“Being in the music industry has almost killed me,” Kate Nash says in her documentary film Underestimate The Girl. “I’m not going to die for the sake of being a f–king pop star.”
Underestimate The Girl follows the British artist’s journey as an independent musician after being dropped by her major label for creative differences. Throughout the documentary, which took place over three years, Nash reflects on how she’s been treated by executives in the music industry since being shot to stardom at 20 years old with the hit song “Foundations.”
“It’s a brush with discomfort, for sure,” Nash tells Billboard of watching the film back. “It’s some of the most difficult moments of my life. I have to just remind myself I know what the ending is.”
The idea for Underestimate The Girl came after director Amy Goldstein reached out to Nash after a Coachella set in 2014, hoping to capture the singer’s big comeback when she moved to Los Angeles to create an album on her own. The doc’s viewers witness the story go in an unexpected direction, though, when Nash learns the financial struggles that come with being an independent artist in the streaming age — made especially difficult when her manager breaks her trust.
After “s–t hit the fan,” the singer now shares that she considered halting filming, leaving the documentary without a happy ending.
“It was my real life, so I didn’t know that I was going to get out of it,” Nash says. “But I remember having a moment of thinking, ‘I need to make this doc because I need to tell this f–king story. I’m going to survive it.'”
The filmmakers stuck with her, and Nash was able to naturally come upon a happy ending. She went to court, got the part of Rhonda Richardson on the Netflix show Glow, and raised over $150,000 from her fans through a Kickstarter campaign so that she could release her fourth album, Yesterday Was Forever, on her own terms.
Although Underestimate The Girl is not yet out in the United States — producers are currently speaking to distributors about its release — the UK version is available through BBC iPlayer (it previously made its UK debut on BBC 3).
Following the United States premiere of Underestimate The Girl at the DOC NYC film festival on Saturday (Nov. 9), Billboard sat down with Nash to talk about her emotional documentary, her special relationship with her fans, and creating an artist union.
What was it like for you to watch back old footage from when you were first starting out in your career — like winning best British female artist at the 2008 Brit Awards?
Ever since I did the ten year anniversary [tour for] Made of Bricks, it’s given me a lot of empathy and acceptance for my younger self. I just think, “I’m so young.” It’s surreal to look at yourself like that. But I’m proud of myself.
Why did you decide to share your story in this documentary, especially after “s–t hit the fan,” as you say?
That actually made me know I wanted to make the doc. I’ve had so many artists reach out to me and say that they’ve had similar experiences. Lily Allen posted about the documentary. She released a book and shared her story in a different way. I think that it’s time to be honest about what we’ve been through to make it better for other younger artists. A lot of artists have been screwed over. A lot of artists have had money stolen and had their careers destroyed from it. I’m really lucky that mine hasn’t been.
We need to share the reality of the behind the scenes that every musician has experienced, but doesn’t really talk about. Especially in a day and age where everything online is about looking cool and being the best, and there’s a lot of shame associated with failure — being dried up or not relevant or being shelved or not having as many likes or streams. I think this culture of having to win all the time is really unhealthy and damaging — and distracting to the music. I wanted to put something out there that’s uncomfortable. I want to take away the shame. Hopefully sharing these things can prevent younger artists from having to experience some of this stuff. If someone came to me who had had less experience and asked me for advice, I would try to deter them from some of the things that I did. I’d love to be a mentor for someone. I think there should be mentoring happening in the music industry.
What advice would you give to younger women in the music industry?
Trust your gut. Don’t listen to anyone who’s pressuring you to do something that doesn’t feel right. You’re not a business, you’re an artist. Focus on the music and focus on the fan base. Reaching your fans is really important because when you’re not the hot new thing and the radio doesn’t play you, you’ll still have them. Just be assertive and be confident in saying no. A lot of people are going to tell you you’re wrong because you’re a woman. You have to fight that.
You have a very close relationship with your fans; they helped you raise money for Yesterday Was Forever. Why do you think you have such a special bond with them?
I get very special, sensitive people that connect with my music. They share all their personal problems with me, and give me personal gifts and letters. They make friends with each other. The atmosphere at my shows is so accepting and welcoming. I think this documentary for a lot of my fans is going to make sense. I feel like the response from fans is, “Oh, that’s what happened.” It’s a missing piece of the puzzle. They didn’t really know what was going on in that period, and now they get it.
I remember this girl in Denver that came to our show. She was sobbing all the way through and then really badly during “Nicest Thing.” I met her after the show and she told me that her and her sister grew up loving my music together. “Nicest Thing” was her sister’s favorite song, and they always wanted to come and see my show together. Then her sister died and when she found out I was playing in Denver, she knew she had to come. I just can’t believe I get to be a part of that story and know these intimate, emotional moments in people’s lives.
Where do you think you would be if you didn’t follow your heart to create the music you wanted?
There’s these moments [in the film] where I’m chasing this pressure to sign to a major record label and enter the pop game, and be in these writers’ rooms where my confidence just got completely destroyed. I was working on stuff that I didn’t care about, that wasn’t me. I think I felt like it was the only way to get money and survive. I thought I needed to do that to get back in the industry. And when I watch that, I just think “F–king hell. That would have ruined my life.”
I am so aware that I’m lucky. I know people that have had the experience that I had and it ruined their career. They’ve never gone back to music because either their confidence is shattered or they’ve got no money. It’s such a f–king privileged position to be able to make money from music and have it as a career. It’s really scary when that’s taken away and you’ve spent your life doing it because you don’t know how else to function. I think what this documentary does is give some truths to fans. People don’t really pay for music anymore, and that makes having a career hard. It’s a double-edged sword because having the internet has opened up so many doors for artists. But there are definitely some things that could be changed to protect artists.
What do you think should be changed about the music industry so that there’s protection for artists?
The industry needs more protection from shady individuals that are out there. We need a union that works for artists. Every record label, every publishing company, every manager that is going to be on this official list of the verified, blue tick of the music industry has to be audited. We have to be verified as artists for them to have interest in us, so they should have verification from some kind of HR department that makes them safe to work with. I realize how unprofessional the music business is because there’s no one to turn to when s–t goes wrong — especially if it’s your manager, because the manager is the person you should turn to. What do you do when your manager screws you over? What do you do when you’re stuck on a major label and they shelf your record and don’t let you out of your deal? We need an artist union and I think that probably I should start it. Getting artists’ stories would be the first thing. More artists coming forward to say, “This is my story. This is what happened to me.”
You just released the song “Bad Lieutenant.” Can we expect an album soon?
I am going to write a new album. I’m working on some songs at the moment and finishing vocals, but I don’t know when exactly anything new would come.
I recorded “Bad Lieutenant” as a one-off, as a throwback to my UK garage raver days when I was 14. It was so fun making the track. We did it in only a few hours. I made the video with Aidan Zamiri and Tilly Lockey, who lost her hands when she was a baby because she had meningitis septicaemia. She’s 14 and talks about how she wants to help adults that have lost limbs. She’s designing bionic hands. I wanted her in the video because she’s someone who’s so confident and amazing. She’s an inspiration.