Gossip Girl: Beth Ditto on punk and Scripture
It’s been 13 years since the post-Riot Grrrl American trio, Gossip, released their first album. Well, they’re still going strong with now a fifth album under their belt and a poppier sound than ever. You can catch the iconic queer band on September 30 at l’Olympia (1004 Ste-Catherine E.) in Montréal to see how far the electrifying singer, Beth Ditto, has come from her rural, poor and religious Arkansas background.
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2B reached the frontwoman at her house in Portland to talk about the Bible, what it is to be punk and the trials and tribulations of her last album. (Gossip play l’Olympia September 30 with Magic Mouth). Check out our Facebook page for the chance to win 2 FREE tickets to the show! Contest details here.
2B: Four months ago, your fifth album came out, and it has quite a paradoxical name being A Joyful Noise since you said it to be the most “grown up and sad” album to date ? How did that happen?
Beth Ditto: It’s called A Joyful Noise because it comes from a quote in the Bible. I just find that’s really interesting because I am not a Christian at all and I like that it is ironic, you know, there is a picture of a decapitated devil on the cover (laughs). I find it very funny.
2B: You also went through pretty serious stuff while recording this album, I mean you lost your father and you came out of a nine-year relationship, all that happened at the same time pretty much. How did it all play in the making of this record?
BD: Um, it’s always there you know, it’s the hardest part and you wouldn’t expect it to be the hardest part because working with Mark Ronson and you know, my dad died and Amy Winehouse died in September and all these things were happening and I just couldn’t deal, basically. I couldn’t deal with writing a record every day, I couldn’t get it off of my mind, all I wanted to do was lie in bed. We were living in London and it should have been an exciting time and we were working with Mark, who I really love and we had a lot of fun but all of a sudden, everything changed and it was really dark. I mean, I couldn’t even leave the house and you know we were living in London, it had always been a dream of mine. It’s really sad because it cast a really dark cloud over the record and the experience of it.
2B: Is that why you changed producers, going from Mark Ronson, who had worked closely with Amy Winehouse, to go with Brian Higgins?
BD: Yes, we had to stop making the record with Mark, it just didn’t work out, and there were too many conflicting things happening and we had to find another producer, which I think ended up being the best decision anyway. But I think that when people think about my dad’s stuff and how it would have a really big impact on the record, well I think it’s even more technical than it was. It was way more about life, making life harder… it’s so crazy to lose one of your parents, like so strange.
2B: Yes… I’m sorry for your loss, that must have been wow, what a year!
BD: Thank you. And what a year exactly, what a summer! God, that summer was a bitch! But you know, we made it out of it and I feel really good. It’s also good because it really made all of us push our boundaries and we were working out of our comfort zones in so many ways, both physically and artistically and living in London, working with people we never worked with and producers we didn’t now very well, you know all of those things.
2B: Yeah, and it’s been quite a journey, I mean, 13 years of Gossip!
BD: Thirteen years, it’s the longest relationship in my life! I have never done anything for so long ever. You know what blows our minds is that recently, 20 years ago, Bikini Kill released their first label which is so insane, and I was thinking wow, we have been a band for 13 years, it’s really crazy. Even Nathan [Gossip’s guitarist] said: even if no one cares about this record at all, it’s just amazing that we did that record and that we have been doing it for 13 years. He was like, that, in of itself is the big payoff. To come from Nathan, that was pretty shocking and he’s right!
2B: And in those 13 years, the arch that Gossip followed is quite amazing too, going from feminist punk to now, with A Joyful Noise, to full-on pop territory. How would you explain this path? Is it also part of being in a band for that long?
BD: The only way you are going to stay sane in a band is that you were wasted the whole time (laughs). I’m just kidding but the only way to stay sane in a band is by doing things that keep pushing you to change and trying new things, regardless of whether people are going to like them. It’s really important, and I think one of the keys to stay in a band for so long. We weren’t trying to please people – satisfying ourselves and not be selfish about it, is what I think people forget to do. They forget to make music for themselves and they start to make music for somebody else’s ears. It’s not sustainable. For us, it wouldn’t be. And maybe you made a record that sounds pop but when you are in the midst of it, you don’t really feel like that it might be a pop record, you don’t even know what it’s going to be like until it’s finished. We are not very conceptual, really, (laughs). We like to live in the moment; sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. It just happened that it turned out to be a pop record. We did work with pop producers and they brought out the pop elements of it. It’s just a natural progression, you know, who knows what the next record will sound like, who knows?
2B: You grew up with the punk scene, and like pretty much all marginal groups, I would say, there are a very strict sets of rules that comes with that in order to belong to the group. There seems to be a recurrent theme about control in your work, could you tell me more about that?
BD: Yeah, the strict rules of the punk scene is oh so ironic and [you] always think about that and you’re right. I just think that the punkest thing that you can do is make your own rules and don’t fuck anybody over, don’t hurt anyone and make the record you want as a musician. To me, that is what you have to do and the punkest thing you can do. The least punk thing you can do is make the same record over and over again because you are at the ball of the wall (?!) with the punk scene, and I felt that pressure too, especially when we started the band.
2B: What’s the response from the punk scene that you knew back then?
BD: I realize the older the punks that I know, the more happy they were about Gossip being still a band, that we changed and evolved and that we are still doing it entirely on our own terms. The crazy entire process is 100% us, from where we go, what we do, to the albums. You probably know how amazing it is: the punker I have ever felt was in the mainstream because it doesn’t feel very punk to be with other punks to talk about punks. It just wasn’t exciting anymore. I mean, I feel at home there [in the punk scene] and I feel understood there but I felt like I needed more of a challenge. The weird internal punk success introduced me into a world that didn’t give a fuck about punks and I never felt so punk in my whole life than when you are in a room where nobody gives a shit about it. And you are like: Wow! This is what I was actually born to do! With people who don’t know the least thing about Riot grrrls or Alice Walker; this is what I was born to be.
2B: You also became a very sought-after public personality outside of your musical persona to speak out in the press about iniquities in the fashion industry, or gay rights and civil rights issues. How is it to be a role model now?
BD: I don’t know, I don’t really see myself as a role model. This is my answer: I am having fun, I love being involved in things no matter what it is. I have too many interests to boil it down to just music and stuff like that. In fact, it was politics that drove me to punk music. Really, it was the politics of punk not the sound of it, that’s for sure. I hated the Sex Pistols, I was like that shit sucks! But then I heard Bikini Kill and I was like this is the best thing ever. I love the idea of just being an out person around my friends and it’s the same thing for Gossip when it’s around, I don’t know, Kings of Leon, and we’re at a festival. We do not fit in with any bands at all, we make friends but you can definitely feel that there is a weird difference and it’s probably because we are gay! And feminists! And punks! But it’s like that: you are not going to be nice to us? Well you are going to suck it. (laughs) I don’t know, I just have fun and I accept the challenge, basically.
2B: The song “Perfect World” from your last album has a huge religious resonance to it. Does it speak to the present context of religion kind of taking over the American culture or rather, American politics?
BD: You’re right! I love a few things about that but I feel that “Perfect World” is more about love being a religion. I also feel like the way people look at religion, I used to look the same way at love and it’s really hilarious that this right-wing part of the U.S. are totally fucking with religion. I love the idea that I can probably quote the Scriptures better than most right-wing people could, not in a self-righteous manner but like you know what? I was raised a Christian, I know that shit too and I know what you are saying is not quite right. You live by this book and it’s what governs your entire life and you don’t even know what it actually says. I think that’s really funny, especially since I’m an agnostic gay.
w/ Magic Mouth
@ l’Olympia, 1004 Ste-Catherine Est