BETH DITTO

Q (UK) - - Contents - Por­traits: Michael Cle­ments

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.

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