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Growing pains and happy endings: Nell Mescal tells us about her debut EP

Opening her heart in her music has helped Nell Mescal build a dedicated fanbase, but there’s plenty of room for hope too, the 21-year-old reveals, as she releases her debut EP

By Nick Reilly

Nell Mescal (Picture: David Reiss)

Last summer, Nell Mescal found herself on the receiving end of some blunt wisdom from Florence Welch, after she supported the singer at a massive outdoor gig in Cork.

“I saw her watching my set, and she came up to me afterwards. She just held me and said, ‘You need better friends!’” the 21-year-old tells Rolling Stone UK in a north London boozer. “I had to tell her, ‘No, I swear I have better ones now!’”

In fairness to Welch, anyone giving Mescal’s music the most casual of listens could be forgiven for drawing that very same conclusion. When the singer, from Maynooth, in Kildare, Ireland, released her debut single ‘Graduating’ in July 2022, it drew on her experiences of bullying and a tough time at school, which eventually led her to drop out without graduating. More recently, the stirring ‘Warm Body’, taken from her debut EP Can I Miss It for a Minute?,is about “growing up and navigating relationships with the worry that the people you love will leave you”.

Tough times like these are a common thread through Mescal’s music, sure, but she says that her debut EP is rooted in the universality of it all — there’s a certain amount of joy to be found in knowing that these experiences are things that we’ve all probably gone through at some point. 

“I think the overarching message of this EP is knowing that everyone’s gone through this. It’s not, like, a solo experience, and I’m the only person who’s ever been through a friendship break-up that has felt like the end of the world. All of my friends have been through them, and we’re friends because we talked about it.”

She adds, “I’ve always said it, but I love to listen to sad music. I’m listening to the saddest song you’ve ever heard, and I think it’s great to indulge in those feelings, but I also think that at the end of everything you have to be left with some hope because you can’t just be sad all the time, and it’s not good to romanticise it.”

For Mescal, this means that the EP ends on ‘July’, which sees her vocals buoyed by lush and uplifting instrumental soundscapes. Similarly, the stand-out track ‘Killing Time’ sees her sadness channelled into an almighty indie-pop banger. “It’s nice to end on a song where we can say we’ve done that now, and we have to say there is so much of an uplift in my life,” she says.

Sometimes, though, it’s a multitude of life experiences in a single song. “I wrote ‘Warm Body’ about a very specific thing in the first line, and then, all of a sudden, I was talking about my childhood and going ‘Holy shit, this all connects,’” she says. “Look, this is very current, and I hate that I’m referencing it,” Mescal coyly adds, “but have you seen Madame Web?”

No, I have not seen the Sony-produced Marvel movie that was slammed by reviewers as “god-awful” and received a critical slaughtering upon release earlier this year.

“It’s as bad as everyone says, but it’s so funny. I was going to say that the film’s tagline says, ‘Her web connects them all,’ so it’s a bit like that.”

As it happens, that experience is connected in another way too —Mescal’s cinema experience shows that Welch needn’t worry about the quality of her friendships. “It was only me and my friends that were properly laughing, and we felt like assholes, but by the end of it everyone was going, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe we’ve wasted a whole afternoon on that.’ We just thought the whole thing was really funny.”

This sense of friendship and community also translates to Mescal’s online following — she has a small army of Gen-Z fans who find kinship in her personal pain and are always on hand to dish out a brilliantly humanising dose of humour, too. “Omg! The Nell Mescal took her brother to the BAFTAS? She’s so kind,” wrote one fan in February after she attended the awards with her very famous sibling, the Oscar-nominated actor Paul Mescal.

On a cold Wednesday night in January, Rolling Stone UK witnessed this first hand during a sold-out live show at London’s Omeara. Mescal was headlining the venue, having played support to Manchester singer Phoebe Green just 12 months previously.

The thinnest of pins could be heard to drop when she opened with the raw pain of ‘Graduating’, but by the time she ended nearly an hour later with the soaring guitar pop of ‘Homesick’ — its chorus lyric of “YOU SAID THERE’S NO SHAME IN THAT” screamed back by her fervent fans — the roof of the south London venue felt fit to collapse.

“That last tour was special because I’d play a show in Nottingham, and I’d see people queueing up outside and just be like ‘What the fuck?’ I didn’t even know what Nottingham was two years ago. I’m just from Maynooth, and it’s such a weird feeling calling my mum and being like, ‘Oh, there’s 20 people in the queue outside already even though it’s raining.’ It’s so strange, but fan culture is a really, really special thing.”

(Picture: David Reiss)

It has, Mescal explains, been a baptism by fire, too. A grotty tour bus, after all, is a rite of passage for any rising artist. “I’m prone to getting a little bit ill on the tour bus, so we have a dehumidifier on there, but there’s water in it, and we have to tape it down in the middle. If the van suddenly swerves, we’re all holding it!” she explains.

Dodgy tour buses aside, Mescal also says that her experiences of playing live have honed her debut EP — she has embraced raw vocals and subtle slip-ups after noticing that two of her personal heroes did the same thing. “I wanted to keep it as real as possible,” she says. “All I wanted to do is make sure people can hear what they’re going to hear live, imperfections and everything. We wanted to take as raw a vocal as we could, and I think that’s perfect to me, all these little mistakes that you can hear. It’s like Adrienne Lenker, you can hear her fuck up, and she’ll audibly say that! I don’t think I’ve audibly fucked up, but it felt live. I also reference Lucy Dacus too because she makes records that are so live while also being so recorded. I think she measures those two worlds, and if I could do a bit of that, I’d be really happy.”

As for the overarching story and her own personal pain behind the EP, Mescal says she was not ready to “leave it behind without being tied up nicely with a bow”. This record — and the palpable emotion — is the reflection of that. “I think it is gonna sound sad but there is never a period of time in my life where I’ve got nothing to write about,” she says. “The themes on this EP, I was happy to put them to bed, but it doesn’t mean I’m not experiencing some of them in a different way. Even while we were recording, there was crazy stuff happening in my life that I was not ready to write about. My mum hasn’t been well, but I can’t write about that because it’s too raw. It’s just trying to figure out the considerate way for myself because it’s just hard to write about things that are painful all the time.”

Can I Miss It for a Minute? is now out — and one listen to the record shows that it is, as Mescal explained, the perfect way to close that chapter of her life.

“Maybe I’m a narcissist, but I listen to it all the time, back to front, and I’m just so proud of it. I’ve loved being able to share it with people, even if I shouldn’t be doing that before it’s out! I’m overwhelmed with how happy I am because being able to spend the time working on it really hard and with the specific team that I worked on it with has actually changed my life.”