"In My Head" Could Change Nell Mescal's Life
After a brief flirtation with going viral, the singer-songwriter is now prepared for anything.
In 2023, fame has no timeline. It can take years to break through, or just one role, or one song, or even one tweet to suddenly be a name that everyone knows. Nell Mescal has seen it all.
She saw it when her brother, Paul, suddenly became one of the world’s most in-demand leading men after his star-turning role in Normal People. And she saw it herself earlier this year when a simple tweet congratulating her brother on his first Oscar nomination turned her into a trending topic. “It's so scary, especially when it's about your personal life, because [going viral] wasn't the intention at all, and I'm always afraid people will think that's the intention,” Mescal, 19, says now, chatting from her flat in London. “It's not a fun thing, because you just all of a sudden have eyes on you. I definitely did want to retreat a little bit, and anytime my phone would ring I'd be like, ‘Oh no, what happened?’ But social media comes and goes, and it's already died down. Now we just have a lot more eyes, and I'm like, “Okay, go listen to my music now. If you want to be here, you might as well do that.”
A flirtation with virality may be commonplace in a time when nearly everyone has access to smartphone and a ring light, but for Mescal — a very online emerging singer-songwriter with a new single, “In My Head,” out on Friday — this was likely not the last time. But now, not only is she aware of that, she’s prepared. “You're seeing so many talented people have their lives change because of one song, that you kind of have to go into every release being quite optimistic,” she says. “You kind of just have to believe that it's going to change your life, even if it's in a very tiny way.”
“In My Head” is Mescal’s third proper single — a grand, swirling track with an equally grand video that buoys between the bittersweet of “Dancing On My Own” and the operatic builds of classic showtunes. Mescal calls it her favorite song to date, and it’s likely to resonate just the same with listeners, especially as she brings it to the stage with a series of dates across the UK this spring. Here, Mescal talks about starting out in the industry, her complicated relationship with social media, and preparing for her world to change.
How would you describe your music to someone who had never heard it before?
It's kind of ever-changing, but I would say it's kind of like pop-alternative-indie. I write a lot about friendships and breakups and all that comes with growing up; not my childhood, but just growing up as a young person. Everyone's going through the same things that I'm going through, and this is just my take on it. It’s about growing pains.
At what point as a young teen did you realize, “Oh, this [hobby] could be a thing?”
I'd been writing songs that I just felt like, “I really need to write about this.” It was like I was just doing it because I kind of had to get it out. And then when I was 15 I had back surgery and I was out of school for a while, very much on my own. So it was the only thing I could really do other than watch Gilmore Girls. The songs that I wrote in that time were like, “Eh, these are good enough to make a start.” So I think it was just kind of a long time coming of doing a lot of groundwork before I even tried to begin the actual industry part of it.
Were there any artists at the time inspiring you to take that leap?
Birdy was that one, so getting to open for Birdy is incredible because all my early songs are very much Birdy, 1000 percent. She was a huge draw to the writing side of things. She was just so honest and was very much saying sentences that really made me feel something, but were also really beautiful. I feel like I hadn't really had an artist that did that for me up till that point. I didn't understand music enough to be like, “Oh, songs can actually mean something other than just you like listening to the song.” It's nice to have the escape of “I'm just listening to the song and I'm not going to really care too much about the meaning.” But I think Birdy was one of the first people that I was like, “Oh my God, this is actual poetry.”
When you decided to start in the industry, what were those steps for you?
It was weird, because I started in COVID and had my first song out literally February of 2020, and I did it myself through CD Baby, which I did for the next three songs. I just released the songs and was expecting it to just be my friends and family [listening]. And then that circle opened up a little bit, and I met the right people through it. I was very lucky that it happened quick enough, but not too quick… I was sweating for sure. I was absolutely like, “I need someone to email me,” or “I need to send more things out.” But I was very lucky that I also was kind of protected in the space of having that time to really just be putting stuff out by myself and trying to figure it out that way, and not having too much pressure. I was very glad when I got an email from Tara, my manager.
Was it odd to be living at home with your parents while your songs started to get more and more traction online?
I wasn't really getting too much traction. I think it was just the right amount. I'm very lucky I didn't blow up. I didn't have this really big thing that happened, because I think that that can just be so scary. It was very gradual and quite nice.
Especially after seeing the opposite happen to your brother, I imagine.
I have so much respect and empathy for people that are waking up one day and seeing their phone has completely changed, because it's so scary and it's difficult. And obviously, so you're so grateful for it. But it's scary and I'm kind of glad that hasn't happened to me. It's so unnatural. We're not supposed to know that many people, ever.
How did you realize that people were starting to respond to your songs?
Just from messages I would receive from people and how they were connecting to it. That was always more important than the quantity of people. I released a song called “Graduating” and someone texted me that night after being like, my graduation's next week and I really didn't want to go because I'm being bullied and all this kind of stuff. And I'm so glad that it reached that person at that time. When I get messages like that, it's kind of like, “Oh, okay. Stuff is happening.”
Do you have a process for writing?
When I'm writing with other people, it feels like there's a pressure that's kind of welcome to be like, “Okay, imposter syndrome has to stay away.” So you have to just hit them with something and keep going. I've been quite lucky. I haven't really been experiencing too much writer's book at the moment. I've been maybe too impatient where I'm just any lyric, just put on paper. When I'm writing by myself, it will be a much longer process, which is also very welcome because there are just certain songs need more time.
Have you gotten to the stage where you are starting to write specifically with the end goal of an album?
I think I'm always kind of writing for a bigger project. I don't know what project it is, but I think that there's certain songs that I'm like, “okay, this is going there, and I'm okay if this doesn't see daylight for two more years.” Other songs, I need to have its moment [immediately], mostly because I'm impatient. It's an exciting time right now, and I think that I'm writing songs that I'm really proud of, especially this one. “In My Head” is my favorite song I've ever released, so I'm really excited for it.
What makes it your favorite?
There's a kind of maturity in my writing here that I hadn't really noticed. It’s nice when you see a change in something that you've been working on. When I'm doing it all the time, you don't really know if you're making any progress, and you're always trying to get a bit better at what you're doing. This was kind of a moment for me. It feels really nice to have a song that I think someone who I look up to would like.
I wrote it with one of my friends, Kai Bosch, who's incredible and he produced it and it was just a very hands-on experience. We were both just in the room being like, “this is a really nice song.” I feel like sometimes it's lame to be like, I love my own song, but I think when you're coy about a song that you love, it's just not a good way to be like, “Listen to my song. I don't even like it.” But I do, I love this song and I want people to listen to it.
Besides Birdy, who else has directly influenced and inspired you?
Lorde is definitely a huge inspiration. I also listened to a lot of really sad indie folk, like Adrianne Lenker. But I definitely wouldn't put myself in the same bracket as someone like that; I think she's incredible. But I feel like because I listen to a lot of folk music and then when I try and make something a bit more popular, I think it kind of bridges the gap. I listen to so much mainstream pop, but I don't feel like that's where my music falls. I also listen to so much musical theater and so much country music. It's beyond me, so I feel like it's just an amalgamation of a lot of things and I'm never too sure where to put myself, which is kind of nice.
Were you a musical theater kid?
I was such a musical theater kid, but I also feel like a fake musical theater kid because I didn't do a lot of shows growing up. I really wanted to, but I was also doing lots of sports and didn't really go hard on the one thing until I was 13 or 14 and was like, “Okay, I'm going to have to pick the lane here.” My biggest grievance with my parents is that they didn't send me to Broadway to audition for Annie, because I would watch the Searching for Annie documentary on YouTube literally every day being like, “That could have been me.”
As you’re releasing more and more music to more and more people, do you find the promotion aspect getting easier?
It can be kind of all consuming, because everything that you think about is, “How do I market this song?” Sometimes you're just like, “I hope it markets itself.” It's hard to break apps like TikTok where I know that there's a lot of people that would love this song, but how do I get it to them without shoving it down their throats?
Do you feel pressure to have a song go viral?
It's difficult because I feel like you're seeing so many talented people have their lives change because of one song. You have to believe that it's going to change your life, even if it's in a very tiny way. And you have to go into every release being quite optimistic about it, but I'm also terrified of having a viral moment. I think it would be very, very scary. I think that it's great when it happens to people, and I'm sure that if it happened [to me] I'd be like, “Oh, thank God,” because it does change your life. I do hope [release day] changes my life, but also that could mean in any way, any one person.
Have you gotten any strange DMs as your social following grows?
I get so many really weird, weird DMs that I don't even know if I can speak about in print. Rainn Wilson has a second account called Terry Carnation — I'm pretty sure it's him — and he found my music for some reason and has posted on his story about it. I love The Office, so it's really funny and really bizarre. I'm nearly positive it's his account, because I'm a huge fan of Cody Ko and Noel Miller and they've got a podcast together, and he was on it as Terry Carnation. The account’s got a lot of followers and we've talked on it, but I guess I’ve never said, “Are you Rainn?”
Have you noticed any differences in how America receives your music versus closer to home?
I'm excited to see what it's like when I go over there. America streams my music the most, but obviously it's much bigger than Ireland or the UK. I do really want [to tour] there as soon as I can.
Have there been any people you've seen live that have shifted your mind about what makes a good performance?
I saw Billie Eilish twice in a row at the O2 in London. I was there from @wherearetheavocadoes; I was a full fan girl. And then I went to see her live and I was like, “This is the most incredible show I've ever seen.” That one was one that definitely changed my perspective.
Two last important questions: One, did you get to meet Michelle Yeoh at the Oscars like you dreamed?
I didn't. I'm so sorry, if I met Michell Yeoh, I would not be on this Zoom call. I'd be dead. I did meet Billie Eilish and we had a hug. I also met Renate [Reinsve], who is the lead in The Worst Person in the World. I literally pointed out at her and hid. I bent down and said, “Go away, I can't do this.” But I got to tell her that I watched her movie five times in the same week, and she was really sweet and that was really nice.
Final question: How many hours did you spend on TikTok this weekend watching videos from the Eras Tour?
No, it's all I've been doing. I've been cackling at my phone. Every time I see a tweet from the Eras tour, I'm crying, laughing, I'm so much. And when she did the spin, the iconic Fearless spin…
Are you going to get to go?
Fingers crossed. I'm hoping that she announces an international tour and I will definitely be there, but she's going to need to rest. She is so strong! That stamina to do a three-hour set…
If you got to choose your show’s one-night-only acoustic song, what would it be?
I was just going to tweet about this, because I would say “State of Grace,” but then she did it already. I'm getting emotional about it right now thinking about it. Can you imagine she's singing “State of Grace” and you're just sitting there? I would start bawling, like I need to hear it. But there’s still so many.