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‘We’ve both developed in different ways’: Nadine Shah and Ben Hillier talk 10 years of collaboration

For the past 10 years, Mercury Prize nominated artist Nadine Shah and producer Ben Hillier (Depeche Mode, Elbow, Blur, Clinic, Doves) have been forging a formidable creative partnership. Over the course of four albums and multiple tours – Hillier plays drums in Shah’s touring band – the pair’s sound has evolved from jet black, guitar-driven alternative rock into something far more colourful and theatrical.

Where albums one and two (2013’s Love Your Dum And Mad and 2015’s Fast Food) saw Shah’s introspective, first-person tales of fractured relationships threaded expertly through Hillier’s tightly wound, claustrophobic musical frameworks, albums three and four (2017’s Mercury Prize nominated Holiday Destination and 2020’s Kitchen Sink) adopted a far looser, approach. The addition of sax maestro Pete Wareham to the fold brought bright, brassy flourishes to the fore, while Shah’s lyrics pivoted to something far more political in the case of Holiday Destination and largely character driven in Kitchen Sink.

To find out more about how the pair’s working relationship has developed over the past decade, Daniel Gumble sat down for a Zoom chat with them to talk sonic evolution and the art of collaboration…

How did you first start working together?

Nadine: He was cheap! I’d met a lot of producers and was getting depressed to the point where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it anymore. They all seemed very old school and wanted to put strings all over my songs, put the vocal really far forward with heavy reverb. I was like, ‘how am I going to find a producer that I like’? So I went through my album collection and this name kept cropping up. I loved the first Elbow record, I loved some Clinic and Doves records. My favourite was Think Tank by Blur. So I contacted him through his manager, got him out for a cup of coffee and we’ve been working together ever since.

When did you know you were onto something?

Ben: The first session. We set up at the house Nadine was staying in and wrote ‘Aching Bones’, which stayed pretty much the same from the demo to the record.

Nadine: That first record took a long time to make because we couldn’t decide what it was going to be – either this glorious Tori Amos thing, just me at a piano, or more of a band sound. We ended up separating it into two parts – the band route and me at piano. But it was the band songs I loved most. ‘The Devil’ is still one of my favourite things we’ve done. At that point I was like, ‘let’s drop the piano stuff and push Ben’! Working together has been great. We’ve both developed in different ways over time.

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Holiday Destination showcased a very different sound to the previous two records. And this bold approach was built upon further still with Kitchen Sink. Did the success of Holiday Destination give you any extra confidence to keep expanding your sound?

Ben: Absolutely. Particularly the success of ‘Out The Way’. It’s such an odd song and I thought it was too bonkers to be a single, but the fact people really picked up on it gave me a lot of confidence. It’s big and bold and carries through to its logical conclusion with no fuss. And there’s no hiding from Nadine’s lyric on it. It goes straight for the jugular.

Nadine: The general response to ‘Out The Way’ was amazing and it did make us confident that we could be even bolder. But I think we would have gone that way anyway. It’s just the way we work. It was such a joy to tour that album. Then nearly a year later it gets nominated for the Mercury and had a second growth. It was fun watching that happen – the demographic of our audience was changing and growing. And I was so looking forward to touring Kitchen Sink, I’m heartbroken we’re not doing those shows.

Tell us about the making of Kitchen Sink.

Ben: It was all done in my studio. I moved out of London six years ago to a village near Brighton because I needed more space. We built a studio on a farm and it’s literally in the middle of nowhere. We have a couple of control rooms made out of straw bales. It’s pretty rough and ready.

Several months on from the release of Kitchen Sink, what are some of your highlights from the record?

Ben: There’s a song called ‘Kite’ which is really special. It’s beautiful but really devastating when you listen to the lyrics. It was very simple and effective. I sat with the demo for a day just trying not to fuck it up – it was very sparse. I remember Nadine saying ‘I have to write loads of stuff for it’ and I was like ‘no, don’t, it’s absolutely wonderful’.

Nadine: I wasn’t there when Ben finished it but when I heard it it was a real treat. It’s lovely when you make the bones of something and then it’s taken in a completely different direction to what you were expecting. I love it.

How do you feel about the development of your collaborations over the past 10 years?

Nadine: I don’t mind them! There are moments on the first album I’m still really proud of. I like the progression of the albums, I never look back and feel there’s anything embarrassing. Whatever intention we went into each album with we’ve always achieved. Maybe I’d get rid of ‘Dreary Town’ if I could! But honestly, I really like listening to the tracks with Ben. It’s like, ‘we did alright, didn’t we?’

Ben: I struggle to listen to records I’ve made. I shouldn’t do but when I’ve finished a record I need to leave it and move on. But there’s nothing I regret, I’m always pleasantly surprised when I listen back.

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