The ex-Gossip star is back, newly solo, on irrepressible form and ready to be loved.
You may remember the force of nature and voice who stood in the way of control with Gossip a decade ago, breaking down barriers and scoring megahits. She returns as a solo artist now, the same irrepressible, hilarious character, but as discovers, deep down she just wants to be loved.
400- capacity Omeara venue tonight, an ornate chandeliered cave in burnished gold and copper, you’d think this was stand-up comedy. “This feels like a rodeo,” purrs Beth Ditto from the stage in her gee-shucks Southern drawl, glimmering in a metallic silver-blue frock. “Can’t wait to scrote that goat. Have you ever groped a goat? I’ve seen it! Oh, I have so many stories to tell you…” Four hundred ex-Gossip fans and permanent Ditto fans giggle and guffaw, their faces beaming directly towards her – a circular five-foot force of nature whose audience reflects herself; high-glam big women, boyish gay girls, tattooed men kissing in glee as the jokes keep coming. “I know what you’re thinking,” she says, twinkling, “she’s so tiny.” It’s the kind of thing we only hear onstage with Adele, and much like Adele it’s when the banter stops and the voice erupts that you’re truly boggled by greatness, those powerhouse Ditto pipes once described by Noel Gallagher as “fucking immense”. Backed by a full band of grinning funkateers, she powers through her stunning debut solo album, Fake Sugar, the glorious single Fire – “bless my soul I can’t resist… get up up up up up up up up!”, the euphoric We Could Run pealing forth as the greatest anthem U2 haven’t written in 20 years, Ditto boogieing across the stage, her palms pushing up-up-up as if she could raise the roof with sheer will. Someone shouts for George Michael’s Careless Whisper (a 2007 Gossip cover) and Ditto obliges, the crowd roaring along to her soaring vocal before she parps into comedy saxophone, “rggnng ng ng ngngngngn!” She damns “2016… to hell! And 2017 is “sooooo stoopid…”, encoring with Gossip’s mighty Standing In The Way Of Control, “a song written 14 years ago and even more relevant today, sadly”, their thundering glam-punk opus to libertarian freedom which detonates into Smells Like Teen Spirit. Four hundred fans’ heads are now bouncing off the ornate roof in an atmosphere of tangible, euphoric joy. It’s been said, for years, we live in woefully “straight” times. Not here. Not now. Not any more...
Iused to always wanna do a thing with Adele, Chasing Pavements time, where we teeter-tottered, y’know, on a see-saw,” declares Beth Ditto two days later. “But now she’s skinny! So I’m gonna do it with Rag‘n’Bone Man…” We’re on adjacent sofas in the plush library room of London’s Soho Hotel, Ditto in a soft wool grey smock, legs tucked under her, a half-eaten plate of none-more-American cinnamon toast by her side. She’s the same personality she was onstage: warm, wry, constantly seeking the quip. The demise of the Washington-born Gossip in 2016 after 17 years was “sad” but inevitable, her less flamboyant bandmates’ hearts were no longer engaged. “By the end I was doing the interviews by myself anyway, even if they
If you accidentally wandered into London’s
were sitting here,” she muses. “But I always enjoyed it. I enjoyed the attention, I enjoyed the people.” Beth Ditto is a people person who greets you with an arms-wide hug, immediately chat-chat-chatting in herhe winning, sing-song Arkansaw way.wa She’s been chatchat-chatting for two weeks across Europe, discombobulated on the back-to-back promo treadmill. “What was I saying?” she soon roars, losing her thread. “Oh, interviews are so hard! You’ve got minutes to talk about super-analytical things. And I am… a thinker. So what do I think about that?” She’s always called herself the archetypal “fat, funny friend”, barging into nationwide consciousness from the US alt-rock margins via Standing In The WayW Of Control in 2006, the world’s only 5’2”, 15-15 stone, rad-fem pop-art lesbian punk as an antidote to the prevailing culture of homogenous, dreary, robo-pop perfection and the cultural idiocy of the size-zero “ideal”. It was the music, though, which powered everything, the bass-free Gossip, a disco-punk White Stripes with an audacious vocalist ever-keen on “front mooning”. No wonder Britain embraced her, appearing naked on magazine covers as a Fat Acceptance Movement pioneer. Eleven years on in these body-obsessional times and things are even worse. “We’re living in a time when everyone’s a fucking model,” she declares. “Even the fat positivity movement has become about outfits, a look.” Ditto, though, is an optimist, sees the simultaneous rise in queer culture and the evolution of language bringing us “gender fluid” identity as the re-emergence of the lesser-spotted weirdo. “There’s gonna be an emerging of really radical, really cool young people coming up out of the scene now,” she says with certainty. “A lot of resistance, a lot of big personalities, weird, fucked-up looking people. There’s so much stuff that was not there 13 years ago. With Gossip, when we weren’t in a punk band any more, all of a sudden we were backstage with Kings Of Leon. With dudes. Not in a gender sense, an attitude. And we were the weird, queer, gross kids. Now, there’s a movement, with a lot of substance and empathy. I feel like this is something I’ve contributed to. Just as we’re on the brink of
“There’s gonna be an emerging of really radical, cool young people coming up out of the scene now. A lot of big personalities, weird, f **kedup-looking people.”
something so frightening, for human beings on all levels, we’re on the brink of just as much excitement. A movement starts when people have had enough.” It’s a reference, naturally, to these politically chaotic times, speaking in the week psychotic world leaders appear to be twitching for nuclear war, as liberal ideals globally retreat. She contemplates how President Donald Trump is the direct result of Celebrity Culture. “Your president is a reality star,” she balks, addressing her fellow Americans. “Like, really? I honestly just don’t understand why you would want people to suffer. Do I think racist rednecks shouldn’t get healthcare because I don’t like them? No. Because I’m not a piece of shit. But I can’t focus on what I’m powerless to change. And focus on what I can affect.”
Beth Ditto, as she noted onstage, has many stories to tell, her background as boggling as a humdinger episode of ’ 90s Jerry Springer. Born in 1981 to a sprawling “super bumpkin” family in Arkansas, she’s the middle child of seven, to a troubled single mother who had her first child at 15, who never knew her father, had a violent
step-father, in a family so poor they ate squirrel (one uncle sucked squirrel brains through its nose with a straw). She knew she was gay at five, was introduced to cigarettes at six, dope via cola-can bongs in her early teens (via pool shark cousin Dean), moving into her volatile Aunt Jannie’s cousin-packed home aged 13, all living “like forest creatures, constantly looking for a nice space to burrow in.” Her mum was unable to cope with her kids, had been violently sexually abused by her own father. “It was really bad,” notes Ditto today. “Her childhood was insane, her mom was crazy too.” Her Aunt Shirley, meanwhile, shot her husband in the head. “My Aunt Shirley, Squirrely Shirley,” she muses. “I wasn’t alive yet [ when the shooting happened] but I grew up with the fear of Aunt Shirley, a wild woman who drank. She was a beautiful redhead who used to say, ‘I’m a real redhead honey cos I gotta snatch to match.’ She killed him. Dead. He wasn’t good to her, at all, but she was mentally ill. She went into care. Last I heard she was homeless in Texas.” Ditto also endured sexual abuse, from Uncle Lee Roy, “a creep”, whose hands were everywhere, “every time we were alone”, down her pants, down her shirt, from aged four (all brutally documented in her 2012 autobiography Coal To Diamonds). “It’s like… a thing,” she notes, matter-of-factly. “Southern families are crazy, the way it’s normalised.” She finally told adults aged 11, “and nothing happened, and then he died, and I didn’t care.” She contemplates the psychological repercussions. “I think that’s how I learned to dissociate,” she muses. “I think that’s why I’m a good… performer. Not to toot my own horn, but I think that’s why. Cos I’m really good at leaving my body. I think that’s why I’m good on the road, at things being unpredictable. That’s how I grew up. Nothing was ever stable. My mom was court ordered to have therapy, but in fucking Arkansas in the ’ 70s? She didn’t have the tools. I got the fuck out of there as soon as I could.” No wonder Mary Beth Patterson escaped, aged 18 in 1999, to Washington state and the punk peripheries, ignited by Nirvana and the riot grrrl movement, “a snot-nosed little shit, full of punk idealism” who found in the furiously politicised arts “a place to be comfortable”. Standing In The Way Of Control made Gossip internationally huge. In 2011 she met George Michael at Lovebox in London who told her Gossip’s Careless Whisper was his favourite cover of them all. “It was ‘wow’,” she smiles. “I didn’t tell anyone that until he passed.” Is she good at the showbiz end of fame, you wonder, because she’s so sure of who she is? “I don’t know if I’m so sure of myself,” she decides. “But I’m sure of where I come from. I’m still in touch with my family. I was in the same band for a long time. We’re here in this hotel now but it was the airport Premier Inn so many times. And I’ll do it again. All I need is a bed and wi-fi. And a bath tub. A place to bathe, eat and watch internet. Porn.”
From calamitous beginnings, Beth Ditto has built a stable life. She is now married to her best friend since she was 19, Kristin Ogata, the first ceremony taking place in Hawaii in 2013, before they officially tied the knot the following year when same-sex marriage was legalised in their Oregon home state. “I was always looking for stability,” she notes. “I’m traditional in ways people wouldn’t think.” Despite her previous nine-year relationship with Freddie Fagula (a transgender women who identified as a man), Ditto “always knew” she’d marry Ogata, “we always had a flame for each other big time, it’s very romantic.” They hope for kids. Where, Q wonders, will the sperm come from? “‘Where’s the sperm?’ I like this forwardness!” she hoots. “We don’t know yet, we have some options swimming around, if you will. I’m gonna give myself two years to fucking work my ass off and meanwhile maybe freeze some eggs. Janet Jackson just had a kid and she’s 50. Awesome! She’s getting a divorce, isn’t that sad? Third divorce. To a billionaire. Sweet! You have that much money, just peace the fuck out.” Her wedding dress was also traditional, a white lace stunner by Jean-Paul Gaultier, couriered over from Paris. “Before the wedding was the only time I ever had to diet,” she laments. “I had to stay a size to fit the dress. I didn’t have to get smaller, I just couldn’t get any bigger. And it was the most time-consuming, fucking annoying, fucking distraction. From real life! I think now I see why there aren’t enough women artists. So many women are doing this shit. When people say it’s a distraction, our looks, it
really is. And it’s so boring.” There are some, inevitably, who think Beth Ditto, underneath it all, is unhappy with her weight, surprised to find in this comeback solo year no society-approved slimline version. “I get that a lot,” she nods. “‘Do you think she doesn’t like it, really?’ And what I care about is there’s so much life to live and art to make and cool shit to do.” She cackles, filthily. “I’m not joking,” she jokes, “the day after the wedding I was, ‘Raaaaah!’ [ head back, mouth agape] ‘Wedding cake, raaaaah! I’m gonna eat this whole fucking island!’” What does the freedom-fighting Beth Ditto, creator of this year’s most irresistibly joyous music, want to mean to people, ultimately? “I just want to make people happy,” is her uncharacteristically earnest reply. “I do. My family, everyone. When I do photo shoots, meet people, label meetings, wherever, I just want to make the job easy. On everybody. And I think that’s coming from the house that I grew up in. There was so much anxiety all the time. That I just wanted my mother to be happy, my sisters and brothers to be happy. That’s all I ever wanted. I feel like that carries over.” She might just be, then, an actual force-for-good? “Like Bono!” she roars, as the stand-up comic returns. “Hey, it’s my turn. Gimme that money, gimme those shades, it’s my turn to spread it around…” She springs from the sofa, offers another hearty hug and disappears off for lunch. You can be certain squirrel brains through a straw is no longer on her permanently delicious menu.
“I want to make the job easy. On everybody. And that’s coming from the house that I grew up in. There was so much anxiety all the time. I just wanted my mother to be happy, my sisters and brothers to be happy.”
“I have so many stories to tell you…” Beth Ditto at London’s Omeara, 11 April, 2017; (below) Ditto’s old band, Gossip (from left, Nathan Howdeshell, Ditto, Hannah Blilie), 2007.
Ditto and wife Kristin Ogata in Hamburg, 2014.
Winging it: Beth Ditto, East London, April 2017.