From the moment Out The Way, the monolithic, politically-charged lead single from Nadine Shah's third LP Holiday Destination was unleashed earlier this year, there was a sense that it would be one of the most essential releases of recent years.
Anyone who has heard any of the record's four pre-released tracks (Out The Way, Yes Men, Evil and Holiday Destination), will be aware by now of the heavy subject matter that permeates its every nook and cranny. A frank and unflinching examination of the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of nationalism and the right wing media's demonisation of refugees and immigrants, Holiday Destination manages to be dark, aggressive and direct in its lyrical content, yet strangely upbeat and melodic musically. It's worth noting this is easily Shah's most danceable release to date.
In many ways, Out The Way is the perfect distillation of everything the record represents. Its hypnotic, spiralling repetition, as it builds and gathers momentum, grasps the listener with a call to arms unlike anything else committed to record in recent memory. A second generation immigrant - her mother Norwegian, her father Pakistani - Shah weaves deftly from incisive observation to first hand experience not just throughout the album, but often within the same song: "Where would you have me go, I'm second generation don't you know?"/ "Where would you have them go a generation searching for a home?" (Out Of The Way).
Yet, while Holiday Destination is unquestionably a confrontational record, there is sufficient light amid the darkness to ensure it is in no way impenetrable or ‘preachy’. On each of her previous albums, 2013’s Love Your Dum And Mad and 2015’s Fast Food, subjects such as mental health, depression and broken relationships were backed by a dark sonic palette. This time however, as she puts it, the music is intended to get people “dancing in the streets, rather than standing around stroking their chins!”
The root of Shah’s ability to so seamlessly thread light and shade within her music becomes immediately apparent when Music Week takes its seat opposite her in the basement bar of a King’s Cross pub, where our conversation takes place over a steady stream of G&Ts, lager and a platter of halloumi. Warm, open and disarmingly honest, she addresses the more troubling aspects of the album’s most socio-political content, as well as the more personal elements, without pretention.
Here, we find out what prompted Shah to make her most overtly political work to date, how politics is shaping music and why she now is the time for artists to stand up and be counted…
Was the album always going to be this conceptual body of work about the Syrian refugee crisis and the threat of right wing nationalism?
“The first song I wrote for the album was Holiday Destination, and at the time I wasn’t intending on writing political material for a new album. I’d made some music a documentary my brother (Karim Shah) made called No Strings that focused on Syrian children on the border between Syria and Turkey. It was about how children who have seen such awful things happening now have no trust in adults. That was the first time I heard about the civil war in Syria. It was only afterwards I thought, I’ve got to start writing about that.
“Then it was all over the news about the thousands and thousands of refugees washing up on the shores of Kos. And there was this news report interviewing tourists about what the thought about it. There was this one couple that really sticks in my head who said, It’s really ruining our holiday! The thing that shocked me most was how unashamed they were to say something like that on national television. And that’s what we’re seeing globally – a rise in right wing nationalism and a lack of empathy. For me it was then impossible to write about anything else. After that I noticed the effect it had on me as well, being a second-generation immigrant. The negative press towards Muslims is really scary. There are so many hate crimes happening and it feels really close to home.”
Did you feel like, as an artist, you had an obligation to address these issues?
“It might sound arrogant but I think artists do have a responsibility to do that. Whether you’re a painter, filmmaker or musician, it’s your job to document the times you live in. That doesn't mean to say there isn't place for a love song or a dance track or whatever, but there had been a real void in people addressing political issues in the arts for a long time. I don’t want to preach to people, I want to humanise the dehumanised and give these people a voice. There has to be point where you go, That’s enough; we’ve got to start speaking about this. Every album I make will be a concept album.”
Are there any key artists who addressed similarly big issues who inspired the record?
“Nina Simone is my favourite artist of all time. She wrote an amazing song called Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead) about Martin Luther King. It's an amazing song and her as a personality doing what she was doing was groundbreaking. Here was a black, classically trained pianist who invented a genre; she combined classical piano playing with jazz, which hadn't been done before. She’d play venues she could never drink at the bar at afterwards. I find that really inspiring.
“Present artists: Idles, I love, a band called Life… Those two at the moment are my favourites.”
Is there a greater political motivation among artists at the moment?
“I can sense a pretty massive change, but I still don’t think it's enough. One of the problems is that artists – myself included – can be scared to be political. Especially if you're on an independent label and it’s difficult enough to make a career. If you're making a political statement it really divides an audience, and you can see it on social media and in ticket sales. An artist’s existing audience is so precious and people are scared of losing them. I know he’s not a musician, but take Russell Brand, for instance. You can love him or hate him, but one thing that irritated me, which musicians get told as well, is, If you know so much about politics then why don’t you become a politician? Well, I’m not the most well-versed person politically, but I care about the world that I live in, so I’ll always fight for the underdog, and I should be allowed to have an opinion on those things. But that’s why people can be so scared to talk about these things; the backlash can be quite aggressive.
“People have said things to me like, This station won’t play it because the subject matter is too heavy. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t in this industry. It’s really frustrating. People were begging for political music and as soon as I give them it…I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman. I’ve no idea. But there has been a negative reaction as well.”
Do you feel there is an old school perception of political songwriting being the domain of the male, and that women aren’t expected to address such subjects?
“Yes. I still think [political music] is heavily dominated by men, But there are so many great female-fronted acts addressing diversity issues or sexism now. There’s a song on the album called Mother Fighter. There was a documentary called A Syrian Love Story by a guy called Sean McAllister, where he lives with this Syrian family who have fled Syria to seek refuge in a neighbouring country. The mother is a woman called Raghda, and her and her husband met in prison because they were both political activists. They were released and they lived in Syria for a while and then the civil unrest started, and so they have to flee. However, Raghda later goes back to Syria to fight against what was happening in the country. And there was loads of criticism towards her on social media after the film aired, with people saying, How can this woman just leave her children? But she didn't just leave her children, she left them with their father, and she also went to fight for the future of her children and for their country. She was super-inspiring. But it’s not necessarily just women I’m singing about on that song, it applies to fathers too. But it’s really important women are given the gratitude they deserve. Women can be mothers and also be political activists and be politically versed.”
The music feels like a real departure from the previous two albums, and seems a more upbeat counterpoint to the lyrical content. Was that the intention?
“I do that on every album. There are loads artists who I love who make more of the same each time, like Interpol - one of my favourite bands, but you could argue all their stuff sounds the same. I love that. But I always want to experiment. I don’t think I’ll ever make two albums that sound too similar. As for the music on this album, rather than having people standing around stroking their chins, I’d rather make a political song that is going to have people dancing in the streets and singing along to it.
“I’ve never had saxophone on an album before, but I wanted include some Eastern scales, because a lot of the time I’m speaking about the Middle East, and I wanted that to be present. The saxophone gives this other dynamic to the album that we’ve never had before, and it also allows me to take a little break and makes me move. And when the audience sees me move that makes them move. It was a conscious decision from the offset, with the lyrics being how they were.”
Was Out The Way always going to be the lead single?
“No! I loved that the team loved it. They were like, This has to be the first single! I was like, Are you mad?! I was hoping they were going to say that, but I'd have thought Holiday Destination first. Before we picked the singles, we tested the album out with two very small shows – one of them was Refugee Week at Meltdown Festival that Guy Garvey curated – and the response to Out The Way was just nuts.“
Did you feel compelled to write an album like this from a personal perspective?
“Whenever people talk about me being a second generation immigrant they always talk about my father, and that makes me laugh. Is it only the brown ones that are immigrants!? My mum’s Norwegian! My parents are both immigrants; just because she’s a blonde white lady… You wonder if for some people the refugee crisis would be as big of a deal if they were blonde, blue-eyed white people. I’d like to think that my heritage wouldn't matter and that I’d always want to fight for the underdog and I'd write these songs anyway, but it was a lot closer to home because I can see a reaction. I can see what's going on with the rise of nationalism in the UK – my cousins are both Pakistani and they have darker skin than I have, and I’ve heard stories from them of being spat at in the street.
“Even if I go on Twitter and make a political comment about not tarring everyone with the same brush… A few of my fans said some really racist, aggressive responses to what I was saying, like, It’s only because you’re a Muslim you’re saying this, or It’s only because you're a Muslim that you’re doing that. It’s like, No, it’s because I’m human. There have been threats and things like that. Last year I had to cancel a show because of threats being made. I was advised not to play in my hometown of Sunderland because of my surname. I’ve had visas declined for America so I can’t play there. And you can’t contest it – it just gets denied, so I have to get an Alien Of Extraordinary Talent Visa! That’s what it’s called! It’s pretty daunting. It’ll get sorted out, but it’s so frustrating.”
Holiday Destination is released via 1965 on August 25