she didn’t, it was almost, in my opinion, like she felt she hadn’t done her job properly.

As I learned later, a lot of counsellors in rehab are addicts themselves, who have worked damn hard to come through the traumatic experience of addiction. They’re incredible, but I was writing about her so awfully when I was in there, scribbling away in my secret diary. I really wanted to get inside her mind, pull out her dirty laundry. And when I left, I looked at what I’d written and I laughed, because I know that she was just trying to help me. I do firmly believe, hand on heart, that if she hears this song and knows it’s about her, it might make her smile. But it’s a very immature song; some people would just let that stuff lie, and some people write songs about it. I’m one of those arseholes who write songs about it.

JW: On ‘Twenty Things’, it’s clear that you were able to bond with the other residents, to reflect upon their stories alongside your own. As a lyricist, how do you strike this balance of writing about other people without overstepping?

NS: It’s definitely called Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous for a reason. These are very vulnerable people who I came to love and care about deeply, which is something I didn’t realise when I went into that place. I was scared of the people I was going to meet. I hadn’t met, you know, heroin addicts before, or criminals – some people in there chose rehab over prison. But all I did was fall in love with everybody, and unfortunately, nobody warned me of how many of them I was going to lose. My three best friends from there are now dead, and I wasn’t prepared for that.

But then it was also a real privilege to walk and sleep and eat amongst those people. I’ve never laughed so much in my life as I did in that place. I can’t speak for everyone, but a lot of us had been through similar things, really harrowing circumstances, and all of a sudden you’re in a space where you’re safe, being looked after, cooked for. It makes room for a lot of joy, in a weird way, and room to be childlike together. So I wanted to write about some of the experiences of those people, without giving away too much. I think if anybody knows anything about my past career, I’m not going to stop talking about stuff that I’m passionate about, and advocating for people in addiction will be something that I do speak about, trying to ensure that we have the properly funded avenues available to people from all walks of life.

JW: You’ve also been a keen advocate for Northern artists, which is why it’s so exciting that you’re releasing this album as the first signee to EMI North. Why did it feel like the right fit for you?

NS: I was worried about the criticism that I might receive from signing to a major. I was very critical of the majors during the streaming inquiry, and I felt very isolated and very alone amongst my peers when I did that. But I did it, and I don’t take any of it back. There were three heads of the major labels there, one of them being David Joseph from Universal/EMI. Major labels are complex things; there are some really great people working within them who genuinely love music, and there are some things about them that I hate. But I wanted to get into the belly of the beast, so I said to David, prove to me why a major label should exist and why they’re so great; sign me. And a week later, he did.

As of January, I’ll be a permanent resident in the North East again, so it feels like the right fit to be on the imprint. I am an established artist, but they’re also coupling with many other companies like Clue Records in Leeds, Generator in the North East. So let’s see what happens, and let’s hope that it does affect some proper change and create more jobs in the music industry in Northern England. I’m excited to be a part of that.

JW: A new album, record deal and re-location are all pretty good ways to kickstart a new year. What else are you looking forward to in 2024?

NS: My biggest hope is that I get to play in territories we’ve not been to, see some more places around the US and wider Europe. There’s a curiosity that I always have; ‘will this work over there? Will they like it?’ Let’s have a go and see. But lots of touring in general – we start in January supporting Depeche Mode in Europe; it’s just been 10 years since I last supported them, which feels like a beautiful marker of sorts. I’m just going to be working my socks off next year, and I can’t wait.

Other than that, I’m really looking forward to spending more time in the North East. I found it very, very difficult to go back there once my mum had died; everything and everywhere reminds me of her. But my dad is there and I’m reconnecting with my old school friends; they remember me before all this bullshit, which has been really grounding. So yeah, when I do get downtime, I’m excited to go home. It feels like it’s time.