“It’s almost like I’m possessed by the devil, and I’m letting go of my possessions,” Kathleen Hanna says of the new LP by her band the Julie Ruin. “I can see my head spinning around, and I’m puking out all this shit that’s not my problem.”
During her quarter-century-plus career with Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, the singer-songwriter has opened up about her experiences with sexual abuse, sexism and violence. But on Hit Reset, out Friday, Hanna gets even more personal than she’s ever been. “It was a really scary family that I grew up in – it’s been really hard to say stuff about my family because everyone’s still alive,” explains Hanna. “I really wanted to wait until that wasn’t the case, but my life won’t wait.”
On a track called “Calverton,” Hanna pays homage to her mother for teaching her how to be a feminist in the face of serious emotional abuse. “Even as my dad was waking me up in the middle of the night when I was 14 and screaming that I’m a slut in my face, my mom always told me that I could do anything I wanted to do,” she says.
The feminist icon recently filled RS in on what it was like to revisit her harrowing past, her opinion on the Stanford rape case verdict and why a Trump presidency could be a sign of Armageddon.
What was your mindset going into Hit Reset?
I think it was really like, “Let’s be more collaborative than on the first record and see what happens.” A lot of the first record was written previously. It wasn’t that I wrote the songs, but I brought in most of the sample ideas. I’d sample myself singing and playing bass or use a drumbeat I liked – I’d bring it in or turn it into keyboards and make it into a verse. I’m pretty good at verses, but with choruses, I need help. We would build from there. Kathi [Wilcox], our bass player, wasn’t even in the group when most of the record was written, so she had to add all of her parts after she came in. She brought in bass lines and we’d just start writing.
We’re really into using everything we have available to us – in New York everyone has other jobs to do, so we’d try to utilize our time really wisely. We’d tape everything we did on my phone, log it all right after practice, put it in the Dropbox for everyone, put it in my Pro Tools and I’d sing along with it. Every day I’d come up with new ideas for vocals, let it sit, take the best couple of ideas and try them live. We’d see what people were reacting to. Everybody brought in ideas. We were constantly working. You get that collaboration, but you also get everyone to have their individual music ideas heard.
On this record, you were more honest than you’ve ever been. Is there anything you were afraid to sing about before that you conquered on Hit Reset?
Yeah. I definitely sang about domestic violence, family violence and bad dads, but I’ve never sang exactly about my dad. On Hit Reset, there’s a lyric that’s “drunk from a mug shaped like a breast,” and my dad really did drink his coffee out of a mug with a breast – out of the nipple. I saw that every morning, like, what a great message to give to your daughter. We really did have deer hooves hanging on the wall with guns. It’s not a good feeling to live with a violent alcoholic and have so many guns around. It was a really scary family that I grew up in – it’s been really hard to say stuff about my family because everyone’s still alive. I really wanted to wait until that wasn’t the case, but my life won’t wait. Part of the way I get over things is by singing about them. It’s almost like I’m possessed by the devil, and I’m letting go of my possessions. I can see my head spinning around and I’m puking out all this shit that’s not my problem. I’m turning this into a song so that I can watch it go into the world and have it not be mine anymore.
It’s not straight-up diary-writing – we crafted the songs. We didn’t know it would be like that until it was like that. After being sick and finally feeling better, it was like, what do I have to lose? Except for reliving the trauma of my childhood over and over because I’ve never really faced it. I’ve been more focused on helping fans, but enacting self-care on myself and dealing with my own issues, I think I avoided my own issues by helping [my fans] with theirs. As Jill Clayburgh said, “It’s my turn now.”
You mentioned growing up in a house filled with guns – obviously an urgent issue in light of the Orlando shooting and countless other incidents. What do you think kids need to be taught prevention-wise?
I think that the more education that’s out there, the better. I didn’t know what a normal household looked like. It wasn’t until I was 30 years old that I met a normal dad. He didn’t look at my butt when I was walking through the room, and he didn’t say creepy things to me. I didn’t know. Kids don’t know in those situations that there’s anything different because they’re born into it. I would live through other TV shows like Happy Days or Mister Rogers and pretend that [a character] was my dad, but I didn’t think that was reality. It’s not OK to talk about your six-year-old’s breasts that aren’t developed yet or that she’s trying to be “sexy.” That’s not cool. All of the comments that men make to little girls like, “She’s gonna be a real heartbreaker.” Why are you looking at a child like that and talking about her attractive potential? I never hear people say that about boys. I just think there needs to be education, as in, these things are not OK to say to anybody. It’s not OK to tell an eight-year-old that they’re fat, that they need to lose weight, that they’ll never be anything, shoot guns around them or tell them that you wish they’d die. You don’t do that to kids.
Had I known that everybody else in the world wasn’t going through that, I think I would have looked for help or talked to a teacher or said something. I look back [on my life] now and think about how I could have lived with this one relative who I liked. Maybe I could have gone somewhere else. Maybe that would have woken my mom up to what a serious situation it was. I don’t blame my mom at all for stuff that happened because she really was doing the best with what she had and the way she was brought up.
You sing about your mom on “Calverton,” right?
“Calverton” is that really depressing song that makes me cringe when I hear it and is about my mom. Even as my dad was waking me up in the middle of the night when I was 14 and screaming that I’m a slut in my face, my mom always told me that I could do anything I wanted to do. She made me proud of my gender, who I was and my talents. My dad would make fun of my singing, and my mom would tell me my singing was great. I really let go of any anger about my mom not saving me because we’ve had a lot of really great conversations like, “How did you grow up? Where did this come from?”
There are so many male predators – rapists and child molesters – in my family. It really is something that gets passed down from generation to generation, and I touch on that on Hit Reset. I have to look in the mirror every day and see my dad’s fucking eyebrows and be like, am I going to be an abuser? Am I going to abuse children? I know that answer to that because I’m constantly soul-searching and working on myself to be a better person. I’m so hyper-vigilant about being abusive to friends or kids, and I’m so terrified of that. Why do I have to look in the mirror and see my abuser and not look in the mirror and see me?
When did you write “Calverton?”
That was one of the songs we debated about because it’s so corny and overwrought. I love that song, but I think it’s really vulnerable. I sing a line like R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” except for it’s “Why do I think that I can fly?” It’s this constant question of who the fuck do you think you are putting stuff out in the world? That comes from sexism and from my dad laughing at me after the first time I was ever in a talent show, telling me I made a fool of myself. Like, who do I think I am putting work out into the world? And the answer is my mom. I feel like every accomplishment I’ve ever had is for my mom. Her being a constant in my life even when I was a complete nightmare is really important. No matter how bad things were, I always knew my mother loved me. We always had a really deep connection. Having that love is why I made it through that stuff. I think about if I didn’t have that love that I would have had a crappy job I hated or maybe had the baby I got pregnant with at 15. Luckily my mom was a secret feminist and she taught me that too.
I’m just realizing this for the first time that maybe that’s a big part of the reason it was also important for me to answer all of my mail by hand, be in touch with people who cared about Bikini Kill or Le Tigre and be so accessible. I knew how important it was to have just one person say, “You’re great and it’s not always going to be like this.” I wanted to be helpful to kids who were in situations similar or different than mine. I wanted to be someone who could show compassion, especially towards teenagers. It made me feel really good and successful as an artist.
As someone who has experienced sexual abuse firsthand, what was your reaction to the judge’s ruling on Brock Turner in the Stanford rape case?
I feel pissed. I read her letter and I totally related to it. It was really rough to read that letter. It reminded me of this time in college when I fell asleep on the couch and I woke up and my roommate was trying to rape me. I got him off of me, but I didn’t even ask him to leave the house. It was like, I was stupid and fell asleep on the couch. I didn’t have it in my head yet that I was worth it and that I wasn’t just a human punching bag or fuck bag. I was raped in high school while I was in the bathtub vomiting. When I think about it, it’s like, “Wow, how sexy.” Don’t wear pajamas or a hard hat: You might get raped. Don’t wear vomit in your hair: You might get raped. It brought me back to those situations.
Date rape wasn’t even a concept I had really heard of in high school; it was par for the course. So you drank too much, it was your fault. If you had been drinking or doing anything like that, I just felt like it was my fault. I felt empowered by [the victim’s] response. I could also relate to the suffering. I just felt extremely proud of her, and I felt proud of myself. Even though I didn’t try to prosecute any of my attackers, I got out of those situations alive. A lot of times I did it by quick thinking. It helped me reexamine my own situation, and my heart goes out to her. I really just want that judge to slip on a bar of soap or fall off of a ladder in his house. That’s terrible, but I’m pissed. Six months? And three months for good behavior? If that kid was African American and stole $40, he’d be in jail for 10 years. I say that knowing someone who’s African American and stole $40 and got a 10-year jail sentence. That basically means in my mind that women are worth way less than $40 because three or six months compared to 10 years, women are worth less than 40 cents.
What do you think Brock Turner’s future looks like?
I don’t care what his future looks like. I don’t want to think about it. What’s worse than his sentence is that [Turner] and his parents have no remorse for what the survivor has gone through. It’s all about Brock’s future. What about her fucking future? What about her future of having nightmares all the time, being wary of everyone and how overnight her trust has vanished? She now has to live in a nightmare of how anyone can attack her at anytime. It happens to people whether they drink or whether they don’t. It’s the rapist’s fault. He should be in jail for fucking 10 years. This is crazy. You rape someone unconscious and get busted by two men, you’d think that would be a slam dunk.
Did your documentary The Punk Singer function as a catalyst for you opening up on this record?
I think it really did because I was at the end of my rope. At the end of the filming, I was really sick and we would just film on well days, and those were few and far between. When I had a well day, I was [all about] radical honesty. I didn’t want my husband to be in it at first, but then when I saw the footage I wanted him to be in it. I didn’t want to lie. As a feminist, I didn’t want to be judged by my husband. It’s like, “Feminist killjoy, you’re never laughing” – well, I’m just gonna crack jokes whenever the fuck I want. I’m also not gonna yuck it up to make people feel comfortable. I’m not always gonna be in a good mood and show up at a club.
In the Nineties, I was always nice because people thought I was a bitch. Now I’m like, good, think I’m a bitch; maybe my rider will show up on time. Go ahead and think I’m difficult; I don’t need any new friends. I do think being honest about my illness was really hard because I wasn’t honest with myself about it. I was in denial. I think coming out about my illness definitely brought out me talking about the trauma of my childhood and also calling to task men in indie rock who think they’re being really anti-sexist by wearing a Sleater-Kinney T-shirt.
On that note, with Trump likely to be the Republican nominee in the upcoming election, do you think this kind of thing would happen all the time if he were elected?
It’s already happening and he’s not president, so maybe it’ll happen more. There are tons more women who are raped besides this one survivor, and it’s never reported on at all. I’m really glad that this at least made it into the news. I hope people come forward more and feel safer, but with [Trump’s] hatred towards women and calling them “pigs,” that’s not the kind of society I want to live in. It’s going to turn into the Japanese internment camps. He’s a total psycho. It’s really scary with everything happening in Orlando; it starts to feel like it’s fucking Armageddon.
It’s the stuff outside of the frame that’s really scary. People are being gay-bashed every day. While this mass shooting will, rightfully so, gain a lot of attention, it’s important to know that gay and trans people of color are being targeted every day. This is a hate crime on an astronomical level. If Trump is elected, it’s going to be even worse. I don’t want people to not vote at all because they hate Hillary Clinton. Vote even if you don’t love Hillary [Clinton] – we just can’t have Trump as president. If you think that Hillary [Clinton] is going to be worse than Trump, there’s a problem.