More than three years after the gold-selling Fires, Nerina Pallot has shaken up her sound, shrugged off the spectre of singer/songwriter and produced an album of clever, classy pop. The Graduate has piano-driven songs high on happy pills, woozy electronics and beefed up bass. Where guitars would once have swooned, now they swagger and there is a new-found feistiness to Pallot’s emotive vocals. Occasionally, the Brit and Ivor Novello-nominated singer strays so far from the haunting sound of her former hit singles, she is almost unrecognisable. Sometimes, she pulls off a ballad of such breathtaking beauty it could be by no-one else.
Self-produced and recorded in the North London studio she shares with her husband, Grammy-nominated producer Andrew Chatterley, The Graduate took shape after two turbulent years in Pallot’s life. The first found her struggling with any sustained creativity in the midst of the promotion and touring in support of Fires. The second was a case of writer’s block caused by meeting and marrying Chatterley, who hails from Pallot’s homeland of Jersey. The problem was one not often found in pop – she was too content to want to write songs.
“The idea of me writing tortured lyrics went out the window,” laughs Pallot. “After years of living out of a suitcase, watching my personal life fall apart and drinking too much, I was suddenly happier than I’ve ever been. At one stage, I wasn’t sure I’d ever make another album. I loved just being normal, having a home to go to and finally being able to attend friends’ birthday parties. I could have written a song about my fantastic fish terrine, but I doubt anyone would have wanted to hear it.”
The impetus to return to writing came only after Pallot’s record label, tired of waiting for a follow-up to Fires, sent her to the States to work with Linda Perry, the one-woman hit factory for the likes of Christina Aguilera and Pink. The pair recorded two songs together before Pallot fled home. Then came sessions with Rob Davis (who co-wrote Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head) and Rick Nowels (Madonna, Dido), with whom Pallot became good friends and wrote 15 songs, none of which appear on The Graduate.
“It was a privilege to work with all those great writers and producers,” recalls Pallot. “But I finally realised that, on my own, I was more honest and less self-conscious, and wrote my best songs.”
Pallot’s sense of self-sufficiency grew when she returned to material she had written on the road touring Fires, but never finished. Realising she already had several great songs, she set about completing them, determined to produce and programme the album herself, calling on friends to contribute, rather than outsiders and session musicians.
At the same time, Pallot made the unusual step of returning to university to complete the English degree she had started while making Fires.
“I found the routine of studying literature and writing about it cleared my head and at the same time it was a real inspiration when it came to writing lyrics. It also required a lot of discipline – something I had seldom applied to other areas of my life!”
Among the songs was The Graduate’s stunning first single Real Late Starter, which sets sassy, self-depreciating lyrics to uptempo piano-pop that nods to ‘70s Elton John and one of Pallot’s more recent favourite bands, Scissor Sisters.
“Real Late Starter I began when I was touring with James Blunt three years ago,” explains Pallot. “I felt like a real loser, making my way to gigs on a train with my mate who was my tour manager while James was helicoptering in. I’d hear him arriving overhead and think ‘That’ll be me one day’ but it didn’t happen. I came home and, yes, still felt like a loser!
“I had so much fun when I came to finish that song because by then I was happy. There’s a real sense of ‘Yeah, sometimes life is shit, but hey, I’m actually doing okay’. Everyone feels like that from time to time and when I play it live, people love it. They seem to get it straight away.”
A major shift in Pallot’s sound was down to the music she was listening to.
“My tastes have definitely changed,” she says. “I’ve come to really love good pop music. Like everyone else, I was bored stiff of singer/songwriters and wanted to find something fresh. The band I became obsessed with was MGMT. I was inspired by their attitude to making music. It’s so creative. They just throw out lots of ideas, try out lots of mad sounds and have a laugh, but with the basis of really strong songs. I didn’t want to think about what would get on the radio or what’s the trendy sound right now. I just went for it and had fun.”
The result is a compelling collection of songs that range from the rocky The Right Side, Pallot’s attempt at a football chant, to the quirky, heavily-programmed funk-pop of I Don’t Want To Go Out, a co-production with Chatterley, to the strikingly-titled, Sheryl Crow-meets-Squeeze song When Did I Become Such A Bitch. More typical Pallot perhaps are strings-drenched slowie Human and love song It Starts. The biggest surprise is the dreamy, spaced-out, electronic-pop of Cigarette.
“I Don’t Want To Go Out and Cigarette in particular are, in their contrasting ways, completely different to anything I’ve done in the past,” admits Pallot. “That’s why I love them. Cigarette is my homage to Air, Pink Floyd and MGMT. It’s a song that doesn’t need a verse or a chorus or try to be commercial, it’s just a great soundscape.”
“We’ve recently started writing for several pop artists,” says Pallot, “and that’s changed my own music. When you’re writing for someone else, you throw out ideas to see what sticks and try out new ways of working.
“When I first released Fires, I had to remortgage my house to pay for it, and as a result felt under a lot of self-imposed pressure. With The Graduate, there was no pressure at all. It’s just me having fun and I think you can hear that in the music.”
Support act: Bright Light Bright Light