Here’s a surprising shortcut to a professional music career for any aspiring teenagers out there: simply stand in the front row of a gig by your favourite band, dressed as a parrot. Nell Smith is just 14 and from Leeds, though she started watching Oklahoma’s psychedelic pranksters The Flaming Lips several years ago while living south of Calgary, Canada. The band’s frontman Wayne Coyne noticed the parrot outfit, once sang David Bowie’s Space Oddity to her from within the inflatable hamster ball he traditionally occupies on stage, and subsequently befriended her family.
Not only has he encouraged her to learn the guitar over the past couple of years, but now he’s selflessly stepped aside to let her sing lead vocals on a nine-song album. If that all sounds logical enough so far, it won’t surprise you to learn that of course the songs are all Nick Cave covers – an artist 50 years her senior who Smith had never heard before.
Cave’s glowering menace acquires a new, lighter prettiness when his apocalyptic words are delivered in her high, youthful voice, drenched in echo and backed by the Lips’ familiar woozy electronic rock. The Australian doom-monger has already heard the lead single, a glistening version of Girl in Amber from his Skeleton Tree album that is only slightly less spooky than the original, and offered his own review: “Nell shows a remarkable understanding of the song, a sense of dispassion that is both beautiful and chilling. I just love it,” he wrote on his website. Well, he’d know.
The overall feel is sketched, not overthought, a fun project that makes no attempt to cast Smith as a next big thing in indie rock. Girls her age tend to be the biggest fans of the lo-fi genre currently known as bedroom pop, making unlikely stars of fellow young women such as Clairo and Girl in Red, and these recordings share that free and easy intimacy.
It’s different enough that it doesn’t matter that many of the songs picked are Cave’s best known. Into My Arms twinkles away delightfully. For Red Right Hand, an incendiary favourite at Cave concerts (and the Peaky Blinders theme song), Smith adopts a harsher, more sinister tone and plainly has a blast. Next, she’s planning an album of her own songs. The influences she’s soaked up so far should make for a unique launchpad.