Nerina Pallot: Fired up by fame

With her impressive second album and striking looks, songwriter Nerina Pallot is on the cusp of stardom. But as Nick Duerden finds, there are barbs behind the beauty

On a parched expanse of Moroccan desert, Nerina Pallot is walking languidly towards a great ball of billowing fire. In an elegant fuchsia dress and high heels, she is far from appropriately attired, but then this is the video set for her new single, "Sophia", and she needs to look, at the very least, sultrily fetching. There is no narrative thrust to the video as such, the Australian-born director John Hillcoat instead choosing to take her pronunciation of the song's title - "So-fire" - literally. Why else would he be setting everything alight? The director shouts "Cut!", and beckons her over. It is seven o'clock in the morning, and already the sun is scorching.

"OK, this is where things are going to start getting a little... warm," the 45-year-old deadpans. He alerts her to a special-effects man pouring petrol over a small pile of tyres. "I want you to try to walk between the flames as calmly as possible," he says to her. Pallot's response is equally deadpan: "Can I run?"

For the next three days, this half-Indian, half-French, Jersey-raised singer will be based here, just outside Ouarzazate, a remote terracotta town in the heart of the Atlas Mountains that just happens to be a prime location for Hollywood movies. The video's budget (she won't say how much it costs, but does suggest that many zeros are involved) is confirmation that, after half a decade's effort, the 31-year-old's career is finally under way. Fires, her second album, has sold more than 100,000 copies, and her forthcoming autumn tour of the UK has largely sold out.

"Between you and me," she says, between takes, "I'm aghast that I ever got to this position in the first place. But let's face it, it's all bollocks, isn't it? Everything in this industry is. I'm happy to go along with it for the time being, but if you ask me whether my success has brought me any satisfaction, I'd have to tell you that, no, it hasn't. Most of the people selling records these days are shit. If I ever wake up and find myself having become one of them, I'd be waking up in hell."

It is 12 hours earlier, and Pallot is joining me for dinner at Le Berbere Palace, Ouarzazate's most illustrious hotel. She is dressed in white, which offsets her tan and a face dominated by big brown eyes and Audrey Hepburn's cheekbones. She is vigorous company and, within minutes, is laying into everything: the Israel/Lebanon ceasefire, Rupert Murdoch, her next-door neighbours in Brixton.

In a valiant attempt to dismantle such suffocating cynicism, she orders a bottle of white wine to accompany her lamb and prune tagine, and with each slow sip gradually - and mercifully - begins to mellow. Pallot isn't quite as curmudgeonly in the flesh as her printed words would suggest. She is pretentious, yes, but she simply loathes the idea of having to exist in a world where pop stars are mostly "the kind that can't string two syllables together". So keen is the classically trained pianist not to be mistaken for one that she actively, and tirelessly, fights against it.

Five years ago, she released her debut album, Dear Frustrated Superstar and, despite her being infused with the spirits of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, her then-record company Polydor decided to market her the way they would a Pop Idol contestant. She was not happy. "They wanted to slot me alongside someone like Sophie Ellis Bextor," she says, almost shrieking. "Me! Can you imagine! I am not a convincing pop act, and I never will be."

The album promptly sank and within weeks of its release, she was unceremoniously dropped. The next few years would be lean ones. She took a succession of part-time secretarial jobs, moved to Brixton, became depressed and fell heavily into debt, but she couldn't let music go without at least one final fight.

"But it wasn't easy," she says. "I happened to know a really famous singer-songwriter - no, I won't tell you his name, but it was someone who had a lot of clout and a stellar career. I asked him to write a song with me, something I don't normally do because I don't like co-writes, but I was desperate and I needed his help. Anyway, he looked at me like I was an idiot for even asking. That's the industry in a nutshell, if you ask me."

Nevertheless, she ploughed on and, using contacts gleaned from her publishing company, signed up Wendy Melvoin (a former Prince protégée) to co-produce Fires, a project she funded by taking out a second mortgage on her London flat. She then released the album on the internet, and clocked up 10,000 sales before it came to the attention of 14th Floor Records (home to David Gray and Damien Rice), who re-released it with an accompanying promotional push. A beautifully wrought album of Tori Amos-like songs - though she'd hate you for suggesting it, considering all comparisons the very essence of lazy journalism - it received ecstatic reviews and buoyant sales. But Pallot remained ultimately unmoved. "It was nice to go gold, yes, but now I want multi-platinum," she states, fists bunched. "It's irrational, I know, but I'm very competitive. Some people sell 28 million records. Why can't I?"

With a competitive streak as ferocious as hers, I wonder whether she is ever truly content? "I suppose not," she muses. "I wouldn't say I'm overly depressive any more, though I am forever melancholy." But surely the rock on her finger - she is engaged to her album's other producer, Howard Willis - suggests that life is not quite all doom and gloom? "Oh, I'm very happy about that," she assures me. She is laughing now, albeit self-consciously, and calls for more wine. But her PR arrives to tell her that, at 10 o'clock, it's time for bed, and that tomorrow's wake-up call for the video shoot is 3am. She protests, but ultimately concedes and holds her head in mock agony.

"Oh no! I feel I've been grumpy to you all evening, and that's just terrible! Sometimes when I hear myself moaning, I just think, 'Shut up you pretentious cow!' But I really can't help the way I am..." Nevertheless, this beguilingly complicated woman is trying. "Is it too late to apologise and start all over?" she wonders.

Nerina Pallot's single, 'Sophia', and album 'Fires' are out now on 14th Floor Records. Her UK tour starts in October