Holiday Destination is easily one of the best AND most important records of the year. Her third album, the dark, brooding yet grooving post-punk of Holiday Destination mainly focuses on the plight of refugees, but still talks about mental health issues that heavily informed her debut album, Love Your Dum and Mad. With a band that also features her producer Ben Hillier, their potent muscularity is allied to an intelligent and humane lyricism, with Shah’s – who is of both Norwegian and Pakistani heritage – formidable presence giving it her all.
Holiday Destination is your most political record to date.
It’s the most overtly political record I’ve made to date. The first album touched upon a political approach. I was speaking about the stigma towards those who suffer from mental illness. The second was mainly indulgent about my own rubbish love life, but also touching on parts of mental health as well. This record is mainly about other people and not myself. Everything we’ve seen on the news these past two years, every harrowing image – especially the refugee crisis, and I’m talking mainly about Syria but also others countries like Eritrea and Afghanistan, that is the theme of the album. It’s hoping to play some part in the humanising of these people, by telling their stories.
You call yourself a ‘second generation immigrant’.
It has informed my songwriting, but it was never actually a label I gave myself. Initially it was a label I was given by other people, and mainly negatively. I’ve just embraced it now. There are hundreds of thousands of second generation immigrants like myself who, at present and maybe previously also, come to this kind of identity crisis, especially in the current climate where there has been this disgusting rise in nationalism. Where you’ll get this ridiculous phrase bandied about, ‘Go back to where you come from’. I’m sure when that is said to me, people mean Pakistan. I don’t speak fluent Urdu. I’m completely westernised. I was born in England, and I’m very much English. So, I think there are a lot of people like myself who have this identity crisis at present.
Can you tell me about the song ‘Holiday Destination’ itself?
It was a news piece I’d seen on television, when it was front page news, about the thousands of refugees who had made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. On this news piece some holiday makers were interviewed, and one couple said, ‘This is ruining our holiday’. Which, to an extent, I understand. Nobody wants to go away for a respite and see these harrowing images, and things right in front of them. But, at the same time, it really shocked me. Apart from the complete lack of empathy, it was the fact they were so unashamedly saying this on national television. That’s what we are seeing a lot of at the minute, a real decline in empathy. ‘I’m alright, Jack’.
Have you noticed a change in the climate these last few years?
Yes, I have noticed. Whether it was always present or it’s a new thing, I don’t know. But the ones who hate the most are the ones who are shouting the loudest. Almost in an environment where we are allowing them to. Some of the front page news has some of the most disgusting rhetoric on it, these right wing papers essentially. Some of the rhetoric is pure evil. If you see that on a national newspaper it almost tells you it’s OK to speak like this. So yeah, I’m hearing a lot more racism, seeing a lot more racism as well. It’s pretty terrifying. It’s not just in the UK. What’s happening in America at the minute, it’s terrifying.
How about London, a place you have lived these last 16 years?
Not so much in London. Although I do remember after the Brexit vote, my local Polish delicatessen was heavily grafted. Instances like that, and things I’ve read about, people being pushed on to train tracks.
Why did you decide to move to London in the first place?
London just had more stuff to do. Actually, Newcastle has changed so much now I’d probably quite happily move back there now. At that time if you wanted Indian food, you’d go to this restaurant, if you wanted Japanese, well there wasn’t one. I like having a variety, and I like being anonymous. There’s a quite famous independent cinema in Newcastle I used to go to all the time. I was getting a bit tired of being on first name terms with everybody! London gave me thai space where I coud be completely anonymous, and have this huge choice and variety around me. And there are people from all around the world here.
Your brother is a film maker for Al-Jazeera. Did that link help to give you more insight?
We just played this album launch at Rough Trade East, and my brother was there in the audience. I gave him a shout out during the show. I thanked him. Because he has been super inspiring. he’s always made me very very aware of things going on around the world, that maybe aren’t front page news. He’s a real philanthropist
You re-recorded ‘Holiday Destination’ for a Syrian refugee children’s medical charity?
It’s pretty much the same, but it’s a live version. My band are pretty tight! I wanted to work with the charity called Inara. A friend of mine, a documentary film maker, and a friend of his, were working with them, who provide medical assistance to children who have become victims of civil war. Probably the biggest travesty about any war is that children are always caught up in it, and they are completely innocent. If I had thousands and thousands of pounds I would donate it in a second. Unfortunately I don’t, but what I can donate is my time, and talk about this amazing organisation.
Tell me about your relationship with producer Ben Hillier…
Funny you should mention his name, but I’ve just bumped into him in Kings Cross. I was going to say really bad things about him…
I think it’s a case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! We’ve been working together for about ten years. I think I realised when I was looking for a producer, never mind the technical ability, but the fact you’re going to be spending so much time in tiny rooms with this person that it has to be someone who is on the exact same wavelength. I think we were both a little out of our comfort zones on the first album. Ben is actually a complete collaborator, he’s a co-writer as well, and playing drums in the band on stage. There’s a 50-50 input between the two of us. He’s right here, so I can’t say too many nice things!
There’s such a strong post-punk sound and feel about your music. Can you tell me about the influences that inform this record?
I was actually brought up on Motown records, and these girl bands, like The Shirelles, and The Crystals, and The Shangri-Las. My father listened to a lot of Pakistani music, which I didn’t like at the time, but which I now love. We take inspiration from everywhere. On this record you can hear what Ben was listening to, and his influence on it. More than ever before. You can hear he is a fan of Fela Kuti and Talking Heads. When we made the record we wanted to make it upbeat and energetic, even though it is very political. We didn’t want it to be dour, and negative. When we play now, perhaps we may be preaching to the converted, and being in some kind of echo chamber, but what we’re seeing – which is really beautiful – for that one hour we are playing – everybody in that room is completely united by similar opinions. It helps to re-charge your batteries. And for that tiny amount of time, and this sounds cheesy, it restores your faith in justice. So, I’m quite hopeful.
When I spoke to you once before you claimed not be be very proficient at playing guitar or keyboards, but that you did write songs that way. Have you got better?!
You know what? Most of my favourite musicians were not that great! I’ve realised it’s not that important. I’ve never been a big fan of noodling. I play guitar a lot more now, and on this album I start each song on guitar rather than piano. I think I’m getting better. I’ve got calluses on my fingers now!
Do you play on stage?
If I can help it, no. I’d much rather not, because I can then properly focus on a performance. This record is so much more energetic than the previous one I’m actually wanting to dance. Previously I’ve been quite static, either behind a keyboard or a guitar. I enjoy having some freedom on stage; I can properly give the songs some justice. And I’ve got people on stage with me who can play much better than I can.