INTERVIEW: Nerina Pallot on her brilliantly diverse seventh album, 'I Don’t Know What I’m Doing'

Nerina Pallot
Credit: Tommy Reynolds

Nerina Pallot has recently released her brilliantly diverse seventh album, 'I Don't Know What I'm Doing.' It pulls from many genres, including soul, jazz, blues and pop. XS Noize chatted with Nerina about her new release, THAT cover version, working with Kylie and her bittersweet relationship with Australia.

Congrats on the new album, 'I Don't Know What I'm Doing.' It's brilliant and very diverse. How has it been received so far?

Nerina: It's been so positive. Whenever I put out a record, I'm terrified! Less terrified about press reviews and more terrified about fan reviews. It is a diverse record, and it is quite different from the previous record ('Stay Lucky', 2017), which I know fans really loved, but actually, in some ways it's been more positively received than the previous one.

'Cold Places' opens the album beautifully. You wrote this one walking beside a freezing River Thames. Are there certain places that light the creative fire in you more than others?

Nerina: So, in between this album and the last album, I left London. We are now about 45 or 50 miles from London, but it's very rural where I live now. We are in the Thames Valley, and it's just so beautiful here. This part of the Thames is not tidal, so it's the quintessential, picture-postcard English countryside setting. It's near the foothills of the Chilterns, with its chalk cliffs. Unless you're a local, you don't go there. On a cold day, when it's been snowing, it's just like being in Scandinavia. I found that to be an inspiring walk. I'm not someone who keeps a notebook or has a special place to write words. I'm disorganised in that sense, but I find location inspiring, even if I don't write the words in that particular place. I am definitely someone who is stimulated by their geographic surroundings.

One of my favourite songs on the album is 'Only the Old Songs'. It's full of nostalgia but with substance. What came first on that one, the piano melody or the words?

Nerina: That was all at the same time. That was a super-fast write, done and dusted in about 20 minutes, the whole lot. Although, I knew what I wanted to do with it. I'd been listening to a lot of old-school LPs.

I could hear a bit of 'Your Song' or 'Tiny Dancer' in there.

Nerina: I love that era of Elton John, and I love what he did with the piano. I think he was the first person who took piano and made that mix of blues and classical sensibilities. It's very much a homage. There's nothing remotely modern about that song. I specifically opened with the lines of an old folk song - "Bread and roses", which is a poem that's been made into a protest song over the years. The lyrics are very knowing about what they're doing. For example, "I was crying when I wrote this song, don't sue me if I get it wrong" refers to Prince, '1999'. There's also another line later on, "the sound of silence drapes the walls". It's a short song at 3:20, and

I was trying to completely wrap up that world of the music that was getting me through the lockdowns. It's a homage to all the artists I felt saved me. When I was a teenager, I remember going on a school trip to Italy and went to Florence. We went to the Accademia, and they show you Michaelangelo's David, which is amazing. It's almost as if those amazing sculptures were packed away in the rock, and he had to find them. I feel like that when I hear classic songs that I really love, it feels like those songs have always existed, and there was never a world when they weren't there. I think for me as a writer; I'm always striving for that; it's the Holy Grail for me, to come out with something that is beyond me. That song is always there; I may just be the lucky miner that day who found it and brought it back to the world.

Your husband Andy (Chatterley) is a producer and songwriter himself. Does that make the music process for you easier or, at times, more intense?

Nerina: I think it's easier as Andy understands instinctively what I do. We work a lot together; he mixed the album. We haven't written together for quite a while, but we have written and produced for other artists together. He doesn't mind when I go into album-making mode. For the period when I am making an album, I can't think of anything else. I think if I was with someone who didn't understand that, it would be quite alienating. He's sort of a midwife character for me. For the likes of 'Cold Places', I would never have finished it. He really pushed me to finish it because I have spent less time making albums than I have making that one song alone, and I'm really not joking. That song consumed me for about six months. He would walk into the home studio here, and find me with my head on the space bar and my finger on the delete button.

'Alice at the Beach' - unusual title - where did the inspiration come from on that one?

Nerina: That actually came from one of those 'clickbait' stories from the Metro newspaper. A story about a woman called Alice Blaise. She was at the beach in 1965 in a town called Salem, Massachusetts. She saw a kid who was struggling in the water, who was drowning. She jumped in and got the kid; he was four years old or something. She gets him to safety, and they all shake hands; the family are very grateful. Then, ten years later, that little boy is at the same beach actually. He sees a guy who he instinctively knows is struggling in the water. He goes out to help him, gets the guy to shore, the guy thanks him, and they start chatting. It turns out the guy is Alice Blaise's husband. The story is in a book called 'The Most Incredible Stories Ever Told.' It got me thinking about beating those remarkable odds that are against you, and somehow humans prevail, similar to the 'Miracle on the Hudson' (River).

'Master Builder' has elements of the likes of Joni Mitchell about it. Who would be the main inspirations for you on this LP?

Nerina: On that song, I did some liner notes for this album, and you have to be very careful when you talk about things like God and spirituality. For me, writing is a spiritual practice in the sense that it's kind of my therapy, but I feel like there are these universal truths that all the great writers are trying to get at. So, 'Master Builder' is a song about God. It's a song about existence, and why is everything such a mess? I really loved the idea of God, whoever God is, having a really shit day, doing really crap in the world. So, the song is like a statement of the world, but almost like one of those "How you doin' hon?" Facebook posts.

Regarding Joni Mitchell, that's interesting, because most people say Stevie Wonder because of the piano riff. But, that's cool, I'll take that. I am a huge Joni fan, but I came to her a little bit later than a lot of my other influences. I got into her when I was about 16 and then worshipped at the altar of Joni Mitchell. I definitely wanted to model some of my singing on her. I've got five or six artists that I think of as Gods, and she's among them.

I have to ask you about your cover of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. I absolutely love your version. Was it a big song for you growing up?

Nerina: It was one of those songs if you grew up in the '80s; it was constantly on the radio. I wasn't a massive Joy Division fan, but I was a massive New Order fan. My '80s rock thing would have veered more towards The Smiths, a lot more florid, and the lyrics were a huge thing. It popped into my head one day, and I kept listening to it. At the same time, the relationship I was in was falling apart, and suddenly every lyric felt like my existence. Suddenly, the only words that I wanted to sing were 'Love Will Tear Us Apart." So I actually started playing it live a long time ago. I had it in my live set about 15 or 16 years ago. But I knew that it was quite contentious as people feel very strongly about the original. I've also got used to it now, but there's a quiet misogyny about a girl at a piano playing a hallowed Manchester band song. People would say this is a song that shouldn't be covered. People probably thought that it was premeditated and contrived, but it was just genuinely about a time in my life that it suddenly spoke to me in a way that it hadn't done before.

Previously you worked with Kylie, writing and producing 'Aphrodite' and her album's third single 'Better Than Today' a few years back. How did that happen in the first place?

Nerina: I had written 'Better Than Today', and I was going to put it on my third album. My manager at the time happened to be in a meeting with Kylie's A&R guy. My manager said, "She's made a really poppy record, which is quite funny for her." He played the song to him, and he said, "Kylie should do this one. We should put Nerina with Kylie." So it all happened quite quickly. I got a call from Kylie about a week later - "Can I come to your studio and work with you and your husband?" That was great fun. It was quite something to work with her.

Keeping with the Aussie theme, why did you decide to pen a new song for this album called 'Australia'?

Nerina: My Mum, Dad and my baby sister moved to Australia when I was 18. My Mum is originally from India, but they have a lot of family there. They got into their 50s, and they wanted to have a different experience, so I've spent the last 25 years shuttling between the two places. We hadn't seen each other since 2018, and then the pandemic happened, so I ended up going four years when I didn't see them. My sister had her first child also, so I was longing to meet my nephew. We had some sadness in our family, my uncle got really ill, so those last six months were really hard. We just saw each other in May finally. My Dad is 85 and had heart surgery about two weeks before Australia locked down. It was really shit. I started going do-lally. I thought the UK is open; maybe if I bribed someone to get me in...I literally wasn't thinking straight.

You tour the UK this autumn. What are you most looking forward to most about getting on the road, and what are you dreading?

Nerina: I'm just looking forward to playing a lot of the new record. I get the feeling that there is a real fan appetite for this new one. I am on my seventh album, and you don't always get that. Especially after the last few years when it feels like everything has been very internal, it's time to get these songs out now and have a life of their own, which is what they are meant to be.

Is there anything bubbling beyond the horizon of the current album and tour?

Nerina: Definitely! I am going to do an alternative version of the album in the summer; a live/acoustic version, stripped down, recorded in the studio. I am working on new songs and thinking about a side-project. And recently, I got all my rights back for my second album from Warner. It was never put out on vinyl, and it was never put out in America properly. I may do a CD with all of the rarities and demos from the album too.

Do you recall the last album you listened to in its entirety?

Nerina: Yeah, it was on Sunday morning. My son was at a sleepover, and we said, yes, let's have a middle-aged Sunday morning disco (laughing). It was Stevie Wonder's 'Original Musiquarium'. It's fabulous. Everyone should have a copy of it. It's timeless music.

Nerina also recently announced a UK tour taking place in October. Tickets on sale now. Full rundown of dates below:

08th - Cambridge - Storeys Field
09th - Norwich - Epic Studios
10th - Brighton - Komedia Studio Bar
12th - Guildford - Boileroom
13th - London - Lafayette
14th - Manchester - Gorilla
16th - Birmingham - Glee Club
17th - Bath - Komedia
19th - Glasgow - St Lukes
20th - Gateshead -Sage 2
21st - York - NCEM

'I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

'I Don't Know What I'm Doing' Tracklist:
Cold Places
Alice At The Beach
Master Builder
There's a River
Born
I Don't Know What I'm Doing
The Way We Are
Mama
Only The Old Songs
Australia
Don't Dare (Love Is Hell)
Fun

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