“Can you give me a minute? I need to do a number two. You can put that in your article – Beth Ditto needs a poo!” the singer in question howls down the corridor after me.
And so, as instructed by Miss Ditto herself, I do. Here you have it. The journalist I greet as I leave her hotel room, however, looks bemused. Whatever he was hoping for, for his first impressions of the popstar, it certainly wasn’t that she washes her hands afterwards.
In the space between the Gossip’s last album, the Rick Rubin-produced Music for Men, in 2009 and today, we’d almost forgotten how hyper and spontaneous an encounter with Ditto could be. The visceral stripping performances, the naked magazine covers and the anything-goes conversational tone: in a Lady Gaga-saturated world, Ditto is similarly exhibitionist but refreshingly human. She will tell you all about her fecal matter – in fact, she’ll say whatever comes into her head – and not think twice about it.
It’s infectious. Her language is filled with impressions, animated voices and enthusiastic gesticulations. Her southern drawl fires at 100mph, darting off on multiple tangents as her phone honks every five minutes and she glances back and forth. She will talk and talk until her press officer has to knock on the door and almost forcibly move her on to the next wide-eyed scribe. She’s the riot that you desperately want to party with, or bake cupcakes with, hungover, the next day. We can’t believe we’d forgotten.
To give you another gut-winding reminder, her first and self-titled solo EP, a collaboration with producer duo Simian Mobile Disco, comes out on March 6. She provided vocals for the best tune on their last album, Cruel Intentions, and the track’s familiar disco-edged piano house stabs run like a steady current through her new songs. If you can call them songs: rather, they are made-for-the-dancefloor ballads with Ditto no longer as a shouty make-up-smeared riot grrrl but a fully-fledged slick club diva singing about heartbreak in that familiar disco tradition.
Now that Ditto’s heading for 30 – something that seems to entertain her – she has talked about settling down and having a family with her girlfriend Christine. But her punk flame will never burn out. The low-budget video for the EP’s first single, the gorgeous 'I Wrote the Book', is a pastiche of Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’ video with a knowing Ditto displaying a cheeky glint in her eye as vogue-ing dancers prance her around her hotel room (perhaps the same hotel we’re interviewing her at today).
Does this EP signal the beginning of Beth’s burgeoning solo career? If you wanted to read into it, you could argue that the I Wrote the Book video is Ditto’s attempt to let Madge know that she’s going to give her a run for her money. Rather, we think she’s just having a laugh and seeing what happens.
I try to get some answers from The Ditto (sorry), all the while battling the urge to ask her to plait my hair and tell me about her favourite sewing pattern...
I like the name of the EP – it’s very direct.
Thanks. I don’t even… What’s the name again? Mary Beth Ditto? Or just Beth Ditto?
Why did you make a four-track EP and not a full-blown album?
“I think the pressure of making an album was too much. We worked so much on the last album that Gossip did and I just couldn’t imagine working another record like that. I wanted to do something else. It’s not like, “I want to leave it behind”, but I was just a little curious about what [my solo work] could be like, so I thought I’d just put an EP out. It was so relaxed, like in the good old days. I wanted it to be something manageable; there wasn’t a lot of time to, like, crank out jams.”
How did it feel to not have the band behind you?
“It’s always strange to not have Nathan around. It’s always strange to not have Nathan and Hannah around, but I’ve been playing music with Nathan for so long that it’s like we have our own language. We don’t even have to finish our sentences; we just understand each other. Neither of us can read music and we’ve never really taken music classes, so our relationship with music has been forged together. So to go from that to working with people like Simian, who haven’t known you since you were a kid and before you even knew what punk was, it’s complicated because you’re trying to translate your weird music language into other people’s.”
Were you nervous about going solo?
“Well, it’s a big deal for me because Gossip has been going for 12 years. My entire adult life has been devoted to Nathan. That’s a crazy idea. All of the major shifts and moments that have happened in my life have come about in this relationship, in this band. So to be able to step outside of that and do something different is crazy. That’s crazy! Because you don’t really have that guide anymore and you can just do whatever you want. But that’s what was nice about James and Jas; I had them to rely on. I don’t really like working alone; I’m not that independent musically. I can’t play anything; I have to have someone else.”
I can imagine that Simian Mobile Disco’s approach was quite technical…
“Yeah! But I didn’t have to worry about that. They dumbed it down for me a lot. [Her phone goes off: ‘Was that my sister? No, it’s not even anybody’]. Every time I work with someone different, I learn something new, and it’s never really about the technical side, it’s a little more hippy-dippy than that. It’s always something about myself or about songwriting. [She does an impression of smoking a joint and sways her hands from side to side: “I don’t really smoke pot, but if I did, this is what it would look like”].
What did you learn with this record?
“With Rick, we had all the time in the world and everything was at your fingertips. If Rick Rubin says we need a glockenspiel, we need four of ’em, we need them tomorrow and they need to be purple, you’re going to get them. It’s not necessarily like that with Simian, it’s just a completely experience and it’s about the things that they’ll teach you. We did this EP in a week and a half, but it used to take us a week and a half to do Gossip records. Standing in Control, the whole album, was written, recorded and mixed in 10 days. Simian had really good things to say about the voice and how to use it and things like that.”
What was it like to use your voice in a different way on this record?
“When we did ‘Cruel Intentions’, I was like: ‘Wow, they don’t want me to use so much power’. That was such a big thing for me. It was a surprise because I don’t really think about my voice so much – you get used to doing one thing for so long that it’s just like, this is the way I sound, but they saw more to it. I came into music not knowing anything at all: when we recorded the first record, we did the vocals in the bathroom! So I had to be really strict about my voice, but that was nice. I’ve always looked for that. I didn’t immediately come from a punk background, I came from a choir kid background, if I even have a background at all, but that’s what I started doing, singing church songs, so it’s nice to be able to use that again. In the same way that it was really nice to break out of that, it’s great to dip back into that.”
They feel like more personal songs this time…
“It is, but then I feel like everything is such a personal album. People thought that ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ [which has been interpreted as being about gay rights in America] was a protest song, and it might have ended up that way, but the whole reason that the song was written at all was because it came from a conversation with my best friend and she was really upset, and it was a really dismal time for all of my friends. I was writing that song for my best friend, so I think that’s why people related to it. It was all that Bush bullshit; it all really directly affected the people I hang out with because they’re all queers and weirdos. And I feel like that translated [in the song] in a completely different way. Everything that I’ve ever done has just been a stream of consciousness. I’m not good at writing songs, it’s not something I’ve ever been good at it. It’s not like I write a poem and then say, ‘Oh, I had this idea, I wrote this song about a candy shop and I got a magic stick’. I just don’t do that. I never know what it’s going to be about until I’m done.”
So, where did the lyrics come from? You sing a lot about heartbreak.
“I think that there was a break-up that happened after nine years [with her long-term girlfriend Freddie Fagula], and it was not that long after that, so I think that that could have a lot to do with it. When we were in the studio, Jas said: ‘You know, a lot of these songs are about cheating.’ And I didn’t even realise that, I had no idea, and then I felt a bit embarrassed about it because I’ve never ever cheated on anyone and no one’s cheated on me. I don’t know, maybe they were all about feeling cheated. Maybe it’s subconscious, or I’m wishing that maybe I would have [cheated]. That’s the really crazy thing about music, especially if you don’t go in to the studio with the intent of a song to write: you will come out and people will know about your song before you do and, y’know, you feel really exposed.”
Are you a fan of ’90s dance music? The EP has that edge to it.
“Simian know a lot more about that shit than I do. But yeah, definitely. For me, though, it was all Top 40s dance. You know C+C Music Factory? I had them all play that and they laughed at me. You know what, fine, but deny that that’s a jam. Deny it, you can’t. Laugh at me, will you. I’ll show you!”
It’s quite an apt choice of label too – Deconstruction signed Black Box back in the ’90s, etc.
“It was more about Mike Pickering, really. I knew and trusted him. I didn’t really wanna shop around for a label, it was more that I was doing this EP and Mike was starting Deconstruction again and I was just like, great. I like to keep it in the family a lot, I don’t like to venture into new relationships very often. I just didn’t want to go through that label bullshit. And, honestly, to me, it didn’t even matter if it got on a label; I just wanted it to be out.”
What does dance music allow you to do that punk rock doesn’t?
“God. A lot. I think that with punk music, or like guitars and drums, you can only go as far as the guitarist and drummers’ ability. But, like I say, with electronic music so many things are possible. You can do 80,000 beats per minute if you really wanted to; if you want to change a beat and the tempo you can change it immediately. You don’t have to practice or rehearse it. It’s almost like you push a knob and twist a button and figure it out and then it’s faster or slower, or disco all of a sudden. You can do anything with electronic music, anything. But it definitely gives you a lot more control, especially as a vocalist, because you’re not really used to having that much control over everything.”
David Lynch, who has just released a new electro EP, recently said that dance music was the modern blues. Can you see any parallels?
“Really? I would love to hear that! I don’t know if I’d say that, though. It’s hard to say if anything’s the modern anything really because by the time that it hits pop culture it has already changed so much, and dance music is definitely such a different thing to what I feel that it was. Y’know, like we used to have punk dance nights like – how old am I, 30? – eight years ago. So I would say then that it was more like the modern blues, but it wouldn’t say that it was now. But if he feels that it is to him then it is to him. Perhaps he was talking about it being the place underground where people go. I don’t think that he’s wrong; I don’t think that you can be wrong. David Lynch can’t be wrong, period. But, seriously, I don’t think that if you’re making music that you can be wrong about it. If that’s how you’re feeling about it, I can’t tell you that it’s not true. You know, like a therapist [puts on a comically sympathetic voice]: ‘Well if those are your feelings, they’re not wrong. If you feel that way, your feelings are not wrong’.
Are you going to be bringing these new disco-techno influences to the next Gossip record?
“I think it’s going to be surprising. I think people are expecting a lot of that but I think people will be surprised at the actual direction.”
I get the impression that a lot of people feel like they know you because you’re so vocal in the press about what you think. So I tried to find you on Twitter to gain some new insight into the mind of Beth Ditto before this interview, but you weren’t active…
“I don’t have a Twitter! But there was a fake Twitter of me, though. My friend JD [Sampson] from MEN was on tour with us and she was like ‘I’m Twittering you!’ and I was like, ‘I don’t Twitter. That’s not me you’re Twittering with!’. That’s how I found out. It was called “The Ditto” and I was like, ‘JD, when in my life would I ever have called myself ‘The Ditto?’.” If I were younger, I’d be more into it. Isn’t that funny?”
Beth Ditto EP is released on iTunes via Deconstruction on March 6.