It may only be 9am in Portland, Oregon when Beth Ditto logs on for today’s call, merrily panning down to show us her “nightgown,” but the Gossip frontwoman has clearly woken up on the right side of the bed. “My first thought this morning, I jumped up and my brain went: ‘Hiiiighwaaaay to the danger zone…’,” she sings in that immediately recognisable Southern cadence. “So I’m ready!”
There’s a lot for Ditto to be ready for right now, too. A few days previous, her band of punk renegades Gossip released positivity-soaked comeback single ‘Crazy Again’ - their first new music since 2012’s ‘A Joyful Noise’. Alongside came the announcement of sixth album ‘Real Power’ and the full reinstatement, after a series of 2019 anniversary shows, of one of the noughties’ most incendiary groups; a trio - completed by guitarist Nathan Howdeshell and drummer Hannah Blilie - who sent a jolt of radical transgression through the decade, putting a proudly queer, body-positive voice front and centre at a time when neither identity was as readily a part of the cultural conversation.
Elevating scene-stealing hits like ‘Standing In The Way of Control’ and ‘Heavy Cross’ to the indie disco A List, Ditto has always been magnetic. Now aged 42, she remains a ludicrously enjoyable conversational whirlwind, breaking into song and diverting into anecdotes at every turn. “A lot of parody songs will pop into my head. The other day, this is a true story - are you sitting down?” she questions, barely able to contain her own laughter. “My eyes were really goopy and gummed up when I woke up, and immediately my brain went: ‘Do I have pink eye? / Or is it just allergies? / Maybe it’s a sty…’” she sings to the tune of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’’s opening bars. “That’s the kind of brain I have, it’s just the dumbest shit…”
It’s a silly, funny, lovable side that’s as integral to Gossip’s appeal as their moments of protest. And, having begun life as a Ditto solo project before morphing, through friendship and necessity, into a full band reunion once more, ‘Real Power’ is a record set to embrace both facets more than ever.
In the time since 2017 solo album ‘Fake Sugar’, Ditto divorced from her wife and “best friend since 19 years old,” Kristin Ogata. The pair had married in Ogata’s birthplace of Hawaii, and so it was with complex feelings that Ditto headed out to meet super producer Rick Rubin at his studio in Kauai - one of the state’s smaller islands - to begin working on what she assumed would be its follow up.
“It was very sad for me to be back there, but that’s where Rick was and you go where Rick is,” she says. “It was so hard and such a struggle inside for me emotionally; to be surrounded by all of this beauty and to feel so sad, it was very upsetting every day. Back here in Portland it’s rainy, it’s cold and dark by 4pm, and people are working so hard doing jobs they hate, and I’m in this place that’s literally paradise. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just stop having this connection to this place?”
In order to get through the experience, she asked Howdeshell to come out for the sessions, initially just as a friend and creative head to bounce ideas off. But as time progressed, the unspoken question rose to the surface. “I think that [whole experience was] maybe what made me think, I don’t wanna be alone anymore. I don’t want it to be just me. I need somebody that I trust and love and can rely on in this one specific way, and that’s Nathan, and he did that,” she says. “The love that I have for him and Hannah, coming in and just saving me - not because the music was struggling but because I needed someone there that could ground me - maybe subconsciously on some level, that made me go, ‘Why can’t we just do this together again?’”
Friends since their youth in Arkansas, Ditto speaks of the bond between the three Gossip members as one built on easy familiarity and, above all, laughter. Coming back together after a decade away from the studio, then, was “like wearing an old hat”. “We’re such a funny little group, it’s just exactly the same,” she laughs. “It’s so weird, it’s just the same!”
“I didn’t want to be alone anymore. I didn’t want it to be just me.” - Beth Ditto
Ditto has a way of answering with this sort of slightly baffled frankness that’s almost as though even she doesn’t understand how the Gossip magic happens. ‘Crazy Again’, a sweet and blissed-out ode to “falling in love and feeling so safe”, firmly leans into the band’s softer side, a world away from the crashing dance-punk of some of their former material. What did she want it to show the world about where the band are at, we ask?
“Nothing!” she hoots. “It’s so hard for me. I hate listening back, I hate band practice, I like writing songs but I hate practising for shows and shit; it’s painful to me. So the less thought I can put into it the better; I’d rather do anything else than have to think about it… I wish there was a better story but there’s not!” Were they listening to things in the studio that took them in that direction? “I mostly just listen to podcasts, which is the most adult thing you’ll ever hear… I really wish I had a better answer…”
The inspiration might be coming from who-knows-where, but when it comes to Gossip’s continued place in the world, Ditto knows exactly what she wants them to be. Having gone through a turbulent period in her personal life alongside the continuing conveyor belt of wider world fears and fractures, the band is a safe and inclusive space for the singer as much as her crowd, a way to rally against the negative forces and choose joy.
“My friend Cody [Critcheloe, aka Ssion] who made the ‘Crazy Again’ video said, ‘I realised one of the most radical things I can do is just decide to be happy and have fun’,” she recalls. “I wish I’d heard that months or years ago, and of course it took another punk queer to tell me that. So many things are up in the air: safety, access to healthcare, abortion, trans rights and visibility, war. When you’re thinking about that, you start to see it’s not just anger, it’s worry, it’s sadness, it’s a daily struggle. But I can’t do anything for anybody if I can’t allow myself to access joy, and I really was not for a long time, I blocked it out - I didn’t deserve it, we didn’t deserve it.
“The worries are so heavy, but I love the idea of trying to give a sense of fun and positivity,” she continues. “I love that, and I feel like I lost that in myself the past four or five years. I didn’t know what to do, but one thing we can do is just help people to have a good time and feel good and safe in the space they’re in. That’s maybe something that we can give. If Gossip can give people a place to be surrounded by love and compassion and fun and radical joy, and also feel empowered and that we’re all part of this machine that’s trying to navigate the world and move forward, that’s what I want to give people and that’s what I want for myself.”
Beth Ditto might not have the answers for everything, but now, as ever, she and Gossip are aiming to try and create a meaningful, impactful and above all joyful move towards their own solution. Returning with ‘Real Power’, it’s a title that says it all.
‘Real Power’ is out 22nd March via Sony.
As featured in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of DIY, out now.