Beth Ditto sings like her life depends on it. She sings like the devil's inside her and she has to scream him out. She sings like she has eight lungs. Meanwhile, her band, the Gossip, rake the guitar and beat the drum, swelling punk rock around her.
"My mom was a singer, and my family was very musical, and I could always sing. It was the only thing I knew I could do right, that I was confident about doing," said Ditto by phone as she was crammed into a small van with four other people while on tour in North Dakota. "The only way I can sing is loud. I don't have a very pretty, traditional, lady voice. I've never had one."
Which is a good thing if you're in a band whose songs churn with the velocity of '60s garage rock and late '90s Olympia riot grrl rock; what makes the Gossip more than just another girl band (with a boy--Nathan Howdeshell--on guitar; Kathy Mendonca plays drums) is Beth Ditto's voice. When she sings "come and dance with me" during the song "Jason's Basement" on the Gossip's new record, Movement, dragging out the "a" in dance and the "e" in me to a point of pure desperation, it's as if the 22-year-old Ditto has a gospel singer inside of her--except what's fueling the fire is the need to rock and roll.
"I really like writing about things that make me sad, about things that make me really pissed off," said Ditto. "I love love, and I love crushes, and I also love songs about heartbreak, but I can only write songs about heartbreak if I'm heartbroken."
The Gossip's songs range from simple love songs, with a teasing quality--"Now that you've got me, what are you going to do to keep me?" asks Ditto in "Danger"-- to downright spiritual revivals; Ditto's "ee-ye-eeeeee" at the very end of Movement sounds like it's echoing off the old wooden rafters in a one-room church. In "Gone," the Gossip end the song in handclaps while Ditto sings the refrain a capella. These are songs from the heart of the gothic south with a K Records/Kill Rock Stars minimalist ethic--Howdeshell's guitar reportedly only has four strings, and Mendonca's drum kit is mostly crash cymbal, bass and tom.
The Gossip's members are all originally from Arkansas, but the band wasn't formed until all three members made it to Olympia. "We wanted to get out, you know, we were more progressive thinkers and we had bigger plans for ourselves," explained Ditto about leaving the South. "Kathy went to college in Olympia. É We all kind of followed her."
After forming in 2000, the Gossip released their first full-length record, That's Not What I Heard, on Kill Rock Stars, and immediately had a following. It helped that the band was taken under Sleater-Kinney's wing, and that they were in a place like Olympia, where punk rock seems to flow out of the water taps.
"We caught on really quick. We were a lucky bunch of kids," said Ditto--but luck may not have that much to do with it. Listen to Ditto wail that she's "got trouble, down deep" and it's clear that Ditto's voice would have found its way to the ears of America one way or another.
"I have a lot of queer pride, and I have a lot of fat pride, and I have a lot of ideas about revolution," said Ditto. That's a lot for one voice to carry, and Ditto picks it right up and balances it on her head, dancing all the while.