How Nina Nesbitt fought the pop machine and found herself

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Nina NesbittImage copyright
Wolf James

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Nina Nesbitt “thought her life was over” when she left her record label in 2016

The music industry can be brutally casual sometimes, as Scottish-Swedish songwriter Nina Nesbitt discovered.

Championed by Ed Sheeran and signed by Island Records, her smart, straight-talking lyrics and catchy pop hooks earned her a top 20 album and a dedicated group of fans cringingly dubbed “The Nesbians”.

But two years after her debut album Peroxide, the singer found herself floundering, with little communication from her record label and an album that was ultimately shelved.

In 2016, she took to Facebook to announce she’d quit.

“For the past couple years I’ve felt a lot pressure to have a hit, to sound like other people, to keep it safe, become someone I’m not comfortable being,” she wrote.

“Being told to date the right person, be seen with the right crowd or do something to be in the tabloids is just really insulting.

“Of course I’m ambitious, but I want to have success as ME, not someone I feel pressured into being.”

Taking a step back from the limelight, she found success writing for acts like The Shires and Jessie Ware. But before long Cooking Vinyl, the label that’s home to The Prodigy and Carl Barat, approached her about making a record of her own.

Although the singer said yes, she took her time, wisely figuring that she needed a fresh approach and a new sound before reintroducing herself to the public.

“I mean, nobody was really waiting for a Nina Nesbitt record, so I really had to work hard to be taken seriously again,” she tells the BBC.

Three years on and she’s released her second album – The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change – a pop-infused interrogation of her tumultuous 20s.

“Nesbitt offers blunt songwriting in a genre that far too often deals in vague cliches,” said the Independent’s Roisin O’Connor in a four-star review.

With the album entering the UK chart at number 21, the singer told the BBC about the stories behind the songs, and how streaming saved her career.

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Getty Images

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She says her album is about “life in your early 20s and all the weird things you go through”

Your album had a million streams in a single day and your face is on a billboard in Times Square. I assume you’re having a good week?

A great week. It’s crazy. There’s been a lot of streams but people actually going out and buying the vinyl, too, which is really cool.

Streaming seems to have been a big part of your comeback.

Yeah, it’s mad. We’re doing an Australian headline tour that’s literally off the back of streaming. Radio stations out there are only just starting to pick the music up, so that’s all down to streaming.

Taylor Swift put one of your songs [The Best You Had] on her new music playlist. Did that boost your profile?

Massively. That was so cool, because she was the reason I picked up a guitar when I was 15. It was so surreal and it really meant a lot as an indie artist. It’s not like she was told to put it on her playlist because we’re on the same label, do you know what I mean? She just genuinely liked the song.

The album emerged from a pretty dark period in your life – does the success feel like a vindication?

Yeah, definitely. When I started writing it three years ago, I’d just been dropped by a label and I thought my life was over.

My career is my whole life, so if I’m not happy with that, it affects everything else. But something I learned is that everyone has a time and a place in the music industry, and it’s not always the right time for you. This album almost feels like a debut all over again.

What do you wish you’d known first time around?

I’ve learned a lot about being in control of your career – and that being positive and believing in yourself goes a very long way. And creatively, the music needs to sound like it’s come from you, not someone else who’s choosing the songs for you.

You’ve written a lot of material to get here. I noticed your publisher had registered 249 songs under your name.

Oh wow, I didn’t know that. That’s a lot of songs.

Some of the titles are great. There’s one called Parking Ticket.

Haha! That’s one of the first songs I ever wrote. It was about a guy that had overstayed his welcome. He just kept hanging around, and I was like, “Right, I’m giving you a parking ticket.” It’s actually quite savage!

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The singer has come a long way since her debut as a guitar-toting balladeer in 2013

Did you enjoy writing for other artists?

It was so much fun but part of me still wanted to be singing the songs.

You learn a lot about yourself through working with others, though. It gives you a clear idea about what’s unique about you.

Such as?

I’d always come up with melodies in a really high falsetto and people would say, “Oh, I can’t sing this!” So I thought, “Ah, well I can sing high, so I should do that.”

And I discovered that I was a storyteller, lyrically, when it didn’t feel like many other people were, so I decided to focus on that.

With that in mind, can I ask about a couple of the lyrics on the album?

Sure, go ahead.

Hope you never let those pictures send/He’ll only go show them to his friends” – from Loyal To Me.

Revenge porn is definitely a thing. I worry about teenagers on Snapchat. Kids at schools send round these intimate pictures, then people use them as revenge. You’ve got to be careful out there.

They edit my body so good/They’ll never know I faked it” – from Sacred.

Well, there’s this culture on Instagram where everyone uses filters and lighting, or people smooth their skin out. It’s this weird thing. We all know it’s not real and we all complain about it, yet we all do it.

The issue is when people start comparing themselves to something that’s not reality. A lot of mental health problems come from that – people feeling they’re not good enough or they’re ugly or whatever.

Am I the only number that you’ve tried? Or is it just another lonely night?” – from Is It Really Me You’re Missing.

I think nowadays, especially in our generation, a lot of people like to keep their options open, so especially with online dating and Instagram, you never quite know if you’re the only one. So I guess that song is a representation of that.

That’s a really vulnerable song in the midst of some sassy pop moments. Did you work hard to keep the album varied?

Yes, it started off as a very intimate album, then I started listening back and I was like, “Hmm, it’s a little bit depressing… I need a few of those pop moments.”

Part of me thought, “Oh my God, I don’t think people will take it seriously if I do the pop songs.” But eventually I was like, “Do you know what? At the end of the day, I love pop music and I want people to laugh and dance and have a good time to the album as often as I make them cry.”

I was impressed with your ballet skills in the video for Loyal To Me. Are you a trained dancer?

No, I was a gymnast – but I absolutely love ballet, so I decided to give it a go! And it sparked this trend for my videos, where I pick something difficult to do and I just go for it. If the label are going to give me a budget, I want it to be an experience that I’ll remember. So I did horse-riding in Is It Really Me and I went underwater in Colder. Now I’m planning the next one…

Any clues?

I’ve said no to bungee jumping and sky-diving. But the past few have been a bit cold, so I’d like to do the next one somewhere warm.

How about waterskiing in Honolulu?

That’d be cool. I don’t know if I could lip-sync while waterskiing. I had to do that on horseback and it was a nightmare.

Finally, I found a picture of you on Instagram throwing a TV into a swimming pool, so are you really just another rock and roll casualty?

Clearly. I’m just trying to bring rock and roll back!

Nina Nesbitt’s album, The Sun Will Come Up, the Seasons Will Change, is out now.

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