We speak to Beth Ditto on an uncharacteristically pleasant Glasgow evening. This surprises Ditto, well aware of our undesirable climate: “One time, we were a festival in Scotland and there was a mom and a little girl, who’s probably about 20 now, and the mom wanted to see a band. She asked “do you mind if I leave her with you,” and I said “Totally” and took her about. The sun came out and she seemed really hot. I asked her if she was okay, and she said “It’s okay, I’m just from Glasgow!” She could barely see. It was so cute.”
We catch Ditto as she brings her debut solo album Fake Sugar to Glasgow (O2 Academy, Fri 25 May), assuring us that we share a climate with her adopted hometown Portland. She embraces her southern roots on Fake Sugar, a southern rock-tinged album touching on former flames, band betrayals and the realities of love. A far cry from the alternative rock and dance of Gossip, the band that made her the coolest woman in music.
“The record’s sound was organic: people always ask if I knew what kind of record I wanted when I went to make it, but I never really know what I want, which can be really frustrating for some people. But I always know what I don’t want, and I knew that I didn’t want it to be a dance record. I had done that before and it was really fun: I like the idea of people seeing us live and being happy, not asking “What was that weird B-side?” With this record, I really wanted to make something bringing me back to guitar music, with really beautiful riffs and layers, as well as using as many organic instruments with as little digital sound as we could. I didn’t want a specific genre. So it was a departure from Gossip in one way, and totally different to the EP, but Gossip music, especially at the beginning, was always super guitar-driven, at least until the last record. It’s my favourite format to write to: piano, guitar, bass.”
Much has changed, culturally and politically, since Gossip released their signature song “Standing in the Way of Control,” an angry anthem against President Bush’s anti-gay laws and rhetoric. What has changed since then? “I was 20-something then, and it must’ve been about 15 or 16 years ago. I definitely feel like a different person: well, I feel like the same person but an adult version of me! I learned to be more confident. When making Standing in the Way of Control, I wouldn’t even give them the lyrics sheet, which is so important when working with a producer on a record. I would only do one or two takes of singing because it was so painful: I had no problem singing live but singing in front of two or three people, it felt like I was being strangled and I hated it. I had to really learn to accept myself.”
This struggle with confidence is hard to fathom given Ditto’s electric onstage persona and reign as pop culture darling. Once voted no. 1 on NME’s Cool List, Beth was the poster girl for the current alternative scene that defined the era. “It was such a different time. There were a lot of new ideas, a big resurgence of punk and guitar driven rock and roll. And DIY was such a buzzword, like people had never used it before. But we came from a punk scene, where that’s all that ever was: there was only one way, and that was doing it yourself or it didn’t get done! In pop culture, it felt like a different world. It was a really innovative time, where people were making cool art and being in bands and it felt pre-internet, pre-Facebook, pre-Instagram.” This punk scene was Riot Grrrl, the underground feminist punk movement that originated in the early 1990s in Washington. How did a country girl from Arkansas get wrapped up in a movement that defined a generation of women and queer artists?
“I was drawn to Riot Grrrl because I was a self-identified feminist from a really young age and I had an understanding for things I didn’t necessarily have the language for. When I met [Gossip band mates] Nathan and Kathy in the late 90s, I was really starting to learn about my identity and coming out of the closet, meeting gay people for the first time. I was being introduced to bands like Bikini Kill and The Need. And at the same time, Missy Elliott released “Supa Dupa Fly” which felt like the start of female, queer driven music in the public vernacular. I was already really frustrated and alienated and hungry for something I could identify and cling to. Even when it came to clothes: I grew up poor and we had to make everything, so to have found this movement that allowed you to embrace that side of you really blew my mind. Queer core and Riot Grrrl.”
What follows is a geek out over our favourite queercore music, and I mention the unparalleled excitement of once meeting Imperial Teen guitarist Roddy Bottum by chance in Edinburgh. “I know exactly how you feel! Because that happened to me when I was 19 and going around Olympia, and you would see Rachel Carns or Tobi Vale, people I idolised and never thought I would ever meet, and here they are!” Ditto has gone onto to work with some of her heroes, from Kathleen Hanna to Blondie, mastering the transition from fan to peer. “It’s nice to work with people who remember a time before the world was so small. And even listening to them talk about music, coming from a point where everything and everyone was so connected, like from the New York scene who are all still friends. My favourite thing about working with Blondie was the advice that Debbie Harry gave me: “Always do your own make up.””
2007’s “Standing in the Way of Control” is the queer anthem we needed – and arguably still do – to jolt us into action and take what we need for our community to survive. In Trump’s America and May’s UK, she is the bold and fearless leader the queer community needs. The track is so pertinent it could have been written today. Now, Ditto contends, is time for us to embrace our queerness as visibly as we can. “I think it’s really important, especially now when we’re on the brink of something really big: we have Theresa May, we have Donald Trump, and it feels like there is a lot of backlash against us. Being a radical queer person at all is really important: your visibility matters and you don’t realise who is looking up to you. The youth are so motivated and hungry for change. You’re living your authentic life and that’s what it really means to be an activist. Living your life to the fullest and being happy is the biggest “f**k you” you can give! Honesty, openness and transparency are the biggest forms of activism.” Our current political climate is a hard pill for liberals and radicals to swallow, Beth believes this is the shot in the arm we needed, and that holding a mirror to ourselves may be the way out.
“For me, the biggest thing about the Trump administration is going through more self-reflection, especially when it comes to racism: as a white person, what does it mean to have a racist in the White House, and what can I do to play my part in preventing that hate? And especially as a queer person, who is now dating a trans man and being viewed as “straight” in the world, or getting a divorce from a woman after working so hard for marriage equality. It has been an experience of self-learning and asking tough questions to allow me live life to the fullest and being as healthy as you can. Not “push ups” healthy, I’m talking being strong and brave and independent. We need to be strong, and the only way we can do that is being honest with ourselves. Look at places like Moscow, where it’s illegal to be gay, and young amazing queer people have to fight for their lives. We forget that there are places in the world that need our support and we need to help however we can, even just by living life honestly.”
Fans can expect her bold, infectious energy and staggering voice when she brings Fake Sugar to the O2 Academy later this month. On album track “We Could Run” she sings “There are rules that I’m in to break…We could always play it safe but that’s no fun;” Beth Ditto is at her best when she takes risks. Her voice and character are unlike anything else on pop’s current landscape; her music and persona have remained a force that jolts and moves us in the right direction.
Super gay quick fire round
Madonna or Kylie?
RuPaul or Divine?
Dolly Parton or Cher?
Yeah, I’m Southern!
What would your drag name be?
Beth Amphetamine, or Doug H. Nuts
What is your karaoke jam?
“Fancy” by Bobbie Gentry
Should Gaga have gone country or done more disco?
I think Gaga has gotta do what she’s gotta do. That’s all I can say.
Who is your favourite queen on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Sharon Needles. Oh, and the girl with the “Fat Fem and Asian” shirt…
Yes! She’s so cute. And such good make up.
How would you describe partying with Kate Moss?
Who can handle their drink better between the two of you?
What was it like making that programme with Fearne Cotton where she became pals with different celebrities?
Oh I love her, I call her Fearné.
You gave her full Southern hospitality and took her out into your town. I remember Paris Hilton wasn’t quite as good a host. Completely different.
Whoops. Well, you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.