She took to releasing music herself and set up a group to change the music industry. And when Netflix put paid to her big acting gig, Kate Nash went and made her own documentary and videos
By Antonia Charlesworth Photo: Yoshitaka Kono
“The music industry is like Mad Men and the era of the boss shagging everyone in the office and it’s fine because it’s the 1950s. In the rest of the world now it’s 2021 but the music industry’s still like: ‘But we can still shag everyone, right?’”
It’s perhaps not surprising that Kate Nash’s new music is being released independently. She’s been speaking truth to power since she barged her way into the music industry in 2007, with an established MySpace fanbase executives couldn’t ignore.
Her first album, Made of Bricks, with its earworm lead single Foundations, propelled the 19 year old to mainstream success. Her record label made the most of it, with a relentless two-year touring schedule – a “completely crazy environment” where nobody advocated for her and “where it’s really normal to be drunk at your job full time”.
“My manager was a nightmare,” says the now 34 year old. “I feel now, looking back, it was almost like I was treated like a girlfriend but without anything sexual – just very overly personal, lots of alcohol and drugs around.”
She recalls one incident where she reported him to a hotel reception for partying until 6am in the room next door when she had to work the next day. He was one of a string of bad managers who have used her, stolen from her and taken advantage of her – and that’s just one rung of the industry ladder.
When her second album, 2010’s My Best Friend Is You, wasn’t as commercially successful, Nash responded by self-releasing a single that refused to contain itself to the box she’d been squeezed into. Underestimate the Girl channeled Nash’s punk spirit and was a pivotal moment. Her label dropped her and she went on to make music and tour with a group of female musicians independently, releasing her third album, Girl Talk, on her own label in 2013.
“Just like your managers aren’t coming from like the ‘Association of Managers’, there’s no music industry HR department. There are no guidelines. It’s a completely unprofessional industry. It’s normal for older men to take teenagers out, get them drunk, have them sign contracts they’ll be in until they’re in their forties or fifties. It’s that fucked up and the music industry itself should be ashamed of itself because it prides itself as being at the forefront of culture and being so fucking cool and yet it’s said nothing about the Me Too movement. It’s had zero response. It’s put nothing into practice.”
Nash is speaking from LA, where she’s ridden out the pandemic, shortly before being finally allowed to fly home to London where our photographer meets her. She sips a cup of builder’s tea behind her laptop screen, a banana skin on her desk – a hasty pre-interview breakfast. It’s 10am West Coast time but she’s dressed in a vintage 1980s-glam pink, button-down satin shirt with a red dicky bow. Her face is bare except for a flash of electric blue eyeshadow, her auburn hair in a simple, messy bob.
“I just pulled it together for your call. I’m doing the classic Zoom. Pyjamas on the bottom and nice on top.”
Her humour is as off kilter as her dicky bow. She’s charming, insightful, articulate and potty mouthed. She talks… a lot. Our 90 minute chat feels like a great night in the pub with a new, clever friend. Nash doesn’t drink these days but is gregarious and charismatic sober, and doesn’t rule out the day when she might share a bottle of whiskey with her Irish family again.
The LA home she shares with her hairdresser boyfriend, Thomas Silverman, and her two rescue dogs is modest – based on the corner of it that’s visible. Clean living doesn’t apply to every aspect of her life, she admits.
“I’m really messy. Honestly, there’s a reason the camera’s turned here. You know how people are like I’m really messy but I’m clean? I’m dirty as well,” she howls. “Because of growing up on tour there’s a part of me that’s really never learnt to be an adult. I would go in hotel rooms and just destroy them and then leave. I do laundry and I’m like, ‘Cool, I’m doing laundry!’ and then I don’t put
it away. Where do I put it? My wardrobe is crammed with clown clothes!”
Nash moved to the Golden State in 2014, after years of making music on her own terms but struggling for commercial success. While the sunshine is a constant challenge to her complexion she had hopes of making songwriting pay (she didn’t) and starting an acting career (she did). Joining the cast of Netflix series GLOW, a fictionalised telling of the real-life 1980s Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, she worked alongside Alison Brie (Mad Men, Community) and comedian Marc Maron. The show ran for three series before being axed at the start of the pandemic, prompting a huge backlash for Netflix, which simultaneously commissioned a second season of the hate-watched Emily in Paris.
“GLOW was one of the best things that’s happened to me and even though we’re all so devastated that we never got to finish it, the friendship and the relationships of all those women are lifelong,” says Nash, who is as dumbfounded as the fans about Netflix’s decision. “You sometimes wonder, was it timing? We were shooting our second episode so all our stages were built when the pandemic hit, and I almost wonder if we were a month later whether we would just have been put on hold. You just don’t know what really went down but it is such a shame, and it feels very GLOW as well. The real GLOW got cancelled in the 1980s, and they didn’t get to say goodbye to each other.”
The Me Too movement unfolded between shooting series one and two. Nash says it was instructive in how a culpable industry should respond – “with things like intimacy co-ordinators being literally employed to protect actors” – and only served to highlight the inadequacy of the music industry.
“Lots of female musicians have come out with these stories but until the industry responds, we don’t have any power. And they have all the money – they’ve defined the industry on their terms. They’ve screwed over artists with streaming rights – you can get millions of streams, but you still could never buy a house in the city you live in.
“It’s really sad because music is so important to everyone. One of the things I’ve heard many people talk about during the pandemic is that they miss live music. The artists just haven’t been considered by the big dogs of record labels. It’s disgusting and cringy because other artistic industries are responding.”
Well before Me Too, Nash was a vocal activist. The press would often ask her about feminism for the novelty value of it – at the same time humiliating her in the tabloids for her appearance.
“The language of the media is always telling us what we should be or shouldn’t be. I don’t want anyone to ever comment on my body. I don’t want to be told: ‘Oh my God, you’ve lost weight, you look great!’ I’m like, fuck off. What? Did you think I didn’t look great before? And also, when I’m really stressed out or depressed I’ll lose weight and now I’m supposed to stay at this depression level so I can look amazing for you. There’s an obsession with commenting on women’s bodies – just leave us alone.”
Nash is pleased the traditional media doesn’t hold the same power over women that it held when she was a young pop star, but says social media is just as toxic.
“Tech companies have a lot to answer for, and they could be really doing so much more to make their platforms a healthier place, but they purposely don’t because tension attracts more people.”
She has a complex relationship with the internet. She used it to build a fanbase when she was making music in her teenage bedroom, and uses it still to connect with her fans – who crowdfunded her last album, Yesterday Was Forever – and to keep making creative work through Patreon.
“It’s an amazing thing to literally be making stuff because of your fans. You’re so careful with the budget because I never want to be reckless with anyone who’s being so generous to invest in me. It’s all so considered. They become part of the project and they’re so invested.”
The internet too has “finally given a voice and a platform to people that haven’t had positions of power” to share stories of abuse – but she doesn’t think it’s particularly helpful. “The victims don’t come out feeling empowered. A lot of the time it’s a horrible experience for everyone involved.
“There’s a part of me where my really blunt response is what do we expect? Are we really, as a culture, coming out and going, ‘Oh my God, this is so wrong.’ It’s been wrong for decades and we’ve all applauded it, so it’s really weird to come out with pitchforks now. We’ve bred this culture and encouraged it. There are memoirs by rock stars that we all love that have literally talked about statutory rape – picking up 13 year old girls and dropping them off to their parents. Our heroes have done this. And we’ve all been fine with it but now, because the young girls on Twitter have a voice, we’re like: ‘Yeah, we’re not fine with it now.’”
After a year of lockdowns and isolation Nash ventured Safely Out of the Bedroom – the name given to the digital tour she’s streamed for her supporters.
“One of the benefits of being in California is there are so many incredible places within a drive – national parks and all that – so rather than just me in my living room, which I’ve done in the pandemic like everyone else but gets a bit boring, I’ve been been shooting music videos and live gigs in locations that I find really interesting. The last one we did at the Grand Canyon. I was like, I can’t believe I’m singing Foundations into the Grand Canyon at six in the morning!”
The video she shot there was for the cinematic new song Horsie – the latest in a string of singles she’s put out as she works towards a complete album, which will be “orchestral and quite beautiful”.
Aside from music and acting Nash is writing horror fiction after completing a writing course during lockdown. She’s working on a musical. She’s made a documentary, Underestimate the Girl, about her tumultuous career, and she hosts a “positive music” show on Boogaloo Radio. She’s an ambassador for Keychange – a movement for gender equality in the music industry – and has her own project she’s trying to get off the ground to tackle sexual abuse in the industry called the Safety Chain.
“It was prompted by the Burger Records scandal. It’s a small label over here but it was the punk indie label. I’d played one of their festivals called Burger-A-Go-Go with Kathleen Hanna, Cat Power, Kimya Dawson and Kim Gordon – this female-driven festival. But the label was run by these two guys that were taking advantage of their power. So many stories have come out from young girls about bands on the label and the label itself which cultivated this culture of sexual assault, grooming and rape.”
At the core of these problems, Nash believes, is poor sex education. When bands of ill-informed young men are sent out on the road it’s a recipe for disaster.
“If you think about what they’ve been primed for and encouraged to do by labels, by fans, by media, then they’re given free drugs, free alcohol and have girls DM-ing them so they have instant access. There’s a lot of one-night stands and there’s a power imbalance. I don’t think these people have been taught about power dynamics.”
Nash wants to take the lessons she learnt in Hollywood and apply them to the music industry, with courses to teach musicians about consent, power and the position they are in when they go on the road.
“If they haven’t had that, I argue that they’re just not ready to go on tour. I’m not excusing abusive behaviour – I’m just saying that one and one is two so what are we going to do about that? If we don’t put anything in to try and actually educate people, nothing will change. Even if we cancel all the bad guys, then there will just be more bad guys.”
Kate Nash is touring in 2022, playing Manchester Academy 2 on 28 May and the Wardrobe, Leeds, 31 May
In the right key
Kate Nash is an ambassador for Keychange, a collaborative project that brings together all sectors of the music industry in a movement for change. Some 500 festivals, record labels, broadcasters, venues, publishers and others have signed the Keychange Pledge to achieve at least 50 per cent representation of women and gender minorities in an area of their work.
Supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union, Keychange encourages signatories to evaluate their current work, while opening the door to new opportunities and talent.
“Anyone who isn’t a standard rock figure is considered a risk and it’s not a good time for promoters to be taking risks,” says Nash. “But someone isn’t a headline act until you just give them that headline gig.”
The organisation is currently running an open call to join its talent development programme – a year-long series of events and networking opportunities for women and gender minorities who want to develop their careers as artists or industry professionals.
“We need it to not just be female artists on the line-ups,” says Nash. “We need agents, bookers, bosses and heads of labels to be women. The workplace has to change and women have to be given positions of power.”
Thank you for reading. We provide our online content for free to guarantee access to great stories and independent journalism. If you want to support us to keep on doing this – and help us to support the people who sell Big Issue North on the streets –
Subscribe to The New Issue, our new quarterly magazine, for just £40 a year.