Nerina Pallot: ‘I did feel a bit lost’

Nerina Pallot’s seventh album comes with a heavy clue in its title about its tricky gestation. Called I Don’t Know What I’m Doing, it sums up how the 48-year-old felt as she grappled with some profound questions during the Covid lockdowns.

Nerina Pallot. Picture: Tommy Reynolds
Nerina Pallot. Picture: Tommy Reynolds

“I don’t know which bit was causing which, but I just felt like nothing made sense, nothing was straightforward,” the singer-songwriter best known for her top 20 hit Everybody’s Gone To War explains via Zoom. “Also everything felt a bit aimless because I didn’t know when it was going to come out.”

Having started the record before the pandemic, she was deep in the creative process when the country shut down and Britons were forced to stay indoors.

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“I was full steam ahead, I was one of the last people on the Tubes and trains before London locked down commuting in and out, because I’d moved out of London a few years ago; I was trying to do as much recording as I could when things shut down,” she says.

“It was really weird when you’re in the middle of doing something and suddenly it stops, so I did feel a bit lost. When you talked to lots of musicians and creative people, our sector was really badly hammered. As a musician, I thought ‘What happened? All my gigs have gone, who am I, what do I do?’

“So there was that part of it, and also I’ve been doing this for a quite along time now, over 20 years. When I was younger I always thought the grown-ups would be along soon; now I am the grown-up and I’ve not got a clue what I’m doing.”

In trying circumstances, songwriting became a means of figuring out answers to some of the existential questions posed by the pandemic. “The funny thing is I’m still exploring those questions even now, it’s only now that I’m taking stock of it,” she says. “But for me it was just missing humans.

“Yesterday I said goodbye to all my family. My parents and my sister and my baby nephew all live in Australia and we hadn’t seen each other for four years, so we’ve just been together for a bit. We had always felt that geographical distance but during the pandemic actually not being able to see one another, I definitely felt like I had lost a huge part of myself because I hadn’t physically been near my family for four years, and that did bring some soul-searching, who am I, what matters, what is home – home is people as much as it’s geographical, tons of existential stuff. But we all had time, didn’t we?”

She believes it is no coincidence that other societal issues came to the fore during 2020 and 2021. “BLM (Black Lives Matter) was suddenly given a lot more focus than it might have been because people had time to sit down and go, ‘Gosh, this is a huge issue we haven’t had the courage or the time to tackle’,” she says. “There were a lot of things that did seem like they had come out of nowhere and exploded, but actually I think all that was because we had this pause in the craziness of everyday life to think about them more.”

The childhood memories evoked in many of the songs on I Don’t Know What I’m Doing were, she explains, prompted by feelings of nostalgia. “When we had our one-hour of state-sanctioned exercise while everybody was busy partying in Downing Street as we were all being very careful, I just needed to listen to comfort music,” Pallot says. “I wanted to listen to all the records that made me feel safe, that reminded me of being in the back of my mum’s car on the way to school.

“My family loved music. Everyone of my mum’s side of the family is super musical, and they love a sing along. At every family wedding the music is such an important part of it. So I think I retreated to childhood, I guess.

“And I was home-schooling. I was actually really grateful, I only have one child so I think my workload was a lot smaller than some of my friends, but the part of that I enjoyed was just time with my child that I will never get back again, so that was a plus.”

Learning from past mistakes is also a theme on the album. “There are practical mistakes about production or the actual technical aspects of it, and then there’s also mistakes in choices and opportunities taken or not taken,” Pallot says. “That’s that hindsight thing. But then you could argue there are no mistakes, you’re just following a path. Everybody makes choices that they think are right at the time. Maybe I’m a bit philosophical now.”

In the early part of Pallot’s career, the singer was signed to several major labels including Polydor, Warners and Geffen. She’s quick to admit today that she always felt out of place there. “I think I’ve made music that is pop but it’s not super-pop,” she says. “Occasionally I’ve had commercial success but it’s been more by accident than by design, but then...I used to work in the publishing department for Mute, who had people like Nick Cave and their big act was Depeche Mode, that was an independent but again, I don’t make music that naturally lends itself to more leftfield labels.

“So I was one of those artists that occasionally a major can do something with, and I had moments of success commercially that a major label would be happy with, but for the most part I think I’m better off in the situation I’m in now where I have my own label and I licence it through major distribution companies. It’s a much better fit. I’ve always wanted to do my own thing. I have a commercial aspect to my work, and I think major labels would want to exploit that, not in a bad way but they would send me off to work with big-time producers and big songwriters (such as Linda Perry, Rob Davis and Rick Nowels) but it just didn’t fit well with what motivates me to make music which is a very personal, private thing.

“I was lucky I got the exposure, it helped me build a fanbase which has been with me for two decades now, but I think going forward, my situation now is perfect. I make work the way I want to do it when I want to do it how I want to do it. I think for me as a creative person, all I ever wanted is creative freedom.”

The song Alice At The Beach was inspired by the story of Alice Blaise who in 1965 rescued a child from drowning; nine years later that same boy saved the life of her husband on the same beach. Pallot came across the tale while reading ‘weird but true’ stories on the internet. “I just love those stories,” she says. “I must have clicked on a link one day for ‘10 strange stories that you’ll never believe’ and Alice Blaise’s story was one of them. I couldn’t get my head around it. I just thought what are the chances? It makes you think obviously something is going on in the world, it can’t all be random, and I loved the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ when Chesley Sullenberger landed that plane (in 2009). No one had ever done that before or since. you’ve got to wonder, especially now we’ve got a major war on, everybody’s feeling the cost of living, it’s really bleak out there. But there are these moments where actually you think humanity is special, there’s something going on. I don’t really understand it, I don’t even now know what God has to do with it, but there’s something magical, and I think those stories are really important, that was why I needed to put that into the song. What those stories give to you when they read them as clickbait, I wanted someone to get that in a song.”

Another song, Born, commemorates an ex-boyfriend. “He had a really traumatic thing happen and he went through some legal cases and it never got resolved, then eventually it did and people got prosecuted, but by this time it was too late for him and very sadly he died,” Pallot explains. “I felt very angry for a long time about how he got dealt a very bad hand and never lived to see justice done and how a human can disintegrate from traumatic circumstances. He was very smart, handsome, had the whole world at his feet and could have done anything with his life but for traumatic experiences that really set his life off on the wrong path. I didn’t want his life to ever be wasted, that I could make something to honour him and that was something hopefully beautiful in his memory.”

I Don’t Know What I’m Doing is out now. Nerina Pallot plays at NCEM York on October 21. www.nerinapallot.com