Sarah Wilson revisits the messy hinterland of Kate Nash’s debut album and examines its legacy, both for the young girls who grew up with it and for Nash
Even if you’re not into her music (and you should be) Kate Nash is worth a follow on Instagram. Having just completed the final leg of her Made of Bricks tour, Nash’s page is bursting with an abundance of colour, fishnet tights and princess dresses that might make you envious were she not so likeable.
Yet today the innocuous indie-pop album Made of Bricks, whose 10 year anniversary Nash is marking, seems almost irreconcilable with her contemporary riot grrrl image and grungy, ultra-feminist sound. While she once sang blithely about cups of tea, pavements and freckles over the plonking chords of ‘Mouthwash’, on self-released album Girltalk Nash bursts fiercely into ‘Rap for Rejection’ with “I’m a stupid whore and I’m a frigid bitch and can you make up your mind and tell me which is which”.
Such overt feminist commentary is difficult to pinpoint on Nash’s debut album. But for those girls like me who listened to each track so many times that its lyrics eventually became muscle memory, Made of Bricks did something significant as it played in the background of our teenage years; capturing the thrill and boredom and heartache of being a young woman in a way that nothing else of that time ever achieved so finely or honestly.
None of the tracks on Made of Bricks were radical in any obvious way. But one has to remember that this album was released at a time when degrading lad mags still lined the upper shelves of newsagents, and before the ubiquitous “Lad Bible” was called out for its blatant sexism.
In fact, in 2007, if I were to hear the words ‘nasty girl’ or ‘nasty woman’, my mind wouldn’t turn to women’s marches or the reclaiming of slurs. It would’ve turned instead to the 2000 Destiny’s Child track ‘Nasty Girl’, with accompanying music video featuring Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle herding ‘nasty’ (a.k.a ‘slutty’) women into a machine that sends them out again in more ‘respectable’ clothing. (Yep, seriously). Just as I enjoyed listening to ‘Nasty Girl’ with women I didn’t like in mind, when Nash sang in ‘We Get On’ about the ‘tramp’ she lost her love interest to, I happily demonised that other woman along with her. Many young girls like me, who had grown up learning that other women were, in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words, competitors “for the attention of men”, undoubtedly did the same.
The point is that in 2007, even if they existed, I came across few feminist voices in mainstream popular culture; a resource which has long played a significant role in the shaping of young female identity. Made of Bricks was not, in many respects, an exception to this rule. Yet by broaching the ordinary stuff of young (though admittedly largely heterosexual) female adulthood that others deemed too petty or insignificant to merit recording – misguided crushes, crumbling friendships and stupid arguments after one too many cans of Strongbow – Made of Bricks offered its female listeners something special. Nash has said that she wrote most of the album as a 16-year-old in her bedroom, and it shows. But far from this youth or inexperience marring her work, it is, for me, these very qualities that make the album so unique.
It’s far too easy at a distance to forget how intense and self-conscious the experience of being a teenage girl was, and far too hard to summon it when you try. For many girls of my age and older, however, we have something rare in Made of Bricks; an evocative means of bringing those intense, tumultuous feelings back into sharp focus with just the first two chords of ‘Foundations’. Nash was an expert at those fleeting moments and flashes of extreme feeling that make up your memory of that past, and no track better exemplifies this than ‘Birds’; a song, as Alexis Petridis so scornfully summarised it in the Guardian, following “a couple of teenagers talking on a bus”.
The song is all rambling, clumsy lyricism that overstretches its bounds, backed by the same kind of simple melody which underpins most of the songs on the album. At one point, Nash almost tangles herself in words as she narrates the scene of a boy getting off the train to meet the girl who’s been waiting for him: “well she was wearing a skirt and he thought she looked nice and yeah she didn’t really care about anything else because she only wanted him to think that she looked nice – and he did”.
I can’t help but feel that Petridis missed the point when he slammed ‘Birds’ in 2007 for its mundanity, the very thing that makes it so gauchely poetic. The fact that Nash elevates such ordinary moments into lyrics consecrates them in the very same way that we can’t help doing with our own memories of extraordinary ordinary days in our young adulthood. The July day in 2009 when I laboriously curled my hair to meet a boy by the river who I thought I’d fallen in love with; the exact song I listened to after my first kiss when I was 14.
When Nash’s nameless teenage boy admits his feelings towards her nameless girl in the chorus, there’s one of those beautiful flashes that characterise the album; here of clumsy, self-conscious sincerity restrained by the trappings of his own masculinity: “birds can fly so high and they can shit on your head/yeah they can almost fly into your eye and make you feel so scared/but when you look at them and you see that they’re beautiful/that’s how I feel about you”.
During songs like ‘Birds’, or ‘We Get On’ and ‘Nicest Thing’ – both about the crushing pain of unrequited love – we are taken back to the fragile and changeable time in our own lives when everything came in extremes; when failed relationships felt like the end of the world, and days on the back of a bus like the best of your life. Crucially, Nash’s voice is not the one of adult reason that always told you these feelings would pass; it’s a voice that understands them from the inside even whilst knowing how ridiculous she might sound by expressing them.
Nash, in other words, shared all the stupid, ordinary stuff with you in the same way that you once did from the camp bed in your best friend’s bedroom. Like those friends who patiently listened to you relate an argument with your boyfriend over and over again, many of the tracks on Made of Bricks repeat themselves so much that even Nash sounds bored of what she’s saying. ‘Dickhead’ is made up almost entirely of the repeating lines “What you being a dickhead for/stop being a dickhead” whilst ‘Shit Song’, a track about a useless partner, could easily pass as a transcript of a phonecall between teenagers: “Darling don’t give me shit ‘cause I know that you’re full of it/you’re full of shit/you’re full of shit”. In the hit single of the album, ‘Foundations’, Nash almost breaks out of song as she wearily prays: “Dear god, I hope I’m not stuck with this one”.
It’s probably this kind of unpolished, conversational lyricism that prevented Made of Bricks on its release from making a huge impact outside the UK. Nash spoke back to young girls of the UK in our own language, like our own cringe-worthy diary entries in a way that was, in many places, painful to listen to. ’We Get On’, a track about Nash’s crush on a man who barely knows she exists is a particularly pitiful example. Here we follow her brief thrill at shaking his hand and the ill-fated “plan” to catch his attention as she desperately wills a relationship into existence. Yet when she puts on her best dress for a party and scours each room in the hope of finding him, we already know what’s coming because it’s happened to us all before: “But I carried on regardless/strutted through each room trying to find you/and when I saw you/kissing that girl/my heart/it shattered/and my eyes/they watered/and when I tried to speak I stu-uttered”. Both Nash and the listener know that this was never love – far from it – but they also know that this fact doesn’t make it any easier to deal with rejection. We recall agonisingly our own past disappointments and almost-relationships that faded into nothing as she wallows and mopes on her sofa: “Saturday night/I watched channel 5/I particularly like/CSI”.
This sense of her album as a thing shared went further than the lyrics, as the simple chords and melodies of Made of Bricks were picked up by teenagers with lightning speed on school music room keyboards and guitars. Though I would only be guessing to suggest that the same was true of all girls, the tracks from Nash’s first album have acquired a special significance for me as the first melodies I ever strummed through on a guitar at a time when all my peers who played the instrument were men.
It seems not coincidental but inevitable to me that as Kate Nash has matured over the past ten years, her attention has turned to championing women’s voices and their place in the music industry; from the very start of Made of Bricks she was telling young women that their feelings mattered. ‘Little Red’, the final bonus track on the UK version of the album is, for me, the most poignant example. When a young girl (Little Red) from a fictional toy town finds she cannot make the flowers grow in her garden, she takes a risk and leaves the comfort of her idyllic town. As the song closes, we learn in the final lines that her plunge into the unknown eventually paid off: “This little girl she grew up/and moved away and she/she lived her life full of risk/and full of play and she/she lived her life with so much to say/and her flowers/they grow more beautiful every day”.
In fact, just a year after the release of Made of Bricks, Kate Nash was already hinting that she wanted to move towards a more “girl group” kind of sound in her next album. In 2010 she concluded a Toronto set by telling her (largely female) audience that they “didn’t need to suck dick to succeed”, and in 2011 she set up the Kate Nash Rock ‘N Roll for Girls After School Music Club to encourage more young women to get involved in music. When I listen to ‘Little Red’ today it feels almost like a strangely prescient nod to Nash’s later, bolder ventures in her music and activism. Like Little Red, Nash too took a risk in her shift away from the sound and style of her original album and actually found herself dropped suddenly from her record label in 2012.
Regardless, Nash is today self-funding an album on Kickstarter, allowing her the freedom of making the music she wants to make. It’s been a pleasure as I’ve grown up alongside her to watch Nash support female creativity in recent Netflix series GLOW, advocate the value of the NHS, and take a stance against, in her own words, “right wing bullshit”. Her most recent work and activity is undoubtedly a more useful and empowering resource for young women today than Made of Bricks was. Yet 10 years from its release in 2007 I believe that the anniversary deserves marking as we celebrate the album for what it was, and in many ways still is, to young women like me: an inelegantly poetic tribute to the complicated, exciting and painful business of traversing girlhood.
First image is a head and shoulders shot of Kate Nash that shows her performing at Vooruit on 1 April 2008. It is by Pieter Morlion and is used according to a creative commons licence. Kate has reddish brown hair, is sitting down behind a keyboard and is singing into a microphone.
Video is a homemade illustrated lyric video for Kate Nash’s ‘Birds’. It was made by Neko Tsuki using Paint, and has a naive, childlike quality to the drawings which are largely comprised of stick people and simple line drawings with handwritten lyrics.
Second image is a half body shot of Kate Nash performing at Oxford’s 02 Academy on 13 February 2017. It is by Chloe Chaplin and is used according to a creative commons licence. Kate is singing and playing guitar, leaning into the microphone.