After we’ve wrapped up our interview, Nadine Shah invites me to watch her participating in a panel discussion down the road at the 100 Club. She can’t remember what it’s about.
It might be a consideration of the plight of the UK’s small gig venues – Shah has curated a UK tour for next week’s Independent Venue Week – or it could be about equality in the music industry. The 32-year-old from a village near Sunderland gets asked a lot to talk on these subjects, as well as racism, immigration, the refugee crisis and mental health.
“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.”
It’s a wonder she has found time to release three albums of stormy, brooding indie rock and post-punk that are finding a swelling fanbase. She and her band are about to play their biggest gig yet, part of the Roundhouse in the Round series of all-seater shows. It’s a more intimate set-up that allows the ordinarily 3,300-capacity Camden venue to welcome a more leftfield selection of artists. This year the line-up also includes Malian singer Oumou Sangare, jazz bands GoGo Penguin and Portico Quartet, singer-songwriter Beth Orton and Tottenham rapper Chip.
“I like that it’s been a grower,” she says of her third long-player, Holiday Destination, released last August and a few months later named as BBC Radio 6 Music’s seventh-best album of 2017. “I’m glad people didn’t say, ‘That album happened – next!’ I prefer it, because of what the album’s about. It’s a conversation that needs to continue.”
Holiday Destination’s title instantly becomes ironic beneath the album’s cover image, conflict reporter Christian Stephen’s shot of a young boy standing in a bombed-out building in Gaza. Shah took her inspiration from a 2014 news report about thousands of refugees and migrants arriving on the Greek island of Kos, where tourists were interviewed complaining that it was ruining their holiday. She was also driven to write about refugees after composing music for a documentary made the same year by her older brother Karim, who was working for the news channel Al Jazeera. It was called Syria: No Strings and showed how teachers in Turkey were helping displaced Syrian children to cope with their traumatic experiences.
Now, when she talks about her music, the narrative has shifted again. The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar wasn’t on the news radar when she began writing. “It’s happening over and over: more civil war, more people getting displaced. So I don’t mind being asked the same questions because the answers are changing,” she says.
On the title track, she sings in her low, rich voice about “Fatalities in the water.” On the angriest song, Out the Way, she asks: “Where would you have them go? A generation searching for a home.” She deals with her own experiences on the album as well, as the daughter of a father who endured a difficult journey to England from Pakistan and a mother born in England to Donald Trump’s favoured type of immigrants: Norwegians. At school she was nicknamed “Arfur” – half of this, half of that. “All these folk, they think that I’m evil/Like I am the living Devil himself,” she sings on Evil.
“I haven’t applied for another visa to go to America since Trump got in,” she tells me. “It’s a shame, because there’s lots of demand to see us in New York, LA, Chicago. But I’m pretty sure my next visa’s gonna be a right pain in the ass.”
She’s frustrated that she’s mostly preaching to the converted when she sings to her hip, liberal audience. “I’m totally aware that I exist within an echo chamber and my reach is limited. I wish I’d written this album and given it to Taylor Swift or Adele, because they can reach all ages and societies.” She has spoken to her publishers about trying to write political songs aimed at children and give them to Little Mix and the like. “Genuinely I would do that for free.”
But even in the echo chamber, she feels like she has to speak about this stuff. “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.”
Lest all of this imply that an hour in Shah’s company is like being buttonholed by a charity mugger, it isn’t. She’s a matey, funny conversationalist over a late afternoon hair of the dog whiskey and Coke. At the panel discussion later on, which was organised by the folks behind Independent Venue Week but is about women’s experiences in the music business (hence her earlier confusion) she manages to disagree with others while smiling and staying friendly with everybody.
You can get a better sense of her warm, forthright personality by tuning into her fortnightly show on Soho Radio or by following her on Twitter, where she recently went mildly viral for writing: “I told you all Morrissey was a c***.”
Nor is the music on Holiday Destination as bleak as its subject matter. Shah and her collaborator Ben Hillier – who is better known for producing Depeche Mode, Elbow and The Maccabees but has co-written all three of Shah’s albums and plays drums in her live band – were listening to Fela Kuti, Talking Heads and even Michael Jackson to inspire music that would make people move. Pete Wareham of Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear provides writhing saxophone.
“We tried to make a really poppy record, even though we kept doing weird things,” says Shah. “The music, sonically, isn’t dour, it’s quite uplifting and energetic and afrobeat-infused. So at the gigs I’m seeing people moving and then, when they leave, they have a grain of hope. I didn’t want to leave people feeling defeated. I want them to go out energised and hopeful and continue the discussion.”
Her own political energy continues off the stage, where lately she’s been buying the feminist children’s book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls for every kid she knows – even the boys. Her next album will explore women’s issues closer to home, the pressure of biological clocks and so on, but before she makes that she’ll tour Holiday Destination into the summer festival season and beyond.
“At the gigs, I tell people that it feels like the people who hate are winning because they’re the ones shouting the loudest. We have to shout louder,” she says. When she urges her audience to rise up at the Roundhouse next week, all those seats won’t be necessary.
Roundhouse in the Round runs from Jan 31 to Feb 10 at the Roundhouse, NW1 (0870 389 1846, roundhouse.org.uk). Nadine Shah plays on Feb 2.