The first time I saw British pop star Kate Nash was almost two years to the day prior to the second time I saw her play. It was a sold out show at the Showbox at the Market and the buzz was beginning to make its way to the US after her debut album Made of Bricks hit number one in the UK. Her songs were perfectly catchy bedroom pop numbers accentuated by Nash’s witty lyrics and made with a piano and little else. She had barely gotten out of her teenage years but even then she had a knack with clever wordplay complimented with plenty of memorable hooks. Nash’s music was often like reading your most clever friend’s diary with a melody behind it. Listening to Made of Bricks or seeing her play those songs live, the adjectives that first came to mind would likely be “sweet” or “lovely” or “cute”.
After returning with an excellent and much more realized sophomore album, My Best Friend is You, a catchy-as-hell lead single that pays homage to 1960s girl groups and a US tour whose opening act is called “Supercute”, it would be easy to use those same adjectives to describe Nash in 2010. I interviewed Nash on the morning of her stop in Seattle last week and after I got off the phone with her, like after the first show I saw of hers, I thought she was perfectly lovely. She seemed quite humble after every compliment I gave her (which was often because I do think My Best Friend is You is a brilliant album) and was ready to write exactly that. I spent a lot of the time between our phone interview and when she took the stage at Neumos that same night (around twelve hours) mapping out exactly how I was going to write this article in my head.
By the time she ended her set around midnight at Neumos and I was leaving the club with my friend Nikki, we were both at a loss for words. The Kate Nash we saw that night was hardly sweet or cute or lovely, she was every bit of a badass.
Nash began her set about 30 minutes later than the time posted on the schedules on the wall. When she came out, she was quite angry with the crowd because someone in the audience had thrown a condom at the teenage avant-pop band Supercute, who opened the show. I hadn’t seen it and I thought I heard that a drink was thrown but didn’t see anything like that. Regardless, Seattle is like any other city in that there is no dearth of assholes, especially in large crowds, and the pop star everyone came to see was quite pissed off. Nash could be an unlikely heir to the Riot Grrrl movement from the 1990s but seeing her onstage, it’s obvious that today she has more in common with Bikini Kill or Huggy Bear than she does with most other pop stars. Bikini Kill’s frontwoman Kathleen Hanna famously scrawled “SLUT” across her midriff or L7’s Donita Sparks was known for throwing her tampons into the crowd from stage at the Reading Festival in 1992. Nash had a not dissimilar way of provoking the crowd. When she sat down at her keyboard for the piano pop songs, there was a black sheet over the front that had a message made out in masking tape. After the show I was able to find out that the message said “A cunt is a useful thing.”
The Riot Grrrl influences do come across more in her second album, My Best Friend is You, with the most obvious example being “Mansion Song”. She begins with a spoken word monologue of a supposedly-empowered female hipster who treats sex as a nonchalant formality and conversely a sense of power. It’s the most provoking moment on the record. Of the song, Nash told me, “It’s just like aggression and an expression of how I felt. It’s a reflection on groupie culture and it’s a shame of how it’s a waste of that person because they’re disrespected by everyone around them, even by the men who sleep with them.” She goes on to say in our interview that when writing the song, she thought that “a lot of these girls use sex as a means to just get in the door or as a way to make themselves feel better by sleeping around, but it’s almost like drinking when you’re depressed; you really think you need a drink but end up crying at the end of the night because alcohol is a depressant. Sex can be like that if you don’t already feel good about yourself and you’ll end up sleeping with the kind of people who won’t respect you.”
That is a theme that runs through a lot of My Best Friend is You, but Nash isn’t always so overt. On the first single “Do-Wah-Doo,” she sings disapprovingly of a young woman not unlike the one she is addressing in first person in “Mansion Song.” “Everyone thinks that girl is a lady, I don’t, I think that girl is shady” is how one of the verses goes. In the chorus she throws her hands up in the air and says “I’ll just read a book instead.” She told me it “was supposed to be a light-hearted pop song. It was inspired by the 1960s and the girl-group era. A lot of the chords are very repetitive and the song is very simple. It’s meant to be quite catchy and Wall of Sound-like but have a teen drama, a love drama, running through it.” Simple, maybe, but it’s far more subversive than that.
Nash’s resume boasts of being discovered on MySpace, and that occurred mostly when another British pop star with biting lyrics and an unspoken demeanor, Lily Allen, put Nash amongst her top friends. That’s about where the similarities end, though. Nash was hardly riding Allen’s coattails and established her own identity and connected with fans on a level that took her debut album to the top of the UK charts and sold some 600,000 copies worldwide. Moreover, Nash’s lyrics are more confessional than Allen’s are and their approaches to songwriting and production are dissimilar. The change from her onstage persona hardly seems calculated and more of the result of maturing and finding a sense of responsibility as an artist (she’s still only twenty two years old). While the discovery of four-letter words isn’t a new phenomenon (my copy of Made of Bricks has a parental advisory warning and contains “Shit Song” and “Dickhead”), being overtly political is. She said that “I’ve changed and I’ve grown up a bit, just like you hoped you would do every three or four years or so. For me, it keeps the show interesting and it’s a different way of expressing myself on stage.” Moreover, what record label would tell a number one selling artist that the way to continue to sell records would be to trade in shock value (which she doesn’t actually do, provocative yes) when your nice-girl demeanor was doing quite well, thankyouverymuch?
The growth of Kate Nash as an artist and as an outspoken figure is remarkable. She may not have another number one album again, but you get the sense that that is the least of her concerns. She also told me that she spends time working “with a charity called The Wish Centre, which is an organization for women are victims of domestic violence and young girls and boys who are affected by it.” Spin summed up this transformation nicely when they reviewed her tour kick-off in Toronto: “here’s Kathleen Hanna for Generation Y.”