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Nell Mescal: ‘I’ve been singing for my entire life’

As 2023 begins, indie folk singer Nell Mescal reflects on burgeoning fame as she takes her place as one of Ireland’s most unique voices

By Nick Reilly

Nell Mescal (Picture: Press)

‘At the start of 2022, I did a video saying I wanted to go on tour, but that idea just felt so far away from me,” says 19-year-old Nell Mescal.“Now I’ve done two tours. I feel like anything is possible, I’m just manifesting the idea of more collaborations for 2023.”

When we talk, the Kildare-born singer has just finished an extensive tour of the UK, supporting Manchester art-pop star Phoebe Green in what has been the latest step in a whirlwind journey since Mescal released debut single ‘Graduating’ back in July.

At the time, she told Rolling Stone UK how her emotionally charged debut effort channelled the struggles she experienced during school, which eventually led her to drop out without graduating. The song, rooted in indie folk, sees Mescal’s bleak experience laid bare. It clearly struck a chord. Within a week she was contacted by fans who thanked her for reflecting their own similar, lived experiences.

“When I released ‘Graduating’, I got a lovely message off someone saying that they were supposed to graduate but didn’t want to go because someone was bullying them,” she recalls. “To have that reaction in the first week of release was lovely, but also extremely cathartic for the situation I’d been through.”

In fact, the honesty within Mescal’s music is one of its biggest strengths, even if it isn’t always as solemn as the sound of ‘Graduating’. Despite the title, her follow-up track ‘Homesick’, released in January, is a perky slice of indie pop that offers solidarity with outsiders.

Nell Mescal’s tunes are garnering serious interest

“I wrote it in LA. One of the lines is about sitting in a hotel lobby and just being jealous of everyone else’s outfits. When I leave my house in London too, everything just feels like a fashion show,” she says.

She moved to the capital from Ireland —the place where she forged her musical beginnings —last year. “My first musical memories were listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter and a lot of country albums,” she explains. “I’d perform in an Irish talent show and I’d sing Dougie MacLean’s ‘Caledonia’ with my dad every year. I’d sing at every opportunity and then began writing at 12, but I started saying it’d be my career when I was 14. I’d had back surgery and just spent a lot of time at home writing every day and that was the start.”

Five years later, Mescal occupies a unique position as one of Ireland’s most unusual musical voices. If you’ve clocked the surname by now, you’ll realise that her older brother Paul —whose breakout role came in lockdown smash hit Normal People—is one of the world’s hottest screen prospects.

The siblings’ close relationship, Mescal explains, has seen her brother becomea valuable sounding board for her upcoming releases. “We’re both too similar, we’ll have exactly the same ideas and when I think it’s not great, I always think he’ll have the same reaction as me, which is daunting!” she says.

Another person Mescal has played her songs to is the US singer Phoebe Bridgers, Paul’s girlfriend (although at the time of writing a question mark hangs over whether they remain together).

In what Mescal admits to being her biggest pinch-me moment of the past 12 months, she joined Bridgers on stage at Brixton Academy last summer to perform her 2017 track ‘Georgia’. “I just got a text from Phoebe and immediately thought it was a joke. I called my mum and she started screaming,” she recalls. “I said yes immediately and then was frantically trying to convince myself I knew all the words and getting ready. It was a quick thing, but the best experience.”

Although that brief cameo with Bridgers marked one of Mescal’s biggest live experiences to date, she says that hitting the road with Phoebe Green has allowed her to work on the performance side of her craft while also changing the relationship she has with some of her more emotional songs.

“My drummer Meg was recently saying the difference between me on the first day of tour and [the] last day was just incredible. It’s been such a catalyst for me to just be like, ‘I wrote these for a reason and I’m singing them for a reason.’”In turn, it has also helped liberate her from the personal pain that inspired tracks like ‘Graduating’.“It does take a while but you feel that click eventually happen. It happened during this live tour, it stopped feeling like a chore and I could have more fun with it.”

She is also under no illusion that some fans will attend her shows purely because of the Mescal name, but she is entirely confident that she’ll win them round as new members of her fanbase.

“I’ve been singing my whole life. Paul is incredible and it’s been amazing to see what’s happened for him in the past few years. People might come because of his name, but if they stay then it’s because they like the music.”

(Picture: Press)

And although her brother might be carving out a career as a Hollywood regular, Mescal has conclusive proof that she —as the youngest of three talented siblings —is in fact their parents’ favourite.

“I’m on both my parents’ lock screen,” she jokingly admits. “I’m the baby girl.”

For 2023, Mescal promises more music and a string of buzzy performances —including slots at the industry-heavy Great Escape.“I’ve been listening to a lot of music that has been all over the place and I don’t want to be tied down,” she says.

“I just can’t wait to release ‘Homesick’ straight after ‘Graduating’, because it shows an entirely new spectrum to my sound. That’s what I’m aiming for.”

Taken from the February/March 2023 issue of Rolling Stone UK. Buy it online here. On UK newsstands now.