Beth Ditto ( center ) fronts The Gossip band
BY AMY WOOTEN
Beth Ditto shyly answers the phone in her signature Arkansas drawl, a surprise for the powerful, queer 25-year-old woman who fronts one of the music industry's hottest rising bands, The Gossip. Since its emergence on the LGBT-friendly indie label Kill Rock Stars more than five years ago, this sizzling trio has taken its brand of punk/blues/dance fusion to the top with its latest album Standing in the Way of Control.
The Gossip doesn't simply offer a refreshingly new sound and attitude in the midst of pop punk and Paris Hilton. Ditto openly discusses LGBT rights, politics and body image issues, making her somewhat of a heroine for queer youth and third-wave feminists.
Windy City Times chatted with the soulful Ditto about her Arkansas roots, riot grrrl and 'selling out.'
Windy City Times: What do you like to do when you have a little bit of downtime?
Beth Ditto: Mostly cook. That's basically what I like to do the best. I also just like to sleep. [ Laughs. ]
WCT: What's your favorite thing to cook?
BD: I guess chicken and dumplings. I make that a lot.
WCT: Did you always know that you possessed such a powerful and soulful voice?
BD: No ... well, kind of. I always thought I had a really loud voice, for sure. Loud! But I really didn't know what to do with it. I really wanted to sound like Mama Cass growing up. Then, I got older and did different kinds of music like R&B, like TLC and En Vogue—kind of that '90s vibe of really amazing R&B. That got me into more of a soulful style.
WCT: Do you or guitarist Nathan [ Howdeshell, aka Brace Paine ] have any horror stories about growing up in the South?
BD: Nathan and I both have a few horror stories. It's just like growing up in the South at all was kind of a horror story. Growing up in the South was just kind of shitty if you have any kind of consciousness about the world around you, people around you or people that are different from you. Nathan grew up on a farm and I grew up kind of broke in a big family. Those kinds of stories of trailer parks and cows.
WCT: When did you first come out, and was that when you were still living in the South?
BD: Yeah. I came out when I was 15 as a bisexual because when I was a little kid, I was so afraid of going to hell, so I'd pray to God that I wasn't gay. I remember fighting crushes on girls, and being really jealous of my best friends who had boyfriends, but not really knowing why and being just really afraid. I feel like I've been coming out over a span for forever. I've always been out to myself, but just really afraid of it.
WCT: When did you decide to go to Olympia, Wash., and did you decide to start a band before you went, or is that just something that happened once you got there?
BD: No, I was in a punk band in Searcy [ Ark. ] , and Nathan was in a punk band in Searcy, and [ drummer ] Kathy [ Mendonca ] was in a punk band in Searcy. We were all each other had. We were each other's audience. When I went to Olympia, I thought it would be just like Searcy, only a little bigger. I thought shows would be really similar and stuff like that. It was actually like really, really huge and a really thriving scene.
We were in bands, but we really didn't know what was going to happen. Kathy graduated, and she was probably 20 or 21, and said one day, 'Guys, I think I'm moving to Olympia,' and she did. After that, Nathan followed her and, after that, I had followed her. So, it took about two years. Out of nowhere one day, we formed a band. I had no idea what was going on in Olympia to the extreme, because I almost feel like I'm a little too young.
WCT: What do you think you'd be doing if you'd stayed in the Bible Belt?
BD: Probably hair. Maybe I'd have a girlfriend, maybe I'd be knocked up. It was pretty scary for me. Growing up, I didn't have so many options. I remember I had a high school boyfriend and everything, and I had broken up with him numerous times because I had thought I needed to date girls, and there would be no girls to date, so I'd get back with him. I would say, 'Just please, God, don't let me get knocked up. I don't want to make this decision for myself.' It was scary. I knew that it was either going to happen or not happen, and I didn't want to make any decisions. On my graduation, I saved up and bought a plane ticket to Olympia, and that's it.
WCT: Now, you are absolutely adored by the queer and fat-positive community. Do you get fed up with reading articles were the reviewer will say, 'Oh Beth Ditto is heavy, but she's hot?'
BD: Yeah. I guess I don't get fed up. I'm kind of used to it at this point. At this time in my life, I have more of a feeling that this is just how stupid people are. But she's hot? It should be and she's hot.
WCT: Yeah. They treat them like they are mutually excusive categories.
BD: Yeah, exactly. A lot of interviews will ask me that. 'So you feel like you are actually sexy. How does that feel?' I'm like, 'Do you not ever feel sexy? Do you not know how it feels?' It's more of a mark on their character than mine. I read into things very deeply, and that helps me a lot sometimes. I look at it, and I realize people who actually feel hot don't ask that question. I get asked a lot 'You are hot. How does it feel to be an icon?' I don't feel like an icon, but I feel attractive, thanks. [ Laughs. ] Fat people have their days where it feels like the world is against me sometimes. Any oppressed culture has that feeling.
WCT: As you grow more in popularity, do you find it harder for people to understand your activism and where you guys are coming from?
BD: I think they may find it harder to understand, yeah, but I think it makes a bigger difference when people don't understand, because they start to question things they never thought about before. I kind of embrace it that it grows bigger and bigger a little bit with each record, and each tour gets better and a little easier. Then, I look out in the crowd and I see blond college girls singing along because they heard it on their college radio. It's like good, skinny blond college girls are starting to understand. But then I'll ask the crowd, 'Where are the fat people at?' The skinny girls will raise their hand because they are trying to say they feel fat. That's not what I meant. You missed the point again. [ Laughs ]
WCT: Are you feeling like the band and your life is in a really great place right now?
BD: Yeah, the band is in a great place. It is at a really good point, but it's also really scary. How many people are going to pay this much for a show, and pay this much money for a shitty band they've seen 100 times. [ Laughs. ] It's crazy, but it's also a lot easier then it used to be. I don't have to worry about money as much any more, which means I can focus more on music. But we don't have so much money that we don't have any worries, because I think if you don't have any worries, you can't write a good song.
WCT: Do you think or worry that people would accuse you of selling out?
BD: I think they would, and do I worry, no, because I don't care. Selling out is very relative to me. I would never lose weight. I would never wear anything I didn't want to wear, and that's a really radical statement as a woman in the mainstream music industry. In a way, I almost think girls and women need a voice, and I think Gossip is a pretty cool voice. It's not as radical as Bikini Kill was in the '90s, or riot grrrl was in the '90s—that really aggressive, super-macho hardcore punk scene had never seen anything like that before. It's not as radical as that, but you're not preaching to the choir anymore when you're selling records in Barnes and Noble.
WCT: What do you think the future holds for The Gossip?
BD: I think I plan on making probably three more records. The one we're working on now, and the one we're probably going to record in the winter, and then a couple more after that, and then I think I'm going to be done. I love it, but it's just I don't want it to become a job or a lifelong career. I just want it to be fun. When you end up looking at so many contracts and talking to people about this and that, and spend half of your year on tour or maybe more than that, after a while you just can't do it anymore.
WCT: Any pet peeves?
BD: Lids and gum smacking. I hate it when people don't put lids back on things. I hate it, especially when you're on tour. Kathy was so bad about not screwing lids back on tight enough. Lids, for sure. [ Laughs. ]
WCT: Have any good gossip from the tour?
BD: I do, but I won't share it with you. [ Laughs. ]
Catch The Gossip Sept. 9 at the Metro with the funky all-girl band Erase Errata. Call Ticketmaster at 312-559-1212. See www.gossipyouth.com .