Nell Mescal: ‘People love to f***ing tear women down when we’re just trying to get a foot in the door’

We speak to Nell Mescal about her confessional songwriting and development as an artist, brother Paul, and her new single ‘Punchline’, which is out now.

Nell Mescal

Nell Mescal is in the midst of another busy day in London. When we speak, the rising star is getting ready for the first of several support slots with Florence and the Machine this summer (“she’s one of my absolute icons,” Mescal gushes), then more supporting her “hero” Dermot Kennedy. Just a few years earlier, Mescal blagged a ticket for one of Kennedy’s shows while she was working as a waitress to make ends meet while an aspiring musician. Now, she’s performing on the same arena stage as him. “It’s ridiculous!” she laughs.

Two years ago, Mescal dropped out of sixth-form to pursue music full time. School was not a place she enjoyed; after having a taste of freedom during a summer holiday spent in London, Mescal wasn’t keen on returning. She tried anyway, going back for a month after the holidays but then decided to leave permanently. “The decision to drop out of school came quite easy to me,” Mescal reflects now. “I think school was just difficult for many reasons and when you’re a teenager, people just aren’t very nice, and I think that can get on top of you.”

She addressed her unhappiness in the recent, emotive single ‘Graduating’ where she sings, “I just wish that I could say that they were nicer to me / You put a target on my back.” “I was very lucky that I was doing something a bit different, and I hadn’t been living in Ireland for a few months,” Mescal continues, saying if she didn’t have music or that defining summer break, she’s not sure how she’d have coped with another year at school.

Nell Mescal interview

Photo: David Reiss

“I had a career that was just starting, and I had a choice: I could stay there and be a little bit unhappy or I could go, rid myself of it and start afresh.” Mescal chose the latter after accepting she was “unhappy” and “struggling a lot” at school. “Not graduating was a big decision, but it was a very good one for me.” Soon after leaving, she was signed by a record label.

Mescal says she’d been playing music since she was “four or five.” “I come from a very creative family and my parents have always kind of led with being creative; with writing, reading, playing music, theatre, stuff like that.” Her dad played music and was an amateur actor, while her mother painted and wrote. Mescal is the youngest of three siblings and the only girl; her older brother Paul became a global superstar after starring in lockdown smash Normal People and later earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in Aftersun.

Mescal says at first, people accused her of being “a nepo-baby”, despite the fact she’d been writing songs and making music long before Paul got his break. “People immediately say ‘oh she’s only doing what she’s doing because of Paul.’ No one actually says anything about the songs. It’s really difficult because when you drop out of school and you’ve been working on something for so long and you had music out before [Paul’s career] was even really a thing, it’s sometimes difficult to take.”

“[Music and acting] are completely different and we don’t have the same circle of people. It’s always been so important for me that I’m doing everything myself and with my [own] people. It’s a difficult road to be driving on…” she continues, trailing off and sounding sad, “but I’m determined to follow my own path.”

Mescal was trained in classical and musical theatre and says she was “in all kinds of choirs and groups you can think of,” from a young age. She taught herself piano and says music had “always been her life.” It “came as no surprise” to her family when she told them she was leaving school to pursue music full-time. She first built up the courage to show them songs she’d written when she was in her teens and, eventually, started to share them with wider audiences online.

“I was really eager to release music,” Mescal says, explaining that once she started writing songs, more and more kept coming. “It was a case of writing stuff where it felt like, if I don’t say it now, I’ll never say it. [These were] songs that will get completely lost if I don’t release them now,” she continues, explaining that they were of the moment, capturing her as a young woman now in the space between late adolescence and early adulthood.

Mescal’s music, which is confessional indie-folk-pop reminiscent of the likes of Margaret Glaspy, Morgan Harper-Jones and Maggie Rogers, caught the attention of several record labels soon after she started to share her music online and play gigs around her native Ireland. She eventually decided to sign with an independent label, Manchester’s LAB Records, to give her more control over her career.

“There were talks with a few people, but I think at the stage I’m at now, it was important to do something that would [help me] develop a bit more, find my feet while still being able to have a lot of ownership, which was really the main thing for me,” Mescal explains. “My management and everyone [at the label] has really let me lead. It’s collaborative, but I definitely get the final say which is so nice because I know that’s a luxury.”

Nell Mescal singer

After ‘Graduating’, two more singles followed, the soaring ‘In My Head’ – a song Mescal says was about being “gaslit by yourself” – while the rockier ‘Homesick’ saw Mescal talk openly about her struggles of being away from home, aged 18, and alone in London. However, she soon found herself busier than ever after being signed, and the loneliness soon evaporated.

“I didn’t know anything about what I was stepping into when I left school,” she laughs. “It was like a [six-month] crash course of how to do the music industry.” She says it was – and still is – a “steep learning curve.” “Nothing is easy… but it’s making me better and better,” she says, seeming hungry to learn and keep learning.

As a young woman in music, Mescal says she’s seen the darker side of the industry, too, especially with the misogyny aimed at up-and-coming female artists. She says she’s not had much of it herself – on account of people being “too busy” accusing her of “being a nepo-baby” – but says she and other female artists are trying to support one another when that misogyny does arise.

“We’re all quite young and a lot of us are female, non-binary people that are just kind of coming up together. I think we’re all a shoulder to lean on,” Mescal explains. “It’s such an easy thing to do, to shit on women that are good. People love to fucking tear women down when we’re just trying to get a foot in the door.” Mescal says she’s determined not to be put off by any of it. “We’re women and we’re strong. We’ll just keep going… but people need to stop shitting on women that are really talented and work really hard for a living.”

Nell Mescal

One person who offered Mescal some early support was musician Phoebe Bridgers, who dated Mescal’s brother Paul (they’ve rumoured to have since split but have not commented on this publicly). It culminated in Bridgers asking Mescal to perform with her during a sold-out show at London’s O2 Academy Brixton. Mescal took to the stage to perform ‘Georgia’ from Bridgers’ 2017 album, Stranger in the Alps.

“It was an incredible experience,” Mescal says, recalling the moment she nervously stepped out on stage with Bridgers. “I don’t think I was expecting the audience to be as receptive as they were. It’s always been one of my favourite songs since I first heard it. Getting to do that with that crowd… well, I think I started crying immediately, as soon as everyone cheered when I walked out,” she laughs at the memory. “It was probably one of the coolest moments of my life so far. It was just really fun,” she says of the “pinch yourself” moment. 

On the flip side of moments like this, Mescal says she’s under no illusion about how hard it is for young artists to break through in the industry right now as they face more and more barriers to making music than ever before. It’s a difficult financial climate for new artists to make ends meet, she says, from the “merch cuts” – referring to venues taking a portion of artist’s merchandise sales – to “Spotify not really paying their artists.”

“Everything is so expensive too,” she says, talking about the increased cost of touring. “I just hope that I’m still doing it in the next 50 years and that I can still afford to do it. I hope I earn some money and that people still want to hear the songs that I’m singing. I think longevity is the key and [I want] to keep doing it for as long as I can.”

Mescal certainly shows no signs of slowing. Her latest single, ‘Punchline’, is released today and exhibits her growing confidence in tackling challenging topics. “I wrote ‘Punchline’ in my bedroom last year about a friendship ending before it needed to and the heartbreak that comes with it,” Mescal said of the song in a statement, which continues in the vein of her candid, confessional songwriting style. “It’s about trying to ‘win’ the friendship breakup by pretending it doesn’t hurt you that much, but still having that sick feeling you get in your stomach because you miss the other person.”

Mescal says she’s now planning her next move. “I’ve got so many songs now. I’m just figuring when to put them out. They are [largely] indie but sometimes the vocals can be quite rocky, which feels very different from when I started,” she adds. “I’m definitely kind of always working on a bigger project, but at the moment it’s just trying to gauge what kind of music I want to put out and what feels good and what feels right,” she explains, adding she’s in no rush to release an album yet until she knows exactly what she wants to put out.

“I’m very lucky in that I’m getting to do that in little steps and I’m figuring that out day-by-day,” she adds, seeming determined to take her time and grow in an industry that often favours success at break-neck speed. “I’m figuring out where I want to go but I think my writing tends to be about coming-of-age things: friendship struggles, struggles with growing up. I’m sure all the songs will tie in some way or other, but I think that when people come and see the live shows, they will really see that more – how they’re all small elements of a much bigger story. Coming to one of my live shows is really just like seeing my diary on a page and what the last four years of my life have been like.”  

Mescal certainly has a lot of live shows to keep her busy this summer, with a run of festival dates, support slots with The Last Dinner Party and then her own headline tour this autumn. “It’s a pinch yourself time,” she laughs, in a year that’s been full of pinch-yourself moments. Now, she’s off to enjoy a rare afternoon off with her mum before rehearsals begin again tomorrow. “It’s exciting, and it’s just the start,” she laughs. “I can’t wait to see what’s next.”

Leave a Reply

More like this