So much for progress. For those who thought the tide had turned, that equality was a war that had pretty much been won, 2013 has been a rude awakening. In recent years, it seemed that female musicians and artists were finally being treated as equals and judged on their merits, not witheringly dismissed as “pretty girls with guitars” and given a patronising pat on the head. More female-fronted bands, artists, and all-female groups broke through and, perhaps just as important, critical comment more often focussed on their musicianship or lyrical dexterity than witless twittering about their hairstyle/tight jeans/promiscuity. The plight of Pussy Riot rightly hogged headlines and column inches, but the outpouring of sympathy and support they generated pointed to a greater fundamental shift, and one that had been a long time coming.
Looking back at all that now, one could be forgiven for imagining it to be a dream, a fleeting victory in the on-going battle against everyday sexism – instead, it looks increasingly like an aberration. Consider the roll call of shame: revenge porn, the abuse aimed at Caroline Criado-Perez (and others), Robin Thicke being a dick, Radio One’s moronic tweet, the delightful “banter” thrown Chvrches’ way, and the unedifying and the explosive mix of morals, exploitation, and sexual expression that is the (very public) Miley Cyrus saga. It’s been a depressing ten months for progressives, and a reminder that true equality is still some way away.
Of course, Kate Nash knows this more than most. Catapulted into the mainstream aged just 19, her debut Made of Bricks was a Paul Epworth-helmed quirky mash of pop and skewed singer-songwriter motifs. It spawned ‘Foundations’ and ‘Pumpkin Song’, each genuinely brilliant, and alongside Jack Peñate, established the template for a new breed of urban, Generation Y troubadours. But moving on, and developing musically, proved more problematic; subsequent shifts in her sound and approach were scathingly dismissed and dissected, all amid a collective disbelief that she had dared climb out of the neatly packaged box she could be sold in. This reached a nadir with ‘Underestimate The Girl’, a loud, angry four-minute blast that detailed her frustration with the world and her place in it. A stand-alone single, it prompted rash speculation about just why Nash was so angry – predictably (and depressingly), reasons ran from “hardcore PMS” to “she’s an unhinged, man-hating lesbian.” Sigh.
It’s not a caricature I recognise in the bright, articulate woman tucking into scrambled eggs and avocado opposite me. Now 26, even the tag “musician” no longer seems apt; alongside – deep breath – a burgeoning acting career, a Broadway play based on her songs, and involvement in the Protect A Girl initiative, there’s the continued success of her Rock’n’Roll For Girls After School Club, an attempt to do for young girls’ self-esteem what Jamie Oliver has done for school dinners. Her can-do attitude and reluctance to even acknowledge the game, never mind play it mark her out as the ideal role model amid the vapid celebrity titillation that’s increasingly dominant in the world today, and it’s clear she takes this seriously. She feels genuinely privileged to affect change in causes so close to her heart, and more than once slips into a steely tone that suggests she is not to be underestimated. Kate Nash means business.
DiS: You crowd funded your last album. How was that whole process, and how was it operating outside of the traditional label system?
It’s been interesting. It’s been challenging too, and really educational. I felt really proud of any of my achievements, because I’ve done them on my own; even when it’s really difficult, I do think it’s right for me as an artist at the moment. I had actually made the record and funded it myself, because I wanted to re-sign. I was like: “I need to make this record, I’m gonna die if I don’t.” They [the label] said they understood, but I had to fund it myself because I hadn’t signed my term or whatever, and for months it was just not being sorted out; they’d heard it, we were having meetings about everything, and I had five music videos which I’d also funded myself. Then it got to August, and they just said: “You’re dumped!” That’s when I was decided to go to PledgeMusic; it’s expensive making a record, it’s expensive putting one out, and expensive to tour. I still wanted to put it out, so I decided to be honest with my fans about what had happened.
There are good and bad things about using Pledge. One thing is I think I took on too much, and I couldn’t complete all the things I said I was going to do because I was also building a global team and touring; I've literally worked every day for the last 18 months. It’s good, because I’m a workaholic and I really like to be productive, but there were certain things where I just didn’t have the time, and I hate letting people down. It’s good to make decisions now, as a 26 year old, about the people I want to work with, rather than being stuck with people I made decisions with when I was 19. You hear horror stories of people stuck with labels that don’t work their records and block releases. Thank god that didn’t happen to me.
DiS: Since it came out, has it been as successful as you anticipated? Did you have any expectations or goals for it at all?
It’s one of those things where I’m just assessing it day to day really. There’s certain times when I think: “Oh, I wish I could have done that”, or “This has been difficult”. For example, playing here at Melkweg: I can easily sell this venue out, but I haven’t this time because I haven’t done any promo here for a year. I've been getting my UK team right, my German team right, I just got my Australian team right, and I just didn’t have any time to get one set up here. But I’ve had so much support from my fans, and I feel really proud of the record – it’s just a learning process really. I didn’t know what my expectations would be, because it was almost like starting from scratch. I was really happy with the summer ‘cause the festivals went really well, and we pulled big crowds at Reading & Leeds, and Glastonbury – I was so nervous no one was going to come. And to have the UK be there, and be like: “We’ll still support you” – that’s why you keep going, because your fans come to shows.
DiS: What made prompted you to pick up the bass guitar and move towards a harder, punkier style of music?
Well, I joined a punk band [the Receeders] in 2010, and I love that band so much, but the guitarist didn’t really want to continue. So we stopped. But I realised how happy playing bass made me; I’d picked it up accidentally ‘cause the others were already on guitar on drums, so I was like: “I guess I’m on bass…” I couldn’t really play at first, but then I just fell in love with it. I’d been through a shitty time in my personal life and I needed to shout about it, plus playing bass makes you feel strong because you can carry a heavy instrument.
DiS: Did it reflect any kind of anger or dissatisfaction with the way you had been treated by the industry, or the frustration of banging your head against a brick wall?
Initially, it was more personal than that, and more about stuff that was going on in my actual personal life. With ‘Underestimate the Girl’ it was more a case of: “Fuck everyone!” and “Fuck this industry” because it’s so afraid. There’s not a lot in the mainstream that I relate to anymore, and I've always related to things in the mainstream; I’m a big fan of pop, and pop culture. The first band I got into was the Spice Girls – they’re the reason I love music and feminism – and Mariah Carey is one of my favourite artists of all time. But I find less and less people who are doing cool and interesting things, and it’s getting very streamlined – we’re just so obsessed with celebrity culture, and there are so many things that I think are really negative. I worked with kids in schools for a year, and speaking to them about their confidence issues and so on…we’re at an all time low with regards to the younger generation feeling so shit about themselves, and it’s because of all the magazines that we, as adults, buy into. It’s like we celebrate bullying so much, and we allow it. I don’t know how parents can buy these gossip rags that are like: “This woman’s too fat! Look at her ugly, wrinkly hands! She’s too thin! OMG!” – it’s the dumbest shit ever – and then teach their kids: “Don’t bully, it’s wrong.” You’re watching bullying, and accepting it, and buying into, so you’re wrong. Even X Factor – you can’t sit at home and watch that and then tell your kids not to treat other people like shit, because that what that show’s all about. Everyone thinks it’s really shocking when I say that, like: “Kate Nash is so angry!” whereas I think it’s fucked up when you watch the final episode of X Factor, and they put in all the disabled people, or elderly people, or those with some kind of mental illness. Everyone’s like: “Ah, look how shit that autistic person is!” but if it was some kind of charity show or something, everyone would be: “Wow, wasn't it amazing?”
It’s a weird culture, a weird time, and I just think everyone’s being fake – it’s a weird example to teach kids. The healthiest way to deal with your problems is doing something artistic; I would encourage anyone to do that, because there’s way unhealthier ways of releasing your anger that can only damage you more.
DiS: It’s interesting you mention the Spice Girls. Would it be fair to say that as much as they promoted Girl Power, you can draw a line through them to today’s celebrity pop culture and acts like Girls Aloud, One Direction and so on? Like the idea of fame as product, and creating a brand?
Maybe. Obviously nowadays, I wouldn’t be buying into a band like that as much as when I was 10. But when I was 10 or 11, I remember taping Top of the Pops and just wanting to buy into those girls. It’s weird, because I agree with what you’re saying, but it’s OK sometimes when stuff is stolen, and is mainstream manufactured. That’s how I got into riot grrrl and the like when I was 16, which was the original Girl Power that the Spice Girls were ripping off. So I think sometimes the mainstream, bullshit version of something can help you discover something else. But now, if things are getting less interesting, and they realise: “Actually, we don’t have to give them that much character, or a manifesto, of any kind of personality,” that’s where it goes wrong. Because nowadays, there are lots of kids who just want to be famous, rather than “I want to be Ginger Spice!” At least you bought into a human whereas now it’s buying into just wanting to be a celebrity. But then again, as an 11 year old, I wasn’t thinking about that at all.
DiS: You've been in three films now. How does acting compare to playing music on stage?
It’s new and scary for me, which is cool, because I go in and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, even on set and stuff. I’m not comfortable going to the hair and make up truck, and I just don’t know what everything is. I like that feeling, I like not knowing. But I've worked on some really cool projects, and Powder Room has been the most fun thing I've done so far. It was with Jamie Winston, Sheridan Smith, and Oona Chaplin, and those girls are so nice, so cool, very talented, and very welcoming. I went in their feeling like people were gonna think: “Oh, she’s a musician trying to do acting now”, ‘cause there can be that attitude, but all those girls were so encouraging and supportive. It was leading up to Christmas, and we ended up like a bunch of girls just eating and gossiping and having a laugh. I really like the way the movie came out too, so it was great.
DiS: Are you planning to do more acting?
Yeah, hopefully. I haven’t auditioned for anything in a while because I've been on tour, but when I get the time, I’d like to do more movies.
DiS: How did the Broadway play based on your songs come about?
About three years ago, Andy [Blankenbuehler] approached me, said he was a big fan of my music, and had a project he wanted to talk to me about. He’d developed this show called Only Gold; it’s a really amazing story, about a maharajah in Paris in the twenties, and it’s all about making the choice between love and superficial things. He said he wanted to use all of my music, and I was like: “Wow!” We stayed in touch, and we’ve just been working together for a few years; I’m writing some of the gaps in the story. I didn’t know how it would work, but it’s actually really awesome to see my music being used that way.
DiS: When does it open?
I’m not sure – again, it’s a new industry to me, so I’m learning about it – but he’s having conversations with a few different theatres, and how long it takes will depend on which route he takes. If he goes with ART in Boston, which is the main University of Harvard, that’ll take over a year, but he’s also having talks with Sadler Wells in London, and that would be in 10 months. So it just depends who he goes with.
DiS: Tell me about the Protect A Girl initiative.
Last January we were invited for dinner by Plan USA in New York. They told me about their campaign, “Because I’m A Girl”, which they wanted to change to “Protect A Girl” because guys can’t go around saying “Because I’m A Girl” – it would be weird. And they asked me if I would front the campaign because of all the work I’d done in schools with girls, and the fact I like to champion women. So I went to Africa with them, to Ghana, and drove five hours to this village called Ho. It was absolutely amazing. There was so much to take in, and it’s very bustling and alive too, from coffins being sold on the side of the road to guys walking past with machetes; it was hard taking it all in. I met the elders and the community chief, and I asked permission to visit the school. The main groups I met were girls about 15 who were running media projects and being educated about things like hygiene, sex, assault, and bullying. They were creating projects on how to improve the problems that they’ve faced regarding those subjects. And they were all very inspiring; they were like: “I want to be a sociologist, I want to be a journalist, I want to go to university.” It was a very grounding experience – as it obviously was going to be – but it was also really moving.
DiS: Did you encounter lots of resistance & negativity when you launched the Rock’n’Roll after school program? It sounds to me the sort of thing that’s obviously a great idea and should be in every school everywhere.
No, it was actually really easy. And I would like to have the time, to physically go to all the schools that want to be a part of it. But it’s something I’d like to figure out a way of growing, and making it a program where we could run yearly meet ups and run things in schools. I think it’s vitally important; a lot of kids are put off music in schools because it’s too theory based, and they’re like: “I can’t play an instrument, and I can’t do music theory so I’m not gonna take it for GCSE.” And there’s so much within it that could be useful, even things that people don’t know about. You could learn how to be a crew member and tour, or engineering, or promotion and marketing; even if they aren’t musical, they could be part of the music world and have a career and I think it’s cool to open that idea up. But yeah, they were really keen straight away, and a lot of people said yes.
DiS: So you definitely have plans to expand it?
Yeah. But I want to do it with the right people. I need a team, ‘cause I can’t do it myself. So I don’t know whether to do it with a charity, or with an educational group or something. I had some talks with people at the Southbank centre, and I met a headmistress there who was talking about this yearly meeting thing, just the administrators and heads. I want to get more involved in that world.
DiS: With your fingers in so many pies at the moment, is music still your first love, or is it something that might need to take a backseat if all these initiatives keep growing and keep getting bigger?
I think it’s the backbone of what I do, and right now, when I get on tour, I’m always relived in a way. Being on tour is the most structured routine I have in my life, so being here I know that every day there’s a few things I have to do like sound check, find something to eat, and do a show. Around that, there’s obviously a bunch of other things, but when I’m at home, I don’t have that routine, so I’m not good at managing that time very well – I do too much, and get exhausted. But going forward, who knows? I’m open to anything in my future, and I think it’s just important to do whatever makes you happy at that time, and I love – I need – that release of playing a show.
DiS: So you don’t want to become a mogul behind a desk?
No, not yet. I still feel like I’m gonna be a crazy granny doing shows in my dressing gown. I look up to someone like Patti Smith, who does whatever she wants, and loads of different things, and is the coolest person in the world.
DiS: Over recent years, it seemed that things were getting better in terms of women in music being treated properly and taken seriously, and that sexism was becoming less prevalent. This year, things have gone backwards. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s the competition thing. In terms of mainstream culture, people are competing, and it’s almost like we can’t be shocked any more. The Internet is like the Wild West, and you have to try really hard to be crazy and outrageous. Pop stars are more overtly sexual than they were before, and everyone needs to have their fucking moment. Everything is based on “views” and “likes” and all this stupid shit that doesn’t really matter and won’t stand the test of time, but sex sells; it will always sell, and people will always use that. Hopefully, we’re dying out of the whole child star phenomenon, ‘cause it fucks people up mentally and it doesn’t surprise me that when they reach adulthood, they feel they have something to prove. Look at Britney [Spears]; if you tell someone to pretend to be a virgin and a perfect role model their whole life, they are eventually gonna lose their shit and get into trouble. My mum would let me have boys round, let me have Smirnoff Ice at parties, and wouldn’t stop me from going to things ‘cause she knew that if she did, I would go anyway and then she wouldn’t know where I was. That would be worse. She told my friend’s parents: “Let’s let them have a party, then we’ll know they’re at my house rather than in the park or wherever.” I was always honest with my mum ‘cause she respected me, and when people lie, it’s just too much pressure.
DiS: But it must be frustrating for someone who’s had to deal with this, and campaigned about it….
It is what it is, and you have to give kids credit as well. They’re smarter than we think. I listened to some fucked up shit when I was 13, and it didn’t make me want to do fucked up shit. I know that isn’t always true for everyone – I’m lucky in that I had a family that loved me and I had a support network; lot’s of kids don’t have that or look up to worse role models – but people can make their own decisions; just because you like something doesn’t mean you’re going to copy it. And I think kids can see through some stuff, you know? I don’t where we’re headed, but then there are really great groups like Haim. They aren’t trying to be a really cool, weird band – although they are very cool – and their videos are really poppy and fun. I think that’s awesome. I’m glad they’re going that route instead of trying to be all mysterious and aloof, and I think they’ll reach a wider audience by doing it, which is what we need. There’ll always be an alternative route for people.
I predict – I said this in an interview for Time Out in Germany – that there’ll be a music video soon, and the shocking thing will be sex with a goat. And my theory is, we’ve done it all with sex, so there needs to be something else. We’ve had simulating sex, now we need real sex, then it’ll get to simulating sex with an animal. Because what’s shocking anymore? How many covers have you seen where it’s a girl eating a banana, with cream running down her face? I predict sex with goats – that’s where we’re headed.
DiS: What about the debate around female stars posing naked and flaunting their bodies? Some argue it demeans feminism and women’s roles, but others say if it’s on their own terms, it can be empowering and liberating.
There’s no point in feminists arguing with each other about what feminism is. I think there are way more important issues to address. If someone feels good about themself doing that, then do it, you know? There are certain things that worry me more, such as certain magazines asking their readers to send in pictures of their girlfriend’s boobs and stuff like that. That’s not really respecting your girlfriend, and it’s weird that girls end up wanting their boyfriends to do that. But then everyone wants to do different shit. There’s an artistic way of using sex in art, and they will always be linked. There is a point where it can become exploitation, but everyone has different lines and different parameters; there are certain things that I would do and I would never do, but someone else will have completely different barriers to me, and that’s ok.
What I worry about is, we’re gonna push it so far with the sex and stuff that we’ll end up having it censored, and that’s gonna be our problem. We’ll hit 1984. It’ll explode, and you won’t be able to do anything. I’ve found there’s no point in complaining or bitching about what other people are doing, or what I do and don’t like. I just try to have my own message, and reach the people I can reach through what I’m doing because you can’t change everything; you have to pick your battles. I feel like I can be more productive if I just focus on myself, and my own messages, rather than complaining about someone else’s, because it’s only going to upset people. There’s no point. Everyone has different ideas about what is ok and what’s not.
Kate Nash's new album Girl Talk is out now. She is currently on tour in the UK & Ireland, and heads to the USA soon. For a full list of dates and more head to myignorantyouth.com