Nerina Pallot - A degree of pop success

Nerina Pallot suspended her music career to go to university. Now she's writing for Kylie and her own album is a gem. By Chris Mugan
Click to follow

We are sat in the studio Nerina Pallot shares with husband Andy Chatterley, under a neon pink flamingo, a suitably outré adornment beside the saggy sofas and Abigail's Party bar.

Something familiar about that bird nags me until I finally twig: Chatterley worked with Richard Norris in the electropop outfit The Droyds. Norris formed The Grid with Soft Cell synthmeister Dave Ball. So the flamingo must be ... yes, it is from the video for Ball's eighties classic "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye". This diverting nugget of trivia also acts as a signpost for the solo artist's own direction.

Pallot's third album, The Graduate, is unashamed pop, led by "Real Late Starter", and brightened with the tuneful, Technicolor gaze of Scissor Sisters. There are still nods to sophisticated seventies AOR, notably in the Carole King warmth of "Coming Home", with its breathy vocals and delicate strumming, but throughout there is a shameless devotion to middle-of-the-road pop. This is more apparent now than when Pallot first emerged in 2002 with the patchy debut Dear Frustrated Superstar. Indeed, frustrated with the music industry, she left Polydor to study English Literature with her eye on life as a teacher.

Inspired to write again, the artist remortgaged her flat to finance her second album Fires, a gamble that paid off as the album was widely acclaimed and landed a gold disc. A similar amount of time, though, has passed between Fires and her third record. What stopped Pallot in her tracks this time was marital bliss. It is a peculiar quirk of her biography that she had long-term relationships with the producers of her first two albums and while those records enjoyed mixed fortunes, neither liaison was long-lasting.

Why fall for another producer? "It's an occupational hazard," she says. "People think it's a land of endless parties, but it's not. You're trapped in a studio until four in the morning and you don't meet that many people. And I find it hard to switch off, so I have intense conversations about music all the time. I have to say that with Andrew, we didn't meet through work and only recently started working together. We avoided it for a whole year." So Pallot began The Graduate in other studios, before they found a way of working in different rooms. Chatterley and Pallot are both from Jersey and attended the same primary school. They had a lot in common when they met and it was a whirlwind romance – engaged within half an hour and married six weeks later.

"We lived a mile-and-a-half away from each other but never met. He was in the island's one rock band and I went to see them." However, Pallot was so happy with Chatterley, that she found it impossible to come up with new material and was hit by writer's block. "When I was younger I didn't have much serious angst in my life, but it was the first time I had ever been properly happy. Contented sounds really boring, but it came after a difficult year when, as my record began to do well, my personal life imploded. I wasn't enjoying anything; my whole life was fielding the next disaster."

Keen to follow up on the success of Fires, 14th Floor, the Warners' subsidiary that gave it the release it deserved, hooked her up with some of the hottest names in the business. Last January, Pallot worked with the much-feted Linda Perry, responsible for such career-defining hits as Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" and Pink's "Get The Party Started". "It was very difficult, because she had a vision of what I should be doing and it was just more of the same, but I didn't want to keep making the same record. I realised I had a vision and sound in my head, so thought I'd better do it on my own."

Before she could achieve that, though, Pallot was paired with more songwriters: ex-Mud guitarist Rob Davis, instrumental in both "Groovejet (If This Ain't Love)" for Spiller with Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Kylie's success "Can't Get You Out Of My Head". She also wrote an album of material with veteran Rick Nowels, who has contributed to the careers of Madonna, Dido and, er, Ronan Keating. "I had so much fun and learnt a lot – all those things were preparation for me being able to produce on my own. I was curious, because I heard Rob was awesome to work with. He's making pop in a different way now. Rick and I get on like a house of fire and I really respect him.

"He wrote 'You Get What You Give' for the New Radicals, which was a really important song for me, but I felt inhibited and I'm a people-pleaser. I felt we had to finish a song by the end of the day and I'm not like that. I often start a song and leave it for a good couple of years." In the end, Pallot did indeed go back to jottings she had written in 2006. "Maybe it was the length of time, writing a record, listening to different kinds of music and feeling more like I wanted to make something myself." This was after she returned to uni, this time to successfully complete her degree – a first, no less. She says she had every intention of coming back to music afterwards.

"The last time I was at college I found it really inspiring - and again it worked a treat. Within a month, I wasn't writing hit songs, but I was thinking about words again." Long a voracious reader, the self-proclaimed geek was attracted to American writers. "It can go one of two ways. I find it inspiring, but I also feel I'm never going to do anything ever, because I'm never gonna write like Carver or Vonnegut. But we have to keep working; if we stop describing the world, we stop communicating."

On The Graduate, the opening track "Everything's Illuminated" is a clear nod to the US author Dave Eggers. "I'm lazy, so if I'm stuck for a title, I'll nick it from a book," Pallot laughs, though she admits the inspiration runs deeper. "I was thinking about the opening section of the book, where rabbis are arguing about where we find the God in ourselves. I was brought up a Catholic, being told I was shit and must repent. How can anyone find any joy in themselves then?" Such obvious references remain thin on the ground and Pallot is happier to praise the influence of George Orwell. "I'm sure I've nicked the odd thing, subconsciously, but what impressed me about Orwell was his line 'good prose is like a window pane'."

While tweaking her relationship with literature, Pallot was also reaching an accommodation with her husband. Wednesday night jams developed into more productive work. "We started writing these fun little tracks, an antidote to working on my own; it gave me the confidence to carry on with my record. I'd never concentrated on rhythm before and working with someone that knew so much about beats brought something different." Moreover, she is now writing with Chatterley – not for herself, but for Kylie Minogue. Indeed, the diminutive star has sung in this very studio. Having spurned the help of some of pop's most productive craftspeople, Pallot is taking them on at their own game. The graduate is ready to face the real world once more.

Nerina Pallot's "The Graduate" is out now on Idaho records