You wouldn’t peg Beth Ditto—proud lesbian, advocate for fat people, and lead singer of dance/punk/garage rock/soul/indie group the Gossip—for an NFL fan. But when I called her in Portland, Oregon on the weekend of the conference championship games, I was lucky to talk to her for twenty minutes before her friends whisked her off to watch the Steelers and Broncos play.
“We’re watching to see who the Seahawks play in the Super Bowl,” she explained. “I don’t even give a shit about football, and I’m excited. It reminds me of one year when Arkansas won the NCAA championship in ‘94. It was the biggest thing that ever happened. It was like Christmas every day for like two weeks. And everyone was so nice to everyone, it was really great. If they would have lost, the whole state would have been destroyed for so long.”
The fact that Arkansas is the kind of state whose collective happiness depends on the success of its college basketball team clues one in to why Ditto left the state in 1999 to move to Olympia, Washington, where she formed the Gossip with fellow Arkansas natives Nathan Howdeshell and Kathy Mendonca.
Before Ditto was finally dragged off to watch the football game, she talked to me about new Gossip drummer Hanna Blilie, the band’s terrific new album, Standing in the Way of Control, and why she far prefers the term “fat” to “overweight”.
Did you move to Olympia with the idea of starting the Gossip?
We never even thought of having a band together until after we moved to Olympia. It was all completely accidental. A band that used to practice in our basement was over, and Nathan just started fucking around on the guitar, Kathy was playing this little drum beat. And they were like, “Beth, we just wrote this shitty song, you should come sing.” Three of those shitty songs later, Nathan came home and said, “I just booked us a show.” We played every single weekend for three months, and then one day Carrie Brownstein walked in and said “Come on tour with us,” and then Calvin [Johnson, owner of K Records] was like, “Put out a 7-inch,” and we were like, “Okay.”
How did you end up with such a big, soulful singing style?
It comes from the South, being raised Southern Baptist and Pentecostal. I think that’s why people are so blown away by the Gossip. Because it’s almost like we were born in a barn. Super-bumpkin-style. But I’ve never had a very quiet voice. I tried in choir to make it smaller, and it just didn’t work out. And I listened to a lot of soul music when I was growing up on my own accord. But I was mostly into Mama Cass and Gladys Knight, and they all had big voices too; just different than mine. Even talking, I’m super-loud. I could never have that kind of meek, little wispy whimsical lavender and lace voice. It comes from my body. There’s no way I can fight it.
Do you worry about people think you’re trying to sound “black?”
Being a white person and knowing that I had to think about that, and not appropriate, I feel like I’ve come to terms with that; where I know what I’m doing, and that I’m not fucking with anything. Being in the music industry and hearing what people say about women—and women of color in bands—how they aren’t marketable, and then knowing that I have a lot of what I have because I have a white privilege, was not cool. And then I realized that this was the only voice that I had. I own it, it’s my voice and it’s just the way that is.
How much does the deep, Deliverance-style South figure into the Gossip’s aesthetic?
Nathan and I were totally born in it. We’ve been through things you would not believe.
Okay, here’s a story I always tell: The first time I ever got stoned was with my cousin. We were like 13 and 14. We smoked out of a Coke can, and then he flung open the back side door and took out his BB gun and started shooting outside. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’s like ‘What do you mean?’ And I look out the door and he’s shooting squirrels. And then I’m like, ‘Oh my god.’ And then he goes and gets them, skins them, and fries them up, because he has the munchies. Swear to God. True story. That is what makes me and Nathan so much different from the White Stripes.
Would you ever go back to Arkansas?
To live? Fuck, no. No. Never. I would never raise my kids there. There’s no way, no way. No, no, no.
But you go back often enough to visit on the holidays and everything?
Mmmm, no. No I don’t. I usually go back on tours when we play Little Rock. I haven’t been back to visit since last October. But this year I’m going in May because my sister is having a baby.
How much did you draw from personal experience when writing the lyrics to this new album?
This record is the document of the past two years—with Hannah being new, and having to say goodbye to a really old friend in Kathy. But she’s becoming a midwife, and she has always wanted to do that. But it was really sad to let her go. But it was really awesome to have Hannah along, so it was really bittersweet in that way, and I think that it’s really well-documented on the record. It’s all about your friends, and how important they are to you, and how important it is to stay alive, and keep doing what you’re doing. I think that’s really obvious on this record, and it is really personal. The lyrics are not like Leonard Cohen or Patti Smith, but I think they get the message across, and that’s what matters to me the most.
It seems like there is some bitterness here and there throughout the album—
Mmhmm, there’s a lot of mental hospital shit in there. It’s for real. Last year I went into the hospital because I was so depressed I couldn’t even hold my head up, and a year later that record was recorded.
It’s refreshing next to so much ironic white boy indie rock.
How many indie rock bands aren’t straight white boys? And what do they have to be pissed about in this country? Nothing. And that’s the truth. Right now, you rule this country, you have the majority. What do you have to be angsty about? What are you pissed off about? Your shit is tight. Write a love song, shut up. Your girlfriend broke up with you? Cry me a river. There’s a sea of them waiting for you. I know it’s not that cut and dry, really, but I think that’s how people feel when they think of indie rock, and I think that’s what makes Gossip a punk band, too, is that angst, and I think that’s where our roots are, too.
When you read about the Gossip it’s often mentioned that you are beloved in the gay community, and you also speak out a lot about the way people treat people who—
Who are fat.
I like the word “fat”; I’m glad you used it. It’s not that easy for everybody.
It’s not easy, and it’s funny, because I’ve never encountered a performer for whom it was a cause, and I think it takes courage to be a spokesperson for something that a lot of people are more prejudiced toward (fat people) than any other minority, I guess, if you want to call it a minority.
Well, you know what’s funny is they treat it like a minority, but it’s actually the majority and I always wonder why we haven’t gotten it together, because we are the majority. People bitch about fat people who are quote unquote overweight, which is a term that I hate, because it sets a standard for people to be, but it’s really funny to me that we are the majority in this country right now. It’s treated like no one in the world is like this, and it’s the most shameful thing, but really most of us are fat asses, you know. I just like food too much, and I don’t want to change. I spent so much of childhood trying to change, and I just got sick of it. Then I went out Olympia and I met people who were part of a bigger movement—no pun intended—but a bigger movement, and it was really one of the most powerful things in my life. It is still a battle. Especially being in the music industry, it’s so fucking hard. There are bands that I have known that have opened for Gossip that have turned into millionaires over night. And there’s no other explanation, because they’re not better bands than we are, and I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, but in a fair, honest-to-god way. They are also willing to sell out and we’re not. And one of the ways we’re not willing to sell out is by acting straight, talking straight, being thin. I don’t want to look like Britney Spears, I just don’t want to. She’s hideous.