First published on 21 May 2012.
For a band that’s been together longer than the Beatles, it’s about time that Gossip started to reap the rewards of their inimitable coolness. Their last, Rick Rubin-produced album, 2009’s Music For Men may have been big in Germany, but it didn’t come anywhere close to the enormous success that Rubin had later with Adele on 21. So perhaps it’s no surprise that for their next step towards world domination, Beth Ditto and co decided to take a more obvious route.
They return in May with fifth album A Joyful Noise, which, thanks to Xenomania’s Brian Higgins, chief songwriter/producer behind Girls Aloud, the Saturdays and Sugababes, is their chart-friendliest album to date. Gone are the yell-along anthems and sexual-political commentary and in its place is sultry disco-pop with the kinds of classic house hallmarks that underlined much of last year’s solo EP with Simian Mobile Disco. It still sounds like Gossip in that Ditto’s unmistakable octave-spanning voice thunders through it, but it’s Gossip 3.0: slicker, sassier and primed for commercial success. Though, as the singer explains, they haven’t forgotten their rebellious roots entirely.
There are a lot of songs about heartbreak on the new album. Do you find it difficult to write happy songs?
I don’t find it difficult, I just think it’s more natural for me to write a song like that, I don’t know why. The thing about it is my dad died while we were making the record and right before that my partner of nearly nine years [Freddie Fagula] and I broke up, so there was a lot of sadness around. But I think there was also a lot of empowerment – there’s always a sunny side.
How did you get through it?
It was so awful and it was really unexpected – he was only 57 too, he was very young. I was in London, I was really far away from my family and I had to take two weeks off and go home and help with the funeral arrangements. But we were right in the middle of writing the record and I just had to push through. I had to put mourning on the back burner so I still feel like I’m dealing with it now.
The band must have provided a lot of comfort. What’s the secret to staying together for so long?
Thirteen years! It will be 13 years in June. I’ve known Nathan [Howdeshell, guitar] since we were kids living in Arkansas. The key to it is not letting the bullshit get in the way. When you’ve known somebody from the nerdiest point in your life, there’s nothing more grounding than that. There’s no ego.
Did you have any reservations about working with Brian Higgins?
No, not at all. [The party promoter behind BoomBox and Ponystep] Richard Mortimer introduced us in London and said, “Y’all should do something together.” So we went into his studio and wrote a couple songs. It was on a whim and we weren’t expecting anything, but it was so awesome and simple. So when it came to finding somebody to produce the new Gossip record, it fell into place.
Did those early songs turn into the new album?
Yeah, they’re on the new album, actually, which is just a coincidence. I had no idea [that that would happen].
Have you always loved pop music?
Yeah, I’m 31, I’m a child of the '80s, so the images I saw on MTV were of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George and Michael Jackson. Those are the images that have stuck with me and it was pop music but it was a time when pop music wasn’t always accessible. People have become really comfortable with it since, but back then people weren’t. I just love that dangerous side of pop.
Do you ever feel like there is too much porn in pop these days?
There is a lot of porn in pop, it’s true, but I really don’t think about it. If it doesn’t really interest me then I just don’t pay attention. There are some really cool things going on, though. That’s why Lady Gaga is so great – because [what she does is] incredibly unsexual. Say what you will about her but my niece is five and she loves her so I think that’s really cool. No matter what we think about her, it speaks to her and when she’s 25, in twenty years from now, she’ll be saying that she grew up with people like Lady Gaga. I try to keep the focus on that and be positive.
Isn't there a difference between a popstar like Lady Gaga and a popstar like Rihanna, though?
There’s a lot of talk about Rihanna right now and sexuality, like being overly sexual, but I know what it’s like to have people paying attention to you and I think there’s more to her than her public persona. It would be really interesting to ask her about that. I try not to judge because maybe she’s having an incredible, expressive sexual moment in her life – a sexual awakening. Maybe she's doing it out of pressure or maybe it is a force? That’s not just me scapegoating, but I would genuinely like to know what she thinks about it.
You come from a feminist-punk background but mainstream pop singers can often counter those ideals. Do you ever find yourself wrestling with your conscience?
I think this is exactly what riot grrrl was setting itself up to do. None of this would be possible without riot grrrl. The XX couldn’t exist, Florence and The Machine couldn’t exist – even Adele couldn’t exist without that movement. They paved the way for genuine women to become powerful and have a place within pop culture. We wouldn’t have made any progress if we were still a punk band playing to the exact same crowd. That’s not change, that’s preaching to the choir.
Has Gossip finally found its identity, then – as a pop band?
I don’t think we’ll ever find our identity: it’s part of our identity to be whatever feels good in the moment. I think that’s part of the key to our longevity; we’re just willing to go with the flow. We’re really good at rolling with the punches because we’re open to anything and we don’t know what a record is going to be until it’s finished. That’s why I like to play shows because anything could happen at any moment.
Is that when you feel most spontaneous? When you’re live on stage?
Yeah, or any time. I can make things spontaneous. Onstage, I don’t want to know the set list, I don’t want to know what song is next. I just want to be there in the moment. Even in the studio, I’d walk in and think: “Hmm, what are we doing to today?”. Not knowing is my favourite thing. It drives some people crazy and I can understand that – it seems really disorganised – but it keeps things interesting for me.
A Joyful Noise is out now through Sony.