It’s no secret that we live in a world obsessed with appearance. Particularly if you’re a famous woman.
Tabloids, gossip mags and countless websites scrutinise women, highlighting any perceived failings in brutal fashion.
So imagine what it must be like for a successful singer to suddenly find she is losing her hair. But that was the position Nell Bryden found herself in during the recording of her fourth album, Shake the Tree, in 2011.
‘That was tough, it was really hard,’ she tells The Guide. ‘It first happened from stress, I believe, which is kind of a self-diagnosis, because nobody really knows why it happened.
‘I was working with the wrong people, not giving myself any breaks and pushing myself to the bone.
‘Stress can manifest in any number of ways. I was lucky enough mine was cosmetic –but it was still as traumatic as hell.’
With her rootsy Americana, New Yorker Bryden had struck a chord in the UK since releasing her first album Day For Night in 2003.
Her songs are regularly playlisted on Radio 2 and she has played a number of high-profile events like Chris Evans’ Carfests and had support tours with the likes of Gary Barlow and Chris Rea.
Now she is playing The Cellars in Eastney as part of the tour for her new album, Wayfarer.
But when her hair started coming out, it threw her confidence: ‘As you can imagine, a lot of things were called into question – my femininity, my identity, I was already quite self-conscious, I wasn’t fitting into the standard conventionally pretty music business box, so this was a double whammy.
‘This was another moment in my life where music was cathartic and therapeutic for me – I was able to take the experience and write about it and use the lyrical impetus to make sense of it all, and this is what I did with Shake the Tree. I went back and rewrote a lot of the lyrics to express that sense of vulnerability and feeling exposed.’
When Bryden first went out on tour though, she wasn’t ready to share all this with the public and hid her alopecia by wearing a wig.
‘I needed to make some sense of what happened, and find a reason for it, otherwise it was too much to bear – why did this happen?
‘Metaphorically if you’re exposed and vulnerable, you have to chase the thing that you’re most afraid of, and you have to put yourself out there, and not be so afraid and apologetic all the time.
‘At the time, it was still a very private thing though, I wasn’t ready to have that be a public journey yet.’
However as time went on, Nell grew to accept the situation, and started looking at ways it could become a positive experience.
‘I started to realise, too, that I was in this unique position in life as an artist,’ she explains. ‘Not only could I be different, and unapologetically different – which is sort of encouraged anyway – it was also an opportunity where in my becoming comfortable with myself, I could potentially help others who might feel liberated too.’
Bryden says she has always admired singers, ‘real people, with their warts and blemishes,’ like Janis Joplin who ‘put her heart on her sleeve.’
It was a solo show in London towards the end of the Shake The Tree tour that proved to be a turning point.
‘I decided I wasn’t going to wear the wig about five minutes before I went on.
‘Nobody knew what I was going to do, but I walked out there and everybody gave me a standing ovation.
‘I felt so privileged to be part of a moment where everybody was in it together. On the strength of that, I felt I could go forward. And from there in my life, oddly enough, I started to feel like I was dropping off weight and feeling healthier and feeling better about myself. It was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
‘The irony for me now is my husband now has never known me with hair and he hopes it never grows back.’
When speaking to The Guide, Nell had recently returned from her honeymoon in The Maldives, and revealed she is also pregnant.
She met her then husband-to-be when he was the manager of a restaurant she frequented close to her Notting Hill flat – after accepting her baldness.
‘It’s quite a fairytale for me,’ she says. ‘I’ve been a loner out in the world for many years, and I thought it was never going to happen for me, so I’m delighted.
‘I had this Peter Pan lifestyle where I was out on the road, which was fantastic and inspiring, but my friends were all getting married and having kids, and I was starting to wonder if I would get that, and I thought I wouldn’t. But then life gave me this twist of fate.’
Her current tour finishes on November 1, and the baby is due on November 27.
‘It’s going to be close,’ she laughs. ‘If nothing else, I’m wondering how I’m going to hold a guitar with a baby bump that big. I think there’s going to be a certain amount of waddling up on stage, and taking it slowly.’
The new album marks a change of style for Nell too, to match her change in outlook on life: ‘It’s much more uptempo and upbeat. My last album was quite rootsy, and quite dark lyrically and we were going for a very different sound with this one.
‘It’s more of a pop vibe, in so much as I’m 37, and I’m an independent artist writing songs and doing my thing, it’s not like I’m becoming Britney Spears. It might be drawing on someone like Robyn a little – there’s elements of dance and funk in there, and Nile Rodgers is called upon several times.’
Nell Bryden is at The Cellars in Eastney on Sunday, September 28, doors open 7.30pm. Tickets are £14 advance, £15 on the door. Go to thecellars.co.uk or call (023) 9282 6249.