As lead singer of the Gossip, the inimitable Arkansas singer redefined what a frontwoman could be – but her debut solo album is a more personal return to her Southern roots
I’m a third of the way through my time with Beth Ditto, and I’ve not yet managed to ask her a single question. I’ve tried – several times – but she’d rather talk about the weather (it’s hailing), New Mexico (she wants to know why on earth I went there on a holiday), basketball (she loves it) or the Grand Canyon (she’s never been, but she’s sure she’ll love it). Perhaps we should talk about the music, I suggest, for about the third time. She’s not on board. “I have so many questions for you!” she says, shuffling forwards and tucking her legs underneath her. “I’m sure there’s plenty of time.” There isn’t – she’s got to leave for Paris in half an hour.
Of course, it’s enjoyable to talk with Beth Ditto about pretty much anything. We’re in a conference room in Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel, surrounded by pastries and almond tarts which she encourages me to help myself to – she’s too busy talking to eat. She has the kind of confidence that makes you feel at ease rather than intimidated, and speaks fast, ricocheting from one topic to another with her warm, Southern twang. But time marches on, and there’s so much of her 20-year career left to cover. Eventually, and with a great degree of reluctance on her part, we settle into a conversation about the music. Gradually, it becomes clear why she skirted around it for so long. Because, for all her blustering self-assuredness, she’s never quite fathomed the huge popularity of her own music.
Ditto is particularly reticent when it comes to Gossip, the band she was in with Nathan Howdeshell (aka Brace Paine) for over 15 years. Thanks in no small part to Ditto’s inimitable voice and effervescent charisma, the indie rock band earned themselves a cult following when they formed at the turn of the century, a following that grew exponentially with the success of 2006’s Standing In The Way Of Control, an album whose title track was a blistering indictment of the Bush regime, as well as a thumping good pop-rock song, as likely to be played at parties and in nightclubs as it was dive bars and rock venues.
Today though, just over a year after confirming the band’s split, she seems at best ambivalent about the quality of the band’s music. “I don’t think any of us thought Gossip was an incredible band,” she says plainly. “I don’t think either of us were making the music we listened to. As a kid, I wanted to sound like Kathleen Hanna, I wanted that voice, and I didn’t have it. I grew up thinking my voice was too…” She takes an uncharacteristically long pause. “Normal. I think I just like a different kind of music than I’m capable of making.” A look of surprised satisfaction spreads across her face. “I think that’s the thing. That’s the answer I’ve been looking for this whole time! Look at us, working it out!”
What about her forthcoming debut solo album, Fake Sugar? Does she enjoy listening to that? “I haven’t really listened to it,” she laughs. I have though, so I know that for all her facetiousness, it’s a record Ditto poured her heart and soul into. The lead single, “Fire”, flexes her solo muscles with a low rumbling bass riff, and husky whispered vocals, before a moment’s silence gives way to crashing drums and yells of “fiiiiire.” On the delicate “In & Out”, her voice creaks beautifully as she tackles the precariousness of relationships, and “Ooh La La” is a country rock song that thrusts its hips along with Ditto’s playfully half-hearted French. Though it’s a little more Southern-sounding than what she’s done before, it’s not a million miles away from being a Gossip record – perhaps because she wrote most of it when she still hoped they’d continue. But the more she wrote, the more she became frustrated with the inertia of her band.
“I don’t think any of us thought Gossip was an incredible band... I think I just like a different kind of music than I’m capable of making” – Beth Ditto
“It was just stagnant,” she recalls. “Something was weird, something was missing. I just think we had to let it go.” What was missing exactly? She repeats the question back to me, and thinks for a moment. “I think the love for it was missing. It’s hard, it’s not easy to maintain relationships, it’s not easy to see your family, it’s not easy to carve out time for yourself. Also Nathan, he moved back to Arkansas. I think he just needed to be in touch with something that he wasn’t getting. Ultimately I called it quits, but I think Nathan was done.”
So Ditto had to find new creative partners. When Gossip was still in limbo, her label set up a series of sessions with different songwriters, which she compares to speed-dating. Eventually, she found a creative soulmate in Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer Jennifer Decilveo (“We were the couple that stuck,” she says) and the pair ended up working together on Fake Sugar, which Decilveo produced. “It was effortless,” says Ditto. “I really think music should be effortless. I mean, it’s always gonna be work, but it shouldn’t feel like you’re trying too hard.” Which isn’t to say they always agreed. “We argued constantly, about everything. I knew that meant that we could trust each other. It means we would both go to the mat for our opinion, but were willing to listen to each other, and then come back to the conversation rationally. It wasn’t about ego. I always relate it to like, kids. You’re in a couple and then you have a kid, and now you have to figure out how to raise it, but you can’t do it for yourself, you have to do what’s for the good of the kid. You have to do what’s best for the song, what’s best for the record.”
Ditto seems to have a relationship metaphor for most situations in her life – her songwriting process, the split of her band (“an amicable yet painful divorce”) – but it was a turbulent time in her actual relationship, with Kristin Ogata, her wife of four years, that proved a turning point for the album. “Me and Kristin were having a hard time,” she explains, “and I had to go home and just be away from… we had to be away from each other for a while. We just needed some space.” So she left Portland and went back to Arkansas, where she became obsessed with Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. “I don’t know why. I think because it talks about driving through the south, it was just very reminiscent of my childhood. It just really spoke to me in a way that it hadn’t before.”
“I really think music should be effortless. I mean, it’s always gonna be work, but it shouldn’t feel like you’re trying too hard” – Beth Ditto
Fake Sugar’s title track, with its two-note guitar riff and gentle “ooh na na ays”, wears its Graceland influence on its sleeve. “I get so sick and tired / Of feeling sick and tired,” Ditto sings wearily, “When the lonely gets so old.” Fake Sugar has its fair share of sweeping romantic statements – the U2-channelling “Run”, for example, where she sings, “We could play it safe but that’s no fun / We could run” – but it tackles the sticky, uncomfortable side of relationships too, the problems you don’t see coming. Like having to “re-learn how to talk to each other as wives.”
When Ditto met Kristin, she was 18 and “fresh off the turnip truck, for real.” The two became friends, and then had “a very short-lived fling, and I was dating someone and it happened to be her best friend. It was so dramatic and we were so young. She punished herself for a long time for it, because of what she did to her best friend, and what it did to our friendship. But when I broke up with her best friend not long after that, she wrote me a note that was like, ‘We should be married, we should be together.’ And I was like, we really should, but not now. And we made a pact that when I was 32, she was 34, we would get married. And we did. We always knew it was there somewhere. Always.”
It was an inevitability, as far as Ditto is concerned, that they’d come together again, even after dating other people throughout their 20s. But marriage hasn’t been easy. “I can’t begin to explain it,” she says with a sigh that suggests she genuinely wishes she could. Though the opposite is usually the case, she’s more loquacious now we’ve moved from the music to her personal life – and since finding out I’m the same age as her little sister, she seems anxious to impart some wisdom. “You think about compromise as being about space, or material things, not things that are in your heart. There are really deep things that you’re gonna have to compromise inside of you, and people can’t prepare you for that. That’s the thing about marriage, is you start to realise–” The door opens. It’s her publicist, letting us know we have to wrap things up. “Mom! Please get out, I’m trying to do an interview!” I’ll never know what it is you start to realise.
We say our goodbyes, and Ditto sweeps out of the room and onto Paris, leaving behind the pastries, a half-drunk cup of tea, and the residual glow of someone with the charisma to light up even the drabbest of conference rooms. Just imagine what she can do on a stage.
Virgin release Fake Sugar on June 16