Don’t ‘Underestimate the Girl’: Kate Nash on Her New Doc, Fixing the Music Industry
November 23, 2019
“Everything can be crumbling, and no one will have any idea,” the artist explains. “It’s a facade”
“I escaped the tunnel, and I was running around in this carpark, with all these trailers, that looked a little bit like the GLOW trailer lot,” she explains. “And I was really scared the killer whales were gonna come for me, even though I was on pavement now. My drummer opened up a trailer door, and she had all this laundry hanging down from the ceiling, and I hid from the whales in there.”
Nash says that when she woke up and had time to process the dream, she realized that it represented the past seven years of her work in the music industry: being dropped by her label, struggling to self-finance her fourth album, a publishing deal that went nowhere, a former manager that stole her money. As it so happens, she had had the nightmare on the eve that Underestimate the Girl, a new documentary by Amy Goldstein that follows Nash during that time, was scheduled to premiere in the U.K.
Few artists embody the mid-to-late-aughts Myspace era more than Kate Nash. In 2005, the then-17-year-old singer was working as a waitress at Nando’s and recording music in her parents’ home while recovering from a broken foot. Two years later, she was signed to Universal and became an overnight success with “Foundations,” a witty, piano-driven tune that spent five weeks at Number Two on the U.K. Singles Chart. Her debut album Made of Bricks, produced by Paul Epworth, sold over 500,000 copies in the U.K., and in February 2008 she was awarded the BRIT Award for Best Female Artist — a British singer-songwriter success story that would only be rivaled by Ed Sheeran.
Like her Myspace contemporary Lily Allen, Nash stuck out for her candid, often cheeky songwriting. Who could forget “You said I must eat so many lemons / ‘Cause I am so bitter”? (“People still throw lemons at me onstage,” Nash told The Telegraph in 2017.) She always tempered her snark with an unrelenting optimism, a combination that made her especially popular among teen girls and, unfortunately, an easy target for the tabloids, with jabs at her weight and her skin appearing frequently in the British press. After her sophomore album My Best Friend Is You flopped, Nash tried a new approach, turning to Buzzcocks-style punk pop. In the summer of 2012, she released “Under-estimate the Girl,” a standalone single in her new style, and was promptly dropped by her label.
After Nash self-released her third album Girl Talk, she went off the map, not entering the public consciousness until she appeared as wrestler Rhonda ‘Britannica’ Richardson in Glow. Underestimate the Girl captures those lost years and her struggle to produce her fourth album, Yesterday Was Forever, including all the embarrassing gigs, the mis-matched songwriting sessions, the peddling for cash and the lawsuit against her former manager for using money from the project to finance his own wedding. (The documentary is currently available for streaming on the BBC’s Storyville, and is in the process of securing a U.S. distributor for a theatrical release in the States.)
Though Nash, now 32, was able to eventually fund Yesterday Was Forever through Kickstarter, her time being put through the music industry ringer has led to her coming out strongly against the structure of major music labels as they currently stand. “I’m not anti-label, I’m anti- a lot of the bullshit people have to go through with labels,” she tells Rolling Stone on a recent visit to the New York City office. “But there’s always potential for change.”
The documentary starts chronologically through your career, and shows you getting very famous at a pretty young age, largely thanks to your following on Myspace. What was it like to enter the industry that quickly in the late 2000s?
It was so strange for me, because I’m so not from that world. My mum’s a nurse, my dad’s a systems analyst, and I grew up in Harrow and had no connection to that world whatsoever. It was really a shock to the system, I suppose. There was little time to process it, and also I was so young, so I didn’t really know what processing something was. I didn’t have boundaries in my life in place yet, or ways of coping with mental health.
I remember the Big Day Out Festival being a huge highlight for me. They put you all up in the same hotel with all the artists, and there’s crazy parties every night, and it feels amazing to be traveling the world. But at the same time, I had no awareness of how to look after myself. At that time, I didn’t have people on my team that were thinking about my health or anything. I felt like I was overworked until I was burnt out.
It’s wild looking back on it now, because it really felt like the first era where this could happen: The era of Myspace, where an artist could get famous on the internet super quickly.
I know! What an amazing era. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time than Myspace, because for artists, it was the only “free” time that we’ve had, where fans — kids — were completely in control. There were no ads, there were no sponsors, there was no playlists. There was no one in control of who got to be a popular musician. It was just young people liked this music, and so they would listen to it.
A few years ago, when it was clear Myspace was in decline, I was like, “This is a fucking conspiracy. Myspace just got burnt to the ground because no corporation had control over it.” It’s so sad that there’s nothing like it that exists anymore. I feel for younger bands, because unless you just blow up instantly, which can happen, I don’t know how people navigate the streaming world and monetize that.
In the documentary, you talk about going into your third album, Girl Talk, and choosing to make it more punk, even though there was risk involved in that decision, and you did end up getting dropped by Universal. And this was after coming off the album cycles of your first two albums, where you’d become a target for the tabloids. I’m wondering if the new, punk-ish direction was inspired by that experience?
I was rebelling against who I thought I was, and going back to thoughts and beliefs I’d had as a teenager. I remember my A&R listening to Girl Talk and telling me that he didn’t like when I screamed like a little girl on the record. It was so annoying to me. And also, now he’s signing bands that are doing that. Girl Talk wasn’t ahead of its time, many records exist like that, but in the last few years, there’s been this resurgence of girl-fronted punk bands, which is awesome.
My label didn’t care about what could potentially gain a following. Yes, I was going in a different direction to “Foundations,” and it wasn’t the commercial mainstream direction. But if you’ve got a fanbase who are willing to grow with you, then that’s the most important thing that you can have. I don’t think anyone or any sound is gonna constantly be in vogue. But there’s a lot of that short-sightedness in the music industry, because they’re panicking and they don’t want to get fired. And that’s why so many artists get dropped. And I’m just lucky that I had Made of Bricks to fall back on, because that foundation — not to use a pun — but it really has stabilized me my entire career. I’ve always got that beneath me.
You kind of touch on that short-sightedness, that panic, in the documentary, especially once you sign a publishing deal. You talk about how, once you peel back the curtain, it’s clear that the same 10 songwriters or so are all working on the songs at the top of the pop charts. Did you know that going into it, when you signed that deal?
I didn’t know that. I was quite shocked. I lost all my confidence in there, because it made me think that that’s the only world that exists in the music industry anymore, and if I don’t fit in it, then I can’t do it. That’s what was so great about meeting Frederik [Thaae, producer on Yesterday Was Forever], and what he was saying in the film about ripping apart the structure of a pop song. I was rebelling against those structures.
You’d go into these sessions and it’s like, the first verse, the pre-chorus, the chorus, the bridge, and then they’re like, “Pick a thing,” like a whiteboard, like, “Let’s make loads of metaphors for love that relate to a whiteboard.” You can hear that process in all these cookie-cutter songs, and I found that fucking weird, and a little bit scary. It’s like we’re robotic. We are literally going to be able to press a button and make a song. Like the Black Mirror Miley Cyrus thing. I mean, you probably can do it now!
It’s like hearing the same beat over and over again on the charts for a few months at a time.
I was literally in a session once, where we made this song that was the worst song I’ve ever been a part of writing, ever. It was about being in love with the club. And I was like, “I don’t get this. I’m not in love with the club, I don’t think anyone is in love with the club.” And then every idea that I came up with, this guy I was working with was like, “Ugh, that’s really cheesy.” I was like, “We’re writing a song about being in love with the club, and you’re shitting on my ideas? I don’t want to do this.”
It’s so much of that environment, where you’re being shot down by people for these narcissistic, weird reasons, where they’re just trying to fight for a percentage. It’s not generating creativity. And then, on top of that, we were ripping off a song by a producer that I’d worked with, that was Number One in the charts the previous week. They asked me to take it to the producer to make it sound more like that song! It’s like, are you out of your mind? I’m not gonna go to someone and say, “We’ve ripped you off, can you just make it sound more like you?” That’s insane to me.
You listen to those songs on Made of Bricks, and I don’t think that would be a popular record now. I don’t know how it could blow up in 2019. And these weird radio songs are just…I don’t even know who they’re for, because if you think about some of the biggest artists in the world, they’re not cookie-cutter, really. Some of the biggest artists in the world are making quite weird music, or unusual, out-there stuff.
There aren’t that many documentaries that go into the music business as it is now, that are this transparent about how it works, and showing…
How cringe it is.
How cringe it is, and the low points…I’m thinking of that whole sequence after your manager stole your money. You had to give away a bunch of your clothes away to Crossroads, and at one point you were doing a regular livestream show at an L.A. comic book store.
That’s my favorite part in the movie, where I’m doing the livestream and the guy goes, “Can you just do it in Elvish?” That guy Justin is actually my friend, he ended up being my roommate. I went to Meltdown — I’m so sad it doesn’t exist anymore, it’s such an iconic venue — and I know I look so uncomfortable, but I would just go there every day and hang with these fucking nerds. I had my own Walking Dead livestreaming show, and there was something that felt really safe there, where the top of the chain people here are fucking nerds.
It was so weird, one of the girls from Glow, Rebecca Johnson, was actually working and teaching improv in the back of the building at the same time I was working there. We didn’t know each other, but we’d both go to that building.
Right, and that’s just the reality of it – so many of these entertainment industries in LA and New York piling on top of each other, and people are scraping by on whatever gigs they can get. That’s not always something that the general public is aware of.
People assume every artist is loaded, and there’s two moments in the doc where you see that’s not the case. One is that fucking lunchtime performance, where I’m performing an acoustic set at an office, and all these employees are looking at me during lunch. I’m telling you, every artist has fucking done that, and no one knows that we do these horrible, weird, uncomfortable gigs. People don’t wanna watch you while they’re eating their lunch. They’re just like, “What’s happening?” and you’re like, “This is the worst performance of my life, this is hell.”
Artists are doing that all the time, because everyone’s got to find some money to fucking fund themselves going on tour. I love that bit with Brett, my tour manager, who’s saying, “It costs fucking thousands; there’s no way you get a return on that, unless you’re at a certain level.” With most small bands, it’s so expensive for them to go on tour. And you don’t really get that as a fan. So I think that scene strips away some of this fantasy that we have about artists.
And then the other moment is when I’m in the really beautiful landscape stuff, and I’m in the sequined dress. I love that. We were just shooting some footage because I like doing road trips and going to nature and the crew was like, “You’re on this journey, we’ll just film you.”
This was the scene in the desert?
Yeah. And then during that shoot, that interview came up, where I say, “I just don’t know how to be an adult without going on tour. I don’t know how to make money, basically, without doing this.” And at that point, I’ve sold loads of my clothes, I can’t afford anything, and I’m in this sequined dress. But that’s the other thing: How you can give off this impression of how things are going. I have no money, but I’m still in this designer sequined dress, because I just fucking borrowed it from my friend who’s a stylist. It ties into social media and the presentation of an artist, and the pressure to show that we’re doing well, all photos and imagery and trying to keep up with that. But then everything can be crumbling, and no one will have any idea. It’s a facade.
It’s sort of conflicting, because with platforms like Instagram there’s this promise of a more direct connection between an artist and their fans. That was sort of the promise of Myspace, too. But it’s become this whole other facade, this expectation to present yourself to your audience.
And you can’t really get around that. If I don’t post a picture of my face, you don’t fucking see the post. It doesn’t get as many likes. And so you’re controlled by whatever this “algorithm” secret is, and then you’re like, “And now I’m participating in something that just makes people, girls especially, feel shit about themselves.”
It’s frustrating, because there’s no denying it’s an important tool for artists. The traditional way of us having media is like, me talking to you, and then you, whatever you think, is what you put out to the world about me. And I may not like that — I’m just saying that hypothetically. [laughs] But you’re in control, and Rolling Stone’s in control of what is written about me. And if I don’t like it, I can go online and be like, “Oh I didn’t quite say that, I actually meant this,” and explain to people what I think, and that’s amazing that I have that. But sometimes I don’t know what to do about what it’s become and how to use it. Is it actually doing anything?
Given all the trouble you had with your label, and with more traditional structures in the industry, do you see platforms like Kickstarter as the future? Do you see it as something that’s actually viable on a larger scale?
It’s incredible it’s there, and I hope that it changes the industry because, if artists are dissatisfied or left hanging by their labels, they can go and do that. But the labels need to fucking change! Everyone’s stuck on these fucking old-fashioned, archaic deals that are so difficult to get out of.
Artists are more empowered now because you can have a direct link to fans, if you get dropped, but you do want a team working. It’s so much work to release a record globally. I mean, we did it with three people. I employed my sister to help be the distribution. All the vinyls are in my bedroom, stacked in boxes. And that is really hard because you’re touring and promoting and doing all this shit, and then you’re like, “Well, no one in Brazil’s getting their record,” and I’m getting a million messages like, “Why haven’t I gotten my record?”, and you’re trying to deal with all of that. It’s not exactly using the artist’s time in the most beneficial way.
But there’s gotta be a shift in the industry being held more accountable. We need some kind of union that is active, and that works, and that holds labels, managers, business managers accountable, audits them, and if you don’t… I feel like there should be a thing that everyone has to sign up to become official, and if you don’t, then you’re shady, because you don’t wanna be looked at. Labels shouldn’t have the power to shelve records, or be like, “Oh, this record doesn’t count because of this,” and trap artists into whatever deal they have. These are fucked-up things. People wrote to me after watching the doc, other artists, being like, “This happened to me, this happened to me, this happened to me.” Why is this happening so much?
When it comes to what happened with your manager, you had to take it upon yourself to take him to court and hold him accountable for ripping you off. Did that cross your mind, like, “I have to be the person to step up and make sure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else”?
Yeah, I mean, that’s what drove me to continue doing the doc. These bad people can carry on working, like Kate Craig [VP of A&R, Warner Bros.] said in the film. They continue to work in the industry, successfully. And the classic thing that’s said about any artist, especially female, is, “Oh, she’s crazy.” I’ve had that story, I’m sure, told about me a million times, and I hear managers talk about artists like that a lot. We might be emotional, we might be sensitive…and you guys are all fucking capitalizing off that, because that’s what makes art happen, is being really in touch with your emotions and writing about them and creating from them. It’s so easy for the industry to talk shit on artists, but they’re all making so much money off them!
That’s why I think these managers, or whoever it is who’s doing it, get to carry on and work with other people. There’s no one holding anyone accountable. I was dealing with that a lot on my own, and it was really hard. If someone knows how to work the system, they just know how to work it. And I don’t know how to work the system.
That was something you brought up, too, with your experience working on Glow and being a part of SAG-AFTRA. There’s been a push lately from other artists to organize an active union of sorts within the industry, one that will hold label executives to account. Why do you think that infrastructure hasn’t really developed yet for music?
In my experience, I’ve been in limited industries, but the music industry is really unprofessional, and that’s one thing that was highlighted when I started acting on a television show. It’s a really professional environment, and it’s getting better and better with the Me Too movement and intimacy coordinators on set and things that are changing to actually protect women on set in the TV industry.
The reason the music industry is probably born unprofessional is because of the nature of the work. It’s nighttime, it’s shows, people are drinking, doing drugs — and there’s no real recipe for an artist’s career. There’s not one way to do something at all. Everyone has a completely different route. And then you go on tour and it’s so easy for things to get out of control.
I’ve definitely seen a lot of people in the industry being like, “Being a musician is the coolest thing in the world, isn’t it?” People wanna be close to it; they wanna touch it; they wanna be the fifth Beatles member; they wanna be part of the story. A lot of people that are getting involved to manage, it’s not because they’re business-savvy, it’s because they want to be part of that. And understandably, we all wanna be near musicians, you know? But I think that’s what’s probably led to so many artists dying. There’s no pause button. “What are we gonna do about this person who’s very fragile?” “Let’s deliver drugs to the venue!” I’ve fucking seen that happen, I’ve seen record label guys — grown men — deliver drugs to young boys or young women at the venue, to try and be cool. “What’s up, what’s up?” That’s not cool. You’re an adult. I’m younger than the people I saw doing that, and these are kids that they’re doing it to.
I did want to ask you about the fantastical elements in the actual movie. Working with Amy, you staged some scenes for the documentary, like that scene in the desert, or the tunnel scene at night where your lyrics are flashing across the screen. I’m just wondering how big of a role you played in those creative decisions.
Amy and I spent a lot of time together over that period of time. There was a gap in production where we weren’t doing a lot, because I needed space, I needed to go back to England for a bit, but at the beginning we were filming a lot. And then they wanted to film this scenic stuff, and I went along with it. I didn’t really know what it was for. I didn’t imagine how it was gonna be in the movie.
How have fans reacted to it? Especially since so much of your music is about empowerment and giving people strength, was being vulnerable hard for you to show off to your fans?
I was looking forward to my fans seeing it, because I’m usually really honest with what I’m going through, and I didn’t talk about any of this stuff while it was happening. They’ve asked for a record so many times over the years, and I couldn’t tell them what was going on, and the movie helped fans piece together the timeline. And my fans have been amazing; they’re so emotionally involved, and have sent me so many messages of support.
It’s a difficult thing to be that vulnerable because I think I’m honest a lot of the time, but you do kind of hold a protective layer back. And I fucking hate watching this. It’s very uncomfortable. But when I take that away, I think it’s so important for people to see it, because I don’t think it’s been shown before, in the music industry.
You have this new music video out, and you’re still working in the industry. Where do you see your future going?
I feel really excited at the moment. I’ve come to this clearing where I’ve done all this digging out of the dirt, and I’m suddenly in this position where I feel like I have this stability back, I’ve proved myself, and I can move on. I feel ready to find the next partner in what I do, and figure out where I go from here, with the next album.
I have to believe there’s people out there, and labels, that are thinking in an innovative and more modern way. I’ve been doing this for so fucking long that there’s younger people that have come up now that are more in charge at labels, and that are probably doing a better job. I’m excited to meet those people. Because I don’t wanna put out a record on my own again.
What do you hope other artists take away from the film?
I feel like what’s really important about this is that people see the positive outcome. When I look at that film, that was a period of time where there was just no way out. And I know what happens to people in that situation sometimes. So many artists die because of that, but you can get over these humps, and you have to fight your way through. And when you get out, you look at it and you think, “I had to go through that. I couldn’t have gotten out any quicker.”
I was desperate to climb out of that world, but I had to see it through and I had to go through that very difficult journey. And now that I’m out of it, I can see that. Don’t fucking think about it, just keep going, because it will change. It fucking is gonna change.