TV Review: In ‘Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl’, You Can Grow Flowers Where The Dirt Used To Be

Kate Nash’s ‘Foundations’ defined 2007 as a year. As a ‘sleeper hit’, her debut release and the overnight fame that came with it winded the 20-year-old Nash. Born to an Irish mother and English father in Harrow, London, Nash’s first two decades of life were decidedly average, working in retail and as a waitress, wanting more but not sure how to achieve it. She began writing music after being homebound due to a broken foot in her late teenage years and, after uploading music to MySpace, she secured her first manager. All this is revealed in the final third of the documentary Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl during a conversation with her parents, and after an hour of watching Nash navigate the glittery world of LA, the conversation in her childhood home grounds the entire film. The poignant documentary, directed by Amy Goldstein for her project on creative women, depicts Nash’s unceremonious drop from her record label and her attempts to maintain self-motivation in the midst of very real struggles and wants.

Kate Nash, known for her candidly relatable indie pop songs and cheeky regional accent, has often been likened to Lily Allen and electro pop artist GIRLI. Since her breakthrough in 2007, Nash has released four albums, her debut, Made of Bricks being her most commercially successful, reaching Platinum in the UK in 2008. Despite its steady position in the charts, the varying influences and sounds throughout the album were met with mixed critical reception. Nash’s 2010 sophomore album My Best Friend Is You followed suit, and Underestimate the Girl drops the viewer into a period following this early success. Completely unprepared for the exposure these albums brought her, Nash found fame wanting. With assertive views and a strong sense of justice, the rigid framework of her label-friendly music began to grate on her, ultimately resulting in a self-released single and a prompt label drop in the summer of 2012. This single, ‘Under-estimate the Girl’, chipped into a more aggressive, Pussy Riot sound, becoming Nash’s war cry and thesis of her grunge-punk self-released 2013 album, Girl Talk

Goldstein’s film begins at the tail end of a self-funded world tour following this release, documenting Nash’s move to LA in search of a record deal that would allow her the creative freedom she so desires. It is a little rough around the edges and the 90 minute run time is unusually long for a film of its ilk. However, the length helps viewers empathise with the drawn-out struggles Nash faces over the course of several years. She signs a publishing deal to write songs for other artists and tries to re-spark her own flame in a landscape far away from her London roots. We see Nash struggle with writer’s block and uncertainty when it comes to her own ability, but the most resounding take-away is her fiscal struggle. Despite her previous success, the film shows the fall-out of losing the financial support of a label, the attempts to fund travel to maintain marketability, and an almost Shakespearean betrayal by a trusted adviser. Nash has to sell her clothes to make rent, and partakes in a livestream at a local comic book store in order to earn a wage.

“As a piece exposing the music industry, it’s wonderfully insightful, highlighting the difficulty that comes with taking the risk to breakaway from the easy-selling traditional pop music.”

What comes across most is Kate Nash’s likability as an ordinary girl. Her day-to-day life is focused on her friends and her care for her rescue dog as much as it is on her passionate drive to create music. The real-time documentation of her reaction to discovering her manager has stolen her savings to pay for his own wedding is a pivotal moment; Nash’s tired disappointment at the news is painfully honest and pragmatic, though on screen, cries just once. As a cohesive piece, it reveals the facade of the music industry. There’s a scene where Nash has to perform an acoustic set without even a microphone to a room full of executives, that feels jarringly like a contemporary deal with the devil. Another scene in a recording studio shows her trying not to scream at the climax of a song because “record companies don’t like screaming”. The physical struggle she has trying to smooth the growl her voice wants to produce feels defeatist, for the viewer as well as the artist. The documentary really captures the fight between ambition and logic that comes with weighing up the risks of pursuing a career in such a changeable industry. 

After what feels like a murky downward tumble, Nash resolutely decides to go home; she makes more sense in London and it’s here she finds her feet again. The conversations with her parents help Nash and the viewer gain a new, grounded perspective. Her mother Marie recounts how Nash used her own money to run school programmes around the UK to help girls get into music, buying equipment out of her own pocket and donating her time generously. Nash sheepishly listens, then confides that she “didn’t realise other people got sponsors to pay”, at once revealing her sincerity and an industry misuse of her trust. Under the cover of home, in a clever parallel to her career takeoff, Nash finally sees some breakthrough. She records a tape for a pilot of a drama series about female wrestling in the 1980s (Netflix’s GLOW) and sets up a Kickstarter account to crowd-fund her album. She books the pilot, reaches her monetary goal and the documentary concludes with a recount of her winning the embezzlement trial. Like most music documentaries, there is the clichéd tying of the various loose threads in an attempt to scramble a coherent conclusion. However, it does drive home the number of difficulties we have watched Nash face.

The documentary originally came out in June 2019 and launched on streaming in the USA just this month. Now firmly out of the cover of that darkness, Nash has starred in all four seasons of Netflix’s GLOW and released her fourth album Yesterday was Forever in 2018, to relative success. Going back to listen to all of Kate Nash’s albums is a trip down memory lane for many. However, what is striking is the fact that Nash has always seemed to tackle difficult topics in her music. Songs like 2010’s ‘Mansion Song’ have all the rage and promise of 2017’s ‘Agenda’, albeit cushioned by a decidedly pop sound. Underestimate the Girl documents a difficult time in Nash’s life, being dubbed by critics as her ‘lost years’, but what it teaches is that it is accurately named. As an overall showcase of resounding girl power and lesson learning, Kate Nash will not be underestimated again.

‘Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl’ is available on BBC iPlayer; her music is available on all streaming services.

Words by H. R. Gibs

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