Interview: Beth Ditto on Rick Rubin, Unnecessary Apologies, and (Not) Recording Vocal Parts Sober
Beth Ditto is such an unlikely star that even Taylor Swift would spring an "Imma let you finish" on her. Her mutant soul-punk trio Gossip is the only riot-grrrl band to have a top 10 hit (2006's Bush-deposing "Standing in the Way of Control") and become aptly named considering her frequent appearances in UK press, sometimes with Kate Moss and sometimes unclothed. But that doesn't mean rock's premiere plus-size designer and improbable sex symbol is any less shy--laying down vocals is so "terrifyingly intimate," she needs liquor. There will be plenty of that tonight, when the Gossip headline Terminal 5.
The title Music for Men misled me somewhat; I was expecting you to really let us have it with some big political rants. But the album mostly appears to be about love.
That's what I like about the title. There are no rants this time, but a sense of humor that people often overlook when considering feminism and radical politics. I think the title is a lot about image and representing a moment for us, a queer, feminist-identified band--it's pretty multifaceted for me. Even if there was some underlying political theme, we are not the kind of band to get it together enough to see that concept through; some bands would say they're organic. We're more A.D.D.
It has more of dance bent than anything you've ever done, but your voice has always imparted a soul diva feel to the band even back when you first started. Was this an explicit musical decision, or something you've just been building towards accidentally?
When I was a little kid I always got in trouble for my voice carrying, so for a while I tried to be meeker. I listened to a lot of Tori Amos and stuff like that, and I really wanted to have that pretty, breathy kind of range, but riot grrrl came along and I became more comfortable with my loud obnoxious nature. Combine that with a lack of subculture, or even pop culture for that matter. We had to dig deeper and in different places if we were to survive top 40 or country, so Nathan [Howdeshell, Gossip guitarist] and I listened to a lot of oldies radio; of course we heard Motown and old soul. Church was also helpful...high school choir, too. I just loved to sing, but it was really riot grrrl bands that made me comfortable with my volume and lack of "skill."
Did working with Rick Rubin this time drastically affect your writing process?
He really embraced our natural process--which is not having a process at all. He was very patient with a bunch of basically, wide-eyed kids who were used to cutting records in days, and that means writing, recording and mastering. Someone said to me once that a good producer is like a good therapist and Rick is an amazing therapist. I learned to trust myself as a songwriter and as a lyricist. He brought out the best in all of us, especially Nathan. None of us can really read music or understand the language, so he helped us learn it and make it up. My favorite story about Rick is when we went into the studio on the first day I asked him, "What's our process?" and Rick replied so calmly, "We'll know when we're done."
With your collaboration with the Simian Mobile Disco guys, is it true you made them leave the studio to do your vocals? It's hard to think of you as the shy type.
Not only did I make them leave, I made them buy me alcohol! I think every producer we've ever worked with would tell you the same story. It is terrifyingly intimate.
You posed nude for the cover of NME, which is interesting because friends have told me that much of Europe--where your band really broke through--is even more anti-fat than the US. Have you noticed a big difference in attitudes over there or here?
I don't know how you could really measure who is worse, Europe or the US, but I can tell you that Europe isn't afraid to take risks. Europe has historically embraced the unconventional far before the US. I will also say that our success isn't based solely on me, or my being fat.
There are so few ways to shock people anymore, but being fat and not apologizing for it is one of them I think.
Thankfully, I have a really awesome community that I try to keep as close to me as possible. I've never been the kind of person to apologize unnecessarily. Apologies should be saved for worthy occasions, like hurting someone's feelings or using your roommate's toothbrush on accident--not for existing. Life is too short. You can hate your body for all kinds of reasons; it's a battle and a choice, to accept and embrace, or reject and hate. I know it's more complicated than that, but to simplify things that's how I feel, and right now I'm having fun!
Do you think we're becoming more or less tolerant of size as a society on the whole?
My approach to body acceptance and love isn't so much to change the mind of the masses, but show people who have been told their entire lives that for whatever reason, be it fat or a disability, or teeth, or eyes...to feel better about themselves. A body isn't something we're taught to love; it's something we are absolutely taught to fear no matter how "perfect." I can tell you that the moment I let go of all the rules that had been instilled in me, my life opened up to possibilities I never would have imagined, opportunities that never would have came to me if I had carried on the tradition of hating my body.
How do you feel about the reactions to the clothes you designed? I've heard mixed things.
Of course you have! Is there anything entirely positive or entirely negative? You can't be everyone's favorite friend. I feel really happy with it. It was a learning experience and I loved designing it. I just want the people who wear them to feel awesome.
You commented a while ago about--I'm quoting badly now--women's magazines not being the "problem" that enforces the standard of size zero models in the fashion industry, but rather specifically, "gay male designers." Do you still feel the same way?
I have been asked about this a lot. It is always heartbreaking to confront this question because a quote in a magazine is so timeless, and this is one of the most misunderstood comments of my life. I wasn't targeting gay men. It is heartbreaking to be thought of as targeting them. My point was that in terms of fashion as an industry, the sizeism and sexism go so further back than anyone alive, and it is the women who I feel are solely taking the blame. We are demonized for being too fat, too thin, and judged for not partaking in the beauty standard for fashion, and then the opposite side of the same coin as well for partaking in it. There are many contributors to the beauty myth and it doesn't start nor end with women, nor does it start or end with gay men. It is a known fact that fashion is one of the only industries that women and gay men dominate, and sadly it is one that gets blamed for our own demise when its not the only truth. It is hard to explain radical concepts in mainstream media. It is even more difficult to paraphrase them--being said, that particular paraphrasing haunts me. I hate the idea of divide and conquer. I do not blame gay men. I do not blame women.
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