Nerina Pallot interview
Nerina Pallot is nervous. Properly, teeth-chatteringly nervous. We know this because she’s nervous enough to actually tell us. “Woah, Manchester,” she says and shivers, “I’m a bit nervous tonight, if you must know. You’re very quiet.” We sit there, unsure and very quiet. “It’s not helping, I’ll be honest with you...” Oh balls. She has a point. It’s hardly ideal but it’s far from inexplicable. For this short tour, promoting her Lonely Valentine Club EP, she’s playing solo. With the added complication of a genuinely forbidding, unforgiving auditorium, no wonder she’s on edge. The Royal Northern College of Music is an impressive but austere hall, all clean lines, exposed brick and none of the opulent fripperies or historical scuffs you’d find in your typical theatre. And yet, all of this makes for a performance that comes from an unexpected and gripping angle, despite Pallot’s doubts. “Are you sure you’re alright, Manchester? Are you just playing hard to get?” The last couple of times I’ve seen her, a full band show supporting Will Young last Summer and a few years ago down the road for a standing crowd at the considerably less salubrious Academy 2, the crowd was particularly easy to get and she was able to have, in her words, “fun fun.” Not so tonight. Afterwards, when we talk, she ponders as to why she was so on edge.
“It wasn’t just me, was it? Very strange atmosphere in there.” Very. It was odd for us, too. Not least because it was so dark out in the stalls. I found myself scribbling notes ‘blind’, hoping they were vaguely legible later. (At some point, they tell me, she played ‘Spprlle’. Mmm.) But I tell her we were actually behind her, almost willing her on, properly engaged. Lest this sounds like a shocking tale of woe, the atmosphere does eventually build and both Pallot and crowd find a way to share the experience. A deep warmth from both directions helps make the night a convincing, if not an entirely typical, success. You find yourself wondering just how much such missteps spoils it for the artist. Can you even begin to enjoy it? “Well... it just requires a different kind of enjoyment, so I find that a really easy show is one where the first few songs are where I’m hyper aware but then I settle and then it almost kind of takes care of itself. You’re not thinking about stuff too much and you’re just responding to the moment. Whereas the more tricky shows, in certain venues, they may be sonically fantastic to play in because they’re built more classically, which suits my solo show but... the flip side is, I really thrive on crowd participation. And I think that when people file into a theatre, they, we, all assume this more polite version of ourselves. So even when I encourage people to behave as they normally would, there’s this reserve. But you just learn. You just connect in a different way. My way is being honest and saying ‘Look, I’m really nervous. It’s a very strange situation so let’s make the best of it.’”
It just worked on a different level, added a layer of drama. It was like watching a really, really studied and focused performance. It certainly wasn’t a lesser experience, just different. “Oh, really? Oh, I’m glad you say that. I know what you mean, though. You’re right – it does make me focus. The reason I found it a trickier gig is technically, I’m sound, so I don’t tend to worry about bum notes – I’ve been doing it for a while now. But what happens is I’m hyper aware of the technical aspects of the situation because, as you say, there’s more than just a pin-drop moment: it’s charged. So everyone’s very attuned to it. I find that I learn a lot more from the trickier gigs than the easier gigs. Easy gigs are this big love in but the trickier ones are probably worth their weight in gold because you learn how to stabilise yourself. Onstage even if someone appears quite calm, inside they’re not. I defy anyone who goes onstage to say they’re super calm inside. Sure, you have that certain concentration inside that makes you calm but your mind is going super fast. That’s what I was talking about when I said that time onstage had slowed right down.”
Half the audience got that. Not sure about the other half, to be honest... “No, no!” She’s keen to clarify there was no offence intended. “You’re suspended in that moment and you’re thinking about a lot of things when you’re onstage anyway. There’s everything from ‘How can I really connect?’ to ‘Did I leave the gas on?’ You get the really bizarre combination of the mundane and the extraordinary onstage. And I think also in the audience as well.” What makes me nervous as a punter is if it infects us. But it didn’t. We didn’t let it. We were right there with you. “Yeah, yeah. I think I got that. And I met a lot of people after the show and the feedback was very warm and people were saying that it was the environment that made them reserved. ‘We weren’t reserved because we hated you...’”
How do you find solo versus band, then? Is it a looser, freer experience with a band behind you? “Do you know, it’s funny you say that. It’s the opposite for me. It’s not a looser experience at all and I think that’s because there are so many variables with the band whereas when I’m on my own I know there’s a minimal number of things that can go wrong. I also know that if I’m in a controlled environment, even if the sound system packed up I could just do it acoustically...proper. The show will always go on when it’s just me. With a band, unless it’s one of those days where you’ve all been at the beer, they don’t want to be too free. It’s fun. It’s fun because of the noise thing – the one thing I miss when I‘m onstage solo is I like things cranked to 11 and you can’t do that as a solo artist. You just don’t have that oomph.”
Are you quite hard on yourself as a performer? Or writer, even? “I want to be as good as I can be. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with... I guess because I cut my teeth through a really intense musical upbringing...actually, that’s what it might have been at Manchester. I was acutely aware of where I was and it drew me back to music college. You know, the pop arena, there is musicianship... but I know what real musicianship is and, not that I’m snobbish about it or anything, there’s a level of musicianship that is so off the scale and I don’t have that level of musicianship and I know people who do. So I always feel a little like a charlatan because I know what an incredible pianist should sound like and I know what a great opera singer should sound like. Do you know what I mean? And I don’t think there’s enough of that in pop music or just general entertainment. Technique and quality seem to have gone by the wayside of ‘entertainment factor’ and hype and all this other bollocks, you know? And people are forgetting to write just really great songs and sing the fuck out of them. That’s the most important thing. I only feel like it’s after years of touring and playing that I’m suddenly a more solid performer. No-one should pay their money and go to a gig and be surprised that someone sings in tune and doesn’t play bum notes. In fact, come to a gig and I let you down, you should ask for your money back.”
If you don’t applaud after reading those last few sentences, you probably need to take a long hard look at yourself. But there’s a thin line between raising a flag for trad values and sounding like an old fart. “Mmm. You know, I always worry that when I have to think hard about this I’m either an old fart or a luddite when in actual fact there’s so much new stuff I’m passionate about. So I’m definitely not someone who’d go ‘Ooh, it was better back in the day’ cos I wasn’t even there back in the day! I’m part of this generation to a certain extent.” We can have both, though, can’t we? Maybe, as you said at the gig, we need Radio 1 ½. “Well, yeah. There’s no place for that middle ground. BBC6 frustrates me because it’s supposed to fill that gap between Radio 1 and Radio 2 but in fact it’s a completely different entity. There’s no grown-up pop music anymore. Radio 2, I have a career to thank them for but it’s still a bit of a graveyard. I don’t relate to their playlists. There’s a lot on Radio 1 I genuinely love – James Blake, Frank Ocean, tons of new stuff. So I’m not one of those people who’s saying Radio 1 is just for kids. I don’t know about you but growing up I used to be religious about the radio...and I don’t feel that way anymore.”
It’s a conundrum, no doubt. I tell her that just the night before I was in the car with my 15 year old daughter and we switched to Zane Lowe’s evening Radio 1 show. It suited us both – he played CHVRCHES and then he played Two Door Cinema Club. Then the contrary bugger followed up with this horrible, clattery dubstep twaddle and I nearly lobbed the radio out the window. “Yeah. I think he does that on purpose. I think he does it because he feels he ought to, whereas knowing what he’s sort of really into... he’s not really into dubstep!” Peel wasn’t far behind. He’d pair The Sundays with Bolt Thrower. “But I think John Peel was ultimately very honest about it, wasn’t he? One of my favourite albums from years ago, I bought based on John Peel’s recommendation and I remember him saying ‘I don’t know if that’s the best or the worst record of the year’.” And what was it? “Stina Nordenstam.” Oh, yeah. Memories of a Colour? “No, the other one. And She Closed Her Eyes. And he played ‘Little Star’ and I fell in love with it and I loved how he knew there was something special about it but he wasn’t sure if it was brilliant or rubbish. And the problem with DJs today is that they’re afraid of their playlists.”
We move on, just one teeny portion of the star maker machinery put to rights, if not fully fixed/obliterated. Debut album Dear Frustrated Superstar was loved by the hardcore, a beautifully skewed set that married classic songwriting with unexpected quirks of arrangement and production. Guess what. No-one bought it. Devastating, looking back, surely? “I think that what happened was that I made my first record and I hadn’t been privy to the whole cycle before - and it was a bit of a shock. Partly due to my inexperience. But that’s part of being young. Then you realise that the stars are not going to magically align and you’re not going to be whisked off in a limo. I defy anyone not to feel a sense of deflation. Plus, it’s very hard when you’re putting out a record and a lot of people are involved and they all feel they have a say. Sometimes when you’re a new artist and you’re young, you just feel like a pawn in this business and I wasn’t prepared for that. I’d been playing open mic nights and suddenly the label is sending me off to America. But then to come back down to earth with a bump and realise that’s not working - what am I gonna do? I think I had a period of depression and a real period of examining of what I was doing and what I wanted to do. But in retrospect, that was really good for me, actually. If that first album had been a success, it could have been a disaster. I would have been in a box musically. I would have gone a bit bonkers, I think. I think I was prone to that arrogance you have when you’re younger.”
But then, in 2006 aided by an unexpected hit (‘Everybody’s Gone To War’), album number two, Fires, gave listeners a chance to atone. Did a little piece of you dare to think this one might just break through? “No - because I didn’t record it with the backing of a major label. I recorded it piecemeal. My publisher helped me out a little bit but I had to finance it by begging, stealing and borrowing. So, no, it never did feel like it was all going to work, that it had been ordained by the heavens. But I remember writing ‘Everybody’s Gone To War’ and I’d never written anything like it. It just tumbled out of me and everybody I played that song to, without question, loved it. Which was quite unusual.” They knew you had a hit. “Yeah, exactly. And I knew when I’d finished it. I felt weird. I was really upset about the war because I had friends serving as well as the whole nature of that war, anyway. When I was a kid... do you remember Threads?” The TV drama? The aftermath of nuclear war thing? “Yeah. I remember watching that – I think my parents must have been out or someone just let me stay up and watch it. It traumatised me for the rest of my childhood.” You’re not alone. “Yeah... Well I grew up in Jersey, which was the only part of the UK that was occupied during World War II, so I was always very aware of war. But for some reason, anything like that puts the fear of God into me. Yeah... so that’s how that came about. But I didn’t suddenly think ‘Ooh, I’m gonna be on Top of the Pops!'"
It's difficult to imagine how painful it must have been to make a record, have to finish it with your own cash and then have to jump through hoops to try to get it to the audience it deserves. “Well, it was a real struggle to get Fires out again.” (It took a major label re-release, after an initial self-funded release, to spur its eventual 100,000-plus UK sales.) “I’d made it, nobody wanted to know but my agent was amazing and got me loads of tours. And I was touring based on how many CDs I could sell a night. I was driving around the country on my own in my Beetle, hoping that the sound people at the venues would just do the sound for me. And people were incredibly kind. I just remember that year before Warners finally picked it up as full of strangers just being kind to me, letting me stay at their place.”
You’ve been in the business long enough to now see how things have changed. It’s almost like music is a different media. New young artists now, even if they’re truly gifted, seem to have to work so hard to maintain it, stay in place. “Mmm, I think that’s true at any level. People like, say, Lady Gaga work intensely but people like that don’t need to work financially, so I think maybe it’s to do with character. Plus there’s nothing wrong with hard work. I’ve done long hours doing some really shit jobs so this isn’t really a job to me.” But you see acts appear, flare and disappear. Surely there’s a way, a formula, to make it happen on some level, whether you’re a genius or not? “Oh, I think it’s love! Isn’t it? That’s what sorts the wheat from the chaff. For some it’s not a labour of love, it’s a love of limos. If it doesn’t happen straight away, they’ll go and work in a hedge fund. There are tons of talented people, far more talented than I’ll ever be, but they fall by the wayside and maybe they just don’t have that passion to stand on stage that I do, so I’m prepared to take what little mainstream success I’ve had and make the most of it. But that’s irrelevant to me, do you know what I mean? I just love playing. The thrill of playing a song... it’s just amazing.”
We talk at length and in depth. She’s not bothered about sticking to my allotted 15 mins if I can cope with her having to mollify a boisterous Wolfie, her young son. (Um, deal.) She’s deeply passionate about the recording process and the 70s US influences (“We were listening to Dusty in Memphis and we ended up recording nearly all of it live, like they were doing back then”) that fired up her last (and best) album, the Bernard Butler-produced Year of the Wolf. Her ambitions remain artistic rather than commercial: “I just want to get better, be a better writer, a better player.” If all goes to plan, her next album will be released in America – a first. And, of course, we talk some more about music. “Seriously, I could just sit and talk and talk about music all day. Easy.” (For the record, all time faves – Steely Dan. Current fave – James Blake.)
And the show? The show, despite those undesirable niggles, is a triumph and a blast. There are direct hits with the ‘old’ stuff (‘Idaho’, ‘Daphne and Apollo’, ‘Damascus’) and there’s love for newer gems like ‘Real Late Starter’ and ‘Put Your Hands Up’. The new EP comes alive in the form of ‘Once’ and the glorious ‘Love is An Unmade Bed’. An uproarious ‘Geek Love’ is a ribald reminder that a posh dress and a grand piano doesn’t necessarily mean Nerina Pallot is ready just yet for polite society. A delicate re-working of CC Peniston’s ‘Finally’ continues a long-standing run of well-judged covers. Between songs she’s hilarious, variously poking fun at the absurdities of modern life and musing on the frustrations afforded by Argos, not having won the lottery yet and disastrous relationships. My notes tell me she got a laugh with a tale about a date with a “golf psychologist’ but your guess is as good as mine on that one. A closing ‘Sophia’, the bone fide second hit from Fires, and the song that cemented her position as one of our most respected songwriters, earns her a loud, extended ovation. It’s all snow, sleet and sludge outside and she offers effusive thanks for braving the roads. Tour done, back to the studio, where album number five is gradually coming together. On that note, I ask one last daft question. Her answer gives it a dignity it really doesn’t deserve. “When it’s ready...”