Where in the league table of female singer-songwriters would you put Nerina Pallot?
She's not yet a KT Tunstall, maybe not even a Corinne Bailey Rae, neither of whom are themselves yet a Dido or a Norah Jones, who would obviously be at the top of the premier league (there's enough of the breed these days to allow you to separate it into divisions).
Then again Pallot has toured Europe with James Blunt and just enjoyed a top 20 single in Everybody's Gone to War. In the days and weeks before our meeting on a sunny day in June on Clapham Common, her video for said single has been on heavy rotation on satellite and cable channels TMF and The Hits, so she should obviously feature above your Cat Powers and Kathryn Williamses, fine talents though they are. She's a solid mid-table banker I reckon. Nerina Pallot? She's the Hibernian FC of contemporary chanteuses.
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If that sounds like damning with faint praise, Pallot - the new Tori Amos or the new Joni Mitchell, depending on whom her reviewers were last listening to - is reasonably pleased with her current position (and we're talking generally now - she's not aware of any Hibs comparisons). Her album Fires, which she first released herself last year, has been reissued with a push from 14th Floor, the people behind the likes of David Gray and Damien Rice - it has already gone gold, having reached 100,000 sales.
In the long term, she says, that doesn't mean anything much. Her favourite artist, Joni Mitchell, has only ever had one UK hit. Sales are not what motivates Pallot. At least that's what she says. But when you've remortgaged your house to pay for the release of your record a gold disc is surely to be welcomed.
And decent record sales mean she can finally put her first brush with the pop game - a miserable period at the start of the century that saw her dropped unceremoniously after her record company's attempt to turn her into the next Sophie Ellis Bextor or some such - firmly behind her. So yes, things aren't going too badly. "Compared to anything I've experienced before this is like I've been driving a clapped-out Mini for years and somebody's given me a Jaguar, " says Pallot.
Dressed in summery whites today, Pallot is something of a thinking man's dream date.
She's talented, pretty, smart and fearsomely well-read (well-read enough to name Fires after a book by the late, great Raymond Carver, and to compare herself to a character from a George Gissing novel. Have you read Gissing? No, me neither. The experience is "extremely depressing", she says). She's also someone who reckons late afternoon is late enough for a gin and tonic.
It's a beautiful day today, beautiful enough to discuss death, depression, duodenal ulcers and the perils of sitting down next to members of the maunfactured pop group Steps. And that's where we start.
The Steps incident is perhaps the touchstone story for Pallot's first brush with the music industry. It happened in the summer of 2001 on the BBC1 Saturday morning children's show Live and Kicking, on a sofa that was brimming with the popettes of the day, including Pallot. As more and more of them sat down Pallot was shuffling along to the sofa's edge until Faye Tozer, the blonde one with braids from Steps, shoved Pallot right off and onto her backside.
"That was the worst moment of my life, " Pallot says now. She doesn't really mean that.
It might have been the most embarrassing moment, though there were others. She found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time more than once back then. There was the occasion on a similar show when she was standing in line next to a girl band of the day she won't name, but whom she says are long gone (Pallot is being boringly circumspect on such matters this afternoon).
"They say the band's name and the next thing I know is I'm being stood on by three women in the highest heels I've ever seen, literally trampled on, " she says. "The moment their name was called they saw the spotlight.
They're so well trained these people, like moths to the flame. I stood there quite incredulous and then they said my name but you couldn't see me because these girls were going like this." She waves her arms around wildly as illustration. "It was quite funny but I realised that's the world I've been thrust into."
It was not the world she'd intended for herself. A classically trained pianist, Pallot was born in London and raised in Jersey, with spells in India, where her mother was from originally. She started showing an aptitude for the piano from the age of four and studied it into her teens. Did she never fancy becoming a classical musician? "I think for about 10 minutes, " she replies. "I remember when I won one piano competition I thought, 'I could be quite good at this.' And then I think I heard a Happy Mondays record."
Pallot spent the next 10 years writing "lots of really bad songs", she says, and at 21 signed a development deal with EMI, but nothing really happened with it. There followed the usual litany of day jobs - she worked in banks, made curtains, waitressed and sang in restaurants. She became a personal assistant to the head of publishing at Mute Records (the Mr King whose good influence she sings about on Fires). She was still performing, appearing in a London venue called the Cashmere Club, where you could also see the likes of KT Tunstall and Ed Harcourt, and in 2000 she signed to Polydor. The first album, Dear Frustrated Superstar, followed the year after. And that's when things started to go wrong.
"I think I made the best record I could make at the time for the experience I had, " she says now. "I was not vocal enough at the right time and the way I was marketed was far more pop than I really am."
Pallot was being hyped to the radio stations and the television shows as something she wasn't - a shiny, clean pop star. The problem was she had never seen herself as a shiny, clean pop star. "So I should have gone, 'I feel really weird doing this, '" she says. "I was going on some of those shows and I felt like I was about to pass out because I thought it was all wrong."
It's safe to say the experience led her to acquire a rather jaundiced view of the music industry, especially when the album didn't sell. "They could never mask their disappointment, " she says of her employers at Polydor. "Even if I had made them Dark Side of the Moon [by Pink Floyd] or Grace [by the late Jeff Buckley] they would never appreciate something I would give them for anything other than how atrociously it was selling. And that saddened me a lot because I just thought this had nothing to do with music. [It was] very naive of me, very stupid of me. You go into record companies and even the shittiest ones will have an act of note you can look up to, who have inspired you. And you do go, 'Oh my god, there's Marvin Gaye on the wall, [or] Paul Weller.' And it doesn't mean anything to those people. People who work on those labels could not give a shit about their heritage artists. They
would drop them if they're not making any money. They don't really like music. If they love a song it's because it smells of money to them.
It's not because it moves them. I sound really cynical but it's true."
Did I say jaundiced? Jaundiced is too slight a word in the circumstances. "I think a huge proportion of people in the music industry want to live vicariously through artists, " she continues, "and if you asked them, a large amount of them wanted to be [an artist] or tried and it didn't work for them. So there's always a slight bit of resentment, whether they're honest about it or not. But then you get a lot of idiot artists as well."
Given all this it must have been something of a comfort then when she was dropped.
"Yeah, " she says. "It was a relief that instead of my record company and my manager telling me I was a failure every day it was just me telling me I was a failure every day."
That's how she felt, a failure? "Absolutely, " she says. "Imagine you're taking your A levels or your finals and you feel like you've put in the work and it comes back D, D, D, no grade. I had lots of those dreams of the being-naked-in-theschool-dining-hall type. Imagine you've liked someone for a long time and you finally pluck up the courage to tell them how you feel and they're just like, 'Oh go away.'" It didn't help that music is perhaps the most competitive of all the arts. "You don't get the best new painter or the best new installation artist chart in the papers, " she says. "Music is by far the most mercurial and that can be very difficult to deal with." Maybe you chose the wrong profession, I say. "Yeah, maybe."
Anyway, there she was in the late summer of 2001, a few weeks after being shoved off the sofa on live TV by Faye Tozer, now shoved off her label by her bosses. Things could only get better, right? Well no, actually, they got much, much worse.
What does Nerina Pallot get out of music, I ask.
"I dunno ? the most amazing joy. Standing on stage with people you get on with and you'll start off and you make this enormous noise, " she says. "It's the most lovely feeling. When I was little I was a really bad violinist but I loved being in the thick of the noise of the orchestra."
Music is very visceral, she says. "It can physically work on you." She started singing in the church choir. Her parents were practising Christians, open-minded Catholics. Pallot wears a cross around her neck but she's a little conflicted about what she believes. "I guess I really envy people with true faith who can believe in God with sandals and the fluffy clouds and the beard. I'd love to be able to do that. That must be bliss, but I don't have that much faith."
She first started writing songs while visiting India with her mother. "You had to entertain yourself, " says Pallot. It's obvious that it's the music not the lifestyle that attracted her to the world of pop. Maybe that's in the genes. "I think my mum was possibly the only person to go through the sixties without taking drugs, " she says at one point.
Pallot was drawn to performing though.
Still is. "I quite like the show and the theatricality and I like people who take pride in what they do, " she says, "but the sad fact today is that people will do anything to become famous.
They will literally do anything. They will lie or go on reality television or both and that to me is nothing to do with music. I guess when I saw those acts I just wanted to be an artist, not a pop star. Now there's so few artists but plenty of pop stars and I'm not really interested in the latter."
When she was dropped by Polydor it was clear pop stardom didn't seem too interested in her either. She decided maybe she should walk away from music, went back to university to study English literature and toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher. But life was intent on kicking her when she was down. A relationship broke down, she got ill and her grandmother died. Every day, it seemed, something worse happened. The death of her grandmother, Violet, was hard to deal with, seeing her wither away as cancer ate at her.
"Watching my grandmother who had been this very powerful, very big woman reduced to something smaller than me was just awful, " she says.
As a result Pallot's own mortality was understandably much on her mind. She had just turned 30, was grieving for her grandmother then began to suffer stomach pains herself. A duodenal ulcer was the cause. "It went undiagnosed for a while, " she says, "and I think that when you're watching someone dying and then you yourself get sick you are prone to paranoia."
In the circumstances, perhaps it's no surprise that she also began to suffer from depression. It took the form of listlessness and an inability to do anything. "And for me, " she remembers, "it was just incredible self-doubt and walking away from music for a bit and going back to university and saying, 'I will not do music, I will not do music.' And that kind of made the depression worse because it felt like the one thing that for me always made me feel like I had any point in the world ? [was gone and there was] no point in the world. But I feel everyone comes into the world with one thing they can do to help other people.We all have a function. And when I moved away from music it was a bit like asking a zebra to be a monkey. It's not really what I'm meant to do."
She wasn't clinically depressed, she says, and avoided medicating herself. "I came close a few times, " she admits. "I just wanted something to numb it. I think I did drink too much for a while. I just needed something to take the edge off things and for me it was that idea that I would stop being depressed if I could stop wanting everything to feel different. But it passed. I think it probably lasted a good year to 18 months."
Pallot says she lost her optimism during that period and adds that she is now aware of being prone to depression. "I think I actually had to realise I'm not one of life's happy chappies."
But she has come out the other side. She is no longer in the trough of that black time. "I used to say I didn't want to die but I didn't really like living that much, and now I quite like living and I still don't want to die."
Cutting herself off from the thing she loved didn't help, but then you could say the thing she loved was equally culpable. For a while, she admits, she lacked motivation, couldn't "get arrested". She even considered co-writing, something she usually hated. "I thought if I go to this well-known co-writer and producer I knew, maybe he will work with me, " Pallot says. She won't name the man in question.
Someone you'd know, she says. "It was really hard for me to summon up the courage to do that and it was really not what I wanted to do.
And I asked him and he made me feel like I was about an inch tall."
No wonder then that she considered giving up music. Friends and family, though, wouldn't let her. Nor would her new boyfriend. Pallot met Howard Willing while she was working with the musician Wendy Melvoin in Los Angeles before she got dropped by Polydor (that's the Wendy from Prince's eighties backing band the Revolution and subsequently Wendy and Lisa, the one who plays the guitar and bites her lip in the video for Kiss, the most erotic moment in music-video history). "She kept trying to fix us up and gradually we ended up becoming a couple and working together, " says Pallot.
It was Willing who goaded her into making Fires. She remembers sending Willing an early version of the song Geek Love and a few weeks later he told her to visit the public space on her Mac account. "And I pulled it down, " she recalls, "and basically he'd been working in another session and got some musicians and created an entire track around this demo for me. I remember just absolutely sobbing because I thought, 'Gosh, someone really wants me to do this and I haven't paid him, haven't done anything.' I think at that point I knew I should really keep doing music."
When she sat down to write Everybody's Gone to War, Pallot says, she didn't set out to write an anti-war song. She went to a military school when she was younger, and many of her former schoolmates joined the army. One of them has just been posted to the south of Afghanistan. "I had a very funny message, " says Pallot. "He said, 'We finally hooked up the satellite and we're watching MTV and the first thing we see coming on is you.'" Whatever her intention, Pallot's breakthrough single has certainly been taken as an anti-war song. She knows because she's been receiving the hate mail. "It's startling and it is shocking, " she says. It may be the reason why so few pop stars are keen to put their heads above the parapet as the Iraq "adventure" trundles on. Still, she's also received messages of support from both American and British troops. "There are quite a few soldiers who think this particular
excursion was not a very wise one, " she says. "And that was my argument really. I'm not a pacifist in the traditional sense. Growing up in Jersey [the only part of the UK invaded by the Nazis] you realise that the Second World War had to happen. It's just something's not right about sending people out in this instance."
The success of Everybody's Gone to War means Pallot is back in the world of pop again.
This time, though, it's on her own terms. She's neither the new Joni Mitchell nor the new Tori Amos. That probably means she's in a league of her own.