Interview: Nina Nesbitt on anxiety, songwriting and fans

Balerno's Nina Nesbitt launches her new EP on Monday. Picture: Contributed
Balerno's Nina Nesbitt launches her new EP on Monday. Picture: Contributed
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Singer songwriter Nina Nesbitt’s vocals are fragile and a little breathless, the gentle electronic beat in the background of her new song is haunting and subtle.

She’s not singing about love and broken hearts. There’s no catchy pop singalong chorus, toe-tapping rhythm or – despite her millions of YouTube views – a glossy big production video.

While others might churn out songs about break-ups and boyfriends, Edinburgh-born Nina’s lyrics reflect something far grittier, more intense, a bit darker.

And, for teenagers the length of the land holed up in dim bedrooms with the weight of the world dragging them down, the words are painfully real.

It’s a song about misery, anxiety and searching for some scrap of emotional release even if it means harm and pain. It’s a story that Nina has come to understand touches more people than just her.

“So many young girls wrote to me with anxiety, depression, self-harm,” says Nina, days away from a UK mini-tour and the release of an EP featuring songs inspired by her fans’ own stories.

“I struggled with anxiety when I was around 15 or 16 years old, I recognised what they were saying.

“I know how it feels to be in that position where you feel that way, but I didn’t realise so many people had it.”

The result is a song called Manchester, one of four which appear on the new EP Life in Colour, that are drawn from little stories Nina’s dedicated fans – dubbed Nesbians – wrote in reply to her appeal for real life experiences to help inspire her new collection of deeply reflective material.

Another, Brisbane, was based on a heartbreaking message from a fan describing the loss of her father.

The song Ontario reflects on another’s deteriorating relationship – the anonymous fan’s telling of events so vivid that Nina was able to put herself in her shoes.

It was a unique experience – after all, few artists might want to connect quite so closely with their fans that they end up having a hand in actually creating their material.

“I feel when you’re writing about your life every day, it’s draining,” explains Nina.

“So I asked online for anyone with a story to tell that I could turn into a song, then got lots of stories... thousands in fact.”

Nina, from Balerno, waded through the replies. She said: “They were really varied, some were very emotional, some very dark, some were a nice read. Whenever something jumped out, I tried to write a song about it. It might have been a little story or just someone writing about their feelings.”

The result - pared back, deep and reflective songs – is miles away from her last single. Chewing Gum was, indeed, bordering on chewing gum pop, with a sleek video that put all eyes on her, it left her cringing.

And it would lead to a dramatically different chapter in her career.

“When Chewing Gum came out, I can say now that I felt so uncomfortable on stage, it felt so wrong, everything about it was not me.

“I decided I needed to go back to the drawing board.”

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Nina Nesbitt is still just 22 years old. She left Balerno Community High School and set about quietly performing in Edinburgh coffee shops. There was an 
X Factor audition – she was later relieved not to have got past the third round – and a lot of uploading songs to YouTube and hoping to be noticed.

She caught Ed Sheeran’s eye – a fling made her a paparazzi target. Festival appearances followed and by 2013, her single Stay Out hit number 21 in the UK chart.

Her cover version of Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop put her on the national stage when it was used in a John Lewis advert, and she performed Flower of Scotland at a Hampden Park international match.

The following year her album Peroxide made number 11. Based in London – mum Caty, who is Swedish, and dad Mike are back home in Edinburgh – her career with her record label seemed secure.

So it was with the maturity of an artist years her senior that earlier this year she decided to leave and to strike out on her own, stating that she wanted “success as me not someone I feel pressured into being”.

She’s not looked back. Already she’s working on a new independently produced album, her fan-inspired EP will be released on Monday after she appears in Glasgow tomorrow representing the make-up brand W7 for which she was named an ambassador at the start of the year and then at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut.

As well as the face of the make up brand, she’s in demand as a model. Recently she put music to one side to strut down the London Fashion Week catwalk.

“I think being independent has been the best thing for me,” she continues. “I don’t want to be singing shiny pop songs or doing big budget stuff. I just want a team that like what I do and want to enhance that.”

Her collection of ‘electronic pop’-style songs were given to a publisher along with a few others she felt weren’t quite ‘her’. One has been picked up and recorded by Olivia Holt, an American Disney starlet, another three by country duo The Shires for their new album. Others are under consideration.

Writing songs for other artists is a new addition to her CV, one that she’s particularly proud of. “I love writing for other people,” she adds, “I just write a song that I think is good, don’t have to think about whether it suits my suits my style or not.”

There’s one more new string to her bow. Having appealed to her fans for their personal stories and discovering the depth of sadness in many of their lives, Nina set up a social media group – Nightwatch – with the aim of offering support and help to anyone going through difficult times.

“I feel so good that people are now talking about how they feel and what they’re going through,” she explains. “It’s like a club, people can send little private messages and tell me their problems.

“I’m like an agony aunt.”

Nina Nesbitt will be in Glasgow’s Argyle Street at 11.30am on Sunday with the W7 make-up brand’s pink bus and is performing at King Tut’s Wah Wah hut that night. Her EP Life in Colour is available to download on iTunes from Monday