“The record was finished. We were still in the Obama administration, and things were feeling more optimistic. I didn’t really have a lot of anger to write from, which was nice, because I had something else to make a record about. I felt so safe and comfortable in my life that I could write a personal record. Wow, what a privilege that was. I shall never take it for granted again, that I could just write a ‘love album.’”
Beth Ditto’s full-length solo debut may be titled Fake Sugar, but the former Gossip frontgoddess is keeping it 100 percent real, and sugarcoating absolutely nothing, while chatting with Yahoo Music to promote its June 16 release.
Reflecting on her split from her iconic Olympia indie-rock band the Gossip after 17 years, the 36-year-old singer says, “I feel like it’s like being in a relationship, when you’re with somebody for a long time and then all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘What do I do with my life now that I’m single? Do I start dating or what?’ I relate it to like a single woman in her mid-thirties who’s been married since age 18.” In the more literal sense, Ditto has been married to Kristin Olgata since 2013 — a happy personal development that inspired Fake Sugar‘s summer-ready, Southern soul-pop jams and “queer love songs” like “Lover,” “Fire,” “Ooh La La,” and “Love in Real Life.” But now real life has taken a bittersweet turn for the always outspoken activist and electro diva.
“I’m telling you, the Trump election f***ed me up. I’ve just been like, f***ed,” Ditto sighs over the phone.
Ditto explains that Fake Sugar’s tracks were already written before the 2016 presidential election, though the recording process was underway during last year’s political shift to the right. “The elections were happening, the debates were on, and [Trump] was saying insane f***ing things,” she recalls ruefully, “but I felt like there was hope that human beings would see that as a red light, a big red flag. But that did not happen, which is crazy. Apparently not everybody agrees that women shouldn’t be grabbed by the genitalia. I don’t know… Maybe I was expecting too much from human beings. I should know better than that by now.”
Ditto, like many members of the LGBTQ community, is still struggling to come to terms with Trump’s presidency, though she says she’s more sad than mad. “I’m depressed. I wish anger was a problem. I wish I was angry,” she confesses. “I just find it so depressing, because I feel like there never has been more overt evidence that people don’t care about humanity. It makes me so upset. They didn’t even try to hide it. It’s just a thing. I’m just like, ‘Wow, people really don’t care.’”
However, Ditto hasn’t lost all hope. As a descendant of the important Pacific Northwest scene that spawned a generation of fierce, politically savvy musicians, she believes we will witness that sort of socially conscious artistic renaissance during today’s tumultuous times.
“I really am holding onto that hope,” she says. “I want to. That’s my goal. The [LGBTQ] movement now is so strong and so motivated, so smart and educated. I don’t mean ‘educated’ in terms of school or whatever —they’re armed with the Internet in this cool way, armed with connection and access to information that would otherwise be difficult to get ahold of, like it was for my generation. It’s so awesome to watch it progress, to watch these kids talking about gender in a way that is so fast even for me that I’m finding it hard to keep up with the changes – well, not hard, but I’m learning from these kids. They’re people who are 15, even 20 years younger than me, and they’re incredible. [Seeing that progress] is the biggest reward for doing what I do.”
Just as many of today’s politically active musicians and artists likely see Ditto as a role model, Ditto fondly recalls the ’90s artists who inspired her as a young girl growing up in rural Arkansas. “The ’90s, they lifted me up,” she says. “That’s when I was just starting to get into Riot Grrrl and queercore, and all these political bands that had been finally expressing how I was feeling, and finally talked to me on a deep level — a deeper level other than just music. I felt for once I didn’t have to dig to find a role model or an icon. It was something I could cling to that spoke to my soul, more than just on a vibe level or aesthetic level, something explaining exactly how I feel. Pacific Northwest, Riot Grrrl, the punk-rock feminist movement — that was the ’90s for me. I think the underground made [feminism] really cool, and that was such a cool trend for women to start bands — and not just start bands, but have something to say.
“I think you can think what you want about Courtney Love, but in her own way, she contributed. Kathleen Hanna, definitely Toby Vail, all these other really radical women that weren’t all just musicians but were really contributing… I would not be sitting here in Portland now, in a home that I own, making a living off of what I do, if it hadn’t been for those people,” Ditto asserts.
Like the above-mentioned heroines, Ditto is a pioneer, partially because she is one of the most prominent openly gay artists in indie rock. However, she always bristled a bit at that limiting categorization — “I’m a gay in a band, but [the Gossip was] not a ‘gay band,’” she explains — and she notes that, because “people are f***ing homophobic,” she always felt she was fighting the “f***ing monster machine” of the music business. In fact, she still feels that way.
“It feels like you’re having this argument where you’re like, will you make the decision to work in the mainstream? It’s the fear that you’re going to get pitched to gay clubs only. It’s a thing. It’s a real, real thing. Not as much in Europe; I’ve always felt really at home there. But I can’t tell you how many musicians who are American — gay or straight, but just not so conventional for whatever reason — who will tell you the same thing. They just feel like people [in the industry] are afraid, that people in power are afraid to take a risk.
“It’s bad in this day and age that being a human being is a ‘risk,’” Ditto continues, getting heated. “But we’re also talking about a population that argues whether or not you should save refugees. Of course they’re going to judge music by whether someone’s gay or straight. That is crazy to me … but what do you expect from people that want to pass a law that reserves the right to discriminate to anybody because that’s their religious freedom? The world is so crazy.”
Ditto has also been at the forefront of the body positivity movement — posing nude on a “controversial” cover of British music magazine NME way back in 2007, launching her adorable and fashion-forward plus-size clothing line in 2009, modeling for Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris Fashion Week, and collaborating on a makeup collection with MAC Cosmetics. For the most part, Ditto is thrilled with society’s growing acceptance of different body types in recent years, but she still has some concerns about commercial exploitation within the scene.
“It’s a different world than it was when I was 18,” Ditto begins. “The conversation exploded. It’s exponential in size now. It just got bigger and bigger. It’s like feminism, like women and music, or women and art — just the feminist movement having nothing to do with capitalism at all exploded, because you couldn’t ignore it anymore. That’s the thing about capitalism, is that it gets really jealous and starts to circle in… Magazines or record labels, they circle around it. Now it’s finally getting attention from mainstream magazines, and all of a sudden you see Ashley Graham on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Gabourey Sidibe on the cover of Nylon. It’s really cool to see that happen; I’m so glad to have that, in whatever context that is.”
However, Ditto cautions, “We can’t let capitalism get ahold of it. There’s a profitability to body positivity; in America, that usually means there’s a conventional beauty standard that’s put onto things. And right now, it’s usually white girls, and it’s usually an hourglass figure. We can’t let that happen. … That’s all you’re going to see, and the profit off that, if we don’t keep the movement rolling. And that’s what worries me.
“There’s the body positivity movement, and then there’s the fat positivity movement,” Ditto elaborates. “It’s a different side of the same coin. With body positivity movement and body image, that’s where we go back to Sexism 101. It’s just like, there’s more to life than your f***ing body. That’s my problem with the body positivity movement — that it is about beauty all the f***ing time. It’s not about existing and just getting up in the morning and being like, ‘It doesn’t matter that you’re wearing a pencil skirt.’ This is Feminism 101 here: Stop being distracted by clothes, stop being distracted by makeup and hair, and start being focused on yourself and what matters. That is who you are. Of course, the makeup and the hair and the clothes, all of that s*** is totally fun and exciting and cool — but that’s not really what’s at the heart of you.”
Ditto has established herself as one of the greatest voices in modern rock with her powerful pipes and the big, brash, brazen dance-rock anthems of Fake Sugar, but she’s obviously continuing to lend her voice to causes she believes in. When asked what she and her fellow concerned musicians can do to fight the good fight, she muses, “As an artist, there’s a lot you can do. Get involved. Don’t be afraid. I think empathy is a thing that’s missing a lot. I think with the way we’re talking about families being torn apart, and human beings being deported, all of these things, it’s like, have a little empathy and try to put yourself in others’ shoes. And if you’re f***ing rich, give.”