Beth Ditto has a good idea what she’d be happy doing today if she hadn’t reinvented herself as a rock star two decades ago.
“I always thought I’d be a hairdresser,” the alternative icon says, on the line from her adopted home of Portland, Oregon. “I still think about being one. Making music at this level, I feel so lucky—it’s like, ‘This is what I get to do and it is so cool.’ But I also have security issues where I worry that this could be gone tomorrow. So I always have an idea for a second career in my back pocket. There’s this feeling of ‘I need to figure something else to do if this disappears.’ So, yeah, definitely a hairdresser. I’d also probably volunteer more—I’d really be into working with kids.”
At the moment, however, Ditto has zero reasons to be thinking about a career change. At the age of 37 she’s a multiple threat who moves easily between different worlds.
Music fans know her best as the former frontwoman of Gossip, which rose out of Olympia, Washington’s fertile DIY scene to conquer the mainstream with hits like “Heavy Cross”. If you want a primer in the band’s considerable powers, Google “Standing in the Way of Control (live)” and be prepared to be wowed as the trio slays T in the Park.
Gossip made Ditto an underground star at home and a genuine phenomenon in Europe. By the early 2000s she was gracing the cover of NME and hanging out with Kate Moss. Embraced by the fashion world, she’s walked the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier, collaborated with Donatella Versace, and created a line for MAC Cosmetics. Ditto also has her own clothing brand, which makes the news in publications like Vogue.
Her status as a proudly plus-size and openly queer celebrity made her an inspiration for those who’ve ever felt marginalized, as Ditto was while growing up in small-town Arkansas.
That renegade spirit powers Fake Sugar, her debut solo album and first release since she made the decision to walk away from Gossip in 2015. The 12-song outing has the singer burning through territory miles removed from her early riot-grrrl days in Olympia.
Working with producer and cowriter Jennifer Decilveo, Ditto launches things with the uplifting dance-floor dazzler “Fire”, which brings everything from electro-jacked soul to bass-bombed dub to the party.
Ditto straps on a mirror-ball dress and heads to Studio 54 for the disco burners “Savoir Faire” and “Oh My God” and stages an unlikely marriage between Afrobeat and soft-twang country on “Fake Sugar”. Those wondering if she’s completely forgotten her Kill Rock Stars beginnings can head right to the stripped-down rocker “Go Baby Go”.
Ditto describes her relationship with Decilveo as mutually beneficial.
“I learned how to be a little more, I don’t know, focused,” Ditto says, “and she maybe learned to be a little more free. We were very honest with each other—brutally honest with each other in a way where we weren’t afraid to hurt each other’s feelings. And if we did, we were really communicative about it, which I don’t think you get with a dude.
“We also tried to keep it as female-centred as possible. And queer as well. That was the other thing—and we really focused on that because that’s rare. It’s a record produced and written by two queer females in an approach that was cool and different and hands-off and really chill.”
In a sneakily subversive way, Fake Sugar also takes some of the biggest chances of Ditto’s career. The greatest thing about the soaring MOR ballad “Love in Real Life” is that it sounds nothing like the Beth Ditto we’ve gotten to know over the past couple of decades. If punk means playing by no one’s rules but your own, the singer is punk through and through.
“What was so cool about the record was that I was able to take it in any direction that I wanted it to go,” Ditto says. “And that’s what I love about making music. You should be able to do whatever you want—to not be afraid to make a song that sounds like Erasure. And then to make something that sounds like Lucinda Williams. And you shouldn’t be afraid to put them on the same record because one of them won’t fit in. Like, really, who gives a shit?”
Making Fake Sugar even more gratifying for Ditto is how things ended with the band that made her famous. Things slowly fell apart after guitarist Nathan Howdeshell decided to move back to Arkansas, a double whammy coming when he became a born-again Christian. While Ditto says Howdeshell remains one of her oldest friends, she acknowledges their relationship is complicated.
The two left Arkansas together when Ditto was a teenager, escaping a place where they didn’t fit in. Having long been accepted for who she is today—a strong and proud champion of, among other things, LGBT rights—she says it’s been hard to process what’s happened with the man she shared so much of her artistic life with.
“It was traumatic in a way,” Ditto reveals, “and it was very painful. Also there was the fact that I could never do that. I can’t drive back there and just forget. But this straight white boy can go back there and blend in and it’s going to be okay. I don’t have that privilege, and I think there was a lot of anger about that too.
“There was also the fact that he moved back there a long time ago, and that made things really hard just to get together to practise. It was all difficult—having to take two airplanes and rent a car just to get together.”
So she was writing for a solo record long before Fake Sugar, which eventually saw her scrap her older songs to work with Decilveo.
“At the end of Gossip it felt like we were in a rut and no one cared,” she says simply. “It felt done and finished, like we were beating a dead horse.”
Fake Sugar, on the other hand, feels like she’s still got plenty to say. She’s thrilled that there’s someone to listen, proving that she’s still changing lives after changing direction as an artist. Hairdressing is going to have to wait.
“We just played Arkansas and I found myself looking at all these beautiful kids,” Ditto says. “I felt like ‘Thanks for sticking it out and changing Little Rock for the better, because I knew that I couldn’t do it.’ ”
Beth Ditto plays the Imperial on Wednesday (March 28).