“I’ve grown up. I feel like that’s the main thing.” The Nina Nesbitt of 2017 is not like the Nina Nesbitt of 2013, the one who arrived as if from nowhere in 2012 and scored a UK top 15 album with Peroxide in early 2014. The heartfelt, easily relatable lyrics remain, as evidenced on the multi-layered, story-telling pop of new single, The Moments I’m Missing, which was written and produced solely by Nesbitt. That character-filled voice remains, as does the razor-sharp eye for acute lyrical observations and nagging, ear-worm melodies. What’s new is a desire to inject her music with more obvious pop influences, an area she dived headlong into last year on the excellent, one-off single Chewing Gum. While the first album zipped past in a flash, things falling into place at an alarming speed almost outside of her control, this new Nina Nesbitt, now 22, is in charge of everything. All of it. An independent artist in all variations of that phrase, this is the sound of a singer-songwriter comfortable in their own skin. “I’m so proud of this album,” she beams. “If it does well then great, obviously, but I feel like I’ve made the record I’ve always wanted to make.”
Born in a little village outside Edinburgh, Nesbitt’s musical education was a long and constantly evolving one. Fully immersed in chart pop thanks to her Swedish mother – think lots of ABBA, Britney, Christina, Whitney – that was then mixed later with the more outré leanings of her father, specifically Brian Eno. Closeted in her little village, it took her friends to break her out of a fairly dark early obsession. “My friend at school told me to stop listening to Basshunter and start listening to Nirvana, so she introduced me to the rock world,” she laughs. Later, after moving to London, her musical horizons were exploded more and more. “I really got into R&B all of a sudden, and I just love how Lauryn Hill, Bryson Tiller and Kehlani communicate things about their life. It’s like I know who they are when I’m listening to their songs. So I wanted to represent that in my music too.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because music wasn’t always her only passion. Despite learning to play various instruments, Nesbitt was also a rhythmic gymnast training to go to the Olympics. “I feel like that is where a lot of my drive has come from, because I wanted to be the best,” she explains. “I was so passionate about it. I ended up being in the Scottish team and training for the Commonwealth Games. I stopped because I’d gone as far as I could. Then music was the next thing.” Rhythmic gymnastics was also joined on the sidelines by the flute, an instrument that’s hard to make look cool, especially when there are boys around. At 15, having learned the guitar, a new inspiration arrived. “I remember being 15 and hearing Taylor Swift’s song 15 and being like ‘oh my God’, it’s a girl with a guitar writing her own songs,” she says. “I wanted to do that! I don’t come from a musical background or a wealthy background, so I needed to find a way of getting out there and that thing of writing your own songs felt affordable and doable.”
By this point she’d already started uploading covers to YouTube, chiefly to work out if she could actually sing, a baptism of fire that showed an early resolve. “I used to be like ‘do I have a good voice?’ and my mum would say ‘you’ve got a unique tone’,” she cackles. “So I never knew if I was good or not, but I loved singing so much. I basically recorded these videos because I thought strangers would give me an honest opinion and that way I could work out if I was good or not. So I didn’t tell anyone about it.” Having already started songwriting aged 10 (her first song was called Dreams Become Reality), she’d also started accumulating a collection of her own recordings, which came in handy when a chance meeting with Ed Sheeran in 2011 after a gig lead to an impromptu performance and an offer to support him at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Still unsigned, a cover of an Example song then lead to a support slot on his arena tour, which was then followed by an appearance on the Radio One playlist. Having signed to Island, the Nesbitt tornado was now in motion, taking in more playlist appearances, more live shows, more Top 40 singles, more acclaim.
When the dust settled and the album was out, however, Nesbitt was ready to move on. Chewing Gum was the sound of her breaking out of her comfort zone and indulging fully her love of pop, a move that was embraced by her fans but one that felt a little too alien. While proud of the song, it symbolised the breakdown of her relationship with Island and kickstarted her move away from being an artist and embracing songwriting for others. It was a move that reignited her passion for music, lifted her confidence back up after the label split and eventually lead to the creation of The Moments I’m Missing. The pop album she’d been making, and that Chewing Gum was meant to be on, may have been scrapped but the process of its creation has its positives, chiefly her learning production for herself. As I said, always fully in control. “Production is expensive and I didn’t want to have to rely on anyone else for my own career,” she says. “I wanted to do it myself. I’ve got this little studio at home and I just sit for hours and hours learning. I want to be able to do it all by myself if I have to. I want to always be able to put music out.”
With songs cut by various artists (including one song currently being kept on hold by one of the biggest megastars in the world), Nesbitt’s keen to carry on with the songwriting for others. But the passion for her own project is firmly back, kickstarted by the creation of the beautiful, fully biographical The Moments I’m Missing, a swirling combination of delicate piano lament and robust, intricately programmed beats that features LA singer Goody Grace. “I went home from a session for someone else and I wanted to write a song nobody else could sing but me. I wanted to write a song that’s just about my life,” she says, referring to these new songs accurately as “suburban pop”. I loved how rappers or R&B artists talked about their lives and I wanted to find the singer-songwriter version of that. When my career took off it all happened so fast and I couldn’t always take it all in. But now I’ve had a lot of time to look back and see what was amazing and what was shit. It’s not about missing as in longing; it’s about the moments I’m missing from my brain. It’s about recollecting.”
Elsewhere there’s the gloriously biting The Best You Had (“it’s crazy that you’re moving on so fast, but baby it’s okay if I am still the best you had” runs the chorus), a low-key, R&B-tinged tale of love gone sour written and recorded with newcomers Jordan Reilly and Lost Boy. “It’s a personal thing because I’ve definitely felt like that but I had a conversation with a friend who was gutted her ex had moved on but she was like ‘as long as I was better then that’s fine’. She really hit the nail on the head. So I made it into a little poem. Once I started working on it in the studio the whole thing came to me in about 30 minutes.” Then there’s Somebody Special, perhaps the best example of the bridge between the old and new. Written in Nashville with Daniel McClough and Bre Kennedy, it’s a love song but “not too mushy” and sounds like a global smash, all slowly percolating verses and a chorus you want to live inside.
In a music industry that often doesn’t give you second chances, or time to settle into the artist you want to be, Nina Nesbitt’s found a way to not only make it work, but make it work for her. Rather than rush into making an album for the sake of it, she waited for the inspiration to strike and let it slowly take shape organically. “With an album I feel like it’s parallel to my life in a way – I was just trying to find out what I liked and what I was good at,” she says succinctly. What she’s good at is being a pop star, but one that’s fully in control, i.e. the very best kind.