Dropping out of school might just be the best thing that ever happened to Nell Mescal. The 19-year-old Irish singer-songwriter wrestled with the decision to quit education after struggling for quite some time, but change – as she’s come to find in a year in which she’s released her debut single and is slowly understanding the kind of attention her actor brother Paul, breakout star of Normal People, quickly received himself – can be a really good thing.
“Music has always been about hoping someone will say I made them feel something they hadn’t been able to feel before,” Mescal says while telling NME about the massive text message she received from somebody at midnight thanking her for her heartfelt single ‘Graduating’. “This girl, she’d skipped her graduation and really resonated with the song, and it just set me at ease. That’s all you could hope for when releasing anything.”
Mescal has been writing music for as long as she can remember, but ‘Graduating’ emerged in just an hour. The single’s accompanying artwork, an adorable photo of Mescal as a tiny child in a gown and cap, had been sitting in her phone for years. “It’s been a whirlwind, but it was also a long time coming,” she says of the song, which wasn’t planned as her first single – but, sometimes you just have to trust your gut. “I was nervous putting it out because it felt like I was just writing from my diary and putting it on Spotify. All my songs are quite personal, but this was just really on the nose – it’s all happening this season!”
It’s certainly set Mescal, who hails from Maynooth in Kildare, on her own path. While ‘Graduating’ is a tender, bittersweet goodbye to both the season and the people who left Mescal behind, it’s also about noticing that you’re not as sad as you maybe should be about it. There’s something of Olivia Rodrigo’s ostensibly pure and sweet breakout single ‘All I Want’, which also has a bite and determination to it, to the track, promising a well-intentioned and emotionally charged future ahead for Mescal.
The musician credits the collective musical community of the school choirs she was raised in with shaping the artist who she is today, as they taught her how to find her voice. “Growing up in choir, I was always able to just sing whenever I wanted,” she says. “You’re singing loudly and you’re in this community. I definitely feel like when you’re not releasing or doing shows, it can feel like your voice is only yours, and you can only sing in a certain volume.” That experience is what helped Mescal break free: “Putting songs out, it feels like I’m in choir again. I’m so grateful I did that from a young age – I don’t know where all my energy would have gone.”
The musician is awfully nostalgic about her not-too-distant youth; always ready to revisit and dissect these moments she didn’t quite grasp at the time. That’s not to say she’s yearning to go back, but there is a curiosity and wisdom in her music which many artists take decades to find. Mescal thinks it has a lot to do with her star sign. “I’m a Taurus, I’m stubborn and I find it hard to let go of things!” she laughs. “I write a lot about the past, but in my life a lot of things do repeat themselves – it’s about learning to cope with change.”
Music has always been the compass for Mescal, but she’s fortunate to have her own personal anchors which keep her grounded. Back in 2020, you may have spotted Paul ‘Normal People‘ Mescal urging his new fans to listen to his “favourite singer ever” while reposting Nell’s vulnerable bedroom piano covers and occasionally sharing videos of the two of them duetting. Today he’s left social media, but Nell still counts her brother as her biggest fan and greatest critic.
“Me and Paul are scarily similar in our taste,” she says. “So when writing a song, he’s always the first but also the last person that I want to bring stuff to, because I know if I’m struggling with a song he’ll say either the right thing or the wrong thing!”
As Mescal looks ahead to the future, there’s another musician who she and her brother both now count as a loved one. During our interview she recalls playing a small show with Phoebe Bridgers – who has been in a relationship with Paul since 2020 – last summer at Soho House. A couple of days after we speak, Mescal and Bridgers perform ‘Georgia’ together on the third night of the latter’s sold-out residency at London’s O2 Academy Brixton.
Does it feel like a bit of a pinch-me moment? “I’ve had a picture of Phoebe on my vision board for two years, so it definitely has been like walking around in some weird alternate universe! But it’s been amazing,” Mescal says. “It’s just nice to have someone that you respect so much be so kind to you, and just to have them in your daily life.”
Mescal’s own daily life just keeps on getting better. Earlier this year she moved to north London from Ireland, found a community, has endless plans for new music with producer Steph Marzano (“I’ve got into alt-rock now!”) and has some very, very big dreams.
“If Grey’s Anatomy goes on for more seasons than I’m alive, my songs have to get on that show one way or another,” she laughs. But in all seriousness, Mescal is finally learning to embrace the tumultuous experiences she once was ashamed of, turning them into something beautiful for her next chapter. “Things going wrong used to keep me up at night, but you just have to enjoy it now. You have to laugh about it, or you’ll cry!” No tears before bed for Nell Mescal – there’s too much to look forward to.
Nell Mescal’s debut single ‘Graduating’ is out now