Singer-songwriter Nadine Shah’s enthralling debut album ‘Love Your Dum And Mad’ was inspired by the death of two close friends. Both were young men who took their own lives. Nadine talked to CALMzine about the impact their deaths have had on her, and why she is so dedicated to fighting stigmas associated with mental illness.
Your album was largely inspired by the death of two male friends. Can you tell me a little bit about the circumstances?
Yes – firstly, there was Stuart, who was my boyfriend when I was 19 years old. He was always very up and down – one minute we were in love and everything was great, and the next moment he would be very down and really cold towards me. Our relationship was very chaotic. It was only in going to Stuart’s funeral and speaking to some mutual friends that I subsequently learned he was bipolar. That explained a lot about our relationship – had I had known he was bipolar at the time I could have been a lot more sympathetic.
Had you been aware of Stuart’s illness, how would that have changed things?
I would have had a heightened sense of understanding. I couldn’t understand how he could go from being happy to being at rock bottom with a click of the fingers. He would be really introverted and I took it as a personally. If I had known he was ill, I would have researched more about how I could have cared for him. I could have helped him. I still kick myself now.
Can you tell me about your other friend?
Matthew was my older brother’s best friend at Art College. Matthew was a gorgeous extrovert, who somehow got involved with heroin and other drugs. One day he took an overdose and was in a coma for about nine days. When Matthew came out of his coma he was an entirely different person – he was childlike and vulnerable. It was apparent just how aware he was that he was living in the shadow of his former self. That’s what really haunted him.
What impact have their deaths had on you personally?
For a long time I felt to blame for both of their deaths. I think it’s a natural reaction. Whenever somebody dies, people can always blame themselves and feel that they could have done more to help the situation. Maybe, in reality, there is very little you can do – but I did feel very responsible. After the coma Matthew would text me, asking to do various things as he wanted to keep active. I kept making excuses, as to be honest I was kind of intimidated by his illness. I didn’t know a lot about mental health disorders at the time. To me, the connotations of ‘mental illness’ meant someone would be emotionally volatile and I didn’t know how to deal with that.
How have you come to terms with your feelings of guilt and grief?
I don’t really think I have come to terms with the guilt associated with what happened. Knowing what I know now about mental illness, and how debilitating it is, I can understand it more fully – like cancer or heart disease. At the time, I was completely scared of mental illness. The reason the album came to be about mental illness is because I didn’t go and see anyone to talk about what had happened, as I was too ashamed to even talk to a psychiatrist. I thought they would blame me. So, I wrote songs instead. I became obsessed with Stuart’s and Matthew’s conditions and other stories similar to their situations. Reading about other people’s stories has been my solace. But, I am so frustrated that I didn’t act at the time. One of the reasons I will always talk about what happened is that I don’t want anybody in the circumstances I was in – and I don’t want a grain of sympathy – to punish themselves for a long as I did. I’m only just starting to feel better.
Looking back, were there any similarities between Stuart and Matthew’s situations?
It’s something I think about all the time. Both Matthew and Stuart were awesomely talented boys in their own creative fields. I found that their lowest points were when they didn’t have an outlet for their creativity – so what I always tried to do was encourage them to be creative. Also, both boys didn’t really have the social network – like many women do – to be able to talk to their friends about how they were feeling.
Has writing songs about your experiences helped you in any way?
No. It’s not been therapeutic or cathartic. It’s been the opposite. In some way I regret the songs I have written, as I now have to sing them often and think about what happened over and over again. I didn’t write them to be heard. So, in that sense, it hasn’t helped. The thing that really helps is being able to speak to people as a product of what I have made. I’m now able to verbalise what happened and that makes me feel a lot better. Also, one of the only good things about all of this was that Matthew’s mum was delighted I was using his artwork for the cover of my album. She was so happy – finally her beautiful boy’s art was on display, which was what she always wanted. When you lose someone, you want their memory to live on.
You are amazingly open about your experiences. Is it difficult to keep talking about such tragic circumstances?
It is – but I want to be part of the jigsaw that shatters every social stigma that still exists about people who are suffering from mental illness. We should think about it like heart disease – it is an illness that needs to be treated, not brushed under the carpet and ignored.
‘Love Your Dum & Mad‘ is out now on R&S Records
Find out more about Nadine on her website nadineshah.co.uk