Q&A: Gossip's Beth Ditto On Pop, Politics, And Being 'Related To Half Of Arkansas'
Portland, Oregon, trio Gossipsinger Beth Ditto, guitarist Nathan Howdeshell, and drummer Hannah Blilieare celebrating the release of their fifth album, the remarkably bangin' A Joyful Noise, tonight at Terminal 5. We wrangled some time with the magnificent Ms. Ditto to talk about the odious glamorization of poverty, ABBA's perfection, and the importance of proper undergarments in the presence of your mother.
This is album number five. When I listen to [Gossip's debut, 2001's] That's Not What I Heard...
I love that you even know that.
The first time I saw you, you opened for the White Stripes, who were opening for Sleater-Kinney.
Ah yes! LOVE that!
Anyway, back when you were making gritty blues-punk, did you ever really envision yourselves as a worldwide phenomenon dance band that made albums with Kylie Minogue's producer [Brian Higgins]?
Heh. No, I never really had an idea. I think that's the best part of being in a band like Gossip is that everything is so off-the-cuff in so many ways. For us we're just like, "Huh? What? Okay, let's just do that." We make music the same way we always do. If we went into the studio, just the three of us with a tape recorder, we'd probably sound exactly like That's Not What I Heard or very similar. Or [2003's] Movement. [The direction] pretty much is always left up to the producer. I never really thought it would be like this, but you know, I didn't know what it would look like. If you had asked me, "What will you be doing in 13 years?" I don't think I'd say, "Oh, I'm in the Sony building, doing an interview." I just don't really look into the future that much. I like the day-by-day planning of things. Spontaneity is my thing; I need that in my life.
How do you suppose you got to dance music?
I think it was the songs that we wrote and the ideas that the producer did have. I just think it's trial and error. You try it and you do the song the way it sounds best. At the end of the day, it could be any kind of song, if you took away or added something to it. When people think about music, and why they are in bands and stuff, for us, we didn't want to make the same record over and over again. The way that music works, you want to take it... around. Like, sometimes, if you play exactly the same, people will come back around to you, and they admire that. They admire the way you stuck to this one thing. But I don't like the idea of not changing. Dance music sounded really fun. I like the way that you get to sing and the way that it lets me use my voice in a way that That's Not What I Heard didn't. And also gaining confidence and not sounding like a Riot Grrrl is a big deal to me. Riot Grrrl is my favorite genre of music ever. But you just need to change, really.
I read that you listened to a lot of ABBA while making this album. There's a Swedish death metal band, Opeth, who are similarly obsessed with ABBA. What is it about that band that speaks to musicians in such disparate genres?
I have no idea. It is a mystery. I think that's why they call it pop musicbecause it's popular. It exceeds everything. It's genre-less. People would call it disco, but it's not really disco, is it? To me, it's just kind of the ultimate in production, the ultimate in delivery. The packaging wasn't incredible. It wasn't super-style-y. If anything, it was completely the opposite, even for the time. Compare a picture of Donna Summerrest in peaceto a picture of ABBA. And you're like, "...Okay." It's just a completely different ballgame. The idea of the perfection is just incredible.
I would say this is arguably the least political album you've ever done. These are almost unanimously heartbreak songs with attitude. Was that deliberate?
Um, I don't think that it really is less political. I think there's a lot of things that are a little more... I think it's a little more subtle. Like the idea of "Get a Job" is about trust-fund kids and how the idea that you know, "Oh, we're all in it to win it!" and the idea of glamorizing poverty and how that is still a part of my life. And how people I know still do that, like, the idea of kids thrifting becausenot to say that they shouldn'tbut the idea that they're like, "Oh yeah, man, I know, man, the struggle..." And you're like, "Mmm, yeah, actually, fuck off. You don't know what it is to struggle." To me that's a very political message. And the idea of queer lovethat's very political. And having a break-up. Also the images from the record are very political. There's a bible verse as the title of the album; Medusa's disembodied head and hand on the front. To me, it's political and funny. It has a sense of humor about it. I just think it's deeper and not as overt this time.
About that song, "Get a Job," have you been encountering more young people who pull that poor-little-rich-kid shtick?
I think people forget that we live in Portland, and we're still part of the scene. We're still friends with the people we've been friends with since we were 18, 19. I've known Nathan since I was 14. And those problems are still around. The scene is still the same ol scene in so many ways. And also, there is actually a struggle going on. We almost called the record Get a Job because it was topical and it was tongue-in-cheek about trying to find a job. Believe me, my family still lives in Arkansas. It's not like you're a millionaire living in a mansion. It's not like we've moved to L.A. We're still in it. There's this idea that we have this very charmed life, but I'm always wondering when it's gonna end and trying to take care of my friends at the same time. It's the same as it always has been, as much as it possibly can be. You would be a liar if you were like, "Oh, I make exactly the same amount as I did when I was 18."
Gossip, "Casualties Of War" (live at SXSW)
When was the last time you were home in Arkansas?
Are you treated any differently by the locals?
In Arkansas?!? Uh, no. I'm related to half of Arkansas. If we ever play a show in Arkansas, it's just literally my entire family, and then Nathan's dad and sister. I swear to God. I'm like [to the promoter], "You know what, don't even worry about a guarantee. We're going to wind up buying pizzas for everybody." It's nice to tour, because it really is a reality check. You go back there, and people treat you exactly the same. I have a really great family, an incredible family.
A big family?
Huge. And incredible.
Throughout your career, Gossip has always had a fantastic attitude. You dished out southern soul with sass, but you always did it with a kind of class...
Even when you were sweaty, with makeup running down your face, and taking your clothes off, you still came across as a girl you could take home to meet your mother. Where did this mix of no-nonsense attitude and charm come from? Is it a southern thing?
That's a great question. I think you're right; it's definitely a southern thing. I never really understood what charm was; I was like, "It's not that hard to be nice to people." And my friends who weren't raised southern would be like, "You know, it is for some people." I guess I just wasn't raised that way. I've never met a stranger. You just say "thank you"; you hold the door open. To me, it's common courtesy, but honestly I think it is partly being brought up in the South. It is a real culture and a real cultural difference. It's the same when people think people from New York are really rudeno, it's just a completely different way of living, a completely different pace.
But I think that we have parents that we have to answer to. My mother would die if she found out that I treated someone rudely. And my mom is not a ladylike lady; she's pretty rough-and-tumble and really awesome. She always says she doesn't know how she got three girls who always wear makeup and love clothes. My mom hates clothes; she only wears jeans and T-shirts. She's great. When I was down there, I was wearing a dress, I got it at Goodwill or something. And she was like, "Shouldn't you wear a slip under that?" I was like, "I wasn't going to." And she was like, [makes a disproving noise]. I was like, "Does it make you uncomfortable?" And she was like, "I think you should wear a slip under that." Can you see my underwear? "Well, no, but it doesn't have a lining." [laughs] I was like, "Oh yeah! That's real here," you know what I mean? Those are still real concerns of the Southern culture. I don't think people are necessarily holding onto that in California. To me, that sums it up. There you go.
What is the one message from A Joyful Noise you'd like your listeners to walk away with?
Life's too short to be hateful. Let it go.
Gossip play Terminal 5 tonight.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.