Three years ago, Nerina Pallot released The Sound and the Fury an intensely political record that reckoned with the death and legacy of Margaret Thatcher, the murder of Lee Rigby, the now-closed refugee camp in Calais, and the intricacies of navigating the world as a woman. The record was infused with electro-pop and heavy synths and distortion.
Fast forward to the end of summer 2017 and the release of Stay Lucky. Although both records contrast in both sound, story and mood, and the obvious difference in title, both albums are a reflection or a reaction against the times in which we are all currently immersed. In Pallot’s words, “the system – political, social, fiscal – is broken and I don’t think I’ve seen the country I live in so divided in all the time I’ve been alive. But I haven’t lost hope in humans.”
Stay Lucky is steeped in jazz and blues; the colours are warm and gentle, soft pinks occupy the album artwork where Pallot is photographed wistfully looking out of a window, her face partially obscured by lilies and roses, giving the feel of hazy summer days, warmth and intimacy.
When I talked to Nerina by email about Stay Lucky, the overarching message is that of escape, of drawing the curtains on the world; “These days I want to escape – and I need music that allows me to do that. It’s why I just can’t listen to very wordy music any more, I want melody and harmony and a space to think and feel without somebody else’s voice in my head.”
I also asked Pallot how she captured the feelings of warmth and intimacy on the record and whether it was a conscious decision or more one that was guided by intuition. “I sort of fell into making it really. I was just really enjoying playing more complicated harmony, playing along to old jazz records and trying to work harder on my piano and guitar playing in that genre. As a result the songs that make up the album were written closely together and after I was about four songs in I realised I was making an album and I decided I should keep going in that vibe. It felt very natural, probably more natural than any other body of songs I have made on album before.”
Better, a six-minute track of longing, tension and madness that only infatuation and unrequited love can give rise to, feels like a very luxurious and experimental jazz moment in the album. I asked Pallot if the intention for the song to be a jazz number was always there or if it just evolved into one.
“It was inspired by a specific groove really; I’ve always loved ‘Bennie and the Jets’ by Elton John, and then ‘Super Rich Kids’ by Frank Ocean which I think of as its modern cousin. It’s just so hypnotic to play, and we cut it live – like pretty much all of the record – and just kept trying new things with each successive take. It just kept evolving in the studio even after the final band take. And lyrically, it wasn’t premeditated, I had the chorus lyric when we sat down to record but I sort of made the remaining lyric up on the spot during the recording process, responding to little changes in the groove when someone played something new or different.”
The versus begin slow and steady, gradually building to match the mood she creates – hot summer days from morning to evening, thinking about your lover and what he might be doing, who he might be with. Pallot takes on the role as jazz chanteuse with her understated inflections conveying equal parts exasperation and infatuation with your lover who is all and everything you can think about.
Driving into town my God I feel hopeless/ Wind the window down, I’m flat and I’m jokeless/ Thinking ‘bout you/ I’m thinking of you/ How you getting on and what you been doing/ Did you take your kid to the park?/ You know that you ruined my mind/ You ruined my mind
‘Come into My Room’ is another example of Pallot playing with a complicated harmony and a blues infused groove. A light and soaring piano ballad filled with longing and lustful lyrics, all delicately surrounded by strings and an electric guitar groove. The song captures that feeling of yearning for your lover, of letting your guard down and allowing them to see just how much you want them in that moment.
You’re so real/ I know, I know, you’re so real/ Yeah, you are/ I don’t care if you fall from grace/ Oh my God, when I see your face/ I can’t even deal/ No, I can’t even deal/ You’d be the sweetest thing/ I’ve ever seen
In a letter to Agnes De Mille, the American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham wrote of the idea of a ‘blessed unrest’, a state of being all artists exist in. Graham described it in the following way, “No artist is ever pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
‘Bring Him Fire’, a song that burns with longing and desire, is one song in which Pallot wrestled with the blessed unrest. “I pretty much dislike everything I do about six to twelve months after I finish it. I always want to get better, so I can hear all the flaws, the writing I might have made better, the singing that could have been improved. ‘Bring Him Fire’ is no exception, but I’ve learned to live with it and I think that’s the best version I could have made of it, bar the very raw writing demo of just me and my electric guitar.”
In a similar vein, the song ‘The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter’, simultaneously an ode to Carson McCuller’s book of the same name and a catharsis of something ugly into something beautiful, is one of the songs that Pallot is most proud of from Stay Lucky. “I set the bar high – I am so in love with the Carson McCuller’s book of the same name that I felt I had to honour her and her amazing writing. To do anything less would have just let her down, and I couldn’t do that to one of my favourite writers. For me it was taking a painful personal experience and making it as beautiful as I could. I also wanted to stretch myself harmonically, and write something I could imagine Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan singing. Something that would endure.”
I don’t want to forget him/ I got to, I know it’s stupid/ So foolish, so nothing/ But what can I do/ It rains and it thunders/ It rains and it thunders/ And my heart is a lonely hunter
Literary inspiration has been present throughout Pallot’s catalogue of music. From her debut album Dear Frustrated Superstar (Daphne and Apollo) through to Year of the Wolf (Put Your Hands Up) and The Sound and the Fury (Boy on the Bus). I asked Pallot if writing from literary inspiration differs from that of writing from personal experience.
“Not for me. When I studied literature at university, I came to feel very profoundly that it’s just the study of life really. Other people’s narratives and perspectives – but so many core emotions are shared by everyone, so I always find it easy to lose myself in the world of a book, if the book is really good. Give me a great narrator or protagonist and it’s like I don’t know where they end and I begin!”
Nerina Pallot’s tour begins on April 8th.