Interview: Beth Ditto on Rick Rubin, Unnecessary Apologies, and (Not) Recording Vocal Parts Sober

Lee Broomfield

Beth Ditto is such an unlikely star that even Taylor Swift would spring an "Imma let you finish" on her. Her mutant soul-punk trio Gossip is the only riot-grrrl band to have a top 10 hit (2006's Bush-deposing "Standing in the Way of Control") and become aptly named considering her frequent appearances in UK press, sometimes with Kate Moss and sometimes unclothed. But that doesn't mean rock's premiere plus-size designer and improbable sex symbol is any less shy--laying down vocals is so "terrifyingly intimate," she needs liquor. There will be plenty of that tonight, when the Gossip headline Terminal 5.

The title Music for Men misled me somewhat; I was expecting you to really let us have it with some big political rants. But the album mostly appears to be about love.

That's what I like about the title. There are no rants this time, but a sense of humor that people often overlook when considering feminism and radical politics. I think the title is a lot about image and representing a moment for us, a queer, feminist-identified band--it's pretty multifaceted for me. Even if there was some underlying political theme, we are not the kind of band to get it together enough to see that concept through; some bands would say they're organic. We're more A.D.D.

It has more of dance bent than anything you've ever done, but your voice has always imparted a soul diva feel to the band even back when you first started. Was this an explicit musical decision, or something you've just been building towards accidentally?

When I was a little kid I always got in trouble for my voice carrying, so for a while I tried to be meeker. I listened to a lot of Tori Amos and stuff like that, and I really wanted to have that pretty, breathy kind of range, but riot grrrl came along and I became more comfortable with my loud obnoxious nature. Combine that with a lack of subculture, or even pop culture for that matter. We had to dig deeper and in different places if we were to survive top 40 or country, so Nathan [Howdeshell, Gossip guitarist] and I listened to a lot of oldies radio; of course we heard Motown and old soul. Church was also helpful...high school choir, too. I just loved to sing, but it was really riot grrrl bands that made me comfortable with my volume and lack of "skill."

Did working with Rick Rubin this time drastically affect your writing process?

He really embraced our natural process--which is not having a process at all. He was very patient with a bunch of basically, wide-eyed kids who were used to cutting records in days, and that means writing, recording and mastering. Someone said to me once that a good producer is like a good therapist and Rick is an amazing therapist. I learned to trust myself as a songwriter and as a lyricist. He brought out the best in all of us, especially Nathan. None of us can really read music or understand the language, so he helped us learn it and make it up. My favorite story about Rick is when we went into the studio on the first day I asked him, "What's our process?" and Rick replied so calmly, "We'll know when we're done."

With your collaboration with the Simian Mobile Disco guys, is it true you made them leave the studio to do your vocals? It's hard to think of you as the shy type.

Not only did I make them leave, I made them buy me alcohol! I think every producer we've ever worked with would tell you the same story. It is terrifyingly intimate.

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