Nerina Pallot - The Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, Cornwall.
15th May 2013.
Ditch the life plan and the relationship ‘check list’, says singer-songwriter Nerina Pallot, who met her future husband on a whim and agreed to marry him on their first date. Their life together has inspired her latest album
'I was an atrocious girlfriend when I was with the wrong man. It's about timing,' says Nerina
Nerina Pallot arrives at our interview wearing a vintage 1950s dress in ‘yellow brick road’ gingham and a pair of high-heeled Vivienne Westwood shoes emblazoned with big ruby-red hearts. Everything about Nerina – from her looks (Dorothy crossed with Snow White) to the beautiful uplifting songs on her new album Year of the Wolf – is touched with the magic of an old-fashioned fairy tale.
At 36, the classically trained musician and singer-songwriter (with writing credits for other artists including Kylie Minogue – whom she ‘adores’ – and Diana Vickers) has reached a moment in her career and private life where all her dreams have come true. Because although she has been regarded as a major talent for the past decade it is only now, with her critically acclaimed fourth album, that music industry insiders are suggesting she is on the point of achieving major international stardom. When asked what has prompted this change in her life, she grins and points to her shoes with their big ruby hearts.
‘My husband. He bought me these shoes for Christmas. I can’t believe that I’m married to a man who could have chosen these…but then, I can’t believe that I’m married. Five years ago I had kissed so many frogs that my cousin and I decided to live together and renounce men. We were on the point of adopting a dog and a cat and settling down like spinsters in a 19th-century novel,’ she says (she recently completed a degree in English literature at Birkbeck College, University of London).
Nerina’s love story with Andy, the man who bought those shoes, is as enchanted – and enchanting – as anything that could have come from fiction (19th-century literary, fairy tale or even Mills & Boon). Nerina grew up on the Channel Island of Jersey – her father was a Jersey man; her mother was born in India of dual German and Indian heritage – and only moved to the mainland at 16 when she went to Wellington College with a music scholarship and the idea of becoming a classical pianist. After A-levels, by now more interested in pop, she began the slow but steady process of establishing herself as a session musician and, eventually, a successful singer-songwriter.
‘Jersey is a very small place – the population is only about 80,000 – and about four years ago one of the musicians I was working with kept talking about this friend of his called Andrew Chatterley, a successful Grammy-nominated producer, who had also grown up on Jersey. He said we should meet and that he would give Andrew my email address, but I didn’t think anything of it.’
Nerina on stage in London in April; with husband Andrew at the Brit Awards, 14 February 2007, their wedding day (Nerina was nominated in the best female artist category)
One snowy day in December 2006 Nerina found herself stranded at Edinburgh airport and noticed an email in her mailbox from Andrew. ‘I probably wouldn’t have opened it if I hadn’t been stuck at
the airport – I was very busy at the time, and in spinster mode. I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend and
I certainly wasn’t looking to get married. But I saw it and I thought, “Well, I’ll just Google him and see what he looks like,” which was really awful and shallow of me. I looked on his Myspace page and thought, “He’s handsome” – so I replied,’ she says with another grin.
For the next month they conducted a ‘formal’ internet courtship (‘he wooed me with words,’ she says), establishing the fact that, although they had no memory of it, their early lives had been intertwined. They had attended the same infant school – she now thinks they played together at kindergarten when she was three and he was five – and as a teenager Nerina had gone out with several boys from Andrew’s year at school, and had even attended a performance of his teen band.
Finally, they arranged to meet as adults for the first time (Nerina says the word ‘date’ was never mentioned) and the moment that she saw him – standing outside Wapping station in East London – she had a ‘weird’ thought that ‘that’s the man I am going to marry’. Much later, Andrew would confess that he had experienced a similar premonition a few months previously, when he had seen Nerina being interviewed on television by Russell Brand.
‘We went to the Prospect of Whitby pub and I had a port and lemon and we just kept chatting to each other and after half an hour he said, “Look, this sounds completely mad and you’re probably going to bolt for the door, but I really think we should get married. I think you are the one for me.” And I just said, “Yes, let’s do it,” and six weeks later, on Valentine’s Day 2007, we did,’ she says.
Nerina has a number of theories about the reason why – at 31 – she would suddenly be smitten by ‘love at first sight’ (something she had never believed in previously). She thinks that their shared, but forgotten, history and their ‘common points of reference’ played a part, as did their mutual success in the music industry. But she thinks that most successful romances are about timing. When she says that she is ‘very lucky in that I married a very good man, a decent man,’ I suggest that – from my observation – the problem so many modern single women have is that they are drawn to bad boys, not ‘good’ or ‘decent’ men.
'I love performing … I want to be 95 doing my one-woman review,' says Nerina
‘Well, that’s just it. In our teens and 20s we are attracted to bad boys – it was certainly true
for me. I think it’s probably the same with young men, too – they are drawn to the wrong women. Looking back, I was an atrocious girlfriend when I was with the wrong man. It’s about timing – I think that even a very bad boy will turn into a decent man when he meets the right woman. And vice versa.’
Nerina’s advice to women who are still ‘kissing frogs’ is to accept that love is spontaneous, and that nowadays women in their 20s and early 30s have too many plans and blueprints for their lives. ‘I think a lot of women miss out on great experiences because something – a career move, or a man – doesn’t fit in with the plan of their life that they have in their head. Life is never going to be how you think or plan it, and how boring would it be if everything did turn out as you planned? You would miss so many joyful things on the way. Live your life, make mistakes, have fun,’ she says.
Last September Nerina announced via Twitter, ‘Andy Chatterley and I are proud to present our finest song. Our son, Wolfie, born this morning.’ Her pregnancy and the birth of Wolfie (full name Wolfgang Amadeus Chatterley) was the inspiration behind her new album, and its predicted success is, she thinks, again down to timing. Motherhood has changed her perspective on life and she believes the songs on Year of the Wolf could not have been written had she not ‘been pregnant and had a child’. Nerina talks movingly of one track, ‘History Boys’, that was inspired by her reaction, while pregnant, to television news footage of repatriated fallen soldiers being honoured in Wootton Bassett. ‘I saw the mums of those soldiers watching the procession of coffins and my stomach lurched and I couldn’t stop sobbing – I connected to those women in a whole new way. I could physically imagine them holding those boys – some of them were only 17 – as babies,’ she says.
Andy (who is now Nerina’s manager as well as being a successful producer, songwriter and keyboard player who has worked with Kanye West, the Pussycat Dolls and collaborated with Nerina on songs for Kylie) is, she says, a true Jersey man like her father. And although they are happily settled in North London, they return to Jersey frequently and dream that one day – when they have more children – they might base themselves on the island.
Nerina’s parents emigrated to Australia when she was a teenager (she has a sister who works as a matron at an Australian boarding school) but they keep in constant contact through Skype – so that they have been able to share landmark moments, from Wolfie’s first tooth to him learning to crawl. But while happy and fulfilled as a wife and mother, Nerina is still relishing her career and, although having a baby has limited her ability to tour, she never wants to stop writing and performing.
‘The buzz about my new album is fantastic – I would be lying if I said that I wouldn’t love to have massive worldwide success for a year or two. I would love that. But I would be quite happy to just steadily make my way in my career – to me it’s not about short-term success, it’s about a marathon. I love performing. I want to die on stage. I want to be 95 doing my one-woman review and keel over in the middle of it!’ she says.
Nerina’s latest single ‘Turn Me on Again’ will be out on 22 August. The album Year of the Wolf is out now
PALLOT TALK: NERINA’S GUIDE TO KEEPING YOUR PASSION ALIVE
Favourite app Rather tragically, it’s Peppa Pig, because it calms Wolfie down when he gets cranky. He loves the music and touches the screen with his fat little fingers and makes pig noises.
Current listening Mostly it’s songs that keep me going in the gym, but that’s not for pleasure. For that I’m turning to Paul Simon, old stuff, and Friendly Fires — a band I really like now.
Musical inspiration Kate Bush and Elton John.
Clothes shop Beyond Retro (they have shops in London and Brighton) — I bought my Dorothy dress there for £20.
Favourite Accessories My wedding ring; I don’t need anything else.
Kindle Just finished Bossypants, Tina Fey’s autobiography, which is cry-out-loud funny.
Style Icon Jane Fonda circa mid-1970s.
Make-up My magic wand, YSL Touche Eclat.
TV 30 Rock.
Saving up for My own Caribbean island.
It’s not everyday you meet someone as comfortable discussing the merits of postcolonial literature as they are in championing their admiration for peak-PWL period Kylie Minogue, but then it’s not everyday a talent as genuine and uncompromised as Nerina Pallot emerges from the sea of production line pop.
Attentive students of the airwaves will already know Nerina’s name from her on-off flirtations with the charts over the past decade or more recently her songwriting credits for the likes of Miss Minogue. But that’s only part of the story – as her new album ‘The Year Of The Wolf’ resolutely displays.
Produced entirely with Britpop guitar legend Bernard Butler, ‘The Year Of The Wolf’ is, simply put, the accumulation of Nerina’s talents honed over the years. It runs the gamut of Nerina’s love of euphoric pop songs with big heart-bursting choruses like lead single Put Your Hands Up to sweeping, classical rhapsodies like History Boys - bridging the gap between pop and art that has often confounded her audience.
“The thing is, they’re all me equally,” says Nerina. “I don’t understand people who are snobby about pop – I know how hard it is to write a good pop song. Just listen to the backing vocals on any Abba record – they’re so intricate and amazing. That’s great pop.”
Typically for Nerina, the perky pop-rush of Put Your Hands Up contrasts with its lyrical inspiration. “I’d just read ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ the prequel to Jane Eyre. It’s mental – all voodoo and obsessive love and I wanted to write a song about that. Because I hate all the Brontë and Jane Austen stuff – I wish women would stop reading that shit. Mr Darcy isn’t going to turn up on a fucking horse and save you.”
Working with Butler tore up the rulebook for Nerina, “I’d always admired Bernard. I loved ‘The Sound of McAlmont & Butler,’”says Nerina. “Before I started this album I really thought about what was missing from stuff I’ve done before. I’ve never paid enough attention to groove – I realised that during working on the Kylie album. And I was missing guitar. Bernard helped bring all that back.”
And how. Turn Me On Again zips along with heady va-va-voom (“People over-intellectualise pop sometimes – good pop should be three and half minutes about sex really” she succinctly states) while the autobiographical I Think deftly manages to combine military drums and schoolyard chants with a snappy chorus of ‘don’t give me your shit’, delivered with such charm that you can’t help fall under its spell.
Nerina’s love affair with music all began when her parents brought home a piano they’d bought at an auction for £30. By the time she was 13 she was writing her own songs, influenced by her early idols Kate Bush and Elton John. But being a teenager in Jersey in the 90s was million miles away from the music business. She’d send demo tapes off to London and her heart would sink when they’d be sent back. She’d watch local bands “and think ‘I could do that’ but I was wearing braces and I was a girl and I knew they’d never let me join.”
Encouraged by her mum who had been a jazz singer in the 70s (“pretty unusual coming from an Asian background – she used sing to Astrud Gilberto and Shirley Bassey songs and wear a sari, that was her schtick”) Nerina earnt a music scholarship, left Jersey and was on her way.
Nerina’s story is either a testament to the tenacity and self-belief it takes to make it in the business or simply the only option available (“I was a bit rubbish at everything else” she shrugs). Either way, by her 20s Nerina had signed a major label deal and released her debut album ‘Dear Frustrated Superstar,’ which despite glowing reviews failed to set the charts alight. Nerina continued to juggle ‘soul-destroying’ jobs, bouts of depression and all-night writing sessions in the years that followed, eventually re-mortgaging her flat to finance her second album ‘Fires’. It paid off – denting the airplay charts and shifting over 10,000 copies, despite being on her own indie label (Nerina credits reading the KLF’s tongue-in-cheek music biz guide ‘The Manual’ for that) before being picked up by Warners and gatecrashing the top 20 with ‘Everybody’s Gone To War.’
Nerina’s recent successful foray into songwriter for hire is, she reckons, more a happy stroke of luck than any grand masterplan. “Her A&R liked a song I’d recorded and said he wanted it for Kylie. Months later Kylie turned up at our studio in the shittiest part of North London and we started doing songs for her ‘Aphrodite’ album. I didn’t tell her I had all her old records, it might seem a bit stalkerish.”
Although she won’t admit it (most people would have given up and gone home”) it seems fair to say that Nerina is now a particular high-point in her life and career. Her personal life took an expected turn a few years back, when she met her future husband (record producer Andy Chatterley, now father of her newborn son, Wolfgang) after he contacted her through a mutual friend after seeing her on TV. “Yes I know it sound bonkers, but when first I saw him at Wapping tube station I immediately thought ‘I’m going to marry this man.’ Half an hour later we were in the pub and he proposed to me. The wedding was six weeks later on Valentine’s Day.”
Much of ‘The Year Of The Wolf’ was written and recorded during her pregnancy last year and although she doesn’t like to go on about it (“a lot of women act like they’re the first person to ever have a baby and it’s so boring”) it certainly seems to have brought her creativity to a whole new level. The haunting History Boys in particular has an emotional depth only hinted at in her previous work.
“Actually I had just found out I was pregnant when I wrote that, and I was certain I was going to have a son. The same week Tony Blair was back at the Chilcot Inquiry and they showed all these women on TV who had lost their sons in the war. There was this overwhelming sense of empathy I had, and I couldn’t stop sobbing. I think I wrote that at about 3 in the morning. That song means a lot to me.”
Now having quietly built up a loyal fanbase and respect from her peers (she’s earnt both Ivor Novello and Brit nods) as well as travelled some of the more bizarre byways being a sometimes pop-star offers (including admitting her love for eating cat food to Russell Brand on live telly) Nerina is now signed to major label Geffen with the best album of her career up her sleeve. It looks like 2011 is going to be a good year.
“Well, I hope people like it,” she smiles. “You make a record to the best of your ability, but the truth is you don’t know whether it’s going to be number 1 or number 100 – nobody knows. And you can’t think about that, you just have to make the music as honest and real as you can.
‘Put Your Hands Up’ is released on 22 May
‘The Year Of The Wolf’ is released on 30 May