I interviewed Kathleen Hanna for NME and it fucking kicked ass. Here’s the story.
Kathleen Hanna didn’t grow up dreaming of achieving the legendary status she’s attained over the past two decades. Instead, as she tells me in the office where I met her to discuss the new record she’s made with her band, the Julie Ruin, she wanted to become a backup singer. “Being the frontperson is awesome. People remember your name. But the downside is, anything that happens with your band, it’s your responsibility. It reflects on you forever.” If anyone can attest to this, it’s Hanna, although she’s far from a martyr —rather, she’s lionized by both musical and political communities. As the frontwoman for the band Bikini Kill, she became the poster child for the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s because of the radical feminist perspectives in her lyrics and fanzines, which called for “girls to the front” and “revolution, girl-style, now.” Because of the ideological sonic booms her efforts produced, she became the subject of a 2011 Bikini Kill documentary, The Punk Singer, and her collection of fanzines and other work was recently acquired by New York University’s Fales Library. She has since gone on to release solo music as Julie Ruin, a name she’s adapted for her current project, and with the electro outfit Le Tigre. Now Hanna is stepping into a creative role where, she says, “I haven’t played music in almost 10 years, so I’m re-figuring out who I am. I want to see what it’s like just being a person in a band!” The Julie Ruin allows her to share some of the responsibilities she’s long shouldered alone with her longtime collaborator Kathi Wilcox, who also played bass in Bikini Kill, along with guitarist Sara Landeau, drummer Carmine Covelli, and keyboardist Kenny Mellman. Despite her egalitarian insistence on being “just a band member,” Hanna is also consciously avoiding making music specifically for others. “I’m more interested in being myself than ever. I’m not just trying to tow the party line anymore because I’m older. I know how short life is.”
44 might seem a bit young to be concerned with one’s mortality. But for Hanna, considerations of not only archiving the past, as with the Fales collection and documentary, but also of parsing how to make the absolute most of the present, became a necessity when she became ill with Lyme disease three years ago, just as she started recording the forthcoming album. “I was like, ‘Is this it? I’m just going downhill? What does this mean?’ That’s why it took three years— we were practicing once a week and recording whenever I was well.” There were protracted periods when the illness became so severe that she had to forego not only music, but also almost everything else in her life. At times, she wasn’t able to speak because of the disease’s neurological effects, or would become so fatigued that she was bedridden for weeks at a stretch. But her sickness, she says, transformed her approach to the world entirely. “You start to be honest about what people want from you, and what you want to give them,” she says. And what Hanna does give people, personality-wise, is boundless enthusiasm for seemingly every topic of conversation thrown her way — at one point, we spend a solid five minutes exalting the glories of muumuus (“You should get a mini one that shows off your legs!” she gushes, gesturing animatedly at where the hemline might fall). Hanna’s Lyme is in remission now, but, she says, “I’m still dealing with it. I have bad days.” Swiveling in a boss-lady office chair in platform sneakers, she seems to radiate vitality; it’s tough to imagine her in a state where all she was capable of was, as she puts it, “watching shitty Netflix things about the pyramids.”
When she was well enough to record, Hanna’s illness became her creative tool. “I want you to hear something that’s alive, that has a heart beating in it,” she says. “I wanted to throw my whole body against the wall when I was singing, and I wanted you to hear that thud. I wanted the energy that was inside me that couldn’t come out when I was fatigued in bed to be there. I didn’t want to waste it.” And you can hear it in the album, which is vicious and rollicking. The Julie Ruin makes music that grabs you by the arm and yanks you forward into life. The opening track, “Oh Come On,” not only speaks to Hanna’s revitalization, but also to her frustrations about being expected to act as a mouthpiece for the entire feminist movement. “Represent, oh oh / every day is brand new,” she sings. “Everything is right now / everybody needs you.” She tells me that she’s through being a “feminist waitress.” “I’ve made a lot of work that was completely audience-based. I may as well have been asking people if they wanted cream in their coffee. I’m not saying that to be angry towards anybody. I’m thrilled that anybody gives a shit about anything I do. But it’s like the service industry, when you’re trying to provide people with the missing thing they need. I’m proud of the work I’ve done, but it’s time for me to be selfish, and if that connects with people, I’m absolutely psyched.”
One of the striking things about the record is that in focusing on Hanna’s personal history, it actually allows her to convey a more dynamic understanding of how she came to care so deeply about feminism to begin with. “Run Fast” is a detailed account of the sexism she faced from her childhood (“we were called sluts from the time we were five”) to her nascent riot grrrl days (“we’d be told that we weren’t real punks / by boys in bands who acted like our dads when they were drunk”). Some lines are particularly jarring, as when she describes the threats of sexual violence that loomed over her youth. When I ask Hanna about that, it’s the only time she quits smiling during our conversation. Her tone becomes clipped as she tells me she cries every time she sings it. “That’s a tough song for me. It’s about being 13 and giving hand jobs because you might get raped and it’s better just to give the hand job.” She pauses, visibly angry. “That might sound harsh, but I have a feeling that will be people in the world who know what the fuck I’m talkin’ about.” We look away from each other as the last word catches in her throat, because, if you’re a woman, of course you know that feeling. She continues, “One of my friends put a lock on her bedroom door to keep one of her male relatives out. I helped her pick it with a butter knife. I know we weren’t the only ones who did that.” The personal and political, for Hanna, are often inextricable, and the more specific her lyrics, the more you understand just what the fuck she’s talkin’ about. “I started realizing that people want to hear my point of view,” she says. On this record, there’s absolutely no mistaking it.
The album is also intimate in that it celebrates Hanna’s adoration of her husband, Adam Horovitz of the seminal rap group the Beastie Boys. On “Just My Type,” she sings about wanting to “scream it from the mountains.” “It’s totally about him,” she grins. “I don’t want to feel like I can’t talk about him because I’m a woman in a band and it’s ‘gross’ to be attached to a male rock star. I don’t feel like I’m his adjunct or a Beastie Boy-ette. If other people feel that, they can go fuck themselves, because we’ve always treated each other as peers.” The song, she says, originally had a different title: “It was ‘Just My Size,’ which is a joke between us. When we met, we were like, ‘You’re just my size!’ because we’re exactly this perfect size for each other.” I raise an eyebrow. “Don’t read too much into that! You just always think famous people are taller than they are, and when I met him, I was like, ‘Aww, you’re this hot famous dude and you’re just my size!’ But I knew I couldn’t put it out like that.” She laughs, delighted with both the raunchy little aside and the thought of her beloved peer, whom, by the way, she’s been with for 17 years — as far as topics to sing about go, you can’t get much more personal than that. The two are currently writing a television show called “Bridget Drives a Bus,” which Hanna describes as “If John Waters filmed ‘I Love Lucy,’” and goes on to mention that she’s also working on a clothing line. Now that she’s back on her feet, Hanna can’t keep still for a second.
Later, at her practice space, I observe this idea expressed physically. Hanna sets down a tote bag that reads “YOU ARE NOTHING WITHOUT FEMINIST ART” and produces a lyric sheet for “Right Home,” another song about engaging fully with life, albeit one which the neurological elements of Lyme affect her ability to remember the words to (hence the lyric sheet). She warns me, “Now you’re gonna see how I dance like my mom at practice.” Instead, I watch a comet of charisma underline each lyric with a perfectly-timed dance move, rip into her vocals with her whole body, and force everyone to hear the thud. To watch her is to understand that her childhood dream of singing backup vocals was never going to happen — her stage presence is just far too arresting. Although Hanna says she’s pushing back against being classified as an icon or frontperson, this only draws the enduring relevance of those roles to her identity into sharper relief. And she knows it, too: At the end of our conversation, she tells me, “I don’t act like I’m just a normal person. That’s the frustration of being a female artist. You have to diminish your accomplishments. Being part of a community made me say, ‘Look, I’m not the leader; the media made me the leader.’ Now I’m like, ‘I kinda was the leader!’ I did some rad shit! Why do I have to pretend I’ve never done anything?” Now, as I watch her confidently clown through sexy beach-party dance moves and scream her heart out to an audience of four, it’s clear why she’s always been the girl at the front. There’s no taking your eyes off of her, but her own vision is locked straight ahead. “I look real good, look how good I am,” Hanna yells, as if it weren’t obvious.