For Gossip, Existence Itself Is an Act of Protest: ‘Everything About This Is Radical’

There was never supposed to be a “proper” Gossip comeback. After releasing its album A Joyful Noise nearly 12 years ago, the band — made up of lead singer Beth Ditto, guitarist Nathan Howdeshell and drummer Hannah Blilie — decided to call it quits and return to their respective lives, both in and out of the spotlight.

Fate, Ditto has since learned, works in funny ways. A brief 10th anniversary reunion tour for their Rick Rubin-produced album Music for Men in 2019 got the group back in the rhythm of things. But it wasn’t until the early days of the pandemic that Ditto found herself recording a solo album with Rubin in Hawaii, missing her bandmates.

“We have such a language that we have developed together,” she explains to Billboard via Zoom. “When you’ve done it for 20+ years, you just know what the other person is saying. It happens in band practice a lot, with me and Hannah and Nathan.”

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Calling up Howdeshell and Blilie to come work with her on a new album, Ditto is happy to say Gossip is officially back in 2024. Real Power, the band’s sixth studio album (out Friday, March 22 via Columbia Records), is both a return to form and a breath of fresh air for the pioneering rock group. Continuing their time-honored tradition of blending Northwestern punk aesthetics with dashes of dance, soul and funk, the fabled trio spend much of the 40 minutes of their newest album addressing a world that has changed — both for better and worse — in the intervening decade since their disbanding.

Yet when Ditto first asked Howdeshell to come write and play on what would have been her second solo LP, she hadn’t intended to stage a headline-making reunion. As the childhood friends worked together on her project, Ditto says she noticed reticence from Howdeshell.

“He was holding back, because he didn’t want to step on my toes, you know? He was like, ‘This is your record, so I don’t want to have too much say over it,’” she explains. “It didn’t feel right to have Nathan just play on the record, but not give him the credit that he deserved for it. I asked Rick directly, ‘Should this be a Beth record or a Gossip record?’ And he said, ‘Obviously you should do what you want, but this should absolutely be a Gossip record.’”

Thus began the “piecemeal” process of putting together a comeback album from the comfort of Rubin’s home in Kauai. With a global pandemic raging, the production team had little choice but to build makeshift vocal booths and find creative ways of soundproofing studio space so an island breeze wouldn’t interrupt a take. “I would have to wear my swimsuit in order to make it through a take, because it got so hot in there,” Ditto offers with a laugh. “That approach made it feel way cooler than it could’ve been at a studio where everything was at your fingertips. You had to work for it, almost.”

The ad hoc studio was so slapped together, that at multiple points throughout the recording process, power for the entire building would blow out. It happened so frequently, in fact, that the trio and their production crew invested in multiple generators to try and keep some semblance of electricity running.

“One day, Rick was downstairs and I was upstairs with our engineer Dylan, and he said, ‘Is that the real power on, or is that the generator?’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Real power … that’s a good line for a chorus.’”

When consider what “real power” meant, Ditto immediately turned her attention to Portland, the place she’s called home for the last two decades. The city had been flooded with massive protests following the death of George Floyd in May 2020; unlike many other cities, though, Portland’s protests continued strong through the summer and into the fall, becoming a centerpiece of then-president Donald Trump’s calls for “law and order” in Democratic cities.

Where others saw chaos and disorder, Ditto saw her neighbors putting up instead of shutting up. “I’ve always been really proud of living in a city where, for better or worse, people are protesting against injustice, and they’re mad enough that they burned a couple of dumpsters,” she says. “That’s the f–king world I want to live in — that’s why I don’t live in the outskirts of Little Rock.”

“Real Power” serves as the central, invigorating anthem on its titular album, driving a dance-punk melody through evocative lyrics, all while conjuring up scenes of protest against an uncaring system. “People in the streets are getting rowdy/ Come here to make peace but dressed to kill,” Ditto growls on the song’s verse. “Feeling overcrowded but I like it/ Do you feel what I feel?”

There’s an easily-spotted similarity between “Real Power” and Gossip’s breakout 2006 single, “Standing in the Way of Control“; both tracks wield uptempo beats and bass-heavy melodies to call out discrimination against disadvantaged communities. Yet Ditto says, to her, the two songs could not be more different. “I have trouble connecting with [“Real Power”] live, because it’s one of the first songs I ever wrote with a story and a picture I was trying to paint,” she explains. “Whereas ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ came right off the top of my head — it was purely emotional.”

Outside of “Real Power,” though, the new album doesn’t often revel in the insurgent politics that defined so much of Gossip’s early days. As descendants of the queercore genre and heralds of the riot grrrl movement, Gossip used their success in the mid-2000s to platform their pro-queer, feminist and body-positive beliefs, often to the dismay of conservative onlookers. With federal rollbacks of protections for reproductive rights, a renewed slate of anti-LGBTQ laws sweeping the nation and a high-stakes election on the horizon, fans would be forgiven for thinking a new Gossip record would more thoroughly address our current cultural strife.

When asked about this, Ditto offers two explanations for the lack of protest songs on Real Power. The first (and simplest) is that the album is already a few years old. “The album was done, finished, signed, sealed and delivered long before Roe v. Wade had been overturned by the Supreme Court (in June 2022),” she says. “Since then … it’s gotten to the point where I can’t even name all of the insane, regressive s–t that’s happened.”

But her second point, and the one she focuses on thoroughly, is that rebellion and nonconformity are already built into the DNA of Gossip by default. Their presence as a band of mostly queer, all feminist rock stars is itself a middle finger to systems of oppression everywhere. As she sings on the album’s defiant opening line, “Every beat of my heart is a merciful act of God.”

Even with the release of Music for Men 15 years ago, the singer says she received constant critiques about the project lacking the “anger” of the band’s earlier output. “The album’s literally called Music for Men with a d-ke on the cover and made by feminist queers,” she chuckles to herself. “I guess that’s too subtle for people.”

“Everything that we do — even if it is just a dance song or a fun, seemingly harmless song — is done in the name of queer emotion and joy and empowerment,” she continues. “When you listen to something as a queer person, for a queer person, by a queer person, about a queer person, then suddenly everything about this is radical.”

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That sentiment shines throughout Real Power — even when Ditto is singing about her divorce from Kristin Ogata on heartbreaking ballads like “Turn the Card Slowly,” or just calling for a joyful expression of romance on funk jam “Give It Up for Love,” every sound is punctuated with a sense of unruly insubordination.

It’s a feeling Ditto is glad to see other queer artists embracing in 2024. Thanks in part to the work put in by bands like Gossip, Le Tigre, Tegan and Sara and other queer-fronted acts from the ’90s, the state of LGBTQ representation across the music industry has dramatically improved, even in the years since Gossip took their indefinite hiatus.

“It’s so cool to be 43 as someone who started out in this industry at 18, and to see all the ways in which things have changed,” she beams. “Because that’s really why we do it — it’s not about your ego, it’s not about whether or not you’ll make a lot of money or get famous. To me, the most important thing is just that the world is moving into place, and it reminds me that we are always going to exist, whether people f–king give us the right to or not.”

Of course, she points out, there is still much more work to be done to preserve the future of queerness in music. Along with honoring groundbreaking queer artists of the past — Sylvester, in particular, deserves recognition “for creating entire genres of music,” she says — Ditto hopes that representation spreads higher into the music business, beyond just the current class of queer-identifying artists. “We wouldn’t have to worry about [executives] meaning well if they would just step aside and let us tell our own stories and advance one another,” she says. “Put us in the positions that we deserve, because those are the positions that will allow us to make change.”

As for the future of Gossip as a band, Ditto is choosing to live in the moment rather than establishing unnecessary expectations. “It feels good to be a part of something and to know that it actually matters,” she declares. Come what may, she says, “We get to be our truest selves right now and make the art we want to make. That matters, more than anything.”

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