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Real Power Album Lead 4_c_Cody Critcheloe
The GossipPhotography by Cody Critcheloe

50 Questions With Beth Ditto

As Gossip’s new album Real Power is released, the frontwoman of the band sits down with Nick Levine for a special, quickfire interview

Lead ImageThe GossipPhotography by Cody Critcheloe

Beth Ditto is many things: a singer-songwriter, an LGBTQ+ rights activist, a style icon who’s walked the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier, an erstwhile newspaper advice columnist, and a versatile actress (she starred in the soapy country drama Monarch and opposite Kirsten Dunst in the underrated black comedy series On Becoming a God in Central Florida). When we meet in a brand new and rather fancy hotel in London’s Soho, she’s also an absolute hoot. “I feel like I’m on vacation!” she says as we settle into a gorgeously upholstered snug.

But Arkansas-born Ditto is best known as the soulful, swaggering frontwoman of cult indie band Gossip, who formed in Olympia, Washington in 1999. The searing three-piece – Ditto plus guitarist Nathan Howdeshell and drummer Hannah Blilie – stormed into the mainstream with their 2005 dance-punk banger Standing in the Way of Control. Though this song will forever be associated with edgy British teen drama Skins, Ditto and her bandmates actually wrote it about a proposed (but thankfully abandoned) same-sex marriage ban in the US.

Their third album of the same name, 2006’s Standing in the Way of Control, cemented Gossip’s international breakthrough. They followed it with 2009’s Music for Men, home to the piledriving hit Heavy Cross and rousing gay rights anthem Men in Love, and 2012’s A Joyful Noise, an electro-leaning collaboration with British pop producer Brian Higgins (Girls Aloud, Sugababes). Gossip disbanded in 2016, but after reuniting for live shows in 2019, they’re now back with their first album in 12 years. Titled Real Power, it’s a typically dynamic collection that includes Crazy Again’s girl-group shimmer and Act of God’s spiritual stomp. When Ditto sings “every beat of my heart is a merciful act of God”, it’s another life-affirming Gossip moment.

Ahead of her 50 Questions interview, Ditto claims she “can’t give a straightforward answer to anything”. But as we find out, she’s also incapable of saying anything boring.

1. How are you today? Honey, I’m telling you I’m sick. I’m telling you, I have a fever! But let’s do this, it’s not gonna stop me.

2. Where do you gravitate to in London? Stoke Newington. I kept a room in an apartment there for many years.

3. Why did you let it go? Because quarantine happened and I didn’t have the money to pay for it any more. But London is still the city I get most homesick for when I’m not there.

4. What do you love about London? The energy and vibe, but also the fact it was such a big place for me as a younger person. I have so many friends here that I’ve known for years.

5. Why did you name the new Gossip album Real Power? We needed a name fast and Nathan and I liked the fact it’s a reference to Iggy Pop’s [Stooges album] Raw Power. But in retrospect, I wish we’d named it Act of God – that would have been badass.

6. What do you think people will find surprising about the album? That it exists? I don’t like to know what people are saying about the record; I just don’t need all that in my head.

7. What brought Gossip back together again? I don’t want to sound like I take this too seriously, because it’s not like we’re the Rolling Stones, but I do think Nathan and I have a very special musical connection. The idea that we even know each other is crazy because we didn’t even go to the same high school.

8. How did you meet? This was 1992 so there was no internet. We met through my mum’s co-worker’s daughter, who was really into grunge. And then through grunge, we started getting into the same underground bands. When I look back, it really was fate.

9. How would you describe Nathan? He’s the kind of guy who walks into a room, leaves the door open, starts talking about something, turns the TV on full blast, then walks out and he’s gone. But he’s really charming and funny.

10. Do you see the band as a chosen family? I do, and I’m protective of them. I think it’s why I like to do stuff like this [interview] by myself. I know I can answer any question, and if it’s shitty or bad, I don’t care. But I don’t want to expose them to that stress.

11. How do you see your purpose as a musician? I have no desire to be famous or rich. I mean, quarantine was fucking scary as hell because money was running out and I don’t have skills. I have no business working a regular job because I’m bad at it. But I do feel like I’m good at talking to people.

12. What job did you do before Gossip? When I was living in Washington, Kathy [Mendonça, Gossip’s original drummer] got me a job selling hot dogs in the mall. That taught me how to take care of myself.

13. What did you learn growing up in Arkansas? How to be resourceful. I could kill a snake if I needed to. I wasn’t panicking about toilet paper in quarantine because I’d already learned that there’s more than one way to wipe your ass.

14. What did you learn when you moved to Washington? So much. I mean, I was only 18 and I moved there with a one-way ticket that Kathy paid for. I had no expectations but I consider those four years my college years because I learned all about queer culture, radical feminism, activism, the underground, literature, punk music, everything.

15. What have you learned from your forays into the fashion world? People think that models are just, like, conventionally beautiful women that go down a runway. But no, no, no – that’s not what’s happening. There’s a lot going on. But it’s so easy to set that aside because we don’t like women to succeed, especially god forbid if they use their bodies.

16. What personality trait do you dislike in others? Unearned rudeness – I was just talking about this last night with Joy Crookes. We were saying there’s a very small list of people who’ve actually earned the right to be rude.

17. Who has earned that right? Grace Jones, Yoko Ono and Elton John.

18. Are you good at saying no? Absolutely. As a D-lister, I get offered a lot of weak shit. I love that Patti Smith quote: “If you build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.”

19. Are you good at delegating? No, I’ve got no business telling other people what to do.

20. Where do you feel truly comfortable? Among punks and queers. They’ve always been my people.

Where do you feel truly comfortable? Among punks and queers. They’ve always been my people” – Beth Ditto

21. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? Don’t sweat the small stuff. It came from my mom.

22. What made you want to write a song called Men in Love? I just thought it was a great chorus and kind of funny because it is what it is. Like, I’m literally singing: “Men in love, na na na na, men in love with each other.” I always wanted it to be about gay men; it’s a community thing.

23. What do you put as your occupation on official forms? Oh my god, I just texted my friend this morning saying, “From now on I only want you to refer to me as a ’recording artist’.” That expression, “recording artist”, is just so funny to me. But actually, I don’t think it can pigeonhole me.

24. What do you like about acting? It reminds me of when I first started doing photo shoots with stylists and photographers. I realised it wasn’t about making you over and putting you in something cool. It was about this [vision] they have and how you interpret it to make it work. I like the building [aspect] of that, and I get a similar thing from acting.

25. What do you like about being in a band? I like that in this band, we’re just idiots – we always want to laugh and have fun. We were always getting told we were ’too loud, too annoying and too abrasive’. But that’s just us.

26. Do you like the word “queer”? I like it a lot. Everybody fits into “queer” – it’s all-encompassing.

27. Has the way you talk about queerness changed over the years? I’m not solely around punks and queers now, but back in the day when all my friends were radical queers, we would never call ourselves “gay” and “lesbian”. It was always “dyke” and “faggot”. But if I was explaining something to a [straight] stranger who might not get the context and nuance, I would never say those words because I wouldn’t want to give them permission to say anything derogatory.

28. What does the LGBTQ+ community mean to you? It’s home: a place where I can talk without having to explain myself or wonder whether the other person is going to get what I mean. You know, sometimes out of respect for my [biological] family, I almost don’t want to give them too much information. I keep it pretty basic and vanilla.

29. Do you believe in love at first sight? Sure. But it doesn’t mean you’re gonna be together forever.

30. Do you believe in the concept of a guilty pleasure? Oh yeah, I have a few of those.

31. Do you believe people can really change? Of course. I change all the time; it’s just maintenance.

32. Is there anything you would never talk about? I don’t talk shit about other people. I made that mistake in interviews when I was younger and I wasn’t thinking about the real people behind the faces you see in magazines. I didn’t get it, but I do now.

33. Do you think about getting older? I’m 42 now – I’m gonna be 50 in eight years, which is crazy, so I have to think about stuff like insurance and retirement. I thought I was so grown in my thirties but I really wasn’t. And when I was in my twenties I didn’t have a care in the world.

34. What’s your most prized possession? A beautiful quilt that my granny made. Oh, and all my wigs.

35. What’s on your rider? Peanut butter and jelly, because it travels. Ramen, because it’s a good meal on the go that isn’t peanut butter and jelly. Plus Jameson, sugar-free Red Bull, and vegetables and hummus. I hate hummus but it’s always there.

36. Does the Jameson get drunk? Honey, it definitely does.

37. What’s the rudest word you know? It’s not one word, but I think the rudest thing you can say to someone is: “Shut the fuck up.” Because it means you’re fucking pissed.

38. How do you pass the time on a transatlantic flight? I like to crochet. If there’s a baby in your life, I’ll make it something.

39. Can you fall asleep anywhere? If I’m sitting still, I’m asleep. Period. This is why I have to crochet.

40. What’s the latest you’ve ever stayed out? Oh god, I’m not even a cokehead, but I can stay out all night. One time I got back at noon and fell asleep in the backyard. And that night I threw away my Spanx in the trash.

What’s the latest you’ve ever stayed out? “Oh god, I’m not even a cokehead, but I can stay out all night. One time I got back at noon and fell asleep in the backyard. And that night I threw away my Spanx in the trash” – Beth Ditto

41. Where is the strangest place you’ve heard your music? At a TGI Fridays at the airport in Salt Lake City. It was the song Four Letter Word from the Men in Love album. When it came on, me and my friend John were like: “Oh. My. God.”

42. Of everyone you’ve met, who had the most star quality? I can’t answer that because I’ve met such a lot of people.

43. What’s the nicest compliment you’ve received? My chosen niece said to me: “Auntie Beth, you’re very beautiful.” And I was like, “Queen!”

44. What’s the best lesson you’ve learned? Kate Moss taught me how to take good pictures of myself. Coming from her, that really changed the game. And she did it in a way that was just so sisterly and sweet.

45. What makes you excited? People make me the happiest. Seeing friends and meeting their kids always gets me excited.

46. Do you respond to Instagram DMs? I do, but I don’t always see them. Like, why are there all these different inboxes? To be honest I can never find anything on my phone.

47. Do you respond to voice notes? If that’s how you wanna stay in touch, I don’t really mind. I leave them too sometimes.

48. Who do you call when you really need a laugh? Nathan. But if he doesn’t pick up, I have a lot of other people I can call. I’m lucky like that.

49. How do you measure success? As long as I can take care of my mom, I’m doing fine. I don’t need a lot – I’d rather have the freedom to move around than a mansion and a fancy car.

50. Finally, have you enjoyed this interview? Of course! Have you? I wish we could have had longer though.

Real Power by Gossip is out now via Columbia Records.