Don’t get Nerina Pallot started. The self-confessed “grumpy bugger”, voracious reader and voracious writer – and very occasionally voracious drinker – will tell you like it is. Albeit with some wit, a ready smile and not a little panache.
The singer-songwriter on writing for the likes of Kylie Minogue and a fistful of X Factor hopefuls: “I can’t say Kylie wasn’t good money – it was. But I only saw it as a means to an end: funding my own records. But after a while it became so soul-destroying. Not necessarily for me, but because of all these young artists – they’re being filled with all this hope. And you know that unless the second single goes, it’s over for them. I saw that time and time again. I don’t want to be a part of that. It’s grim.”
On co-writing: “I’ll never do it again for love or money. I’m actually really down on people who co-write. A lot of those people have fucked music up the arse.”
On how she was marketed on her first two albums: “Very pop, very mainstream, and it was all about being nice. A journalist said: ‘Her hair is too glossy to take her seriously.’ I hated it at the time but she was right! Although, to be honest, it is nice to see yourself looking pretty.”
On the stuff we’re meant to like: “Breaking Bad? I just couldn’t get Walt becoming a complete arsehole. If you were that sick you’re not going to have the wherewithal to turn yourself into a criminal mastermind. I’m a literalist… The Stone Roses? I only got into that record cause I liked a boy. I spent years pretending I was into it.”
On modern music’s all-conquering godhead: “Taylor Swift could make the greatest fucking record of all time. But it’s too late – she’s TAYLOR.”
And, finally, on her new album: “This is my death and shagging record. That’s all I’ll say.”
Meet Nerina Pallot, a smart artist who talks straight and writes beautifully. Her new album is ‘Stay Lucky’. It’s her sixth, and she’s releasing it at the age of 43. The Jersey-born, London-based musician played her first gig in 1995, which means she’s been doing this for 22 years. Is she bothered about any of those numbers? What do you think?
“I’ve only now just got a handle on my shit. I don’t know why we have this massive issue with age.”
Pallot has now “got a handle on my shit” for a number of reasons. For one thing, she wrote ‘Stay Lucky’, played guitar and piano and synths and percussion on it, produced it, and, after relationships with three different major labels, she’s releasing it on her own label, Idaho Records.
“That’s allowed me to be free,” she notes, stating the happy obvious. “When I think about why I went pop on my third album [2009’s The Graduate] – which was a disaster for me; I lost a lot of fans – it was because my label were breathing down my neck after the second one,” Pallot says of 2005’s Fires. It sold 100,000 copies and earned her Brit and Ivor Novello award nominations. “They were telling me it should have sold ten million, if only it had had a radio single. So what that led to was me trying to do that – and then doing stuff with Kylie.”
Working with her producer husband Andy Chatterley, Pallot wrote two songs, one of them the title track, for Minogue’s 2010 album Aphrodite. She admits that that experience, plus spells writing with Linda Perry (Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful) and Rob Davis (Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head), helped Pallot improve her chorus-writing skills. “But that didn’t translate to a radio single for me. ’Cause my heart wasn’t in it. ’Cause that’s not who I am.”
So, now that she’s free, she can “indulge herself.” This meant a year of EPs, released one a month in 2014 – and it means, further down the line from Stay Lucky, more new songs that are “way more out-there – there’s one that’s a bit Roy Ayers. Actually, that might make this album… But I will only do what I want to do. And as long as I can keep living, I won’t stop.”
‘Stay Lucky’ was recorded over two productive weekends in London’s legendary RAK studios. The speed belies the lovely, unhurried expansiveness of an album that is, truly and deeply, her most personal, most warmly emotional album yet.
Even as she led from the front, it’s also her most collaborative record. Pallot was aided, abetted and enriched by a thrillingly diverse selection of musicians. The players include three members of Michael Kiwanuka’s touring band, Steve Pringle (keyboards), Alex Bonfanti (bass) and Lewis Wright (drums, vibes), with the latter taking time out from his other day-job, as a member of acclaimed young British jazz quartet Empirical. The backing vocalists are Markus Feehily (ex-Westlife) and Rod Thomas (aka Bright Light Bright Light). The bulk of the string arrangements are by Sally Herbert (Florence & The Machine, Bat For Lashes), who’s worked on all of Pallot’s albums. The brass arranger is Noel Langley, probably the most respected British jazz trumpeter and brass arranger, as Radiohead would attest. Finally, Bernard Butler (who co-produced her fourth album ‘Year of the Wolf’) plays guitar on three tracks.
As Pallot notes typically pithily: “I’ve basically made a totally muso record, which is a great or terrible thing depending on how you feel about six-minute songs and sax solos.”
The opening track is ‘Juno’, lovely and swelling and her take on the likes of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ and Little Dragon’s ‘Twice’, “songs that creep up, creep round. They don’t follow simple pop lines.
“One reason it’s called ‘Juno’ is ’cause I was playing a Juno synthesiser,” she begins with typical candour. “But on every record there’s a reference to Greek or Roman mythology. And Juno is the Roman version of Aphrodite. But she’s a bit more kick-arse and vengeful. You don’t mess with Juno! And that resonated with me. As I said before, I’m owning my shit…
“And reading up on the myth and thinking about this idea that women give life – I remember seeing a scan of my son for the first time, and they told me it was a boy. I thought, I’m a chick with a dick, amazing! So that song is about that life force, and sensuality, and desire. God, I sound like a right old pseud.”
The closing track is the high-flying ‘Bird’. It begins “chordally”, she agrees, like one of her musical heroines, Joni Mitchell, before blooming into a gospel-tinged soul belter, complete with nod to Jill Scott.
‘Come Back To Bed’ is, frankly, deeply sexy, a cri de coeur (and possibly other anatomical places) to her husband, while the glorious title track is for their young son. Sonically, ‘Stay Lucky’ speaks to the Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg records (notably the latter’s second album, ‘5.55’, which featured Air) that this quarter-French woman loves so much. Lyrically, it’s a wish for the future, a shaft of positivity beaming out into the world. That, she acknowledges, is why it’s the album title, and why it’s the lead track.
Indeed, for all her forcefully expressed opinions, that sentiment explains why ‘Stay Lucky’ is so intimate.
“You know, last year was such a fucking weird year,” she sighs. “People were dying left, right and centre, the political system was so fucked up…” But rather than rage in the new songs she was writing, she found solace.
Pallot found herself thinking back to reading The Wasteland at uni. Her tutor pointed out that in times of war, “when shit goes down, people are more inclined to get pissed and shag than they are to take to the streets,” she relates, possibly paraphrasing. “Because you just want to anaesthetise yourself. So that’s kind of my feel.”
Hence the creation of ‘Man Didn’t Walk On The Moon’ which is, simply and sublimely, a soulful reboot of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams (“That’s what everyone says!” she laughs. “But I was trying to do Steely Dan’s Do It Again!”), and of ‘Heart Is A Lonely Hunter’. Named after Carson McCullers’ 1940 debut novel, the latter is perfectly poised, wee-hours, up-close, spellbinding jazz. Pallot wants these elegant, heartfelt, soul-deep songs to be a “balm”, to soothe.
“But not in a Coldplay, stare-into-the-middle-distance way!” she clarifies, laughing again. “’Cause those are the horriblest, c*ntiest songs ever. Maybe I’m being a bit unfair,” she muses – although Pallot knows in her heart (which is where she knows everything) that she’s not.
“What’s interesting is I’ve never made a less political record. I’ve never made a record that is so basically about one thing. I know lots of artists say this, but this is the record that truly means the most to me. There’s not a word or rhyme that I’ve compromised on. There’s no point where I go ‘that’ll do’. And I’ve definitely done that on previous records.
“But, you know,” she shrugs happily, “all my records have done what they deserved to do. I didn’t make Back To Black the year Amy Winehouse made it. I made a very decent record that wasn’t embarrassing, and it was nice to be in the same category as her at the Brits that year. But I didn’t make a record as amazing as she did, and she deserved the success.”
In the end, ‘Stay Lucky’ is the gorgeous culmination of those years, those records, those experiences – even the time Joe McElderry did one of her songs (“To be fair, it was a cover, not a co-write, and he’s a very nice chap”). Nerina Pallot wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I feel like I’ve got the best career ’cause I’ve never had enough success for it to be demanded that I do the same thing over and over again. I would go completely mental having to do the same successful record again! I’d never be able to move on. I like so much music, and I love new music. Last year it was the BadBadNotGood record – I was just relieved that fusion is allowed now – I was a massive fusion fan as a teenager. And also Thundercat – I’m like, great, we can have sax solos again! Which is why a sax solo is the last thing I have to add to Stay Lucky before it’s totally done…”
No, do get Nerina Pallot started. If you do, you’re in for something wonderful.