The Essential Selection: An Interview with Beth Ditto

Robert Collins

Beth Ditto from Gossip unveils the music that made her the woman she is today, calls L.A. girl punks, Mika Miko, "the best thing ever", and describes her kinship with Missy Elliott.

Everyone knows Beth Ditto: frontwoman for Gossip and owner of a fiery voice, ultra-friendly down South manner and no compromise attitude. You probably know her standpoint on sexuality, weight issues, gender politics and George W. Bush. But how much do you really know about the art behind the artist? To really understand Beth Ditto, you need to get to grips with her music…

What’s the first music that made you want to sing?

When I was a little kid I wanted to be like Cyndi Lauper. She really made a huge impression on my life. She was on MTV a lot when it was still legal. It was banned in my county because it wasn’t Christian. I used to watch Cyndi Lauper and Boy George videos and be so intrigued. I thought Cyndi Lauper was my sister for a really long time. I met her recently. She’s a riot. She’s a genuine person. We talked about how music was so much better in the '80s in America. She came out at the same time as Madonna. For Cyndi Lauper it was starting a trend and for Madonna it was riding the coattails of a trend. I’m actually a Madonna fan. Let me rephrase that. I can appreciate Madonna. As a woman in the music industry, I have to appreciate Madonna. For Cyndi Lauper though, "She Bop" is a great song. And Girls Just Want to Have Fun was an amazing record.

What’s the first music you can remember buying?

The first single I ever bought was "18 and Life" by Skid Row. I’m the fourth of seven kids. I had two older brothers and one older sister, so there was a lot of music going on in my house. My oldest brother was really into hair metal and my other brother was really into David Bowie. My sister was really into pop music and rap. My mother was into Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, and my father was into Kool and the Gang, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. "18 and Life" must have come from my oldest brother. He had a perm and wore MC Hammer pants. In Arkansas. Those '80s hair metal ballads are good songs. Do you know "Long Cold Winter" by Cinderella? Tom Keifer of Cinderella may have the most amazing voice ever.

It’s so clichéd, but I loved Otis Redding. I think I first heard him sing "Try a Little Tenderness" in Pretty in Pink. You know that movie? It just goes to show you, movies like that can really change people. I used to save my money and go to Wal-Mart. It was the only place you could buy CDs and I would end up buying compilations of old hits. In a way your creativity is only as good as your lack of resources. I would have never gotten into the things I got into or been the person that I am if I didn’t have to go without things or make do with the bare minimum. For me, anything that I could find that was subversive or different or old even was underground. But it did make for good listening.

What was the sound of your youth?

I loved Nirvana. I was 12 when that stuff was going on. I totally loved Pearl Jam. Stone Temple Pilots were ok. Bleach is my favourite. No. Incesticide is my favourite. When I got more into punk that album really spoke to me. The production is amazing, although I didn’t know that at the time. The artwork was pretty rad for that time too. It’s pretty dated now.

What were you into when you moved from Arkansas to Olympia?

I can tell you what was on my tape player. It was Elliot Smith and Missy Elliott. Missy Elliott Smith! Elliot Smith was really popular. Not pop culture popular. He was underground popular. He didn’t have any pop savvy at all. It was all clear, beautiful documents. I’m not one to love singer songwriters. Like, I do not give a shit about Bob Dylan. I appreciate him as a human being but I do not care about his songs in the least. When people speak about Bob Dylan, that’s how I feel about Elliot Smith. He was a genius. XO and Either/Or are great.

Missy Elliott’s Da Real World is lyrical genius. The line ‘Would you still be in love baby, if I cut your throat, cut the jokes’ is amazing. She is more musical than lyrical though. Sometimes it’s about feeling and not about lyrics. I’m the worst lyricist in the world. I’m horrible at it. With Missy Elliott I feel this kinship like, I totally understand what she’s doing. And Timbaland is in a world of his own. I’m obsessed with Timbaland. Him and Missy Elliott. The dynamic duo of all time. I remember being afraid to like hip-hop because everyone was so punk in Olympia. So I didn’t ever really talk about how much I loved them. I remember talking about it and sparking this big coming out that we were all big hip hop fans, all listening to it on our own.

What was the music you were listening to when you were forming Gossip?

I listened to a lot of Nirvana and Hole. I loved Skinned Teen, Raoul and the Need. I’d heard Bikini Kill and loved it, but there was this musical side of it that was missing to me. And then I heard the Need and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before or will hear again. Except for the Knife. Which is like electro Need. I got a spilt CD of Raoul and the Need when I was seventeen. And I was like, "This. Is. Amazing." It’s the first time I’d ever heard girls screaming. Not screaming out of anger. Screaming for fun.

Is there an artist that you wish you’d discovered earlier?

X-Ray Spex are a band that shaped by identity, but not until I was 19. People wanted Poly Styrene to be a darling but she was a punk, in every sense of the word. She recreated punk. Poly Styrene was so ahead of her time in the way she was talking about genetic engineering and identity. It’s gender politics. It’s ridiculous. The Clash are great, but they are overrated. If you want to talk about overrated, Sex Pistols! Hello!

What’s the sound of the future?

In the States Mika Miko is the best thing ever. If people knew what was good for them, they’d just listen to Mika Miko. They’re all girl punks from LA. They’re very Germs-influenced. The guitar is fucking genius. Everyone in that band is so good. And they’re all about 19. I’m 26 and it’s frightening. Gossip is becoming the band that people look up to like I looked up to Sleater-Kinney when I moved to Olympia. Not that they’re so old, but they’re so prestigious. It wasn’t even cool to listen to them, because everyone was listening to them. Now we’re the band the cool kids don’t listen to any more. You can’t be from Olympia and not be into Sleater-Kinney. Their best record? Call the Doctor. End of story.”

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