Beth Ditto is the kind of artist where one’s fandom can and often does feel like friendship.
From her tenure as the formidable frontwoman of iconic queer punk band The Gossip all of the way through her recent debut solo album, Fake Sugar, listening to her songs possess a fun but familiar feeling to them, like you’re having a conversation with a friend you either just met or haven’t seen in forever. That intimacy becomes even more immediate when you see her do her thing live, which she’ll be doing at Union Transfer this Sunday.
It felt more instant still when I had the pleasure of chatting with her on the phone last month. It was freewheeling discussion that covered a lot of topics both mundane—we commiserated over our dirty laundry piles and the state of my shoe collection—and more relevant to her music, her philosophies about life and work, and what she gets from both. The highlights from the latter can be found below.
The Key: Let me start by saying you were actually one of the very first people I saw in Philadelphia when I moved here for college 15 years ago, at the Trocadero with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Raveonettes. It was one of my most formative concert experiences.
Beth Ditto: Oh yeah! Those were the days, when we (The Gossip) were in our infancy. That was a good show!
TK: You jumped off stage in your underwear and danced sang in everyone’s faces and I knew then you were someone to follow.
BD: [laughs] “Yeah, I’m going see what she’s up to!” That means you’ve graduated college since then. Congratulations!
TK: Thank you! You’ve obviously graduated, so to speak, to do a lot of cool things since then as well.
BD: I have!
TK: You just released your first solo LP last year. I’ll get the obvious question out of the way. Where does the term “Fake Sugar” come from?
BD: I don’t know. That’s a good question. There’s nothing really deep about it. People always want a nice story but there really isn’t one. I just think it sounds good.
TK: It does sound good. It’s kind of instantly evocative.
BD: It’s also just pretty words. Some words are just cool. Sugar is a good word. I think fake is a good word too but that’s like a good punk word. I like it because people have a lot of interpretations. There have been a lot of really cool ones.
TK: Do you have any favorites?
BD: One interviewer’s interpretation was that it was about how pop was sweet and the album was going deep about the music industry being all fake and ended up being a guitar record in the guise of a pop record. They just had this really beautiful package in mind about it and I had to be like “No. None of that.”
That’s what’s cool about it though. It’s been like a year and a half now since the record was made, and it’s like in hind sight… you know my wife and I have broken up and there was a lot of sadness on that record. Maybe in hindsight it was just about how a lot of that wasn’t real, how that relationship wasn’t solid. There are a lot of sad love songs on that record.
TK: For sure.
BD: Yeah when I’m initially making a record, I never know what a song is about until later. I didn’t really think about the title this way until our conversation. But yeah, I’ll be a divorcee before you know it. I want to start a band called the The Divorcees, with all of my divorced friends!
TK: If you have enough to start a band…
BD: I do have enough to officially start a band. Isn’t that weird?
TK: Maybe you could keep adding members and have a Polyphonic Spree type collective.
BD: It would be so cool. That’s my dream. The first single will be called “Second Wedding.”
TK: That could even be the album!
BD: Yeah, see? It’s writing itself.
TK: You dove a little into how sometimes you think about songs differently after you write and release them. Is that how it’s always gone for you as a songwriter?
BD: You know I don’t really consider myself much of a songwriter. It’s not something I take super seriously. Some people consider themselves artists. I always consider myself crafty. It’s more like a word game to me. Ninety percent of a song for me is stream of consciousness. It’s very rare that I have an idea for a song first. When I do, I don’t usually love it as much because it feels forced. It’s usually just thinking and seeing what words come off the top of my head. That’s the way it was in The Gossip too. I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s like I’m a medium and the ghosts just talk to me. I’m kidding about that last part.
TK: If you aren’t, they’re telling you some good stuff.
BD: Thanks! That’s why I like looking back on stuff like this in hindsight. Later I’ll realize “Oh that’s what that song was about.”
TK: In addition to the album, you just released a really awesome cover of “I’m Alive” by Johnny Thunder. You were quoted as saying we’ve gotten to point where being alive in and of itself was a rebellious act, which will obviously resonate with a lot of people these days.
BD: Yeah that’s how it feels. I think a lot of people expect this deep political response, and I have nothing to say except “What… the f*ck… is going on?” We’re all gob smacked, but we’re also marching. We’re resisting, and we’re also resisting just by living our lives.
I think about that a lot when I watch a commercial and see that it has an interracial couple, or a queer couple, or an interracial, queer-seeming couple. I was just watching a game show called The Wall, ironically, and there was a gay married couple on it. I was watching it and thought to myself “The world is still going.” Things are going crazy, but we’re progressing. We’re still living. This kind of thing wouldn’t have happened on TV ten, fifteen years ago. It just moves me.
I’m also listening to these podcasts like 2 Dope Queens, My Favorite Murder, etc. You have so many cool, amazing, inspiring people doing their own media. Sure you still have your Fox News and your CNN pundits who are really dangerous, but the power of the people is still there outside of those things. When they feel like they can’t do something within certain parameters, we’re going to find another medium and we’re going to make it work. That’s what we’ve always done and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.
No one has ever made the world easy for us or for other marginalized people, so why should it be any different for how we live and act now. Is it more dangerous now? Yes. Is hate more out in the open now? Absolutely. But still, no one has ever taken care of us, so we’re going to keep living, keep taking care of ourselves and keep taking care of each other. That’s all there is to it. Living is still an act of resistance because we’re not going back.
TK: If you’ll forgive me an awkward segue, you talked about finding other mediums. In addition to being a song crafter, you’ve modeled for Gaultier, started your own fashion line, and recently starred in a Gus Van Sant picture. How has your history with bands and performing music on stage informed these other endeavors?
BD: You know, what influences me in everything I do is just real life, like real human beings and connection. That’s the thing about coming up in punk and playing shows for me. People say it’s about the music and they do shows because they enjoy playing it. For me, I enjoy entertaining. I don’t identify as a musician. I love to sing, but I’m really good at talking to people because I enjoy them. Just seeing and interacting with a lot of people is my favorite thing. In that way, it opens you up to human experience, intimacy and paying attention. I think that helps.
With design, for example, I know what it’s like to grow up poor. I know what it’s like to grow up with a body that’s not really catered to, that you’re taught to be ashamed of. I know what it’s like to grow up with a personality that a lot of people around you don’t understand. Now I go into rooms with “fancy” people and can tell myself “I’m not weird. Y’all are the weird ones.” I think that experience runs through everything I do.
TK: One of the other things I love about you is about how you’re championing the cult, under-the-radar queer influences in interviews. You’re devotee of John Water and Divine, for example, which I relate to as a queer person from Maryland. Who are some of your current queer obsessions?
BD: You know that’s funny. I was just thinking about this. I really love Christine and the Queens. I think she’s so inspiring. The make-up artist from Berlin who just did Björk’s makeup [drag queen Hungry]. Björk will also always be one of my favorites. I also listen to a lot of “mom music” like Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Mama Cass, Reba McEntire. I love her, no irony. Her voice is stunning.
TK: I can actually hear a lot of her on the new record.
BD: Yeah! That makes sense. That’s the kind of stuff I grew up listening to. Besides music, I’m also really into my friend Nicole Georges. She’s in LA, making it work. She just wrote her second book, a graphic novel, and is trying to get it made into a movie or TV series. She’s so inspiring to me because I’ve never seen a work ethic like that in my life. Her work is always about her queer experience. It’s really great.
Beth Ditto headlines Union Transfer on Sunday, March 11th; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.Beth Ditto, Union Transfer