For the past several years, Beth Ditto was known as the dynamic frontwoman of the dance-punk band Gossip. She established herself as a singer with a helluva voice who embraced being queer, feminist and fat.
"For me, taking 'fat' was like taking the word to describe myself," Ditto tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro. "I am big. I take up a lot of space, I'm very loud. If someone can say that they are thin, I feel like I can say that I'm fat. ... There's other words that people like to use, like curvy or thick — and I'm just like, I'm not a road. I'm not a steak. I'm just — I'm big. I'm big and I'm fat, and that's just what it is, and that's OK!"
Last year, Ditto confirmed that Gossip had disbanded and that she'd be focusing more on her fashion line and her own music. Now, she's released her first solo album, Fake Sugar. On it, the Arkansas-born singer struts back to her Southern roots, mining them for songs about love, identity — and especially family, a subject she's often sung about.
"When I look back at all the Gossip records, I feel like all of them were somewhat about family," she says. "It's just one of those things that you deal with your whole life, isn't it, growing up? And then you start to realize that there's so many different kinds of family ... The way that family changes throughout your life, the way your relationship to family [changes] and the different kinds of family you have ... it just hits you like a brick."
Ditto left her Arkansas hometown and moved to Washington state in 1999; she says she wanted to escape the racism and homophobia that she says was "in the air all the time." But she says Fake Sugar, which draws unapologetically from the sounds of the South, reflects the more positive light in which she's begun to view her upbringing since her father died in 2011.
"After he and my mom split, he used to take us to honky-tonks all the time," she says. "My dad would do sound and my cousin would play the piano and my brother'd be playing the drums. And there'd be, like, old men drinking Old Milwaukee and buying you Black Jack gum and Cherry Cokes and I would dance on their feet.
"It was just a really sweet, very Southern memory that I think is so specific to where I grew up," she continues. "I feel like it was time to be like, 'You know what, that's what made me who I am and those are the really beautiful parts.' "
Web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Singer Beth Ditto is on fire.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE")
BETH DITTO: (Singing) Fire.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ditto's out with her first solo album, strutting back to her Southern roots, mining them for songs about love, family, identity, the hard times.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE")
DITTO: (Singing) I'm a believer my world's as good as gold. But walking a fine line, might not need to go.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here, the hard times include breaking up with her former indie dance punk band Gossip, where she was the dynamic front woman with a hell of a voice who embraced being queer, fat and feminist. Beth Ditto's new album is "Fake Sugar." And she joins me now from NPR West. Welcome.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. Hello.
DITTO: Thanks for all your kind words. Did you write those?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I had a little help.
DITTO: Is that how you really feel about me?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's how we really feel about you. So this is about family, which can be defined in many ways. Was that intentional or something that just happened as you wrote the songs?
DITTO: You know, it's - like, I always think when I look back at all the Gossip records that I feel like all of them were somewhat about family 'cause it's just one of those things that you deal with your whole life - isn't it? - growing up. And then you start to realize that there are so many different kinds of family and the older you get. Like, I live really far from home. Do you live really far from home?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I do, actually. I grew up in Miami, so not that far but far enough.
DITTO: Yeah. But far enough, yeah. It's one of those things where, you know, distance makes the heart grow fonder. But also like if you have siblings and stuff and they still live back there, like, you just see how things could turn out differently or like - it's just the way that family changes throughout your life, like the different kinds of family you have. It's so - it's really crazy. It just hits you like a brick.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you leave the South - at the beginning, when you left?
DITTO: I left because I knew it was not the place for me. I couldn't deal with blatant racism. Not in my family. It wasn't the same. But it was just in the air all the time, you know, through things like being in school and like hearing your vice principal say about a black kid at school, I don't understand why he's, you know, acting this way. He could be a great example for his race.
Like, you would hear things like that and dealing with homophobia and being in the Bible Belt and, like, being reminded that God is watching you all the time. You know, you drive down the street and there's just billboards that literally say, where will you spend your eternity, heaven or hell? And there's like fire in the background. So it's just a little - I was like, I need to get out of here. There has to be more to life than this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's listen to one song, "Oo La La," where we get a little bit of your roots in Arkansas.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OO LA LA")
DITTO: (Singing) Not bitter, so sweet. Strawberry canned peach. I'm elated, not conceited. Flashback, I'm going to repeat it. Smooth talker. I'm a lover. Firecracker. I get it from my mother's mother.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Break it down for me. Who was your mother's mother? What was she like?
DITTO: She was this fiery redhead Scorpio who was about 4'11" and just, like, had an attitude and really was not a good mother to my mother at all, which is incredible about how my mom is now. If you met my mom, and she's just like - I think she was just like, I'm never going to be like that. You know, like, I'm going to do my very best to be kind to everybody. And she's just a ray of light, she really is.
But she always says, you know, she's very like - my mom is like jeans and T-shirt. Like, to her, wearing her fancy shoes is like her brand new pair of Nike's, you know. And, like, I'll even have to be like, Mom, where are the shoes I got you? And she's like, I'm not going anywhere. Like, she treats them like church shoes. She combs her hair and puts a headband in. And she always says about her three daughters, she always says, I don't know where I got these girls.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you're into fashion. I mean, you have your own fashion lines. And what is it about it that compels you?
DITTO: I just like clothes. Like, our business manager said to me, she was like, Beth, I think you're the only person I know that's going to go broke on Walmart clothes because I'm - like, I love everything, like those popcorn shirts at the Walgreens like when you're at the checkout. I love those, those ones that get really big but they start out really small. You'll see them now.
But what I love about it is that it's kind of like people's window into you, you know. It doesn't have to be pretentious but it can be. It just changes everything. I love it and that you can change the next day.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OO LA LA")
DITTO: (Singing) Oo (ph) la (ph) la.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that you like the use of the word fat.
DITTO: I do.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I used it when I introduced you.
DITTO: I appreciate that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we had checked because some people don't like that word. They think it's a negative word. Why do you like that word?
DITTO: For me, it was such a big point of empowerment, like, especially coming into punk rock feminism and the way that the word was being used. And basically all these things that you'd been taught, you had to completely undo them to see the world in a different way because it all had to do with capitalism and sexism and racism and how you look at your body, colonialism, all these things that you've been just, like, ingrained into your brain.
So for me, taking fat was like taking the word to describe myself as - it is what I am. I'm not a thin person. It's not like saying, oh, Beth, no. Don't say you're fat. You're not that big. It's like, I am big. I take up a lot of space. I'm very loud. If someone can say that they are thin, I feel like I can say that I'm fat and that that's just what it is and that's OK. And, you know, I feel like there's other words that people like to use like curvy or thick.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's a lot of euphemisms.
DITTO: Like, yeah, exactly. I'm like, I'm not a road. I'm not a steak. I'm just - I'm big. I'm big, and I'm fat. And that's just what it is. And that's OK.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk a little bit about family again. I understand your married your long-time best friend in 2013.
DITTO: I did, yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Before we talk about that, let's listen to a little bit of "Love In Real Life."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IN REAL LIFE")
DITTO: (Singing) There's no one I want more than anything. We're always coming up roses. And that's all right 'cause that's what happens when you love in real life.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Love In Real Life" sounds like there is ambivalence there.
DITTO: I don't know if ambivalent is the right word. I think it's more like the reality. You know, my mother was married a few times. And so my dad was married to my mom. And I had a step mom. And then had - he had a few girlfriends. But no one is like, listen, there's going to be good years and bad years. That's what signing on for eternity is.
And it's not like a miserable experience, but I don't think people really point out the work that is a relationship when you're in the middle of the blissful part of it. So yeah, that's really what it's - to me what that song is about. It's like you take the good and the bad, but that doesn't mean you're any less in love.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
DITTO: (Singing) Hey.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So with this album, it sounds like you're going back to your sort of Southern musical roots. What - why take that journey?
DITTO: You know, like, my dad died in 2011. And I feel like there's something about that that will make you look back on your childhood more fondly. After he and my mom split, he used to take us to honky-tonks all the time. And my brother was a drummer. I don't even know how I got in there. And I know that my brother was 14. I know. So that made me - what? - 6. Yeah.
And so I used to just go to honky-tonks. And my dad would do sound. And my cousin would play the piano. And my brother would be playing the drums. And there'd be like old men drinking Old Milwaukee and buying you Black Jack gum and Cherry Cokes. And I would dance on their feet and like - it was just a really sweet, very southern memory. I think it's so specific to where I grew up that I feel like it was time to, like, to be like, you know what? That's what made me who I am. And those are the really beautiful parts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAKE SUGAR")
DITTO: (Singing) I get so sick and tired feeling sick and tired.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Beth Ditto. Her new album, "Fake Sugar," is out now. Thank you so much.
DITTO: Thanks, Lulu.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAKE SUGAR")
DITTO: (Singing) On the wrong side of the road. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.