Kate Nash is part of the cultural fabric of British music. A name embedded in our collective vocabulary from a time when it was Tom from Myspace, not Mark Zuckerberg, for a lot of then-teenagers now late-twenty-somethings, Nash represents a well-loved, much-missed era.
Fast forward to 2021 and the award-winning singer songwriter has widened her professional net. Having starred in eccentric wrestling drama GLOW, Kate now appears in headlines as ‘actor’, as much as she does ‘musician’. But, as revealed in the 2019 BBC Three documentary Underestimate the Girl, a lot happened in between her Made of Bricks debut and appearing alongside Marc Maron in an acclaimed Netflix show. The subject of many a Daily Mail showbiz section headline, a 19-year-old Nash was targeted by the media for being, as she recalled, ‘too ugly, too fat, an idiot’, and was soon after dropped by her label having decided to veer off in a commercially unpalatable musical direction. Just a few more years down the line, Nash also discovered that her manager, who had been promising her a major record deal for her next album, had in fact stolen so much of her money she was almost bankrupted.
But speaking to Kate, who is now LA-based, her resilience, charisma and intelligence is palpable, and it's clear that she has been propelled by her maltreatment at the hands of the industry. Nash, it seems, is a fighter both on screen and off.
Throughout our conversation, we discussed Kate's meteoric rise, the misogyny she endured along the way and how she plans on using her platform to revolutionise the sex education of young men setting sail into the murky waters of the music industry.
'I think as an artist one thing you have to learn to accept is that you'll never have it completely figured out. You're constantly treading water and you need stamina for that.'
Maya: Tell me a bit about your entry into the music industry.
Kate: In 2006 I was rejected from all universities and drama schools that I wanted to go for and ended up working in Nando's. I then broke my foot so my mum and dad bought me my first guitar to cheer me up. I did theatre at The Brit School but I had always grown up playing piano and writing songs and I just decided to go back to it.
I think the first song I wrote was Nicest Thing and I felt like I'd found my voice. I decided as soon as my foot was healed that I was going to work on my songs, record them and build a Myspace music profile and put them out.
I think Myspace was one of the greatest things that has ever happened to the music industry. There's never been a period of time like it where there were no playlisters, no gatekeepers. It was literally teenagers running things.
Maya: Who was in your top eight?
Kate: Oh my God, it was so important. It was actually amazing when you think about how many bands you found just from searching through another band's top eight.
I don't think a lot of us would have really cut through today. But it didn't take long for me to get traction and have labels interested. My first gig was 13 April 2006 and by June the next year I had Foundations and then Made of Bricks which was a No.1 album. It was crazy.
Maya: I've been rewatching Underestimate The Girl in which you go into detail about being dropped by Polydor and touring your next album with your own funds. Why were you so committed to doing that?
Kate: Honestly, I don't think I really thought about anything else. Touring is the only place that makes sense in your career as an artist because you can't really feel any connection to numbers. People are in front of you emotionally reacting to your music, that's when you think, 'Okay, this is what I do, this is what my music means, this is who I am and I'm really sure about it in this moment'. It's an hour and a half every day and the rest of the day is a shit show because you're in a scummy venue trying to shower in a horrible back room with the gross toilets and you can be in a different country every day, losing your mind, not healthy, not sleeping and thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm so tired, I can't do a show. How am I going to do this?' Right up until the last second and then you go on stage and it all makes sense.
Maya: And there is a point in the documentary where your tour manager says that getting dropped by your label was probably the making of you. Do you agree with that?
Kate: I think there is something in that. You learn a lot really. It's hard to talk about but I am who I am now because of that. I'm so free and I am really a lucky artist. When I got dropped it was really difficult because suddenly everything becomes a mess. When you're on a label, on a major label there's this in-house machine that takes care of everything for you.
It was a bit of a culture shock, but I do look back on that and think 'fucking hell, we did amazing'. We got to Lollapalooza. Then obviously everything was destroyed by my manager and I had to learn again the hard way. I think if you learn the hard way it does make you, it shapes you as a person because you've got so much to recover from. Enough years have gone past now for me to look back at it all and be like, ‘Wow, I'm really proud of that’. Now that I'm more stable it's like I can breathe again.
Maya: You spoke really openly about the way that all of that impacted your mental health. It’s hard to say during a pandemic, but do you feel like you have a better hold on things now?
Kate: I think as an artist one thing you have to learn to accept is that you'll never have it completely figured out. You're constantly treading water and you need stamina for that. It's like you're working, you're not working, you're getting support, you're not getting support, and I think I've learned to deal with that in my own way. I think it was l when I turned 30 I was like, 'Okay, I need to change my life now', because I was dating people that were bad for my health as well and that added to it. When your self-esteem is in the gutter you just make bad decisions like that. But the women in my life, the girls I toured with, got me through everything.
Maya: Your band came across as the kind of bunch of girls that should be prescribed to everyone having a rough time.
Kate: Honestly, they got through so much. Then I got GLOW, which really saved me. There's no better way to heal from trauma from men than learning how to wrestle with fifteen women.
I realised not too long ago that I have had my back up because of how the media treated me after Made in Bricks. I used to meet people and think, before I even meet them, 'I bet they don't like me. I bet they think I'm an idiot.' I only put it together recently because I noticed it in another musician my age. And I was like, 'They act like that. Why do they act like that?' I saw it in myself.
'What other job is there where it's, like, ‘I need a bottle of whisky or I'm not going on tonight. I'm not going into the office.’'
Maya: At the time, I don’t think I realised how closely you were compared to other female artists, especially Lily Allen. It’s sad and unsurprising that Lily too has suffered with mental health issues, in part as a result of the hounding she got in the press.
Kate: I mean, I don't think you could not have them. As much as I hate all social media, one of the positives that’s have come from it is that women have reclaimed some power. I think now, there's a lot of camaraderie between women online. Paparazzi have less importance and women will stand up for themselves. I don't think you could write about teenage girls the same way you could write about them when me and Lily Allen were starting out.
Maya: Were there any systems in place to protect you when you propelled into the limelight?
Kate: I don't even think someone asked me how I was. No one actually gave a shit how I actually was doing. No one checked in with me. I'm 33 now and if I meet a nineteen-year-old who's in the music industry, I give them my number and say, 'If you ever need anything. If you ever want to talk, just get in touch anytime.' I can't believe some of the stuff that men who were probably in their forties would do with me at that age. I know sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but as a 33-year-old now, you see that some people are addicts.
Guess what else is really normal? Me being fucked up to do my job. What other job is there where it's, like, ‘I need a bottle of whisky or I'm not going on tonight. I'm not going into the office.’
Maya: Did you ever feel safe with the men that you were working with?
Kate: I think I felt like I had a couple of people around me that made me feel safe. But I had an unstable manager. I had a bad tour manager. I had management, higher up, that were just more concerned about money. I had an accountant that was shit. I had a label that dropped me.
I remember a moment on my tour bus when, after a show, I went into my bunk because I was tired and it was so loud and crazy and the guys were all telling awful stories. I was like, 'I'm really uncomfortable. I'm going to go to bed.' I got up in my bed and realised I was the only girl on this bus and I'd gone to bed because I was uncomfortable. And it was my fucking bus. I paid for the bus. That’s when I made my first change. I got a female sound engineer and I got a female monitor engineer and then in 2011, it all came to a head and I fired everyone and I got a whole female band.
Maya: Why did you decide to become a Keychange ambassador and why is it so important to you?
Kate : I've always tried to fight for there to be more room for girls in the music industry, we need more diversity. Women are still in danger and people still don't respect women. How many instances has there been recently of many men abusing their power? It's really uncomfortable for people to face it because it's been so normalised.
Maya: Let’s talk about The Safety Chain. What is it and why did you decided to start it?
Kate: There was a scandal in LA with Burger Records and I knew a lot of people in that scene. I knew women that were coming out with stories and the men that were being accused and called out. It just destroyed everybody. Within three days, the label was gone. Every musician I knew in LA was making statements and I watched it thinking, 'What do I do here?' I felt I had a responsibility to use my platform.
Now this isn't new, but it's now being dealt with in this new way. Women now have a platform to say ‘I know what it is. It’s abuse. Don't do it anymore.’ It got media attention and they shut down an entire label in three days. Usually my go-to would be organisations that work to directly with girls, to help girls. But I decided to turn to the men because I knew some involved. Some of them were asking me for help. I had to strike a very delicate balance, like 'Okay, I want to help you because you're my friend. But I need to be really, really honest with you. I need to say exactly what's not okay and I need to give you my opinion on what I think you should do.’ We can heal so much with education.Thinking about what my own sex education was. It was literally a video of two robots in a bed making a baby.
Maya: Putting a condom on a banana.
Kate: Or a ruler. A lot of people haven’t been given tools and we learn from each other. Women are more inclined to talk to each other but with men, I think there are two categories. Without stereotyping too much, there are men that talk about sex with a bit of bravado. And there are men who think, 'I don't talk about it because it's disrespectful to talk about women like that.'
They’re not sharing their weird experiences. They're not learning from each other about sex. Now, all of our heroes have basically raped teenage girls, just to be really blunt. The seventies was all about ‘baby groupies’, that’s what they called them. Rockstars would sleep with thirteen-year-olds. And what have we done? Put them on the covers of magazines and told them how adored they are.
'Oh, it was the seventies.' Okay but it was also the eighties, it was also the nineties. It's noughties and it’s now.
Then you add drugs and alcohol into the mix. I've seen these seventeen-year-old boys so excited, can't believe they're on a festival bill with their heroes. Cut to six years later, they're all red-faced, chubby alcoholics struggling with their third album. Might be dropped. Probably haven't got a stable relationship. Who the fuck cares anymore? No one, they're signing the next, young cool band. And that's the cycle as well for men.
'There are a lot of women out there taking control and doing it their way. But there's still so many men at the top. We need to clean house and we need women in positions of power.'
Musicians aren’t in education as long as most people. We don't go into traditional structures in the workplace, so we don't know about professionalism. We're all just learning from each other's bad behaviour, aspiring to addicts. Those are our idols. So, you put all that together and then you say to a nineteen-year-old boy, 'Here you go. You're signed. Here's a bunch of money. Go and tour. Go and travel. Be in a different town or a different city every single day. Girls are going to message you. Girls are going to love you. You're going to be on the cover of magazines. Here's a load of drugs and alcohol. Shit food. Your health's going to be up the wall but just go out there and have a good one. What the fuck do we expect from that situation, if we consider who their heroes are?
No one's talked to them about what power dynamics are. The fact that when they go on stage, and if they sleep with a fan in a new town, she is having a completely different experience to the one they’re having. She also might be lying about her age and who knows what her mental health state is. Sometimes you do things you don't want to do with someone who's in a position of power.
The Safety Chain is something that when you sign a deal, you have to have done one of our courses. You get sat down with someone from the Safety Chain and they talk to you about power dynamics, sex education, sex on the road. The danger it is to you. How to interact with girls about this. What I noticed from some of the men I was talking to is that a lot of them had no idea. They wanted to be told.
There’s a sex appeal to being a musician. We're existing at night, out of hours, people are attracted to you on stage and maybe a bit drunk and looking to hook up. And it's a recipe for disaster. I'm working with intimacy coordinators to build training programmes specifically for the touring musician, so that they can be equipped before they go on tour, to let them know what they're getting themselves into.
Maya: So are you hoping that major labels will have a responsibility to make sure this kind of Safety Chain training is given to all of the bands or all of the young male artists that they sign?
Kate: That's my dream for it. Before they ever go on tour, if they haven't sat down with us, they're not ready to go on tour. It becomes industry standard. It's the same as you'd go to rehearsal, you need to practise your guitar before you play a guitar on stage. You need to go to the Safety Chain so you've had some training and tutorials on sex and power dynamics because you are going to come across it in your workplace.
And it won't be coming from me. I'm going to be the founder and I'm going to facilitate all of it but the point of it all will be that it is delivered by professionals. Mental health, sexual health, therapists, professionals and intimacy coordinators.
Maya: So you won’t be visiting all the bands in their hotel rooms. ‘Kate Nash is here for you.’
Kate: Get my banana out.
Maya: How successfully do you think we are working towards a gender-equal music industry?
Kate: I think we have a long way to go. But I've seen improvements in my career. I think there's so many more female bands now than there was when I starting out in 2007. There are a lot of women out there taking control and doing it their way. But there's still so many men at the top. We need to clean house and we need women in positions of power. We can have us all on the ground doing this work but it needs to be the bosses. It needs start to become more diverse and there needs to be more women of colour and more of the LGBTQ+ community in charge. There's a glass ceiling and unless we shatter that, it’s all been in vain.
Maya: Did you know that of PRS Music's membership, 18.3 percent identify as female and 81.7 percent identify as male?
Kate: It's a bummer, but all that we can do is continue to lift up and support as many women as possible that are doing it so that we can. Show other women that they can do it and help other women see themselves in that person. You do have to be vulnerable to be an artist. We need to be championing the women that are out there. Organisations like Keychange, Girls Rock London and Reeperbhan Festival are doing so much work to spotlight women and meet those quotas. I think we need more support from the people with money and power in the industry.
Maya: Absolutely. Speaking of championing girls, what should we be looking at for from you in 2021?
Kate: I'm going to release music this year and I'm busy working on my new music video right now. My first single should be coming out in the next couple of months so look out for an announcement about that soon.
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