"It made me think of glitter," says Beth Ditto in her candy-coated Southern drawl. "I like glitter."
The 36-year-old singer is referring to the title of her new solo debut, Fake Sugar, which trades the stripped-down snarl of her former band Gossip for a more grown-up sound.
Ditto first gained recognition for her powerhouse vocals, punk ethos and winged eyeliner. But she soon emerged as an advocate for LGBTQ rights, body positivity and feminism, even going on to launch her own plus-size clothing line. In 2016, after almost two decades, Gossip called it quits. The band's dissolution became an opportunity for Ditto to re-establish herself as a solo artist: On Fake Sugar, she leaves the fiery dance-floor beats behind in favor of romantic power ballads that flaunt her Southern roots. "All of my gay boyfriends were like, 'You've gotta make a dance record,'" Ditto says. Instead, Ditto found herself listening to Paul Simon's Graceland on repeat, reflecting on her time as a newlywed and dealing with grief. "I got married, Gossip had broken up and my dad died in late 2011," she says. "It was just really insane life changes. I didn't digest them very well. I didn't really take them in and process."
Ahead of Fake Sugar's release, Beth Ditto filled Rolling Stone in on Gossip's breakup, overhauling her sound and the hardships of marriage.
Why did it take you so long to release a solo record?
Gossip ended last summer. I think it took so long because once I realized that was what I wanted to do, I had time to actually nail it down and focus on it. It was like, "Now the world is my oyster. I'm not trying to write for three people." It was time to focus on what I wanted to do. That was kind of difficult because all of my gay boyfriends were like, "You've gotta make a dance record." One thing I wanted to do in the last Gossip record was a guitar-centric record. What took so long was finding people to work with – you've gotta find the people who make you feel comfortable.
Your self-titled 2011 EP was more electronic-driven, but looking at the cover art of Fake Sugar, you have a Dolly Parton look.
I really wanted it to look like a Bobbie Gentry cover. If I could have made any kind of record it would have been Graceland meets Bobbie Gentry. That's what I was listening to, but If you set out to do something like that, it's never going to turn out the way you want it to. No matter how hard you work or how intentional it is.
How did you come up with the title Fake Sugar?
I just liked the way Fake Sugar sounded. When we wrote the song, that was the temporary title. I wanted to call it "The Rip-Off" because nothing is original. But it ended up that I liked Fake Sugar, and I could hear my mom saying it in her Southern accent. I liked the idea of it being bittersweet. I like the words "fake" and "sweet." I just liked the two words together. Sometimes it's just that simple. It made me think of glitter. I really like glitter. There's something glamorous and also very Southern [about it]. ... "Fake" is an excellent punk word that doesn't get enough attention. Growing up, if I was leaving my grandma, she would say, "Gimme sugar" instead of "Give me a kiss." I think that's cute too.
You've said that you feel like the U.S. is a more tolerant place. Do you still feel like that?
No, I don't. This is exactly what I was talking about. We were fearing the whitelash. With every kind of civil-rights struggle or socially progressive movement, you make these huge strides, but you're going to be fighting [for those rights] forever. Look at how many black children have died because of police officers – that's insane. I don't even know how you can deny that's real. That happened under Obama's administration as well. I'm not blaming his administration, but having a black president didn't make the world a more tolerant place; it just made people stew in their anger. Now we're seeing the fruit of that – we're seeing the anger boil over. It's really out of control. There are some really crazy 1984 things going on. I love a good conspiracy theory, but watching them come to life is fucking surreal. I feel like I've been stungunned.
The last few years have been intense for you personally. Can you take us back through this period?
I got married; Gossip had broken up; my dad died in late 2011. It was just really insane life changes. I didn't digest them very well. I didn't really take them in and process. I didn't get to enjoy being a newlywed because we had to immediately go back to work right after the honeymoon. It's hard to get to know each other over and over again. I don't think people really understand when you're traveling all the time how important and difficult it is to stay connected when you're in different time zones. In the record, there are really emotional things. When you talk to journalists, you'll realize in the middle of a song how people will point out what the song is about to them and you'll be like, "You hit the nail on the head." It's really fun therapy.
"There are some really crazy 1984 things going on."
How did you land on "Fire" as the first single?
I should never pick singles. With Gossip's Standing in the Way of Control, we weren't talking radio, but we were like, "This is going to be the 12-inch." When we recorded "Heavy Cross," I begged them to keep it off the record. For this record, it was what other people picked. I don't really have pop music taste – I enjoy it, but I would be a horrible A&R person.
What were you listening to when you made Fake Sugar?
I lived for Graceland. All I listened to was "You Can Call Me Al" on repeat. I wanted to listen to Graceland on the way to Graceland, so my sister drove us from Arkansas to Memphis. But when we got there, it was closed.
What's your relationship with your Gossip bandmate Nathan [Howdeshell, a.k.a. Brace Paine]? Do you ever see the band coming back?
I don't think it could come back unless some things were settled and cleared. There's no drama between us. We get along the way we always got along. We still send each other jokes. We would go months without seeing each other, but we loved each other like family. When we weren't on tour we never hung out. Every once in a while we would, but for the most part we had very different friends and interests. It's kind of the same as it always was. I think it was too hard to write a record when he was living in Arkansas, and I was living in Portland. I think his life became more like living that kind of life back in Arkansas, and I don't relate to that. It's totally fine – it's good.
You both escaped your religious roots, and he went back to them. Did that impact your relationship?
Of course it did, but it's his own thing. I don't judge him for that at all. I love him so much, and I know he loves me. He's definitely not some homophobic prick. It impacts it in a way that kind of scares me away. ... It's literally too close to home. I love my family, it's a given, but Arkansas is not a place that I can thrive. I just had to get away from it.
With Fake Sugar, do you feel like you're exposing yourself more than you did in your memoir Coal to Diamonds?
Oh, God, no! Sometimes people will say, "I read that book," and I'll say, "I forgot I put that in there." I always said I was going to write it and then put it down. Everything was laid out in my book. [This record] is nowhere close.