Beth Ditto: Back in Control
The former Gossip frontwoman sheds her electro-punk roots and forges ahead as a solo artist with "Fake Sugar."Music Features Beth Ditto
“Just putting on my mascara!”
It’s 11:15 a.m. on a spring day, and Beth Ditto is not quite ready for our FaceTime call. She sets her phone down and apologizes while reaching for the eye-makeup wand one minute and flattening her choppy bangs with a hair straightener the next. We’re technically speaking over the phone—me in New York, Ditto in Portland, Ore.—but our conversation feels sweetly intimate. “This is like me and my sister; this is what we would do,” she says in her Southern drawl.
Such unfiltered accessibility is what audiences have grown to expect from Ditto. Throughout her near two-decade career as a singer in dance-punk figureheads Gossip and a plus-size model and designer, the famously zaftig 36-year-old has rarely hidden herself away. If anything, she’s done just the opposite, posing nude on the covers of NME in 2007 and LOVE in 2009, and promoting body acceptance and gender equality years before Beyoncé proclaimed herself a FEMINIST at the 2014 VMAs and Lena Dunham bared her breasts and belly with abandon on HBO’s GIRLS.
“Unapologetic” would be a much better word for someone like Ditto, who has always made a point to be entirely herself, a personality trait that frankly makes for a much more delightful interview. “After this I get to go bra shopping,” she announces, giving a lock of dark-brown hair a half-hearted swipe with the straightener. “I’m not going to finish doing my hair,” she decides. “One side is a little … I don’t really care. It’s fine. I just wanted to have eyebrows on at least.”
“One of the last times I saw him we were in a hotel room alone, and we were drinking. He took my hand and he was like, ‘I just want to see you in heaven.’ And I was like, ‘That would be great, wouldn’t it? But here’s the deal, buddy: Even if I go to heaven—and you should know this as a weird Bible thumper now—we won’t even remember each other. So it’s like, why are you even trying? My soul is not your concern.”
Ditto is enjoying a week off between work obligations; right now she’s relaxing at home with her wife, Kristin Ogata, before flying to Los Angeles to continue promoting her solo debut, Fake Sugar, which comes out Friday. (Read Paste’s review of Fake Sugar here.) It’s an exciting moment for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that the last time Ditto released music it was with the now-defunct Gossip, which she fronted for well over a decade, from its early days in Olympia, Wash., to its final ones in 2014. But that’s all over now.
When I ask at what point she could tell that Gossip was petering out, Ditto points to a moment about five years ago, in 2012, the year the band—also comprising co-founder and guitarist Nathan “Brace Paine” and drummer Hannah Blilie—released their fifth and final album, A Joyful Noise. It was around this time, Ditto says, that Howdeshell started acting distant.
“We never had a falling out, Nathan and I,” she explains. “I hate to talk about it because I don’t want to throw him under a bus or paint this bad picture of him, but he became born again. It’s really hard. Not a hateful person, you know. Definitely a little unhinged. He always was and that’s what made him great. He’s always been hilarious and unpredictable and really fucking funny. Literally the funniest person I’ve met in my life, no exaggeration. And I know a lot of funny people.”
Indeed, soon after the album’s release, Howdeshell underwent a variety of changes. In addition to becoming more religious, he moved back to his and Ditto’s hometown in rural Arkansas to care for his ailing father, which struck the frontwoman as odd, considering her friend’s strained relationship with the town and the fact that his father had allegedly been abusive in the past. “After a record [Howdeshell] would leave and do his own thing for a bit,” she says. “One time he moved to Vancouver, Canada. One time he moved to Portland when we were still in Olympia. So I was used to that. But going back to Arkansas was just different, and I knew it was different. Not only did he move back, but he moved back to the farm where he grew up. His dad was crazy. Like, how many stories can I tell you of being chased off of the fucking farm with his dad wasted in a golf cart with a gun?
“Then the Jesus talk started,” she sighs.
Ditto isn’t blind to the irony of the situation. She remembers how Howdeshell and she used to yearn for escape from Arkansas; she also remembers how he had once designed an upside-down crucifix single art for the 2009 Gossip hit “Heavy Cross”—an outright blasphemous move where they’re from. “You know, I grew up on the Bible,” she says. “[Howdeshell] would quote scripture to me, and I would just be like, ‘For one: Don’t try me. Number two: That’s not what that means.’ One of the last times I saw him we were in a hotel room alone, and we were drinking. He took my hand and he was like, ‘I just want to see you in heaven.’ And I was like, ‘That would be great, wouldn’t it? But here’s the deal, buddy: Even if I go to heaven—and you should know this as a weird Bible thumper now—we won’t even remember each other. So it’s like, why are you even trying? My soul is not your concern.’” (Howdeshell could not be reached for comment.)
Still, Ditto tried to keep Gossip going, traveling to Arkansas to write what she hoped would be the band’s sixth studio album. They even scouted studios in the area. But something within their partnership—always easy until then—had shifted. “It was just disconnected and strange,” she says. “Gossip never felt like that. That was the beauty, that we always had an easy time doing things. Even when it was hard, it was easy.”
Despite the fact that her band was disintegrating, Ditto kept writing. “I’m not done,” she told Columbia Records, her label at the time. She spent the next two years working on “a shitload” of Gossip songs with session writers, but to no avail. Creative satisfaction felt elusive; something wasn’t adding up. “I was like, ‘But they’re not Gossip songs,’ she says. “Then I realized, ‘You know what? It’s because Nathan’s not here.’
“I sent Nathan a text,” she continues. “I was just like, ‘You know what? I wrote one song that isn’t a Gossip song. I like it so much I don’t want to let it go… I think we should quit. I think I’m going to do my own thing.’ He was literally just texting me back and said, ‘Let that baby fly.’ That was a reference to my dad. Because I was always a fat kid and I would be going back for more food, my brothers and sisters would be making fun of me and my dad would go, ‘Let that baby eat!’”
“Have you ever listened to Bobbie Gentry?” Ditto asks. “I wanted to sound like Bobbie Gentry.” The ‘60s country singer is one of many influences Ditto brought into the writing and recording of Fake Sugar—a title she says has no deeper meaning, other than her simply liking the way the two words sound together (“Usually things like that from me aren’t that deep! I wish they were, but they’re noooot,” she sing-songs). When she began hiring session musicians to record in Los Angeles with her, the number one concern was that they understood her musical references. “I don’t know anything about music,” she says. “So I had to be able to relate to them somewhat on a [different] level. Like, ‘less Jimi Hendrix and more ESG.’”
Fake Sugar, produced by Jennifer Decilveo (Andra Day, Ryn Weaver), plays out like like a genre spin-art creation, infusing classic ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, Southern honky-tonk, soul, country, R&B, disco, and arena-pop, among others. Lead single “Fire” is a stomp-clap Zeppelin-blues explosion; the robust “We Could Run” is what Ditto calls her “U2 song” thanks to its booming chorus and guitar-solo crescendos; the title track meshes an airy trop-house backtrack with an affable Paul Simon-esque melody. “If I wanted timpani drums, which I did, I could have them,” she says. “Or if I wanted backup singers, I could have them. Anything I wanted, I could do. I was just like, ‘Aah! Too many choices!’ There’s a lot of people’s input, but at the end of the day it was all up to me.”
The one sound Ditto was careful not to include was electronica—i.e., the sort of slick, glam aesthetic that helped put Gossip on the mid-aughts map. “I wanted it to be minimally electronic,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be a [Gossip] rip-off. I’m still really sensitive about it. Not about people, what they think of me, that’s not what I mean. I’m sensitive about not stepping on [Gossip’s] toes and what we had. I just wanted to make a record that wasn’t anything. Like, not trying to be anything. And not take it too seriously, either. No concept.”
Anchoring each track is Ditto’s propulsive voice, which shrinks to a hum and expands into a belt with ease, depending on the song’s tone. In addition to wanting to channel Gentry, Ditto rattles off other singers she admires and hopes to emulate in style, like Cat Power and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard. “People respect Cat Power—you respect her,” she says. “All of her records, you know… it’s undeniable. I think I wanted that kind of record.”
Watch the video for Beth Ditto’s “Fire,” from Fake Sugar.
Another call comes in. “I forgot I have another interview. Can I call you back in 20 minutes?” A half-hour later, I receive a text: “Hello! Just making a snack before I die.” When Ditto rings back, she’s spooning Thai curry from a large bowl. “When I said I was making a snack, I meant lunch.” Footsteps approach from behind. “My wife’s over there,” she says, turning the phone over to a slightly embarrassed-looking woman in pajamas. “She just had a shower. She showers!” giggles Ditto.
“She’s my kept woman,” Ditto continues, joking. “It’s nice because we both bought an apartment building here and we get income from that. It’s also nice to be able to keep Portland’s rent down and not have to be an asshole. Like, it’s such a middle-class life, which I never had growing up, so it’s really … I feel rich.”
Born in Searcy, Ark., in 1981, Ditto was one of seven children. Her family lived in poverty, something Ditto has always been open about in interviews. “Not just like a little bit poor, not just a little broke, not lower middle class, but struggling,” she told Lenny Letter last year. “I think that will really take you down a tick. It’s important to relate to people on a normal level and not get too fancy.”
Growing up, she couldn’t wait to escape Searcy, and eventually moved to Olympia, Wash., in 1999, then to Portland in 2003. But Ditto’s Southern upbringing permeates her behavior, whether it’s her speech—a prolonged drawl peppered with uproarious laughter—or her habit turning the conversation back around on whoever’s interviewing her. (“So, what’s your mom like?” she jokes at one point.) But when it comes to topics like feminism and body-positivity, she’s a lit firecracker of thoughts, theories and ideas.
The most pressing question, while FaceTiming with her, has to be what her feelings are about the way media and pop culture discuss women and their bodies today. There’s no question this conversation is much prevalent in 2017—the era of fat-shaming sensitivity and plus-size bloggers—than it was in 2007, when Ditto was wearing lycra bodysuits that made no effort to hide her protruding belly and leg cellulite. In fact, during her Gossip years, she never made an effort to hide her body or her mind, the fact that she didn’t have much growing up, was a lesbian and a feminist, had dealt with depression—and sin of sins—was fat.
“I feel like there’s an actual resistance with numbers behind it [today],” she says. “I came from a punk scene that was surrounded by body positivity and activism, so in my weird, gay, feminist, punk-rock world, that was a big topic of conversation. It was always addressed, it was always respected. It was always being talked about. The movement was beginning. The groundwork was being laid, you know? But now I feel like with the internet, all of those pockets are able to connect. It’s just huge. No pun intended.”
Anyone who has spent time on Facebook in the last year can attest to the fact that there is a certain competitiveness to political resistance. “I have a friend who calls it ‘The Oppression Olympics,’” she laughs. “I think that’s really smart. Because most of the time, I feel like, it’s always white feminists trying to win the Oppression Olympics! I’m just like, ‘You know what? We’re with you. We’re here, we hear you, we support you.’ Only people who don’t know what it’s like to feel oppressed fight to be seen as oppressed. Everybody wants to feel heard. That’s the root of it all. Even if people are armchair activists—I think that’s the generation that we live in. That’s the era that we’re in. The great thing about the election is that it got people out of their house. It got people out and participating.
“I feel like the one thing I wish I could do is, take out the infighting. Feminism is definitely riddled with infighting. Every movement is, really. But I wish we could get it the fuck together and just live and let fuckin’ live. I understand that, saying this as a white feminist, it’s a lot easier said than done. And as a white feminist, l wish that other white feminists would get their shit together, too, and keep our eyes on the prize. We are not each other’s enemy. It’s just like Le Tigre said: ‘Get off the internet. Destroy the right wing.’ That’s one of the best lines I’ve ever heard in my life.”
“Feminism is definitely riddled with infighting. Every movement is, really. But I wish we could get it the fuck together and just live and let fuckin’ live. I understand that, saying this as a white feminist, it’s a lot easier said than done. And as a white feminist, l wish that other white feminists would get their shit together, too, and keep our eyes on the prize. We are not each other’s enemy.”
Ditto scoops the last bit of curry out of her bowl and recalls how even members of her own community attacked her when she launched a luxury plus-size clothing line last year—something she says she’s happily not doing anymore. “It was one of those things where I wanted to do it ethically and to my own standards,” she says. “But, at the same time, I felt a lot of criticism from fat girls being like, ‘Why is this so expensive?’ You know why? Because I didn’t want to make something that’s going to fall apart tomorrow that’s made out of something that’s flammable. Could I have gone to China and had [the clothes] made for literally a dollar apiece? Because the working conditions are that fucked up? Yeah! It’s harsh to call people hypocritical, but at the same time, it’s like, don’t come after me.”
You might not see any more clothes from her, but you will certainly see Ditto on the silver screen next year in Gus Van Sant’s upcoming feature Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, in which she plays “this redneck woman” named Reba. “I basically just pretended to be my Aunt Linda Gail,” Ditto laughs. “And my mom. I mean, my mom’s not a redneck woman by any means. But my Aunt Linda Gail is! I just played up my accent a little bit. I just did an impression of them the whole time, and [Gus] was laughing.”
Ditto didn’t expect to get the part; after auditioning in L.A., she left the experience behind. Keeping her expectations low has been a lifelong habit, she says—something she learned growing up in a low-income family. “I’m pretty good at not expecting things,” she says. “You know what I mean? I don’t get disappointed. I mean, sometimes I do. I think that comes from growing up in a place where you don’t know what to expect. Like, it’s not even a thing. I think that really is a child-of-poverty thing. Also being okay with being on the lowest rung of the ladder.”
Dittio remains humble until the very last minute of our two-hour FaceTime call, waving off my thanks for her time. “I always think it’s so funny when journalists say ‘thank you’ to me,” she admits. “Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”