After rocking out with the band Gossip for much of the 2000s, vocalist Beth Ditto got married (to Kristin Ogata), released a critically acclaimed solo album — last year's Fake Sugar — and landed a role in the new Gus Van Sant movie (this year's Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot). Now she's about to start an arena tour, where she opens for gay superstar Sam Smith, kicking off tonight in St. Paul, Minn. But even with all that mainstream success, Ditto remains as brazen and outspoken as ever. Talking with The Advocate by phone, the queer icon (who's actually queer!) was energized and present — especially when talking about privilege, politics, and Donald Trump. The Arkansas native had lots to say about what white people — including LGBTQ white people — have to do with all their advantages and whether our president is deranged.
The Advocate: Hi, Beth. Congratulations on the tour with Sam. Have you known each other for a while?
Ditto: You know I don’t think we met before [the tour], and it’s funny because we know a lot of people — we have a lot of friends in common, from London mostly. And he’s such a sweetie.
This is a tour with massive arenas, tens of thousands of people.
With Gossip, I used to play arenas in France and Germany. We used to open for Scissor Sisters and play [large venues] in England — and this is like back, back, back in the day — so crowds don’t really bother me that much. Also, playing arenas is definitely more fun because they’re well-conditioned and there’s always really good catering. You can get spoiled by them, you know? So I’m ready for anything. Honey, I’ve done it all.
Your solo album is certainly more rock-inspired than your 2011 electro/house-y EP. Why the change?
With the EP, I wanted something that wasn’t rock n’roll, and wasn’t punk rock per se, even though our music is hella punk rock; I wanted to do something that wasn’t guitar-driven on the EP. But with this record I wanted to do the opposite, to go back to guitars, because I just missed music with guitars. Everything was getting so electronic and big and dancey, and I love that music too, because I love everything. But I wanted to make something slow and personal, and a little more twinkly, you know? I was obsessed with Bobbie Gentry and Paul Simon and Nina Simone, and all of these beautiful, organic sounds.
Springsteen too? "We Could Run" on Fake Sugar gives off Springsteen vibes.
I call it my U2 song. What’s funny is all my friends love Bruce Springsteen, but I don’t know anything but the hits. It’s not like I don’t like him, it’s just not really my jam, and I think I was born in a different time in the '80s, even though he was this radical person, it was like, Do you like Bruce Springsteen or Cyndi Lauper? I liked Cyndi Lauper. ["We Could Run"] though, is about Nathan [“Brace Paine” Howdeshell], my [Gossip] bandmate.
Congratulations on your role in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. You must get lots of offers for films, why did you choose this one?
[Laughs] No, I don't, but it's sweet of you to say that. I did a Tom Ford movie [Nocturnal Animals], but the role didn’t make it into the movie. You can hear my laugh at the beginning of it; I think that put me on the radar of his casting director. Now any time they need a big person who is loud or brash they call me; that’s what they were looking for. I didn’t know Gus Van Sant, but I knew [costar] Carrie Brownstein. I knew people from Portland who know him, so I think that had something to do with it, because Portland is my home; I think June will be my 16th year in Portland. So like, I think that helped me, being from there, living there, because it’s kind of small. It’s definitely not a big group and there’s definitely not a big queer scene or a big art scene. I mean there are great scenes, but it’s not huge, it’s not New York City, not Los Angeles. I was a big fish in a little pond.
Did you enjoy the experience?
I did, but you know, I feel like I got lucky because I got to be with Gus. He’ll let you do what you need to do. I don’t know what it would be like with someone else. And I’ve wondered a lot. Being in a band, you’re your own boss, and creatively, everything you do is up to you. I don’t know if I would be good at being bossed around. Directed is another nice word for being bossed around.
Did you fangirl over working with Rooney Mara in the Van Sant film, since she starred in Carol?
It was a huge lesbian film from a few years back directed by Todd Haynes, where Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett play lovers in the 1950s.
It’s really funny because people ask me a lot about different movies and actors, and I have no idea. Because I like music more. I’m a music person. I don’t have the attention span to watch movies. But I’m such a nerd — I have to be learning something from it because it’s really hard for me unless I’m reading it. But I’d rather read fiction than watch the truth.
How much time do you have to keep up with politics?
Are you kidding? Oh, it eats me alive, every day. I have to stop thinking about it. I can’t sleep at night. That’s the first thing I do in the morning is read the news. I don’t know why. It’s the last thing I do before I go to bed — I always want to read news that something changed for the better. I’m definitely searching for good news.
Is that a good solution for people stressed out over the state of the world?
I think what we have to do — we need all of these white people with money to step up to the plate and do the same dirty work that these gross Republicans are doing. And to be more of an ally. We need straight people to be more allies. We need straight white people to get their shit together and realize that not everyone is taking life for granted. That’s something that’s hard. If you’re a person that’s privileged — like, I’m a white person and have a lot of privilege that comes from that. I really think that that is a hard code to crack. A lot of white people — even if they’re good white people — are not very good at realizing that they’re living every day easier than others. Even if we are queer, being white is a privilege.
When I look at my nieces and nephews and I look at my friends’ kids, they’re gonna be what saves us. One of my nephews is 18, he graduates high school next year, and by the time it’s time to vote for another president, it’s gonna be him and his friends. He’s watching a lot of his friends struggle with immigration right now. We have this incredible generation just right below us and they’re gonna push right up and it’s gonna be so awesome. It’s like in the '80s in the Reagan era; it’s gonna be just like when my generation pushed up in the '90s. That gives me a lot of hope. Kids make me a feel a lot better. Also, people like Amy Sedaris; comedy makes me feel better.
I love the point you made about privilege. Pointing out that white people or straight people have privilege is not a slight against individuals. It's a statement about our society.
Are you paying attention to Rachel Cargle on Instagram? It’s really incredible black women, women of color, calling out white privilege. Like when Nia Wilson died, this woman posted something that was like, Hey, white feminists, I’m holding my breath and waiting until I see more women talk about this. A lot of white people were talking to her, and it was an interesting dialogue. But then there was one white feminist who just lost her shit. And it’s really disheartening. And it’s just exactly what you’d say — [calling out privilege] is not attacking you. We’re trying to unravel all the bullshit. You being brainwashed into thinking you’re the best; it's gotten so far into your DNA that you don’t even realize you have this thing on your shoulders. That’s part of it being undone. You don’t know that people being kinder to you in public is privilege. There are people who walk in the door, and not just from being white; from being straight, from being rich, or being well-spoken or more educated — whatever it is, all these different levels at the same time, they can all add up to different things together too.
But it does a couple things. When you’re evaluating yourself, it’s something you can be down on yourself about. Or like, it’s a divisive tool, and it’s just part of the problem. It creates divides instead of being like, Okay I hear you, I’m going to see what I can do to figure this fucking thing out. You don’t have to be like, You’re black, I’m a bad person — you can be like, Fuck, I didn’t think about this. That’s something you have to do, is think about it.
How do you think it is for queer kids growing up now? They have so much access to information now. Did you have the internet when you were a teenager?
Are you kidding me? When I was 16 we could email regularly in chat rooms, but there weren’t immediate images in front of your eyes. If you want to download an image, it takes eight hours to get a picture. You’d get into a chat room and they get kicked out because you weren’t gay enough. The internet lesbian scene was so ready to kick you out if they did not want you, or if you didn’t get terminology or something. I was like, I’m 16, I don’t know what that is? It’s like, what is scissoring, I don’t know?
As a Southern girl, are you optimistic that region can evolve?
Well, I thought that I was gonna move to the North and and be surrounded by — you know, there wouldn’t be anything like that again, and I learned that that’s not true; it comes with it's own bigotry. I almost feel like a lot of it has to do with ignorance and this passed-on tradition of bullshit. In the North, I’ve learned that it’s educated, institutionalized, systematic bigotry, which to me is more frightening, maybe because it's less familiar.
My whole family’s still in the South. They’re all there. I feel like I was always spoiled because — and I realize this now especially because I’m older — my family is so liberal. The things you would hear all the time, my family would never say that. I feel like I grew up on this little island — even when it was dysfunctional as hell, there’s a lot of abuse and trauma history in my family — but when it came to like, things like money and income and race, it wasn't the upper echelon, but it was definitely a really good starting-out place. Either my family is just a lot more with it and ask a lot more questions. I feel like a lot more people are getting more with it and waking up a little bit more. It’s hard to gauge because there’s been a lot of get-out-of-jail-free cards, and permission slips written to bigots. I think we’re living in a place where they just feel really empowered. They’re not necessarily the majority, so it’s hard to gauge. But in terms of my family, I couldn’t ask for a better situation. And you know, I know people who aren’t from the South who are way worse. They’ve just been given a megaphone to like, spew their bullshit.
I was talking to a journalist earlier and I was like, "Oh, [Trump's bigotry is] something different, it’s something new." But you know what? It’s not, it’s just more of the same shit amplified. Nothing’s hidden now. Before it was under the guise of something else. But now it’s just like we’re doing it as part of a propaganda machine. And right now we have a president that’s just genuinely a sociopath. When you have someone with no moral qualms and reality doesn’t apply to them, that's truly frightening.