The Gossip's Beth Ditto is cooking with meat - and mixing riot grrrl gospel with punk rock panache
Punk doesn't get much more soulful – or outta hand – than Beth Ditto. After watching her tear up the stage at Bottom of the Hill, pulling her enraptured audience members up to dance and taking on "I Wanna Be Your Dog," I shouldn't have been surprised to find myself chasing the Gossip vocalist down for a phone interview over the course of days, hooking up at the absolute last second. I, like all her other fans, wanna be led around on a leash by the baby-faced diva from Searcy, Ark.
On the line from Portland, Ore., late on a recent midweek evening, Ditto proves that she gives just as good phone as she does soul-stirring performance. Fresh from viewing The Exorcism of Emily Rose ("It was an advertisement for Gambutrol as much as it was an ad for the Catholic Church – they only said it every other sentence!"), Ditto is so winning, earthy, and outright fun in conversation you completely forget about the terrors that came with getting in touch with her in the first place. Runaround – what runaround? I'd much rather get the scoop on Ditto; guitarist Nathan Howdeshell, 26; and their new drummer, Hannah Blilie, 24 (Shoplifting).
"I'm such a grandma," the 24-year-old Ditto says disarmingly. "I'm no good after 11. I got my face off, my glasses on, bra's off, and my tits are sagging."
SFBG: Were you into punk rock early on?
Beth Ditto: I really identified a lot with Mama Cass. I really like Wizard of Oz. My mom listened to Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd and my dad listened to a lot of Patsy Cline, Kool and the Gang, and the Bee Gees. And, of course, there was a lot of gospel music around. I was a choir kid.
SFBG: How did you come to riot grrrl?
BD: I was a feminist before I was a riot grrrl. I just hated so many things about the world, growing up, in elementary school, my stepdads, and I thought it was annoying how irresponsible they were. I got sick of that. I heard the word feminist, and I thought that's what I am. I was 13. I did my seventh grade speech on Gloria Steinem.
SFBG: Now the Gossip are huge in the queer music community.
BD: I think the first time it dawned on me was a few months ago, when I realized that people are listening to Gossip records the way I used to listen to Bikini Kill and Need records. That's crazy because now when I go out to a party, there's at least one drunk girl who will stop me and talk about that.
SFBG: Do you feel any pressure?
BD: Those are my people. I feel more pressure from the music industry to be more straight-laced or be more thin or to be more toned down. The hardest part is definitely the pressure to be something I'm not.
SFBG: What about your fat activism – has that become more challenging?
BD: The bigger we get the more challenging it is. No pun intended. I think it is hard now because we're dealing with people who have no fucking idea who Nomy Lamm is, people who have no idea what fat activism is. They don't have a smidgen of an idea, which tells me they haven't even dabbled in anything remotely punk or feminist or political. I have my shit figured out, and you realize you live in a bubble with people you think, or hope, have your back.
SFBG: Who turned out to be clueless, in your experience?
BD: People who do your makeup and hair at photo shoots, for fucking sure! Clueless! Not all of them but a lot of them! I can't have someone do my makeup if they don't know who I'm talking about if they ask me if I have any ideas and I can't say, "Debbie Harry '79" or "Divine the last scene in Female Trouble." If they look at me and say, "Who's Divine ...?" It doesn't make you a bad person, but I don't think you should be doing my makeup.
SFBG: What did you want to accomplish with Standing in the Way of Control?
BD: We had a goal of finishing it. We hadn't put out a record since 2003. Our old drummer was busy all the time. It was obvious that her heart wasn't in music anymore – she wanted to be a midwife, and she was in school all the time. We toured very seldomly, and we had to say no to all these things we wanted to do.
SFBG: Will you be touring now?
BD: That's where I'll be for the next year – on the road, in a van. I'm excited about the West Coast and Europe, but separately – I can definitely not do three months consecutively again. Time home is really important for me. My best friend just pointed out to me, "Beth, you need to be grounded." By grounded, she means being around all of my shoes instead of 10 pair. It drives me crazy. And all of my makeup. I need to be around all of my clothes. Leaving my sweetie [Freddie Fagula] is really hard.
SFBG: How many pairs of shoes do you have? That's very Imelda-like.
BD: I know it is! I don't know. Sometimes I'm afraid to know. I'm a high punk femme!
SFBG: Any good gossip?
BD: I burnt some oatmeal cookies. I cook with meat. I'm so meat-and-potatoes – I was raised so Southern. I make chicken and dumplings and cornbread and biscuits and gravy. When it comes to vegetarian things, I'm not a good cook, but I will sure eat the hell out of it.
I had this one person in a band say to me once – we were going out to eat somewhere – "Do you guys eat meat?" I said, "I'll eat anything. I'll eat dirt." And he turned around and looked at me and said, "Well, meat is murder." And I said, "No fucking shit! Just turn around and drive the car!" Like I didn't live in Olympia for four years. "Oh, thanks, you're really clueing me in." This particular person was just so self-righteous.
SFBG: What did you think of Walk the Line?
BD: Being Arkansan, my Aunt Mary picked cotton with Johnny Cash when they were kids. She used to say to my mom, "Well. He ain't much. He just that old Cash boy."