Early in the summer of 2019, only weeks before a documentary about her was due to go live on the BBC, Kate Nash found herself in a state of total panic. Five years in the making, when the recording had originally kicked off for Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl, its producers had planned to make a film capturing Nash’s life as she knew it then: a late 20-something singer – known to most for her chart-topping, era- defining 2007 debut album Made of Bricks – continuing to carve out a career for herself out of the spotlight as an independent recording artist.
There’d be struggles, yes: going it alone in the industry is a relentless hustle. But nine months into filming, Nash’s world unravelled in ways she could never have predicted. Work was already stalling; music execs were uninterested in both her own punk-rock offerings and the more commercial pop lyrics she was attempting to sell. Then she discovered her money was gone; her manager had been misappropriating – or at least misspending – it. A lengthy legal battle ensued and Nash was forced to move back home to north London with her parents unable to make rent, flogging her belongings for survival. Although talk of her personal life and mental health went mostly unspoken in documentary’s final cut, it’s clear to see she was quite seriously struggling.
“It was without doubt one of the lowest periods of my life,” Nash says today, over Zoom from the garden of her Los Angeles home. She is now 34, life is far more settled and there’s a calmness when she speaks of that time. “I was lost. So fucking lost. And I wasn’t fully conscious of things that were happening. When you’re that low, you can’t connect with a lot. I wasn’t even thinking about it as a documentary while it was being made. I felt like I was drowning. Trying to stay afloat consumed everything.”
When it came to the film’s release, Nash was filled with fear. “I didn’t want people to know,” she explains, “to have to relive it. For a while, I believed that being stupid and naive was why I was taken advantage of. That I was an idiot. It’s common if you get screwed over. You feel shame and blame yourself.” But while what happened to Nash might have been particularly unjust (she and her ex-manager reached an out-of-court settlement), she sees it as part of a wider – and mostly unspoken – problem within the music business. Friends reassured her it’s a story worth telling; other artists, too. She found comfort in the idea it might encourage change in the industry she has spent her entire adulthood traversing. For all the trauma it contains, she now feels proud for weathering the storm and refusing to keep silent.
“Anyone who hasn’t been through a difficult time in music, then brace yourself,” she says. “Everyone who enters the industry will be crushed in their own way: it’s unregulated; there are sharks; people are taken advantage of, and there’s nobody to go to when you get into trouble. We’re not unionised properly, so we’re unprotected.”
Streaming services don’t pay artists enough for their recorded work, Nash believes. Labels treat their roster as expendable commodities. “Artists are told they can make their money touring,” she says, “but it’s not always true. I’m going on tour later this month and I’m going to lose money, because I’m paying everyone properly.”
There’s no bitterness in the way she sets these issues out. But even in bringing it up, Nash feels conflicted. “I don’t always want to be mouthing off about the music industry,” she says, “I feel like I’m a go-to for that. But other people can’t complain, because they’ve been broken.” Buoyed up by the success of projects like Made of Bricks – and acting in three seasons of the Netflix women’s wrestling comedy-drama Glow – she can keep going. “I don’t want to be the only person who says the industry is shit,” Nash says. “I want to switch off and say actually I’m doing great; I’m happy. But it’s an injustice that people have been destroyed by. And because I haven’t, I will talk about it.”
Nash was just 19 when she signed her first record deal, but only a few years earlier there was no indication she’d soon find teenage pop-stardom. She grew up in Harrow, northwest London. Her mum was a nurse and her dad worked in IT. She wrote songs in music classes, but was far more interested in shopping at River Island, the UK garage scene and going underage clubbing. “When I was 15, I heard about this girl in the year above me who’d got into a free musical theatre school,” Nash recalls. “I tracked her down, found out about the BRIT School, and told my parents I wanted to visit.” Nash was accepted on to its theatre course, and commuted every day down to Croydon.
“I lapped everything up,” Nash says. “I was always the last person to leave and did every extracurricular.” With few opportunities presenting themselves after her final year, Nash took a job at Nando’s. “Then, at 18, I had major heart surgery,” Nash says. “It was this big realisation for me… I could be dead. I should probably do something.” While homebound after falling down the stairs and breaking a foot, Nash received her last drama school rejection. “Right,” she thought, “all my friends were at university and I literally wasn’t going anywhere. So I did my first gig to try and ignite something. I was petrified, but I loved it.” At the end of her set, the promoter handed her £30. “Wait,” Nash remembers thinking, “I could get paid for this?” She quit Nando’s.
It was through Myspace that she found success, and fast. “I still think it was the best era for music,” she says, fondly. “There’s never been a time before or since when teenagers were able to choose what became successful.” Before then, power rested in industry gatekeepers and execs; now, she reckons, fortunes rest in the hands of streaming playlisters. “But Myspace was teenagers running the whole fucking thing. It has never been as free. A lot of unique artists were able to thrive because of it.”
By 2008, Nash was a world-recognised star, touring the globe and picking up the best British female artist gong at that year’s Brit Awards. The single, Foundations, remains a generation’s anthem, its lyrical brilliance unfaded: “You said I must eat so many lemons, cause I am so bitter. I said, ‘I’d rather be with your friends, mate, Cause they are much fitter.’” Tabloid attention wasn’t comfortable for a teenage girl, but the highs and lows of that time are hazy. “I was still a child,” she says. “There was lots of acne and stress, but that’s adolescence, too. And there wasn’t social media in the same way.” She’s still grateful for that. “I didn’t have to be composed like you do now. I could still be a teenager. When I see girls of that age today, I realise just how young I was.”
Everything happening so quickly certainly helped. There was no protracted period when she could let the hype of celebrity take over. “I remember being backstage at an awards ceremony in the gifting suite,” she says, “and this woman there was being so nice to me. I was drunk and 19 and just thought: ‘Jesus if I still worked at Nando’s, this woman wouldn’t give a fuck about me.’ I definitely always knew that.” Skipping a record label’s A&R pipeline may have sometimes left her unprepared for life in the spotlight, but it also instilled in her a sense of creative freedom.
Nash’s second album, My Best Friend is You, released in 2010, charted in the Top 10. But two years later, after recording her third, Girl Talk, she was dropped by her label via text. Exactly what happened, she’s still unsure. Maybe they didn’t like her music’s self-set direction. “They didn’t communicate,” she says. “I was kept in the dark. I was dropped in a message, then that person got on a flight so I had nobody to speak to. We’ve never had that conversation to this day.”
It was hard, yes, but Nash powered on. “I had a rocket up my arse,” she says. “I felt so angry and abandoned, but it was like my friends and I were driving this runaway train we had to keep on track.” Touring that record became a transformative experience, preparing her, too, for the graft needed to go it alone in the future. Then the documentary came along. Things started to crumble. There’s a feelgood happy ending in the resulting film: Nash successfully crowdfunds her fourth album, Yesterday Was Forever, before performing to an adoring audience.
In reality, though, it was being cast in Glow – a Netflix fictionalisation of the 1980s American Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling troupe – that rescued Nash from the depths. There was the financial stability the production brought, yes, but for Nash it was nothing short of a salvation. “It fucking saved me,” she says. “I can recommend joining 15 women in a wrestling ring as a way to heal from trauma. You don’t make the best decisions about who should be in your life when you’re in a bad place. Those women made me realise it: friends, relationships, work. Who I was letting into my heart. My self-esteem was in the gutter.” After years of knocks, learning to fight built her up. “Within a week we were in each other’s crotches and armpits, body slamming and jumping on each other,” she says, still emotional now. Does she ever wonder what might have happened if she’d not been cast? “Yes, I have questioned it. But honestly it doesn’t bear thinking about.”
For the past month, Nash has been working in New York, workshopping a theatre project over a decade in the offing. The finer details, she says, will be announced in the coming weeks, but she’s written a musical in which she’ll also perform: there’ll be new compositions, alongside favourites from her back catalogue. After Covid delays, the feature film she’s in alongside Derry Girls’ Saoirse-Monica Jackson and Sally Phillips might finally be released; there’s a new album in the works and a tour of the UK and Europe. She’s lived in LA on and off since 2014, but for the first time in a long time she now feels life is stable. In 2017, while she was touring the UK, dinner with an old friend turned into an “accidental date”. They got together, and he moved stateside to join her and her two rescue dogs.
Nash remembers reading something Patti Smith said in an interview. “She explained, as an artist, there are times when everyone wants to come to your show. You’re the most exciting thing. And at other points, you’re reading from a poetry book nobody wants to buy.” There have been times when the success of Nash’s debut felt something of a poisoned chalice – no record since has gone on to achieve the same recognition. “There was definitely a period when I was younger when I was frustrated with it,” she says. “It was difficult during my second record, because back then I was sick of playing the same songs over and over.” Today? Nash feels only love for that album. She’s built a life on its foundation.
“That record is filled with nostalgia for who I was before,” she says, “but those songs have also been a constant in my life. With me through everything.” When she steps out on tour later this month, for the first time since the pandemic shut venue doors, it’ll be a joyous experience. “I’m at a place where I can look back and feel proud of my younger self. When an audience sings every fucking word back at me,” she says, “I know what it means to them. It’s a rare, special feeling.” She wrote those songs when she was young and open. Recently, she’s once again come to embrace those vulnerabilities.
“We give ourselves a hard time in music,” Nash says. “Yes, Rhianna might have endless number ones. But achieving something great is special, even if it doesn’t happen repeatedly. I’ll never have a Glow again. Maybe I’ll never have another Foundations. Hopefully I’ll have something else, of course, but I’m so lucky to have even had them.”
Compared to their US counterparts, Nash believes British musicians have a funny relationship with their creative output. “It’s a very English thing to downplay it all,” she says. In California, there’s space to take it all a little more seriously, without fear of being portrayed as pretentious or cut down to size by an unforgiving tabloid media. “There have been times where I’ve really asked: ‘Why am I fighting so hard to keep this going?’” Giving up would have proved far easier. Now Nash thinks she knows the answer. “Writing lyrics and music is what sustains me. I’ll still be doing it when I’m 85, whether or not anyone’s listening.”
Kate Nash’s EU/UK tour begins on 12 May and runs until 1 June (katenash.com)