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When I said that I was going to meet Beth Ditto from The Gossip everyone, but everyone, went glassy-eyed and did the kind of swoon that is normally reserved for Mills and Boon-style bodice-rippers. Do I have to spell it out? The girl is hot and the band in which she sings are Really Going Places.
The Gossip are Ditto, drummer Kathi Mendonca and guitarist Nathan Howdeshell, also known as Brace Paine. They’re from Arkansas but now live in Portland Oregon, by way of a long sojourn in riot-grrl central, Olympia WA. They’ve been putting out records through indie favourites Kill Rock Stars for a couple of years but their new CD, Movement, is grabbing them a whole lot of attention. In a nutshell Movement fuses blues and gospel traditions of the south with a primal punk beat, although it’s hard to articulate a sound that makes you want to shake your arse all night. Ditto describes the music as “Sincere.”
Many clichés have been written about The Gossip in their short career: They’re like the White Stripes (not really), they play the blues (hmm), the singer is fat but cute (what do you mean fat but cute? Fat and cute is more like it). Oh yeah, and did you realise that Ditto is a dyke?
Ditto rolls her eyes at all this. I asked her if she was surprised at how backwards people can be in thinking about fat and body image and dyke sexuality. She said: “What I get surprised at is the idea that fat women aren’t sexy. But there was a time when it was new to me too, and I grew up fat my whole life. When I was 18 I moved to Olympia and one of the reasons I stayed was that here was a community of people who think that I’m really great, not just hot but awesome! I never knew that, I never thought about that.”
Getting away from her natal Bible Belt was an important step for Ditto, not least because Olympia represented a queer haven, giving her the opportunity to develop her own style and music. Times are changing, however, and she recently moved to Portland. Ditto commented: “There’s always going to be kids that migrate to Olympia, but I woke up one day, I looked around and I didn’t know anyone any more. All my friends had left. Olympia is a town that’s really good to grow in, it’s really good to start in and it’s really good to end up in, but you have to go somewhere else or you’ll go crazy. Most of the people who started riot grrl don’t live there any more, all the people who were part of The Need, that whole queer group, they don’t live there any more. It just happened and now it’s our turn, our group of people who are leaving.”
Let’s get down to the music. John Lee Hooker said that anyone can sing the blues as long as they’ve had the blues. Ditto has a powerful voice that has been compared to Janis Joplin and Etta James, she is wary of describing herself as a blues singer, but remarks: “I grew up in the south, pretty poor, there were a lot of kids in my family, there were six of us. I was fat all my life, I was queer my whole life, I was being myself, I was a feminist, it was really hard! I’m a white person, and white people have always ripped off black music. When people say that I am a blues singer – I don’t do it because that’s a cool act. I think of it as something I’m borrowing, I have to keep that in check and realise that I’m borrowing something that’s not mine. But still, yeah, I have the blues, but I will never write a song called ‘The Something-Something Blues’ I will never do it!”
We talked about The Gossip’s reputation for playing basic rock n roll, and Ditto remarked: “The reason we play stripped down music is because we started The Gossip out of pure boredom. None of us had jobs, we had nothing better to do. There was just the three of us, there was no plan to be minimalist at all.” On the other hand, she says, should the opportunity come up to perform with a full-size orchestra she’d take do it “in a heartbeat.” Ditto added: “I wouldn’t want to do it with The Gossip. I wouldn’t want that to change because we work really well together, and we’ve known each other since way back when. But I’d love to do a solo project, I’d want ‘Beth Ditto’ to be soul music, really wonderful melodic soul music.” In the meantime she has a new goal: “I want to play Tracey Turnblad in Hairspray. I really want the job, I would be perfect for it!”
Ditto seems unfazed by the fear that the music industry could chew up The Gossip and spit them out. She sighed: “We’ve been doing the band for four years and I know who I am, I know what it’s all about. I’ve met famous people, I know people who have all these connections, I hear a lot about all that and I don’t care! For a while I didn’t know why having certain kinds of people around us when we were on tour bothered me and then one day I realised ‘Oh, I don’t give a shit that your sister is wildly famous!’ That’s what it is and that’s all they talk about. I don’t care. It’s like: I’m not one of them. I don’t feel like a rock star because we’re not, we’re The Gossip from Arkansas, from Olympia (she adds a little sarcastic whoop).”
Before we finished up the interview I couldn’t resist asking a fawning, nerdy, fan-girlish question: “So, er, have you got any gossip – geddit? – because you’re in The Gossip?” In her trademark Arkansas twang Ditto told me about one particular singer: “I did meet XXXX once. She was wearing the most hideous outfit. She called me a bitch and she was on drugs.”
I think I’m in love.