Talk of the Town

April 6, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

At a time when the accoutrements of ersatz rebellion and fake nonconformity are sold at shopping-mall chains, Beth Ditto is an inspiration to anyone who believes that punk is still rock's best forum for becoming a star through sheer force of personality.

By no means is that intended to slight the musical accomplishments of Portland buzz band the Gossip: The trio creates a rousing update of vintage New Wave dance-rock drawing on the minimal ingredients of drummer Hannah Blilie's jagged rhythms, the spare but melodic guitar lines of Nathan Howdeshell (a.k.a. Brace Paine) and Ditto's furious yet soulful singing. But the 23-year-old frontwoman is just as entrancing for the fact that she refuses to fit anyone's stereotypes.

An outspoken advocate of gay rights, Ditto is frank about her sexuality, just as she's prone to stripping down to her underwear onstage, the better to throw her 225 pounds into the band's music. She doesn't mince words -- she's queer and she's fat -- and if you have a problem with that, you'd better get out of her way.

"People have been asking me the same questions for eight years: 'You talk about being out a lot. Are you worried you're going to get pigeonholed?'" Ditto says. "I'm like, 'So far, so good! If this pigeonhole has gotten me this far, then I think this is the very best pigeonhole to be stuck in!' Yes, people ask me about being gay. But I feel that talking about that is a stepping stone in the process of radical change in the mainstream, until we get to the point where it really doesn't matter anymore.

"As for the issue of size acceptance and being fat, I don't get pigeonholed with that, because you know what? That pigeonhole doesn't even exist! I understand people who object when writers mention it, like 'Why should it matter?' But the world of pop culture is still not ready to accept these things; they're still an issue. So go ahead and pigeonhole me. When I'm onstage, it's like, 'You will respect me!' And if the Gossip falls to the ground for whatever reason, I'm going to be a hairdresser, and I'm just fine with that."

Far from winding down, the Gossip is reaching its biggest audience since Ditto formed the group in 1999 with Howdeshell/Paine during high school in their native Arkansas. "He did not like me at all when we first met, when I was 14 and he was 16," Ditto recalls. "He'll argue with me about this until he dies, but really he was just an elitist little jerk; basically, I wasn't cool enough for him! He knew everything about punk, and I knew everything about Mama Cass. And it's still that way for both of us!"

The combination has worked. To date, the Gossip has recorded three critically hailed, cult-favorite albums for Kill Rock Stars: "That's Not What I Heard" (2001), "Movement" (2003) and "Standing in the Way of Control." Originally released in 2005, the latter became a breakthrough success late last year, when the title track -- a melodic diatribe about those who'd deny gay people the right to marry -- became a hit in the U.K. Ditto soon found herself on the cover of the New Musical Express, competing with Kate Moss for the title of "Sexiest Female Musician" (never mind that the anorexic Moss is a model, not a musician).

The increased attention has led the Gossip to sign to a major label, Music with a Twist, a new subsidiary of Columbia Records devoted to gay, lesbian and transgender artists. "It's the first time that a major has ever done anything like this," Ditto says.

The group plans to start recording its fourth album this month, though Ditto isn't in a rush. "For us, it's all about the live show. We've always tried to make up for what we lack in instruments with the energy of the live performance. It's punk in the essence of you have to be there. I'm always honest, and I don't fake anything: If I don't feel good, or if I feel like the audience is boring, I have no problem telling them I have a cold or saying, 'You're boring me.' And people respond to that. I think they want to feel like someone is talking to them, and I enjoy connecting with them, even if I'm exhausted.

"I just think about how lucky I am that I got to make it out of Arkansas, that I get to do what my mother wanted to do, and that I get to live this crazy life. And then I feel like I can play a show every night."

 

REASONS FOR LIVING

In a conversation of any length with Gossip singer Beth Ditto, she's likely to mention two of her biggest inspirations as a performer: Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain and Ellen Naomi Cohen, better known as Cass Elliot. The singer yearned to be, in her own words, "the most famous fat girl who ever lived," and she became a star by adding her gorgeous harmony vocals to the late-'60s hits of the Mamas and the Papas, though Ditto and I both maintain that the under-appreciated solo albums Elliot made between leaving the group and her untimely death from heart failure in 1974 are really where it's at.

"Those are just the greatest recordings of all time!" Ditto says. "'California Earthquake is one of the best songs I've ever heard in my life -- just one of the best-written songs of all time. I'm so into Mama Cass it's ridiculous. She's someone I grew up idolizing."

Originally published in 2005 but coming out in a new paperback edition from Chicago Review Press this month, Eddi Fiegel's biography, Dream A Little Dream of Me: The Life of Cass Elliot, stands as the best account of the artist's life, rising far above the usual Summer of Love hagiographies. Meanwhile, Ditto's enthusiasm for Mama Cass' musical legacy is more than justified by the brilliant 18-track CD compilation, "Dream A Little Dream: The Cass Elliot Collection" (MCA).

THE GOSSIP

 9 p.m. Wednesday
 Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace
 Tickets, $12
 (773) 478-4408

 

 

 

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