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  • Writer's pictureLaura Kelly

'I felt robbed': Nadine Shah on the trauma of losing a parent during Covid

When I heard Nadine Shah's new record, I knew I had to speak to her about it. During Covid, we'd both lost a parent to cancer. She, her mummy, Heather. Me, my amazing dad, the Northern Irish artist Dennis Kelly. I could hear my grief and rage sung back to me in Filthy Underneath's passionate songs. This was important. Ours is a story too often lost in the multitudes of Covid tragedies and here she was, giving it voice. I felt intensely drawn to the record, and deeply grateful to her for being so open. We finally caught up over video call for a long and emotional conversation... this is the feature, as published in The Big Issue.


Nadine Shah. Image: Tim Topple

It was the height of Covid when Nadine Shah lost her beloved mother, Heather – “the most beautiful person in the world” – to lung cancer. Unable to mourn properly or even have a normal funeral due to the strict restrictions in place, her world started to unravel. Her mental health plummeted. Lonely and trying to find her way forward in a “very bad marriage to a beautiful man”, she succumbed to addiction and almost ended it all.

Almost three years on, she’s been through rehab, faced her demons, got divorced, moved back up north with her cat and had a visceral lesson in the power of forgiveness. She’s also channelled all that grief and rage and love and hope into a truly extraordinary album.

A powerfully outspoken force in UK music, Shah already had a clutch of beautiful, impassioned, critically-acclaimed albums to her name. She was nominated for the Mercury Prize for 2017’s Holiday Destination, her brooding postpunk take on the refugee crisis, Islamophobia and how toxic politicians screw over working class communities. Her follow up, Kitchen Sink was equally incisive about the challenges and absurdity of being a 30-something woman. Yet Filthy Underneath is more visceral still, lyrically journeying through Shah’s pain and recovery – backed by the most soaring and vivid music she’s yet created.

Shah has just finished a run of incredibly intimate record store shows (following close on the heels of a series of support slots with Depeche Mode) when she joins the Big Issue on a video call from her dad’s house in South Shields. She’s currently “a bit of a nomad” divvying up her time between Newcastle, London and Edinburgh (where her new boyfriend lives). On the in-store mini tour, she was “knocked sideways” by the response to the record, and the intensely personal revelations her fans shared with her.

“I knew that would happen,” she says of those confessional conversations, “and I was nervous about that happening, because I’m not a medically trained professional. I’m no role model. I very much got it wrong. And it’s highly likely, sadly, I might get it wrong again. I hope not. But because of the statistics with addiction, it may happen again. So I never want to be seen as a role model, I just want to tell my version of events.”

She may have no desire to give advice, but in sharing her experiences, Shah’s giving a sort of permission for everyone who identifies with them to talk about what we’ve been through. Like Shah, I lost an adored parent – my brilliant, philosopher-artist dad – to cancer during lockdown. I’m deeply grateful, I tell her, for the fact that she’s talking about the experience we share with many thousands of other people. It has felt like we’ve been largely forgotten in the litany of traumas from that time.

“Were you able to give your dad a proper send-off?” she asks.

No. There was no traditional Irish wake, I wasn’t allowed to sit up with his body, there was no swapping of stories over rounds of drinks, we weren’t even allowed to hug the few people allowed to be at the horribly limited funeral.

“I’m sorry. It’s so shit. It’s really shit. And I think, like a lot of us at the time, I felt robbed. The last week of my mother’s life was harrowing. We were only allowed one family member per day to go into the hospital to see her. It was really, really difficult. We weren’t able to give my mother a proper send-off. We weren’t able to grieve properly. And then after the funeral – when normally, it’s really important to surrounded by people that you love – so many of us were robbed of that.

“I think a residual effect of was that my anger just really grew and grew. I was so full of hatred, and so full of anger, watching people be irresponsible. Especially our government. I’ll never forgive them. I hate, I despise this government wholeheartedly.”

Filthy Underneath both processes Heather’s illness – on You Drive, I Shoot, “Doctors give you this, doctors give you that” and we ache with imminent loss – and, on See My Girl, elegises her. “Dimpled cheeks, Scandi beauty, we stand with held hands.”

As she was dealing with her bereavement, Nadine Shah’s marriage was falling apart. She found her husband was unable to support her. “Isolated in grief” and overcome with rage, she turned to the numbing effects of alcohol and substances. She wasn’t leaving the house, even after Covid restrictions eased. “And then I decided that I was going to take my own life.”

The eventual crisis is dramatised in snapshot details on album closer French Exit, named for the slang term for leaving a party without saying goodbye. “Blue polkadot top and matching trousers,” she sings. “Reapplied lipstick. A clown who counts the downers.”

“Luckily,” Shah continues, “I was interrupted. And luckily, I had a really great bunch of people around me, who put me in a place where I needed to be and got me the recovery that I needed.

“Now I’m able to function much better, as a better daughter, a better sister, a better auntie and a better partner to my current boyfriend. And yeah, things have gotten a lot better. But it was such a brutally awful time.”

Nadine Shah ultimately spent eight weeks in rehab. “I had the best in their field looking after me, and helping me. I don’t think I would have gotten better unless I’d gone there,” she says. But it wasn’t just the staff that had a deep impact on her. Her fellow residents forced her to contemplate how we can forgive someone who’s done terrible things, even if that person is yourself.

“The people I was meeting – some of them had done really heinous things, myself included. I’ve done some really bad stuff. I’ve been a terrible partner, terrible friend, I’ve done some really awful, awful things I’m very ashamed of. But I try to be better all the time.

“I find it really difficult not giving forgiveness,” she continues. “It’s like, you drink the poison and you expect the other person to die from it. Harbouring resentment is just one of the worst things ever.”

Surrounded by a group of people from “every walk of life”, all struggling with their own issues, she was also struck by the inequality she saw. How some of her new friends had a leg up, and some had to have the most incredible resilience just to exist. “Some of them in there, I was like – how the hell are you even living still? How the hell did you get through a day past the age of 12?” Ultimately their stories are refracted through Twenty Things, over pill-bottle rattling percussion and sparse Nick Cave-esque piano. The song is shot through with such empathy.

It reflects her changed outlook. “It’s not a fair world,” Shah explains. “And not everybody is given the same start as others. So, it did make me look at the world very differently when I came out, especially towards a homeless population that I would see in the streets, especially those suffering from addiction.

“I’m less afraid of the people I see on the street. I used to be quite scared of a lot of those people. I don’t have that fear at all anymore. I have a lot more empathy for those people.”

Nadine Shah now carries naloxone in her handbag at all times, ready to administer the life-saving emergency medication that can reverse the effects of an overdose of opioids like heroin or methadone, if she sees someone having an overdose. “I think so many of us should carry it. We can’t get high off it, and it’s such an easy thing to learn. And it can save so many lives.”

Filthy Underneath is out now. nadineshah.co.uk

More information about naloxone is available at naloxone.org.uk

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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