Five years after Beth Ditto's last album with now-defunct indie trio the Gossip, the Arkansas-born singer is back with her first-ever solo LP. Knowingly titled Fake Sugar, Ditto says it's "my Southern record but not necessarily a country record," which makes sense when you hear it flip from driving arena-rock on "We Could Run" to hip-shaking soul on "Ooh La La." Funny, upfront, and fabulous, Beth Ditto is someone the music world just needs.
When I met Ditto the morning after she played an intimate and hilarious gig in London, she's just as warm and self-effacing as you'd expect. "I'm sorry, but have I got a booger in my nose?" she asks shortly after the interview begins. "Would you be honest if I did? What if you said no and I found out you were lying? I'd be like, 'That little piece of shit, telling me what I wanna hear, then it turns out I've got snot rockets hanging out…'"
For the record—she didn't. But after I reassure Ditto about the state of her nostrils, we settle down for a chat about music, politics, and the enduring relevance of the Gossip's LGBT rights anthem "Standing in the Way of Control."
Noisey: It's been five years since the last Gossip album—what made now time to make a solo record?
Beth Ditto: Well, the last Gossip album was good, but I don't think anybody had a very easy time making it. And about two years later, it felt like time to make another one. But every time Nathan [Howdeshell, bandmate] and I got together to write songs, it just wasn't right. Something was missing, and it was no one's particular fault. Then he went back to Arkansas to look after his dad on the farm, and I felt kind of heartbroken, and dare I say triggered by it in this weird way. I was just like, "What the fuck is happening?" But I knew I needed to work, so the record label put me in these sessions with songwriters in L.A.—I like to call it speed-dating. Some of the songs, I was like, "Oh God." But with others, I thought, "This isn't bad but it's not a Gossip song." Slowly I just realized I couldn't keep pretending that I wasn't doing this by myself, with Nathan not the least bit interested. So I sent him a text saying, "I think we have to call it quits. I think I need to do my own thing." And he literally text back saying, "Let that baby fly."
What did he mean by that?
It was an in-joke. Because when I was young and hungry, I'd be going back for thirds and my brothers and sisters would all be making fun of me. And my dad would say, "Y'all let that baby eat!" And Nathan always thought that was so funny, so what he said to me was really sweet.
How did you decide on the album's sound?
Well, I knew I didn't want to make a dance record. But I went through a bunch of phases—I thought I wanted to make an adult contemporary record and call it Contemporary Adult, but that didn't work out. Then I was like, "Maybe I should make something that sounds like Chaka Khan or Sade?" But then I realized I'm not Chaka Khan or Sade, so I can't really do that. And then I started listening to a lot of Paul Simon and country music, so I kind of went back to what I know. And I knew I wanted the album to be something a band could play, with no programmed drums. I just wanted to go back to basics, because with the Gossip, it had stopped being easy. So the sound of the record is just: Whatever we liked, that went on the record. It is what it is, you know?
You worked with a female producer on the album, Jennifer Decilveo. It's ridiculous that in 2017 this still feels noteworthy, but did it have any effect on the creative process?
You have no idea. It's huge. I have to say for the record that when I worked with Rick Rubin, it was similar, because he's very in touch and zenned out. But being with a woman specifically, there's so much communication that doesn't happen with men. One day the engineer, who was male, said to me, "I've never been asked how I feel so much." I was like, "You're working with a woman—she cares about how you feel, and she knows how you feel will affect the work you do today." Me and Jen really argued constantly and it was so great because we processed so much while we were arguing. Of course I don't think that men are scientifically proven to be any quieter than women. I just think that rock 'n' roll isn't a cool place to be, well, not a bro. Whenever a man came into the room, it was almost like we had to take his defence down and say, "You can have fun in here. You don't have to worry about your image." I need to do that in the studio because it's so fucking intimate.
At your London gig, you performed an epic-sounding new song called "We Could Run." How did it come about?
You mean my U2 song? That's what I call it. You know, that's one of the first songs me and Jen wrote together, and we argued about it a lot. I was like, "It's gotta go on the album." And she was like, "But it's just so…" And I was like, "U2? That's why it's amazing!" It was just like, I'm gonna own it and move on. The whole point was to make a cool record that wasn't cool at all, so we shouldn't be afraid of putting a U2 song on there. I just didn't fucking care, it was so much fun.
Before you sang "Standing in the Way of Control" at the gig, you said that for a time you weren't sure you ever wanted to perform it again. What changed your mind?
Trump. Brexit. What's her name… old shithead Theresa May? Marine Le Pen and France's elections. Those things. What happened was, I was due to play a party for Stella McCartney and she asked me to do that song. And I was like, "Am I gonna feel like it means anything? Does it feel relevant any more?" I know not to take things too seriously, but that song is so special to me and I didn't want to cheapen it. And then the election happened like a day later. And I was like, "OK, you got it, I'll sing it." But I do think to myself, "How is this song still relevant?" It's like when you see an 85-year-old woman holding a protest sign that says, "Why am I still protesting this shit?"
How do you feel about the state of the LGBT rights movement in 2017?
At this point, I feel like there's so much at stake in America. So in some ways, I almost feel like marriage equality is the least of our worries. Obviously I'll care if he tries to take it away… But it's all just so overwhelming. Usually I'm more articulate than this, but with politics now I don't even know where to start. For the first time, I'm a little bit afraid. I'm actually a little bit afraid about what this administration could do. I don't know about you, but I was raised as a Christian in the Bible Belt, under this like "dark cloud of revelation," so I grew up in fucking fear of the end of the world. I don't even believe in God any more, but there's still this thing inside of me, where I'm like, "This is some end of the world shit. This is crazy."
Blondie's Chris Stein recently posted an awesome photo of you hanging out with Debbie Harry and George Michael at a music festival a few years ago. Were you close to him?
I didn't get to know him well, but I was lucky enough to have met him a few times. One time he said that of all the covers of "Careless Whisper", ours was his favorite. Which just made me crazy! And another time, we were talking about how we'd both grown up without a lot of money. I was like, "My grandmother didn't even have a bathroom in her house - she had an outhouse." He was like, "Did it have a seat though? My grandmother's outhouse was just a hole in the ground with this weird bar you could hold onto." So it was me and George Michael swapping stories about how we used to shit outside at our grandparents' house. And laughing about it a lot. He was just so sweet and normal. I think that when I met him, I cried.
Fake Sugar by Beth Ditto is out 6/16.
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