Nerina's compass

Nerina Pallot has made a warm and confident debut album, she got there via a squat in Peckham and a boarding-school from hell
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Female singer-songwriters: ah yes, we know about them. In the current climate, it seems there's one along every three months or so: Billie Myers (what happened to her?), Shea Seger, Nikka Costa and the upcoming Tupperware, or is it Peppercorn? They burst upon our consciousness and then slowly fade away, but Nerina Pallot (rhymes with "fallow") is determined that's not going to happen to her. She dismisses the notion like a rabid dog because she hopes that she's better than that. She talks about the music and the career speaking for itself, cites Patti Smith and PJ Harvey, though her influences range from Joni to Dylan, Rickie Lee Jones to Steely Dan.

Her debut album, Dear Frustrated Superstar, while not quite up to those stellar standards, is a winsome thing with a full, lush sound – a bit jazzy, a bit folky, and hugely American in its warmth and confidence (but then, it was produced by LA studio kingpin Bob Clearmountain). The lyrics are knowing and assured, a good reflection of Pallot. And truly, her life is currently going so well, it's difficult not to punch her. She's just 26, with an exotic family history and the looks to go with it, she has a loving boyfriend and musical partner, and a public school background which gives her an articulate, classy drawl tempered with the usual estuary consonants.

Pallot's mother was born in Allahabad, India and got shipped over to London with her dowager great-aunt Violet. Pallot's mum, a singer, met her half-French dad while on tour in Jersey, which is where our heroine grew up. It wasn't a particularly happening place. Though Nerina was musical, learning piano from the age of four, the only gigs to visit were the Black and White Minstrels seaside show and the Nolans. A music scholarship to a Berkshire boarding school, where there were 800 boys and 50 girls, remains a grim memory – "eggs thrown at you, being called a whore every morning". Is this true? Pallot almost bridles. "If I'd kept my head down I'd probably have been fine, but I can't bear that arrogance you get with kids who have everything handed to them on a plate – all right, I was there, but my parents worked their arses off. On top of that, the bullying. They couldn't stand me to have an opinion."

Did any of these boys turn out to achieve anything? "Oh, they'll go on to be orthopaedic surgeons and stockbrokers, playing out their God fantasy." A dismissive wave of the hand. "Girls don't talk about it because they think 'the boys will like me more if I just take it'. It's like – what's the opposite of emasculation, the female version? It's that, but subtly done."

A demo tape made at school got Pallot an agent. At 19, she went to art college, but still concentrated on music. Bit between her teeth, she even got herself briefly into a south London reggae band: "I went to Leicester Square to see the buskers. There was that Afro-jazz explosion – who was that guy? Anyway, he wasn't there, but there were these guys vibeing and I went over and said, 'I'm a musician, can I hang out with you?' And then we all ended up in a squat in Peckham, rehearsing." Er, you were lucky you got out again. "Yes. But when I started chatting to them, I was probably also very stoned." True to her philosophy, however, she has never been one to pass up a contact, which is how she later got to know jazzer Jason Rebello, with whom she's written.

In the years that followed, she briefly had a development deal at EMI, she wrote advertising jingles, she nannied and also made curtains. She also hit rock bottom creatively. Thus, when a friend called and said Mute Records publishing department were looking for a secretary, she took the job. "And it was the best job I've ever had. It was when I woke up again and got my life back." Partly responsible for this was her boss, Andrew King, ex-manager of Ian Dury and The Clash, among others. He didn't sign her, he just encouraged her, and she'd go home at night and write with renewed vigour. She sacked her manager: "I'd had crap manager after crap manager. I just needed the right tape, and during my time at Mute I made it."

That tape got her the current deal at Polydor, which left her alone for a year to record. It was her choice to work with Clearmountain, whose work she'd always idolised, and she tells me in detail how the disc was mixed on analogue to get its "fat" sound. Those years of musical training clearly paid off. "You can't be taught to songwrite. But you can be given the tools. Like one of the songs on the album, "My Last Tango", I wanted it to be a Nelson Riddle number, and I knew how to do it; I don't need an arranger."

If drive is what it takes, Pallot has it by the bucket. So what would she like to be doing next year? "I'm not a half-full person; I have a half-empty bent in me. But I'm goading myself into being positive. I'd like to be breaking America. I love touring, and if you want to break America, you'd better. And that means the mid-west, not just New York and LA. In Jersey, we may as well have been off the map. Oh, I'm gonna crusade for the provinces!"

Nerina Pallot's single, 'Patience', is out now; the album 'Dear Frustrated Superstar' is released on 20 August

Comments