Why the fuck is this happening? Why is everyone being so screwed over? There’s no protection. No professionalism. It’s so exploitative. It pushes so many artists to give up and stop. That makes me fucking livid.
“I’m not gonna sweeten it for anyone,” Kate Nash says of her travails in the music business early on in Amy Goldstein’s new documentary Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl, which has quite a lot to offer as proof of the British singer-songwriter’s resilient character. We learn about her little-known—until now—rough-and-tumble journey in the music business in a patchwork of interviews and in-depth reads into her discography. It is an importantly transparent look at the relentless abuse and dangers artists have to wade through in her industry, from threats to betrayal to unpleasant legal battles. It’s made clear that talent like Nash is undeservedly put through the wringer, and the way that cripples musicians and the things a singer-songwriter has to do to simply hold on.
In the mid-to-late aughts, the simple fact that an aspiring musical act with enough social media followers could vault from their Myspace page to a deal with a major record label is a product of that moment in time, and Nash did just that. At 17 years old, she was signed to Universal and made her meteoric rise to fame with “Foundations,” a witty, piano-driven tune, which spent five weeks scaling the U.K. Singles Chart. Her audacious debut album Made of Bricks went platinum and she was awarded the BRIT Award for Best British Female Solo Artist. At 21, she went interstellar with a number one album—and executives, in her own words, worked her “like a donkey.”
After her sophomore album My Best Friend Is You failed to match the success of her debut, Nash responded with the punky track “Under-Estimate the Girl” in her new style. In that moment, she threatened to alter the image her label sold and they unceremoniously dropped her prior to releasing her third album Girl Talk—via text. That’s just how callous this business can be.
Underestimate the Girl captures these “lost years” where Nash kept a lower-than-stratospheric profile—the aftermath of losing support of a major label. She self-released Girl Talk, and faced mounting expenses funding her own tour and career. She signed a publishing contract to write for other artists. She found a new manager who would go on to defraud her—an unimaginable setback that would sink most other people. She faced the possibility of becoming homeless.
Despite all that, she did find her way. In Underestimate the Girl, Nash goes through her hero’s journey. Much to her delight, she also followed her acting dreams and in 2017 landed the role of Rhonda “Britannica” Richardson on the Netflix series GLOW, which would go on to become a massive critical and commercial success. Nash also ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund her fourth album, Yesterday Was Forever, which was released in 2018. Nash doggedly plays the hand that life deals her. Her open-hearted charm is something to be modeled after. And like its subject, Underestimate the Girl is endearing in its rare honesty. Nash is an artist in flux.
Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl is available now on the virtual cinema platform Alamo on Demand. A limited theatrical rollout is planned for August.
How have you been spending your time in LA with the ongoing lockdown?
Oh my gosh, we’ve been not doing very much. We shut down on GLOW. I live with my boyfriend and we just took it seriously straightaway actually. We were like, okay, we’ll do the first two weeks and see what happens, and then obviously it’s become much bigger than that. But we’ve been in a good routine at my house. We’ve got a garden and two dogs. We walk the dogs for exercise in the evening. We’re just balancing, doing a bit of work, recording a little. I’ve got a mini home studio set up, which is good. I’ve been connecting a lot with my family back home in England. My nan turned 89 during quarantine so I’ve been staying in touch with her a lot. I started running a Patreon to connect with fans and do fundraising. A hundred percent of the money on there is going to charity. We’re raising money for this Italian charity ‘cause my guitarist, Linda [Buratto], is Italian. At first, Italy was hit the hardest by all of it so it was like, “Let’s do it for Italy. Italy is your home and you can’t go home.” It has been a nice project to do as well because I think it can all feel so purposeless. I feel like I like doing a job, do you know what I mean? I like to do something helpful or creative, and I feel like that’s been a really good way to occupy my mind and connect with other people. At the end of the day, people always need a little bit of entertainment and a sense of community so I feel like I can at least provide that. I mean, I’m going mad, up-and-down. Some days are good, some days are rough. It’s been weird not really being able to go out into nature because that’s a big part of my life here, hiking and doing that stuff. All the hiking parks were closed at first. They just started opening a few of them. Actually, this morning, we got up at 4:30 AM and drove down to Malibu and went onto the beach. There was no one there. We watched the sun come up and just hung out on the beach for like an hour. That felt fucking amazing. We’ve literally been in the house over how many days? Two months?
Underestimate the Girl is so engaging, so insightful, so heartbreaking, and so real. This thought kept creeping back into my mind: You’re incredibly resilient. When did you decide that you might let people in on what’s happened to you in this documentary format?
It was a weird process really. I started filming it in 2014 with the filmmakers, who approached me after they heard about my Coachella show. They said they wanted to meet me. They were looking for a new subject as documentary filmmakers. They’d worked on some reality TV stuff and other documentaries. I was kind of new to LA and saying yes to opportunities because I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I was like, yeah, I’ll do filming with you. We just had no idea where it was all going. We started filming about nine months before I found out any of the big stuff that happens in the doc. It’s just a weird experience making a doc like that because there wasn’t a story really. The story was initially gonna be about this U.K. British pop star coming to America after being dropped. The beginning of the doc is me trying to figure out what happens next in my career. Am I going back into that major label—the pop world—or not? And then it took this left turn, which no one expected. It just completely changed everything. I’ve been up-and-down with it. I remember a point during filming after I’d found out [about the major setback] and thinking, I have to tell this story. It gave me a lot of purpose. In a way, looking back on it now, having the doc there was kind of helpful ‘cause it’s like a mission. It’s weird. In one hand, I had no real awareness of it being there because I didn’t know what it would lead to. But at the same time, it was something to do and it was something to focus on. It was helpful to document it and think, I’m going to tell this story because this happens to people and I don’t want it to happen to someone else. This is very common and it shouldn’t be. And then a couple of years later, when it came to actually talking about releasing the doc, I didn’t want to do it at all. [laughs] I felt really nervous about it. I wanted to sort of forget everything that happened to me and move on from it, you know? But eventually, I came around and felt proud of it and remembered those moments during filming, thinking, yeah, this story does need to be told. Even though it feels really vulnerable, I think that’s actually a good thing. So it’s been a bit of a journey with that to be honest.
There are things that’s happened to you that beggars belief. At the same time, you do make it very clear that this kind of stuff happens all the time in the industry. It’s not a good environment for a trustworthy person. Do you ever feel resentment, not only that this person did this despicable thing to me, but also that they made me into a less trusting person, which you could argue is a bigger assault on a person?
I actually don’t feel that way because I feel really grateful for the experience. I think it could’ve gone two ways. I think some people go through something like that and it can make you very bitter, and I understand why. I definitely have moments of resentment and anger throughout all of it because it took away my work, it took away my job, it took away my identity, it took away my means of touring and putting out music, it took away my house, it took away being able to pay rent. It really scared me, you know? I definitely felt resentment towards the industry as a whole as well because all these men have taken from me. They’ve taken money and made money and used my name to get other places. They dumped me in a ditch and didn’t give a crap. We actually tried to get in touch with a lot of men from the early days of my career, from my label and my early manager, and none of them would appear in the doc. I think that says a lot, you know? They were approached from a very friendly place of being given a voice within the doc, and they didn’t want to take that. I just had this huge life lesson. I’m so lucky to have the family that I do and the supportive people in my life that I do. When I returned to my parents’ house, I looked at what I’ve described it before as everything having to become very small, but these small things are actually big. It’s like, oh, my mom’s making me dinner tonight, that’s really nice. I have some really good friends that make me laugh, that’s really nice. I love my dogs. I love my bunny rabbit. I love these small things I have, which are actually huge. They mean so much to me. Also, dealing with years of being in the music industry and the public eye and the media from a young age where I’ve been called everything you can imagine, from too fat to too ugly to be a pop star, the lede of about my acne, the lede about my accent, the lede about where I’m from, comments on YouTube, death threats, rape threats—I saw bins for it all from a young age. Recovering from that was really important, and not letting anybody else decide what I’m worth and how my success is measured because I can choose that. I think all of us probably at moments in our lives have to rethink and take a different perspective on how much we’re worth because the world and society and the media tell you that it’s all about money, it’s all about being number one, it’s all about being competitive and getting to the top and being the best, being the thinnest, being the most good-looking—all this crap. I always think, when I’m on my deathbed, what’s going to matter to me? What am I going to think about? What am I going to really care about? I think honing in on that, going through that experience, made me really grateful, instead of resentful because no one can ever take that away from me. No one can ever take away my personality, my positive attributes, and the things I have to offer as a person to my friends and my family and my dogs. And now, being able to do it again when I really thought it was over, oh my god, I can’t even tell you. I love playing shows, I love playing music with my band, my collaborators, my musicians.
I went to see Elton John recently on his Farewell tour. It was so fucking good. It was so amazing. He loves playing live music. You can just see the joy. He loves the audience, he loves the applause, he loves playing. It’s just a really joyous experience to watch him play live. I watched him walk out on stage, go to the crowd, and egg them on to give him more applause. I was thinking, that’s it. That’s the magic. It’s the feeling that he has. I played a show not long after that in Guildford, which is a little university town in England somewhere, in a crappy pub venue with a 200 cap or something. I looked around and we’re having the best time. We’re having such a great show and I looked at my musicians like, this is the same feeling that Elton has at the Staples Center or whatever. You can get really lost on your career path about what’s important and what goals you’re supposed to reach and growth and continue getting better and all of that, but actually, the feeling that you’re searching for—you probably already have it. It isn’t different because that feeling Elton is chasing is the same one that I get in Guildford with the crowd. It’s not about the numbers especially. I’ve played to 25,000 people and felt nothing sometimes, you know? It’s about the chemistry that you have with yourself and the people onstage with you and where you’re at at that point in your life that can really mean that you either feel the joy or don’t feel the joy. It gave me so much clarity about those things. I just appreciate every single thing I get to do as a musician and as an artist because I realize that it can go away, and not everybody gets to do it.
Did you ever imagine at the beginning of your career that you might be slated for wanting to be your authentic self and have creative agency to go forth and evolve as an artist?
I don’t think I did because there was a certain naiveté. I just trusted the people I worked with. I felt like I was signed because I was doing something unique and I was being myself. I was obviously on this wave as well, this success that was happening in London. People just wanted to ride that wave. And then when it wasn’t as easy anymore because I was doing different things, I was distraught. It’s crazy to me just how shortsighted that choice [to drop me] was. Their loss. I don’t think you really think about those things, especially in your 20s. You can try to think ahead into the future, but you have no idea what life has in store for you. Going back to what you said in the last question actually, I was really scared that I was going to become bitter and I was going to have to not trust people anymore, that it was going to change me. I was worried I would become this tough, hard person who shouldn’t like people, shouldn’t let people into my life anymore. And I haven’t become that. When I was doing this ten-year anniversary tour for Made of Bricks in 2017, the crowds were open—open like beating hearts so I could see their hearts and organs. Girls were writing to me before the shows saying, “We’re here because our friend lost her battle with depression and we all grew up listening to your music. ‘Mariella’ was her favorite song. We’re here for her tonight.” These gangs of people that are my people, you know? They’re my fans. They’re the kind of outsidery, sensitive people that listen to my music, and the reason they do is because I’m that open person and I give that in my music. So it really helped me accept that because I realized it’s more important it’s that to my music. I don’t have to become this cutthroat person. I am also a little bit older and a little more wiser, and I can choose who gets into my inner circle and who doesn’t. I think that’s a natural thing that comes with age and experience as well.
It was great to see you in the studio with your collaborators. That creative process is clearly exuberant and so joyful and difficult and rewarding. It’s a peek behind the scenes that we’re rarely afforded on the outside. Now that I’ve seen the film, I have a greater appreciation for you as an artist. In the same way, I appreciate the tracks featured in the film way more now, having seen how they took shape. “Musical Theatre” is magic. Was there any question that you would let people in on those intimate, creative moments in the film?
Yeah, they initially had to beg me to let them in. I was really unsure about it because it is something so intimate. You don’t want to feel that you’re being filmed when you’re writing. I don’t want to recreate something inauthentic, as if I’m performing for the camera and subconscious about that. They set up a camera in the room and left. They weren’t allowed to be in the room at all. Luckily, I was with Frederik [Thaae], who is just amazing. He’s such a great guy. We’ve got really good writing chemistry. I feel like he’s my midwife or something, helping me get through. We met a few years ago. We will still just get in a room and write a song in four hours or something. I laugh when I watch those scenes because I’m saying such weird stuff, and he never questions it. He’s one of those people. I’m like, “I just wanna feel like I’m running around!” and he’s like, “Cool, yeah, cool, that sounds good.” [laughs] He just knows what I mean for some reason, I don’t know how. He just goes with it and it’s all about a feeling. That’s what’s so magical about it. Being with him—at that time, I really needed to get this stuff out—I soon forgot about the camera being there. If there’s a spark in the room, you have to chase that and just go down the rabbit hole, and that’s what happened with that song. I love that song, too. I think it really describes my mental health issues.
You guys do have wonderful chemistry. It’s felt strongly in the doc.
He’s a good guy in the movie. He comes in and you’re like, “Yeah! The good guy!”
Back in 2013, you described your then previous albums—so previous to Girl Talk—as “time capsules.” You went onto say that, “It’s not like I can’t relate to it after it’s in the past, because I do.” How different is it to keep all these time capsules in your memories versus having it exist as a visual time capsule that everyone can access with this documentary?
Oh it’s always very uncomfortable—the doc. Yeah, it’s really uncomfortable. I think that’s evidence that it’s very honest because I am not comfortable watching it. There’s a lot of music documentaries made that are either when someone’s died or about a specific album, or they’re made by the musicians and they show this shiny version of themselves because it’s about self-promotion. Whereas I’m like, “I look insane for most of this movie! What’s happening? It’s so Grey Gardens.” [laughs] I’m so lost, you know? But that was me. That is me, and that’s what happened. I watched it with my guitarist, Linda, who’s with me through all of that. When she watched it, she was like, “That is actually what happened. There was even more shit going on.” So it’s not even half of the story, but it is true all of the stuff that’s in the doc. It was a crazy time. I think when you’re lost like that, you’re desperately searching for a way out. And you can’t rush it. All you want is something to save you and something to grab onto. I think it just has to take the time that it takes. The only way to get out of the sewer is to crawl through all the shit first. You can’t cheat that. Unfortunately, you kind of have to go through that really difficult stuff. If you don’t, you’re skipping a part of the process of the whole thing. I think by the end of the movie I’m like, “Oh there I am. Ugh, thank god.” It’s really weird.
I really hope [this documentary] can change something in the industry. It happens to so many artists. There are so many musicians who messaged me after this came out saying, “I went through this. I went through this, too. This happened to me. Something like this happened to me also.” Why the fuck is this happening? Why is everyone being so screwed over? There’s no protection. There’s no HR department in the music industry. No professionalism. It’s so exploitative. It pushes so many artists to give up and stop, and that’s so sad to me. I think it happened to me for a reason—because I was able to get back up. And that’s not to say that it’s because I’m stronger than other people, I’m not saying that. It’s because I had a first record that was a number one hit in the U.K., a security blanket that was there for me to fall back on. Some people who go through this don’t have that. If someone else who doesn’t have that Made of Bricks security blanket gets their publishing deal spent by someone else or their money stolen or screwed over, what do they have to fall back on? Nothing. That could be it for them, and it makes me livid. That makes me fucking livid. I just want to stop that from happening somehow.
At the end of last year, you wrote this on Instagram: “I believe in removing the shame we feel in ‘failing’ or getting screwed over/things fucking up or not going how we want them to. That’s the only way I think we can change the industry and reshape it to be more sustainable and less shady.” What will it take to get us there?
We need a union or something. We actually need artists to get together to form a union. There just needs to be somebody auditing these people. You give so much trust to the people you work with. All these people get so much of your business life. Most artists—we didn’t go to business school. We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing. We learn as we go along, and it’s very scary to learn that stuff. And you’re traveling, you’re exhausted, you’re staying up late at night because you’re on the nightshift, you’re in Germany and then you’re on a US tour for 6 weeks, and then you’re doing festivals. No one goes, okay, we’re going to take a month for you to actually get a handle on this and understand finance and learn this shit. No one does that. They just go, sign this, sign here, I’ll take care of this, I’ll take care of you, I’m taking care of it, trust me, trust me, trust me. And you just go, okay, I guess I just trust these people because that’s what people do. It doesn’t matter who you are. Leonard Cohen had to go on tour in his 70s because he got screwed over by his business manager I think. So we need some kind of a HR department. What made me realize how unprofessional the music business is when I started working on GLOW. Oh my god, there’s professionalism in the workplace. There are rules. There is somebody to go to if there’s a problem. There is SAG. There is a union that’s there for you if you have a problem. There’s literally no one to go to in the music business because most of the people you have a problem with are the people that you think you should go to to talk about it, like your manager or your label. You can talk to your mom and your friends, but who’s going to help you? Who knows how to help you in the business? There just isn’t that place to go to, you know?
That’s so nuts. I was elated when you got the part on GLOW—I didn’t know the genesis behind that. In the documentary you talk about how, had you pursued acting, maybe the music wouldn’t have happened for you. In the end, you were able to do both.
I feel like GLOW saved my life, I honestly do. It was the best gift ever. It’s the best show to be on in the whole world. I couldn’t be happier than being on that show. Honestly, not only do I have some of my best friends on that show, I have a new physical relationship with my body. I can fucking wrestle. I dress up in ‘80s leotards, an insane outfit. I go and hang out with 15 amazing women, and we do ridiculous shit all day long. I couldn’t be more grateful for that job. Sometimes I actually think I must be in a coma or something. Maybe I died of stress and I’m in heaven.
What is your next chapter?
My next chapter… I don’t know! What is the next chapter for anyone now? I think the next chapter is unknown. When and if life goes back to normal, we’ll finish season four. It will be the final season of GLOW. I’ve been working on a musical with [choreographer] Andy Blankenbuehler from Hamilton for like ten years now. We should be going into workshops and stuff next spring if all goes to plan with the whole global pandemic thing. Maybe the musical is the next phase, the next chapter. So we’ll see. Stay tuned!
I guess that is sort of a silly question to ask. None of us are born at our destination.
I think we just need to bow down to Mother Nature and ask her what we’re supposed to do.