Nell Mescal Sets Out on Her Own

The Irish folk-pop singer-songwriter talks growing up in a musical family, connecting with music on a deeper level through Taylor Swift’s Fearless, making yourself and your art visible online, lost friendships, and her debut EP, Can I Miss It For a Minute?

Music Features Nell Mescal
Nell Mescal Sets Out on Her Own

Love and heartbreak are the best inspirations for writing an incredible song. Yet these lyrics mostly point to romantic relationships and their effects on our lives. Nell Mescal found inspiration from a more devastating relationship breakup: a friendship breakup. The folk singer-songwriter has gained a following from posting covers on TikTok and spilling her guts across diaristic singles like “Graduating” and “Homesick.” Now, she has brought that same heartfelt sincerity to her debut EP Can I Miss It For a Minute?

Mescal is calling me from a studio in London where she just wrapped rehearsal for her upcoming tour. “I’ve just started learning guitar this past year, and I played it on tour, but it was acoustic, and it was easier,” she tells me about learning the electric guitar parts for playing her EP live in the coming months. Mescal nervously mentions how she is struggling with picking up the more chaotic rhythms of her new music. Still, she is excited about the challenge and finally getting to play these songs for her fans, a lifelong dream that keeps getting more real day by day for her.

Born and raised by a tight-knit family in small-town Maynooth in County Kildare, Ireland, The younger sister of Emmy-nominated actor Paul Mescal started writing songs before she knew that she wanted to sing for the rest of her life. “I was looking at a video today of me when I was five, and I was writing a song on the piano. It’s so sweet, but it’s so weird,” she says. “When people ask me when I started music, I always say, ‘Oh, when I was 12,’ but I’ve always tried to write something. When music wasn’t at the forefront, I was in choirs. When writing [music] wasn’t at the forefront, I would write stories.”

Within her creativity was a mischievous streak. “My mom says I was always on the naughty step. My brothers were never on the step, but they had to introduce the naughty step for me because I was always yapping, crying and screaming,” Mescal jokes. “But then she also tells the story of her sweet daughter who would be curled up in the corner of the sofa reading. I think stories have always been significant to me. My favorite thing to do was to write. I loved English in school, then it got tough, and I was like, ‘Maybe I just like writing music.’”

Mescal has always enjoyed living in a world of narrative fantasy. From growing up a bookworm to seeking out media that felt like an escape, she has always felt at home in other people’s stories. “My all-time favorite books are—I would still reread them now—Malory Towers by Enid Blyton. I also read the CHERUB books by Robert Muchamore, but those were my brothers’ books, and they were a bit more mature. When I was nine and got my hands on The Recruit, I was like, ‘This is what I need.’ All I wanted to do was be a part of the agency,” she gushes. “The premise is if you are an orphan, you end up this CHERUB recruit because bad guys are less likely to suspect an eight-year-old is a spy. But to get in there, you can’t have anyone who loves you—everyone has to be gone. I was like, ‘Fuck, I’m in such a dilemma because I want to be a spy, but I can’t because I love my parents.’”

A Disney Channel kid at heart, Mescal tells me that High School Musical and Hannah Montana raised her, but Taylor Swift’s Fearless made her connect with music on a deeper level. “I remember where I was when I actually heard Taylor Swift for the first time,” she recalls. “We were staying at a family friend’s house, and there was a group of three older girls that I was obsessed with because I had no sisters. I was sharing a bed with one of them, and she had a Taylor Swift poster on the wall. I downloaded some of her music on my iPod and laid back—it was like 20 tracks. There was a song of her playing live in Spain or somewhere in Europe, and the download also had a podcast or interview where she talked about how she got signed. I remember lying there being like, ‘Oh my god, that is the coolest shit ever.’”

Although Taylor Swift became an idol for Mescal, she had many other influences surrounding her in her formative music years. “I loved Shania Twain and Mary Chapin Carpenter—I was inspired by Americana folk and country,” she says. “However, when I started writing properly, it was Birdy. She was why I was like, ‘I have to do this, I have to write songs.’ I found her when I was 12, and I started writing again. When I was 14, I listened to Dermot Kennedy, Birdy and Bon Iver. I was committed to becoming a songwriter after really getting into them.”

Mescal’s love of soft-rock and indie folk auteurs blossomed into finding ways to make her own music her livelihood. She grew up in an extremely musical and generally artistic family, leading to trying to stand out from her two older brothers and follow a different path than her parents—who, although creative in their own way, ended up pursuing careers as a teacher and a police officer. “My dad tried to teach me every instrument, and I was like, ‘No, I can do it myself. You’re so annoying.’ My mom is really creative and artistic. My brother Donnacha is less so in the musical world, but he did get a lead in a musical. Paul didn’t do music growing up, but then he got the lead in a musical, and I was like, ‘For fuck’s sake. This was my thing.’ I think we’ve all gotten a little bit of that from my dad and my grandparents, but I’m the only one who was like, ‘This is my entire personality for the rest of my life,’” Mescal says.

Once she committed to the craft, Mescal started posting clips of herself on the internet playing covers—which she admits are now archived—and tried to overcome the embarrassment of being brave enough to put herself out there. “When I posted my first cover, it only showed half my face. I was like, ‘Oh my God, my friends are going to think I’m so cringe, and boys are gonna laugh at me.’ They did, and that’s fine,” she quips. “I did like a billion hashtags, and suddenly, my covers started growing. It was 10,000 views and then 40,000 views. And then it stopped. And then I was like, ‘I can deal with this.’ I started weeding out the people who thought I was just my brother. Someone called me a viral TikTok sensation. Aside from those initial videos, I would get like 100 views, and I would delete those because I was so embarrassed. But I think I’ve become much more flippant with that. I don’t care because I’m making music I love now, which speaks more to me.”

All those childhood influences, moving to London at 18 to pursue music full-time and the small but passionate following she gained on the internet helped shape Can I Miss It For a Minute?, a delicate portrait of Mescal’s youth and still fresh growing pains. The EP is a concept album that follows Mescal as she works through a bout of grief surrounding a lost friendship, and the narrative became apparent after she wrote “Yellow Dresser.” “It started my whole spiral into only being able to write about this one situation—trying to figure it out and look at different perspectives,” she says. “So, the whole EP is about this one friendship and the fall of it.” “I don’t know how to love you anymore / I don’t think I like your company,” Mescal sings about changing and growing apart, which became the crux of the record—a journey through love, loss and growing up.

One thing that Mescal has always brought to her music is brutally honest storytelling, and her debut EP brings us—according to her and seconded by me—to her most vulnerable song yet, “Warm Body”—which is an array of folk textures blended with the yearning guitar strings of Bon Iver and narrative lyricism of Birdy. The entirety of Can I Miss It For a Minute? finds Mescal working through a broken friendship and getting personal with how this loss of a person she loved affected her during such a tumultuous and uncertain and transitional part of her life. Though she has trepidations about sharing things so personal to her through song, Mescal is steadfast in her commitment to getting her feelings out of her head in some way, shape or form.

“‘Warm Body’ was one of those songs I didn’t realize I was going to write when I wrote it,” Mescal says. “I realized that so much of how I feel about love and relationships, whether friendship or relationship, stems from experiences throughout my life. It’s the same for everyone; everyone’s shaped by certain things. That’s part of life. We have to unravel it and figure out what makes us tick. Friendship breakups happen to everyone; if it doesn’t, something’s wrong. It has to happen because everyone grows—we’re not supposed to say the same forever. At the moment, it feels like it’s the worst thing ever, and nothing will ever get better. But when other things happen in your life, you are like, ‘Fuck, that’s so much harder.’ I wasn’t able to write about the harder things. This is where I had to put all my energy until I wrapped it up nicely in a bow, then I could say goodbye—because I realized I could have been writing about many things, but I wasn’t ready to do it.”

“Yellow Dresser” and “Warm Body” contain the soulful heart and aching pain of the EP, but “Killing Time,” “Electric Picnic” and “July” showcase best what Mescal can do as an artist. “Electric Picnic” has her continuing to show off her lyrical chops while bringing a brighter energy, following the heavy beginning one-two punch of “Warm Body” and “Yellow Dresser.” “Killing Time” brings in dream-pop influences and diverges from the acoustic-centric ethos of Mescal’s earlier work and the other tracks on the EP. Mescal divulged that she wrote “Killing Time” a week before the EP needed to be completed, so the more upbeat pop style could very well be a direction she explores on future projects. The closing track, “July,” slows things down but keeps an airy quality to the acoustics, before building to a dramatic release as Mescal declares, “It’s coming up roses.”

Mescal has worked in the studio before, starting way back in 2020 with her first single, “Crash,” but she hadn’t worked on a larger project with more fleshed-out production and a full band until she went to record Can I Miss It For a Minute? Now, the rising folk-pop artist is becoming more sure of the music she makes. “It’s crazy to me. My first year of making music was great for who I was then, but if I look at a demo I made even the year prior, I’m like, ‘What the fuck?” Now I feel settled into my rhythm,” she says. “It’s interesting, being an artist that people watch as I grow. I hope people come to a show now that went to a show two years ago because I hope they think it’s better.”

The 21-year-old, with her burgeoning musical success, is working to balance her current desires and youthful dreams. From opening for and performing alongside Phoebe Bridgers, HAIM, Florence & The Machine, Dermot Kennedy and the Last Dinner Party to selling out her first UK tour, Mescal’s rise as a musician has been nothing short of supersonic, achieving goals and checking things off her vision board before she releasing her first EP. All of the emotions around getting older and making sense of her childhood dreams have her, well, in tears. “I just turned 21, and I’ve been crying all week. It’s such a crazy thing because I don’t feel any different, but suddenly, you process everything differently,” she says.

Although things are moving fast for Mescal, she’s being intentional about staying true to her younger self and making music that part of her would’ve been proud of. “I look back at the old stuff I used to write, and I can still place myself there. I’ve always stayed true to myself because I can only be who I am at any moment,” she says. “Even when I think about some cringy lyrics, I look back and think, ‘Yeah, but a younger me, she wanted to write that.’ That past version of me lived with those lyrics for months and still thought it was cool enough to record. I hope I keep that mindset because you’ll always grow and change, but I hope I look back and consider, ‘Does it still feel right to smaller me? Does it still resonate with the person who thought this was cool ages ago? So I always like listening to old stuff I used to love, especially when making something. Because I think it pulls me back into many different places.” Even now, after performing with some of her idols, deep down, Nell Mescal is still that tween girl listening to Taylor Swift and dreaming of rocking the world like Hannah Montana.

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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