It was 2007 when flame-haired Londoner Kate Nash stormed the UK charts with Foundations, which told the tale of a relationship in decline. With hype and success eclipsing expectations, her debut album Made Of Bricks was rush-released, going to Number 1, before her status as best new lady of the land was confirmed with a BRIT award in 2008.
Her second album, My Best Friend Is You, has caused some debate as it’s moved into darker territory. We met her in a pub in Bethnal Green, the Harrow-born lass’s local ‘hood these days, to try to get to the bottom of her new musical direction and where this album came from. But first, how does she feel about Foundations now?
“It’s not that I’m never gonna play it,” Nash explains when justifying its exclusion from recent live gigs. “It’s just that I’m only gonna play it when I feel like playing it. I was just so excited to play the new stuff. I had a thing in my head that the point of these shows was to give my fans the new music so they own it, so I wanted to spend as much time on those and I didn’t want to take away from them by doing that song. And also, I have changed my sound, and I am doing different stuff. My third album is going to be different too. And eventually I’m gonna get away from the ‘pop’ thing.”
Does that mean it’s going to get really weird? “I still love pop melodies and all the music I listen to, even lo-fi and punk or whatever always has a great pop sensibility. And that’s how I write. But I’m not always gonna be doing it on this scale – on a pop scale. So I just want to go to people, ‘If you like Foundations and only like me because of Foundations, then bye’. I just need to get the real purists in now. But at the same time I still like it and think it’s good. I don’t want it to be a big deal.”
Deep breath. A typical sentence when talking to Nash is a long one littered with swearwords, without many pauses and often with some mimicry thrown in to demonstrate what she thinks other people are saying about her, or what she’s thinking about herself. But it’s also clear that if I Just Love You More was a shock tactic, a joke that she was in on, and an early manifesto setting out changes afoot, the new album isn’t all like that. This was evidenced by lead single Do-Wah-Doo, which she wanted to be “like a girl group song by repeating things and keeping it simple but with a Wall Of Sound thing”. If she occasionally struggles with eloquence, it’s not to the detriment of getting her point across.
It’s not surprising to find out that her two main inspirations for the new album were Kathleen Hanna, leading light in the Riot Grrrl movement and Le Tigre mainstay, and Diana Ross. But in among all this there’s still a lot of the old Kate Nash. “It’s different in certain songs, obviously like Mansion Song and I’ve Got A Secret. But there are songs like Kiss That Grrrl and Do-Wah-Doo and Don’t You Want To Share The Guilt. And I just find it funny – why would people want it to be exactly the same? Do they just want Made Of Bricks 2? They could probably write it themselves!” That seems a little harsh. Part of Nash’s appeal is that she turns basic melodies into addictive pop songs. It’s not something anyone could do, but you get the feeling she wouldn’t mind if they could.
On the subject of whether she feels a responsibility to her many younger fans and whether her new direction is betraying them, she explains “I take it really seriously, the responsibility”. Bringing up the subject of Mansion Song, an angry performance piece of two halves that begins with her spitting out the poetry of a sex-crazed, drug-addled groupie she comes across as a little pre-emptively defensive. “That’s really extreme and explicit. And obviously people will be, ‘What about your young fans?’ And I’m like, I can’t really censor what I’m doing when some of my heroes are people like Kathleen Hanna and Billy Childish and Lydia Lunch, and I want to end up being able to be like that. But I’m not a CBeebies presenter. I’m not doing this for kids. But I do fucking love kids. I mean I’m not naive, I know it’s explicit, and I know that parents probably aren’t gonna let their kids hear about drugs and sex and, like, fucking and cunt and blah blah blah. Who would, you know?
“But I think I sing about things that I think are far better than people wanting to be sexy and shagging and no-one ever says anything about that. I’d be well upset if my kids were into stuff like that. I’d be ‘Listen to cool stuff – stuff that means something’. And at the end of the day, I know that what I’ve said in that poem is only something that would be really bad when they’re really young. So, for example, the only bad thing they could really learn from that would be swearing. And it’s actually a great message what I’m saying. It’s empowering. But they might not get that. They might just take the wrong side of it. But if they get it, the only thing they could learn that’s bad from it is bad swearwords, and you learn that anyway when you get older.”
Her take it or leave it approach to her fanbase is refreshing. “I hope (the kids) come with me. But they might not. I might step away from that. And I mean, there’s all this talk about me being a role model and blah blah. And I take that seriously. If people say that I am, then fine. But I’m a human being and I’m not perfect and I’ll always make mistakes and I will do things that are gonna piss people off, and not on purpose. So I just want to take that pressure off myself. I’m being an artist and when people grow up they’ll hear that and think of it differently.”
We move on to the subject of her lyrics. Nash has found herself on the wrong end of criticism for the perceived mundanity of the likes of Mouthwash. Musings like “I use mouthwash, sometimes I floss, I’ve got a family and I drink cups of tea” led to some ridicule and immortality by way of an Adam & Joe spoof “I’ve Got An Itchy Bum”. How does she respond to those objections? “Mouthwash was about being defensive about where you’re from and people do slag me off and say ‘She’s so dumb and the lyrics are so stupid and she’s singing about mouthwash’. And artists say it as well. But I find it kind of funny as well – I don’t take myself too seriously. It is a passionate song, and I believe in things like that. It’s about the streets that you know, where you grew up, what you do, what your routines are. You go home, watch some telly, have a cup of tea, go to bed, brush your teeth and take your makeup off.” (Preferably not in that order.) “Everyone has routines. And those things can sometimes be a comfort to you. For me it just means that it’s me, and those streets that I grew up on prove that I exist, and they might mean nothing to someone else but they mean something to me.”
I Hate Seagulls from the new album similarly begins with a series of banalities about things she hates (for example picking off the scab a little bit too early) before transforming into a romantic ode about the things she likes, culminating in repeated declarations of love. “I mean I’m not going to sing stuff like ‘I hate the war, I hate the devil’. I don’t want to sing about that stuff because everybody hates that stuff. It’s just little things that make people laugh. I love punk music, and my favourite punk band when I started writing was The Buzzcocks. And their songs were mundane as well, and it is simplistic, and it is about normal things. And I was inspired by that, because I always thought that I wasn’t intelligent enough to be a poet and a writer. Then I heard The Buzzcocks and I thought ‘fuck it, you can write music and be simple and you can still mean something’. I’m very much inspired by punk in that way. Like I love X-Ray Spex and one of their lyrics is I Wanna Be A Frozen Pea. I might call the DVD on the album that. My main influences are people who write in that way”.
When Nash first appeared she was very much the new girl, being compared to Lily Allen. Now she seems like an experienced pop stateswoman. How does she feel about that and what advice would she give to the new crop? “It’s so funny. Most of them are older than me. I feel like a granny and I’m 22. I would say to them to forget about all the crap and just write good songs and care about what you write and make sure you’re in control of everything that’s representing you artistically. Your videos, your artwork, know what TV shows you’re doing and who’s interviewing you. I’ve learnt that myself. I’m in control of everything. It all represents you. And I would say that the ones that are the true artists will survive and it won’t matter. In five or six years; time, they’ll still be writing music.”
Nash is great company and a lot of fun to talk to. We exchange musical tips (hers include Peggy Sue and MEN while she jots down my tip of tUnE-yArDs and we giggle about Gaggle). Having exceeded the expectations of everyone, including herself, with Made Of Bricks, she seems assured as to what she wants to achieve. For her, everything is about learning and creativity. She’s strong and opinionated, yet young and still finding her way. Already thinking about what her next album will sound like, her taste in music and her influences are pushing her away from the commercial safety of her debut towards a rougher, harder, experimental route. She gives the impression that if that means that she’ll lose her audience along the way, that would be a shame but she’s not really that bothered, because ultimately it’s not about them, it’s about her. If her listeners happen to coincide with her route that would be fantastic, but if they don’t she would still be happy as long as she gets to do it her way. With that combination of independence and brave commitment to artistry, if people want to call her a role model it’s more than justified.
Kate Nash’s second album My Best Friend Is You is out now through Fiction.