Wailing and nashing

By Elizabeth Day

British singer Kate Nash. Photo / Supplied
British singer Kate Nash. Photo / Supplied

Asking Kate Nash a question is like winding up a motorised toy car and then letting it career around the room until it runs out of power. Her words come out in an unstoppable, breathless stream, punctuated by the occasional swear word and delivered in the soft Cockney accent that is her trademark.

When we meet in a pub in Hackney, east London, around the corner from her flat, she is gloriously opinionated and unself-conscious. Midway through a rant about how pornography has become increasingly mainstream, she tells me how she once picked up the Daily Sport tabloid in a newsagent's, just to see what it was like.

"It was f***ing porn!" she screeches, oblivious to the fact that everyone can hear her.

"It was so gross I couldn't believe it was a paper and that kids could pick it up. It, like, had this totally naked woman with the tiniest stars over her fanny and nipples."

The man at the next table, here for a quiet lunchtime pint, looks alarmed.

Nash carries on, regardless.

"I would rather someone went out and bought hardcore porn rather than something that pretends not to be porn and is."

So she won't be posing semi-naked for a lads' mag any time soon?

"Oh no," she says, looking down at her oversized Mickey Mouse T-shirt and black leggings. "Absolutely, 100 per cent not."

Yet we will shortly be seeing a lot more of Kate Nash. Next month the 22-year-old singer-songwriter releases her second album, the follow-up to Made of Bricks, which sold over 600,000 copies in Britain and featured her No 2 hit Foundations.

Lines such as "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"', earned her comparisons with Lily Allen, who blogged about the invidiousness of the situation.

"Kate is a very talented songwriter and her music sounds nothing like mine," Allen insisted. "She exists in her own right!"

Where Allen failed, at the Brit Awards in 2007, when she was nominated in three categories but picked up none, Nash triumphed. The following year she won best female artist, pipping Bat For Lashes, KT Tunstall, Leona Lewis and PJ Harvey.

Soon Nash was touring Britain, America and Europe and appearing at festivals - including the Big Day Out in Auckland in 2008 - and on Later with Jools Holland, where she introduced her mother to Paul McCartney.

"It was so intense," Nash says now of that period. "It hit me like a smack in the face. I wasn't prepared for any of it."

Nash had wanted to be an actress. The second of three sisters, she was born and raised in Harrow by her mother, a hospice nurse from Dublin, and her father, who works in computers.

She won a place at the Brit School for Performing Arts & Technology in Croydon, south London (past students include Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis, the Kooks and Adele), and studied there for two years before auditioning unsuccessfully for several drama colleges.

Then she broke her foot falling down a flight of stairs at home. Frustrated by her enforced convalescence and rejected by drama school, Nash turned her attention to the songs she had been writing "as a hobby" since she was 15. She approached a pub in Harrow, north-west London, for a gig.

"I got paid £30 [$64] and it was, like, 'hang on a minute, you can get paid doing this!'"

Nash had been earning money as a waitress at Nandos and a shop assistant at [clothing store] River Island.

"I rang up River Island and said 'there have been steps in the right direction with my career'." She laughs, but it turned out to be accurate: Nash uploaded her tracks on to MySpace and within a few months had a record deal.

Success came quickly, and Nash, still only 19, was ill-equipped to deal with it. The work schedule was relentless. At points, Nash says, "you feel you're kind of having a nervous breakdown".

On a six-week tour of America in 2008 she remembers singing the same songs, night after night and finding it "hard to get nervous or excited about it. Then you'd feel guilty about that, you'd start hating yourself because you were worried you were a bad performer, and then there's all that self-doubt. Without realising it, you become very insecure and very defensive".

"I started drinking a lot. Not in a serious way, but it doesn't keep you as healthy as you should be. I was so tired. I remember being on stage and seeing the first song on the set list and looking down, thinking 'I can't believe I've got to play all of those songs'.

"I have this rule now that the only person who really cares about me is my mum," she continues, "because she has no stake in me whatsoever. You have to be cynical because this is a business. Everyone is making money out of you."

Does she feel that the music industry made her colder and tougher?

"You just have to keep your guard [up], you have to know who to trust. You become very protective of yourself. I'm the only person who gives a f**k if I go mental."

Was she worried she would go down the Amy Winehouse route of self-destruction?

"I think everybody is," she replies, looking out wearily from beneath a thick fringe of red-brown hair.

Nash was saved by "my friends, family and boyfriend. They kept me sane. Without them, I'd be someone else".

Her mother has been a guiding influence.

"She's a strong, practical, amazing woman and has brought me up with strong morals. As a nurse in a hospice, she has seen so many people die, and she helps them die with dignity. There's no time for bullshit in that situation."

Tired of the bullshit in the music industry, Nash decided to take a year off. She learned to drive and play the drums. She left home and moved into her first flat with her boyfriend, Ryan Jarman from indie band The Cribs.

She volunteered at a women's shelter called the Wish Centre and began a foundation to provide funding for struggling artists. She cooked and bought a pet rabbit called Fluffy.

Gradually, Nash rediscovered what she loved about music, listening to girl bands like Bikini Kill and the Shirelles - with the influence of both audible on her new single, Do Wah Doo.

She says a lot of the new album, My Best Friend Is You, produced by former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, deals with female empowerment - one of her bugbears is the inappropriate sexualisation of young girls in modern society.

"Young kids should be taught about sex but they shouldn't be taught to be sexy. It's really distasteful."

What does she make of bands like the Pussycat Dolls, with their pre-teen fanbase and overtly sexual image? Nash rolls her eyes.

"They're called Pussy. Cat. Dolls," she says with incredulous emphasis.

"You don't need to say anything else really. It's encouraging sexualisation and sexuality in young kids and I think that's a bit weird. When I was young I was listening to the Spice Girls and Destiny's Child. I was singing Independent Woman and Survivor, and it was all about Girl Power and being with your friends. I don't think I was singing, 'don't ya wish your girlfriend was hot like me?'"

An avowed feminist, Nash makes it a point of principle to work with female sound engineers and roadies wherever possible.

"It's really important to be a strong role model. It's one of my main things, because I feel I've been exposed in such an extreme way to a lot of sexism. I've become aware of being in a very male-dominated industry where a door opens and it's like, 'oh hello, it's 12 men and me. Again'."

Nash finds it especially galling when people assume that, because she is a young woman, she does not write her own songs.

"Or if I did write my own songs, [there's an assumption that] I definitely wouldn't have chosen what kind of amp to use," she says, her voice rising in tempo and volume as she gets more irritated. "It makes me very defensive."

The man at the next table looks suitably cowed. At least he now knows that Nash is capable of choosing her own amps, that she does not like the Pussycat Dolls and that if her new album has even a portion of the verve and strong-mindedness that she displays in person, it will be anything but boring.

The story so far ...

* Born in July 1987 at Harrow, north-west London to an Irish mother and English father.

* She learned piano as a child.

* Studied theatre at Brit School for Performing Arts & Technology.

* She failed an audition with the Bristol Old Vic theatre school after breaking an ankle in a fall. It was during her recovery that her mother bought her an electric guitar.

* She was a MySpace phenomenon before she even had a record deal.

* Her platinum-selling debut album Made of Brick, released in 2007, went to No. 1 in Britain.

* She joined the band The Receeders last year, but continues to record and gig on her own.

* Kate Nash's new album My Best Friend Is You is out this month.

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