Hype List 2024: Nell Mescal: “There is always something to feel good about; you just have to find it”

Nell Mescal is dishing out pinch-me moments (beer pong with HAIM?!) and indie-pop triumphs at an unstoppable pace.

Words: Neive McCarthy.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.

For many people, playing beer pong with HAIM is the kind of bucket list item you wouldn’t even think to put on your bucket list. For Nell Mescal, it’s one of many she has ticked off this year, alongside supporting the likes of Florence + the Machine and playing her biggest Irish headline show yet. Yeah, all in all, it’s been a pretty big 2023. For the Maynooth native, it has equalled pinch-me moment after pinch-me moment. Rest assured, though, there can only be more to come.

“Right before we went on tour, I went away with my mum for a week,” Nell recalls. “It was the first time I realised what I’d gotten to do. I was looking back at photos and just thinking that it’s so cool; I would never have imagined doing anything like that before. That was the first week where I was like, okay, I’ve done some really cool stuff this year, and I really have to be grateful for it, and I have to remember it and not let anything get into my head.”

Nell kicked off 2023 with the release of ‘Homesick’ in January, and from that point onwards, it’s been nothing short of madness in her world. A string of impressive singles followed, and the last twelve months have proved fundamental to Nell’s artistry and paved the way for what comes next. It’s been a time of truly learning her craft and understanding herself, and her audience has come along with her, growing rapidly with each release.

“The past year for music was really just putting out feelers and introducing myself to people,” Nell says. “Like, ‘Yeah, I write music, here I am, I want to do this forever’. It was a lot of different things, and I worked with a lot of different people who I love very much, and I love each and every sound, but I’m definitely finding my own pace now. I know what kind of artist I want to be right now, and I know that will change, but right now, I have my vision, and I’m working on something for next year that I’m so excited for. I’ve wrapped myself up in this world, and this is where I’m staying for the next few months.” 

With this year’s releases, Nell has demonstrated how multi-faceted and capable she truly is. ‘Homesick’ is an upbeat, effervescent bop navigating living on your own for the first time, whilst its follow-up, ‘In My Head’, deals with heartache and the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, favouring a more cinematic soundscape than before. Nell shifts and tries on different versions of her artistry, peeling back more and more of what she wants to embody along the way.

“I sometimes really want to have the mysterious, you-don’t-know-who-I-am thing on Instagram, but I just can’t – I post everything I think of”

nell mescal

‘In My Head’ proved to be an exercise in learning to drill things down to specifics, to be as true to herself and her experiences as possible, something she realised she had been missing previously. 

“I wasn’t being specific, and I wasn’t actually putting the story on the page,” she explains. “It’s like how they say in therapy to imagine all your thoughts and everything that’s happened to you are pieces of paper crumpled up, and they don’t all fit in the jar. So, you have to take them all out and fold them all up, and immediately, there’s more space to fit in the jar, more space to think. The jar is your brain. I don’t fucking do that! I just say everything, throw it in and hope I haven’t missed anything. When I started listening to more music, watching more things and reading more, I realised I actually just need to put a place in and say, ‘This happened here; let’s talk about it’. It immediately opened up a whole different world, and now when I write music, I want to put a place, a person, a thing – something that’s tangible so that the person who is listening to it can be like, ‘Oh I’ve done that, I’ve been there’.”

That resonance is of utmost importance in Nell’s writing. It’s something she seeks in the music she chooses to listen to, and the need for people to find that comfort in her own music becomes paramount as a result. She might be supporting some big names and hopping off on tour, but the parallels between Nell’s teenage years and coming-of-age and her peers’ are still reassuringly palpable in her music. She’s rewatching Gilmore Girls (importantly, she’s Team Jess with a soft spot for Logan, if you were wondering), she’s trying to tell her mum not to post on TikTok, she’s dealing with the gut-wrenching hardships of friends and relationships that many of her audience have. Of course, it’s partly because of that understanding and grounded nature that so many listeners have been drawn to her.

“Sometimes I can get this weird thing where I think no one believes I do this stuff…”

nell mescal

“Other than people like Taylor Swift, I found it really difficult to find music that wasn’t about a relationship,” Nell recalls. “When I was fourteen or fifteen and going through friendship breakups, it was hard to find music showing how much it can affect you. Talking about my experience helps me, but it’s cool that I get to talk to other people about it, too. I’m not glad that they can relate to it, but I’m glad that if they do relate to it, they’ve got a place to go and let those emotions out.”

While Nell had the likes of ‘Mean’ and ‘Fifteen’ growing up, the young girls listening to her are fortunate enough to have an array of other hauntingly realistic songs that offer a real sense of solidarity. 

“It’s really difficult, and everyone always underestimates the power of a friendship breakup because it’s so difficult. I sing about more than just that, but this past year has definitely been about that for me. I’ve got so much more coming up, and I do talk about a lot of different things, and I’m approaching different topics, but I think that it has been really important for my fans to see where my background was with my writing – that’s all I would write about for three years. It’s been really cool to see how that has developed and how people have reacted to it. You talk about relationships to your best friends, and you talk about that kind of intimate part of your life to those people, and they’re the people that know how to hurt you the most – for a teenage girl, there’s nothing scarier.”

‘Punchline’ grapples with trying to win those kinds of wars while still being plagued by memories and thoughts of that friendship, a punchier version of Nell than seen before. Her songwriting is her weapon through these experiences, a way of manifesting how she might feel and reminding herself, mantra-like, of how this can and will go if she just gives it time. ‘Teeth’ is a similar addition to her arsenal. “Call it off, can’t lose any more sleep,” she reminds herself, and in writing those words, she unlocks a power that only comes to the surface after the fact.

“When I write the song, it’s the pretend phase where I say enough is enough, but for sure it isn’t. I’m only now at the point where I’m like, okay, I don’t think about that anymore. I’ve moved on. Writing it is the hope that I will call it off and say enough is enough. It’s always a few months or weeks later when I make that decision, but writing the songs helps. It puts everything I’m thinking on a page, and it’s like, this is how I’m feeling, don’t forget it.” 

After making the track, Nell listened to the demo for a month (“My Spotify Wrapped is going to be so fucked”), needing to hear that reminder from someone, and it just happened to be from herself. There’s a unique strength in her songwriting ability to offer up that beacon of light even when she is in the pits of an experience, and that element of hope has proven vital for Nell. Often finding herself labelled as part of the sad girl indie brigade, for Nell and many others alongside her, there’s far more complexity to her writing than just those emotions. 

“It’s not good to feed that emotion all the time, but obviously, it’s warranted a lot of the time – a lot of the time, that’s all I want to listen to, and you cannot tell me to put on anything else,” Nell laughs. “But I think having hope there, even if it’s just underneath the sadness of it all, is so important. It’s never ever going to be just doom and gloom. There is always something to feel good about; you just have to find it. I guess that’s cringey, but that’s just how I like to write music. I definitely think hope is a really important part of my songwriting process because it’s why I’m still here.” 

Some of the vulnerability that comes as she recounts her experiences in tracks like ‘Teeth’ is striking, but those reminders that things will be okay hit harder. Nell’s particular brand of ‘sad girl’ is a call to arms to feel your feelings and express them as honestly as you see fit, but to remember that things will pass and in acknowledging these things, they are released.

“Sadness is so much more than just being sad,” Nell continues. “It’s always just people saying ‘sad girl music’ and then picturing a girl, sad at home, but that’s not it. It’s for everybody, and it’s not just about crying; it’s about feeling angry and feeling lonely and all these different things, but it’s also about trying to be happy.” 

That beacon of light is always lit in Nell’s music, and a lot of her fans are moths to a flame in that sense. Those who have discovered her have cemented themselves as here to stay, and that kinship has been a shining part of this year for Nell. 

“I’ve done so many support tours this year, and you see the people that find you there and then continue that support. I think that’s so cool. I’m so grateful now because I’m still at the start of my journey in music, and it’s so nice to see people that are in it and are like, ‘Yeah, we’re here now, and we’re going to be there whatever you’re doing’. It’s so nice.”

“It’s so cool to see people come to multiple shows – I find that so bizarre. There’s a girl called Amber who comes to a lot of the shows, and she was like, ‘Yeah, I’m coming to this one, and this one, and this one’. I was like, ‘Why? Why are you doing that?’ That’s so crazy to me. I feel so grateful. Every day, I think about it because they truly do know me, which is so bizarre. I sometimes really want to have the mysterious, you-don’t-know-who-I-am thing on Instagram, but I just can’t – I post everything I think of. It’s so funny that they truly do see a lot of the sides of me, so it’s cool that they do, and they want to stick around.”

That authenticity is particularly special about Nell. On ‘Teeth’, she sings, “I think you read my journal”, and it’s a sentiment that rings true for most of her songs – they’re as raw and uncut as a conversation with a best friend, but with gorgeous indie-pop tones and delivered with powerhouse vocals to make those sometimes-difficult words easier to hear. It helps, of course, that she’s found her feet in the last year, too, and found a clan of kindred spirits to surround herself with and give her the support to be so earnest. 

“I moved [to London] over two years ago now,” Nell notes. “When I think about how I was when I first moved, it’s like a completely different person. The people that you surround yourself with are so important. If they’re speaking negatively or positively, it impacts you in a huge way, and I’m so lucky that my friends are so cool, sweet, and supportive.”

Those people have been major players in Nell’s life throughout this crazy year. Be it her band, her family or her friends, many of them have been there to make the magical moments shimmer a bit more. One particular highlight was All Points East in the summer. She had one of her first-ever festival appearances there just last year, but this year, she headlined a stage in support of Haim, and the visualisation of how far she’d come was made all the more special.

“If you told me last year that I was going to play guitar in front of people, I would have blocked you”

nell mescal

“I got to share it with so many people I love,” says Nell. “I had loads of friends there; my brothers were there, their friends were there. It was really cool to see my brothers’ friends from home, whom we all grew up with, be at a show. Sometimes I can get this weird thing where I think no one believes I do this stuff, so it’s cool to see people be there, and my band had people they knew there too.” 

There have been some truly huge moments for Nell this year. Sharing a stage with idols like Florence + the Machine (“I didn’t know how to breathe”), or Dermot Kennedy, whose photos she has had on her wall since she was fourteen, have been major, career-shifting instances – ones that Nell is finally allowing herself to acknowledge as cool. As the year draws to a close, however, Nell’s focus is shifting to her solo shows. An Irish headline tour rounds out the year before she heads back to the UK in the new year for some more shows where she tops the bill.

“I find headlines so weird,” Nell muses. “You see everyone from the stage, and you’re like, ‘Oh, fuck, everyone is here for me’. That’s really exciting and really scary. But it’s going to be so much fun. I’ve learnt so much with performing – getting to do the amount of shows that I’ve done this year has changed that for me. It’s made me so much more comfortable on stage and helped me realise I’m there for a reason. I still get imposter syndrome, but I think it helps getting to do so many shows. At each show, it goes away a little bit, then you do something crazy, and you’re like, I shouldn’t be here at all! The performing side of it has taught me so much, and it’s given me more confidence – if you told me last year that I was going to play guitar in front of people, I would have blocked you. I would never have believed it.”

2023 has been a journey for Nell through the highs and lows of life and finding her place in this industry. It’s been a cocoon, and as she emerges more settled and surer of herself and her artistry than ever, 2024 offers Nell Mescal the chance to well and truly spread her wings as she continues on her path as one of the most captivating songwriters around. “I’ve got stories that I want to tell,” concludes Nell. “I feel like I’m finally ready to tell them.”

Taken from the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Dork.


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