The mischievous singer-songwriter and former Gossip frontwoman has released her first solo album. We meet this free-spirited, socially committed icon.
A hotel suite strewn with clothes overlooking the Tuileries Garden. Beth Ditto enters the room, or rather makes an entrance: jet-black bangs, thick eyeliner, a flowing black caftan over skinny jeans and two cute, creased bare feet, like a child’s. Ditto may well do Betty Boop-like pouts to amuse the public, but her (totally adorable) shyness keeps her exuberance in check. The star is a living, breathing oxymoron: delicate yet larger than life, charismatic yet a good person. After 17 years in the indie grunge rock band Gossip, the American singer has released her first solo album. Her sensuous, badass vocals lure you in, then cut you down; part Joan Jett, part Aretha Franklin. An intimate feel. Love and seduction. The album’s called Fake Sugar. Sugar in small doses and a record that’s got bite.
Is Fake Sugar a warning against the ersatz products and counterfeit merchandise found today?
I love sugar and love, but I can’t stand BS. Nobody can tolerate lying, whether collective or individual. I have to say that I’m really afraid of a major threat we’re all facing today: manipulation.
You rhyme savoir faire and love affair in one of your songs. What does that savoir faire refer to?
To France! To your passion for excellence, hard work, things well done, finely sculpted, polished, both simple and luxury craftsmanship, incredible food, art! I love manual crafts, I really admire people who do things with their hands, embellish things, always look for beauty. My friend Jean-Paul Gaultier has been designing and producing incredible haute couture clothing since forever. Long hours, delicate needlework. That’s savoir faire.
In Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell sing “We’re just two little girls from Little Rock, we lived on the wrong side of the tracks.” You were also born on the wrong side of the tracks, right?
I grew up in the ’80s in the southern state of Arkansas. Indeed, there was an old abandoned railroad depot in my hick town. It was real poverty. But we kept each other warm. Let’s just say that the past helps keep things in perspective, keeps your feet on the ground.
You describe a kind of sociological landscape you’d find in Walker Evans’s photographs from the Depression.
Aaaaah! [she exclaims delightedly, ruefully]. Exactly! We were white trash, poor white folk who’d been abandoned. But my mother always told me: “Ok, so we’re poor, but we don’t have to look like trailer trash. We’ll be clean! We’ll be decent! And we’ll be educated.” I bought old music tapes at Walmartthe older the bands, the cheaper they were. I cobbled together a musical education, learning by doing.
Who really inspired you, enlightened you, made you aware? Was it an angry woman who was singing the battle hymn of an entire generation in 2006, “Standing in the Way of Control”?
I know a little about Simone de Beauvoir. One day I saw a picture of her wearing a skirt and tie. I know she was a pioneer, but what really got me into feminism and creativity were the Riot Grrrls, when I discovered them in the mid-1990s. They were doing punk rock and were political, railing against male oppression. They looked like me only with a few pounds less. Singers from Bikini Kill to Le Tigre to Sleater-Kinney really looked at the role of women in music and society. They were the true founders of it all.
The world- famous feminist Germaine Greer called you “the coolest woman on the planet” in 2007, after you posed naked on the cover of music magazine NME.You did the same thing two years later. Not afraid of the consequences?
I’ve been gay since I was 15, a punk at heart, and fat ever since I was born. I’m basically pretty comfortable with my body. It’s just how it was.
Was it a way of confronting aesthetic norms head on?
I hate materialism! It’s a bit of a contradiction because I love shopping, fashion and clothes, but put materialism together with conformism and it’s toxic. Fashion is creative, allows girls to express their deepest selves, while the diktat of being skinny is a prison.