Over the last decade or so, singer-songwriter-actress Kate Nash has developed a reputation (and obvious penchant) for defying others’ expectations. Filmed over five years as the British singer moved to Los Angeles and began writing and recording new music, Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl (which had its Stateside premiere last week at the DOC NYC Festival), chronicles a crucial turning-point in that very career. Told in a non-linear jumble — with Nash’s music providing commentary along the way, accompanied by brilliantly animated sequences — Underestimate the Girl is a far cry from the uplifting, carefree, punk-rock comeback story filmmaker Amy Goldstein and her subject originally intended, turning instead into a cautionary tale.
When Kate Nash came out with her iconic track “Foundations”over a decade ago, she was one of many that were creating something different within the then-current musical climate. The mid- to late-2000s and into the early-2010s saw the debuts of what many dubbed the next-gen British Invasion, which featured, as Nash herself once described as “lots of British artists being British”. Armed with distinctive voices and honest, incisive lyrics set against sounds that were at once experimental and nostalgic, artists such as Adele, Lily Allen, Paloma Faith, Florence and the Machine, Marina and the Diamonds, and even the late Amy Winehouse were all changing the game, despite their seemingly similar female-ness (Nash would later famously state at the Brit Awards: “Female isn’t a genre”).
Indeed, it was an interesting time for music, and with this new generation of artists also came the advent of the Internet and its intangible power and reach. Nowadays, in an era where digitally-native artists transitioning onto the Billboard Top 100 and shattering records with what seems the greatest of ease are increasingly becoming the norm, it’s amazing to think that just a decade ago, posting one’s music onto MySpace as many of the above did (Nash included), was considered quite a revolutionary act.
Revolutionary and revelatory it was — particularly for Nash, whose critically-acclaimed 2007 debut album Made of Bricks went to #1 on the UK charts. She went on to tour the record, and later released her second album, 2010’s My Best Friend is You. Using money she earned from her initial success, Nash founded a School of Rock-style program for girls (aptly called Kate Nash’s Rock ‘n’ Roll for Girls After-School Music Club), as well as funded a tour for her third release, 2013’s Girl Talk. For a while, things were going great.
There is, however, a high price to pay for such success — one which does not always benefit those so selfless with their talents, as artists often are. With Best Friend‘s poor sales performance, as well as a change to a punkier, more riot grrrl sound on Girl Talk, Nash would eventually be dropped from her label (via text message, no less). To add further insult to injury, she would also learn that her then-manager had stolen money from her. All of this, combined with her self-funded endeavors, would leave the singer bankrupt.
(In some of her lowest points depicted in the film, we see Nash selling some of her most iconic tour costumes to charity shops and working side gigs for famed, now-shuttered Meltdown Comics’ wonderfully geekier version of QVC — Han “Cholo” jewelry, anyone? — just to make the rent.)
To her credit, Kate Nash was never an artist that set out for worldwide domination; for her, it was always about the music. “This is a matter of life and death for me,” Nash states in the documentary, “because making music keeps me alive.” But the landscape of music had changed since 2007, and in the years she fell off the radar, Nash had to find other ways to eke out a living. As an A&R executive friend of Nash states in the film: “What worked ten years ago isn’t relevant now.”
Or, at least, not in the same way it used to.
Back then, the music went directly to the fans; this time, it would be the fans that would give back to the musician who always selflessly did. In addition to signing a publishing deal to write songs for fellow artists, (as well as for commercial properties and other similar opportunities), Nash began a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2017, where she asked fans to “be [her] record label” and help fund her next album. With this, other things began to come together, most notably, a SAG-supported role in Netflix’s GLOW — the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for the former theatre student and seemingly the well-deserved culmination of her journey into self-defiance and, perhaps most importantly, self-reliance.
While there are times when its chronology becomes hard to keep track of and therefore slightly distracting (quick-cuts of Nash and her enviably chameleonic hair as she narrates at various sit-downs with the camera certainly don’t help in this regard), Underestimate the Girl still remains a hugely important watch. At a time where others in the industry are currently struggling for their own voice and artistic rights (Taylor Swift and adultmom, just in the past week alone), this film’s message, much like its subject, is loud and clear, simultaneously unabashed and unrelenting.
If you’re in the UK, you can watch Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl on BBC3 iPlayer (available for only five more weeks!). Follow the film’s journey along the festival circuit; the next stop is the St. Louis International Film Festival in St. Louis, Missouri! The filmmakers are also actively on the search for US distribution, so if it’s playing at a theatre or festival near you, let them know how you enjoyed it. More opportunities for this movie to be screened means more opportunities for this story to be told to a wider audience.