Beth Ditto is tremendously unflappable, even at the end of a long day with a schedule that’s starting to come apart at the seams. As people whirl about her, armed with make-up brushes, cameras and notebooks, she remains quietly unhurried and benignly encouraging. “Press on!” she exhorts me cheerily, as I sense she’s about be spirited away to her next appointment. “You do what you’ve got to do!”
It’s partly, as she explains to me, that an upbringing shaped by poverty and hard work makes her eminently realistic about her life now – “As soon as I start to get a little bit down on it, I’ll just feel like, you’re not going to the factory” – and partly that preciousness just doesn’t seem an element of her character. She clearly loves a certain kind of artifice – the unfettered costumes, the wild make-up looks – but in conversation, she’s immensely down-to-earth and natural, veering from giggly girlishness as she talks about her upcoming wedding to a frank elaboration of the most recent musical turn taken by Gossip, the band she has fronted since its formation in 1999.
It’s the group’s fifth studio album, A Joyful Noise, their first since 2009’s Music for Men, that has brought Ditto out on the road now. And there’s a lot to talk about. Gossip have always been tricky to categorise – with their early work most commonly labelled as punk or indie rock, they’ve also been influenced by soul, gospel, country, hip-hop, electropop, dance, funk, disco and garage music. But A Joyful Noise, produced by Brian Higgins, who has previously worked with Kylie, the Pet Shop Boys and Girls Aloud, is unapologetically bold, brassy and highly accessible – and a world away from punk’s defiantly simple three-chord tradition. At times you could close your eyes and think you were listening to Madonna, circa Ray of Light; at others, the 80s electro synth stabs recall late Blondie. And it could just be me, but the hip-hop intro of “Get a Job”, a rather strait-laced injunction to knuckle down and take responsibility for your life, gives way to a bass-line that almost sounds like … Kraftwerk.
And then, of course, there is Abba, the band that Ditto confides she listened to solidly for the year that this record took to make. She had, she says, become intrigued with the possibilities of songs that were rigorously constructed and produced: “That’s the thing about Abba. There is zero rawness. That’s so incredible to me. I think I’m really infatuated with that right now because that’s not the music I usually listen to. It never caught my attention before.”
At 31, Ditto is, of course, too young to have been into Abba the first time round, although she credits her mother’s eclectic musical tastes with broadening her own listening habits from an early age. That and growing up in rural Arkansas where, paradoxically, the lack of music available – “we didn’t have a record store, we had Walmart” – and a shortage of funds led to unexpected discoveries, often made by meticulously combing through yard sales. She and fellow Gossip founder member Nathan Howdeshell (aka Brace Paine), who also grew up in Arkansas, frequently talk now “about how the reason why we are so connected to old music is because we weren’t necessarily connected to pop music, even though we listened to it and we knew it and enjoyed it on a level. But we wanted more, so the only other option was old music because that was the kind of thing you could find … It was cheaper, too: it was $10 for a cassette tape and 99 cents for an old cassette tape. And you could have four, or like 10, and that was always really exciting.”
Her chatter skips enthusiastically over Abba to Nina Simone, Paul Simon and Loretta Lynn, who she says particularly appeals to her because of the way that she brought her accent into her singing; Ditto, whose musical training was limited to her stint in the school choir, was taught to take her southern twang out of her voice. But those aren’t the rules she’s most savouring breaking right now. Instead, she explains, she’s reacting against a sort of orthodoxy that, for a long time, she didn’t even know was there.
“I always was really confident about myself, about my voice, myself as a person, my body, all of those things, but as a songwriter – I just didn’t identify as a songwriter at all,” she says. Except she did write songs, I point out. “I did. And I didn’t even know that that’s what I was doing. I never let myself feel the joy of it, ever. I can’t explain it.”
Gossip (in fact, “the Gossip” when they started out) were involved with punk from their inception – not unusually, since the music is both relatively simple and cheap to make, and also instantly confers on its practitioners a certain confrontational image and outsider status. For Ditto, who grew up as a lesbian in highly religious small-town America, it was liberating, even though she now says, “I think I took the liberation too far, to where it couldn’t sound like Abba.” What she means, I think, is that all the concentration on breaking down barriers became, in the end, a barrier of its own.
“It’s not because the punk scene is a bad place, but I feel like the way I interpreted it, there were a lot of rules to adhere to in order to be a part of the scene, and I felt very aware of those rules. In the kind of punk scene I came from it was so important for girls to have confidence, so important for women to empower each other. It was about taking the academia out of music, taking it out of radical movements such as feminism and social movements, making it accessible to everyone, which worked and was amazing, but at the same time, when you’re young and impressionable, I think you can get these rules in your head. I know I got these rules in my head, that I had to be a certain way, but I didn’t know that until I got older.”
Turning 30 last year, she says, was a huge milestone. By that time her career – both as part of Gossip and as one of the music industry’s most recognisable and outspoken figures – was well established. The band had released four studio albums and the live albums Undead in NYC and Live in Liverpool. They earned widespread attention with their 2006 album Standing in the Way of Control, which they released shortly after drummer Hannah Blilie had taken the place of original band member Kathy Mendonca. The record’s title track, an anthemic attack on the Bush administration’s opposition to same-sex marriage, travelled exceptionally well, becoming popular enough in this country for Gossip to perform it on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, and also feature on the soundtrack for teen drama Skins.
Meanwhile, Ditto’s personal – and non-musical – profile was soaring. In the same year as Standing in the Way of Control she topped the NME‘s annual cool list. Three years later she both covered up and stripped off, launching her own clothing collection for the plus-size high-street chain Evans and appearing naked – save for a shocking-pink fig-leaf and a beatific expression – on the cover of the first issue ofLove magazine. Under the strap-line “Icons of Our Generation”, Ditto kept company with the likes of Kate Moss, Iggy Pop and Courtney Love.
Clearly, the public fascination with her went way beyond her music, homing in on her evident ease with her body size and shape and her willingness to sound off at the drop of a hat on the issues she felt strongly about, whether it be the iniquities of the fashion industry or the urgency of furthering civil rights legislation. Most simply, she clearly didn’t care. The Daily Mail, for example, once pictured her getting out of a car in slightly inelegant fashion, noting censoriously that “Someone needs to remind Beth Ditto about the rules of stepping out of a car when there are teams of photographers on hand to capture the moment.” It rather fantastically missed the point, which is that she’d have most likely done exactly the same if the entire world’s photographers were there – or not.
But Ditto – at least Ditto in her 30s and in one-to-one conversation – is an unlikely rabble-rouser or, indeed, exhibitionist. She’s open and plainspoken, sure, but she’s just as happy to sit chatting about her preparations to marry her girlfriend, Kristin Ogata, next April. “She’s from Hawaii and I’m from Arkansas, and I’m like, this is going to be the most hilarious cultural matching,” she laughs. “It’s going to be hysterical.” But while her head is full of plans for the day – including the logistics of transporting her large family, including her mother and seven siblings, all of whom have “at least one child” to Hawaii – her eyes are also steadfastly fixed on the longer-term.
“I was born to be married. I just feel comfortable there. I love the idea of being partnered for ever. I love my girlfriend, we’ve been best friends since I was 18. There’s not a thing we haven’t been through except for marriage… We’ve had talks about what we would name our kids since we were in our 20s.” Children, she says, are very much on the agenda.
She and Kristin live in Portland, Oregon, in a house that Ditto treasures so much that it comes as less of a surprise than you might expect to discover her favourite television programme is How Clean Is Your House? What she loved, she says, was the relationship between Kim and Aggie, and the fact that “it didn’t take money, it was just cleaning”.
There’s an obvious line here back to a childhood of make-do-and-mend – she looks after her house, she tells me, because “I don’t want it to, I don’t know, get ruined” – and, I think, a determination not to take what she has now for granted. “My mom always said, ‘you’re poor, you’re not stupid; you’re poor, you’re not dirty’. That was a big thing for her. So we were always clean and we spoke well, and we weren’t allowed to use double negatives, and things like that. And especially being southern too, she was adamant that we presented ourselves really well, and that we learned. And that’s the thing. I can take care of a house, and some people I meet, I think: you don’t even know how to make a bed.”
Resourcefulness in the face of scarcity has also informed much of her way with clothes: “I had one pair of jeans, and I had to make that pair of jeans look different every day because you get made fun of for being poor. And there was a certain time in my life where I just stopped caring – I don’t give a shit – that’s when I discovered punk. But before that I had to be on my toes all the time, and I still love that challenge.” As a little kid, she tells me, she used to do girls’ hair for prom nights; when she moved to Olympia, Washington, prior to starting Gossip with Howdeshell and Mendonca, she did punk-rock haircuts to pay the bills.
The thing that strikes me, I say, is that even for the most confident of larger women, there’s a temptation to hide away, to wear something if it fits and to be agonised when it doesn’t. Ditto never does that. In fact she doesn’t always seem to care that much whether something fits or not. Her watchwords are comfort (“this doesn’t have to be hard”) and fun. She’ll often send text messages like “I got it: paper-thin eyebrows, no eye-shadow” to her make-up artist in the middle of the night, and she’s recently collaborated with Mac on a limited-edition cosmetics collection. So where did the joie de vivre, and the point-blank refusal to be inhibited, come from?
“I always had a hard time understanding why people had a hard time with it. I remember just being – I don’t get it, I don’t know why it has to be like this. And then at one point being, it doesn’t have to be like this. I make that decision. I have no control over what people think of me but I have 100% control of what I think of myself, and that is so important. And not just about your body, but so many ways of confidence. You’re constantly learning how to be confident, aren’t you? You’re constantly reprogramming yourself.”
It’s been a long journey, I say, from Searcy, Arkansas. One of her most frequently quoted interview snippets is that, as a child, she ate squirrels. She’ll take her children back to Arkansas to visit, she tells me, but “I don’t think I would subject them to a childhood of that”. On the other hand, she’s doubtful that growing up somewhere “super-progressive” would have helped her creativity and ingenuity to flourish; her upbringing taught her “how lucky I am that I get to do what I do, but nothing is handed down to you”.
So what would she do if it all stopped tomorrow? “I’m constantly thinking about what I’ll do next,” she replies. “I never count on music being a career of longevity. I mean, longevity is key, and I hope that it lasts, but you just don’t know, because it’s not in your hands, you don’t make the decision.” Sometimes, she says, she thinks she’ll be a hairdresser; at others, she’ll work for some kind of creative thinktank (“I don’t know how you do it for a job”). And what she thinks would be really “hilarious” would be to write for a TV show.
For the foreseeable future, though, she’ll be “touring. Touring. And probably touring”; planning her wedding (at which both the brides and the guests will wear white); and trying not to get too anxious about the US elections: “Gay people and women, and immigration, all of these things that could go in a buck-wild direction if we don’t get someone else in office who cares, and someone who is going to protect our rights. It’s going to be a really scary situation. It’ll just be the Reagan years times 20. It’ll be the Reagan years with the internet. That’s how I feel about it.”
After we’ve talked I remember that Ditto’s most openly delighted moment came when I told her how loudly I’d played A Joyful Noise, and how, when a lorry thundered past my window with horn blaring, it hadn’t been able to drown the Gossip sound out. I suspect that some of Gossip’s oldest fans will find the album’s more stadium-friendly tracks a bit of a stretch but Ditto is insistent that it’s an accurate reflection of the band’s current musical preoccupations rather than a grab for mainstream sales.
It doesn’t, she says, mean that Gossip will never make a very raw, stripped-down record again. “It wasn’t the record we wanted to make now. And if we wanted to make it again, we would do it because we wanted to, and that’s the sound we would want to have, not because that’s the sound that’s expected of us, I think. To me, that is the punkest thing that I’ve learned about myself.”
Alex Clark, The Guardian