kathleen hanna is shedding her emotional baggage
As she drops a new album with The Julie Ruin we sit down with the iconic riot grrrl to talk about the past.
Kathleen Hanna has been spreading the feminist message and fighting for equal rights for over 25 years, first as a member of '90s riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, then with queer activist electro crew Le Tigre. In Sini Anderson's brilliant 2013 documentary about her, The Punk Singer, Hanna revealed that she had been battling the debilitating effects of Lyme disease for several years. Today, she tells i-D, "I'm well," and says she's withdrawing from medication that can cause side effects like tiredness and memory loss. After returning to the forefront of alt culture with her band The Julie Ruin in 2013, she's now preparing to tour in support of their brilliant second album Hit Reset, which dropped last Friday. Its songs are as politically charged as we've come to expect from Portland-born Hanna, but at the same time, more personally revealing than ever before. During a fascinating and thought-provoking half-hour on the phone with her, we find out why.
Why did you call the new album Hit Reset?
I mean, there are so many different reasons. I guess it's about resetting the band after some disappointments we had with having to cancel some touring and stuff. But as far as my psychology goes, I'm trying to get rid of a lot of old baggage and part of the way I do that is by singing about it. After singing a song maybe 100 times while we're on tour, I won't necessarily feel the same way about it any more. So it's really about getting rid of the old and me wishing I could push the reset button on my brain, you know?
Why is now the right time for you to tackle this old baggage?
Well, I got sick for a while and it was super-scary and it made me realize I'm not going to live forever. So now I wanna live the best life possible. Like, I've always tended to feel more comfortable in the position of being the helper, rather than being helped. I learned when I was sick that it was OK to ask for help, and then I realized, "Oh, I have all this childhood trauma that I've never really told anybody about or processed." For me, part of living my best life is that I have to take really good care of my body. And if I keep living part of my life as a child who thinks she's a piece of shit, I'm not gonna be able to do yoga or eat healthy because I won't feel like I deserve it, you know? I finally had to realize, "I am a life worth saving." And part of that is looking back at bad messages my dad gave me as a child and talking back to them, saying, "No, I'm not a piece of shit. I'm not a six-year-old trying to take advantage of a 30-year-old man. I'm not some sexualized body here for your pleasure. I'm a person and I'm interesting and I'm smart and I do good work in the world and I really enjoy being in a band." So basically, I've gotta face stuff to get over it. I can't keep shoving stuff in a box and sitting on it.
Some of the lyrics are incredibly personal — you sing about your dad drinking out of a mug shaped like a breast.
The thing is, it's actually true — my dad had a mug shaped like a breast that he drank coffee out of in the morning. But if I was writing about my experiences as a child, and my dad had never drunk out of mug shaped like a breast, it would be a really good metaphor, you know? It sounds so absurd but I didn't have to make it up! Like, thanks dad. But it's really powerful to take this thing that made me feel gross and uncomfortable at the time, although I didn't really understand why because I was so young, and now use it as an actual lyric in a song. It's kind of like Beyoncé's Lemonade: I'm going to take this lemon and make lemonade.
Is it harder for you to open up about your personal demons because so many people view you as a role model?
Yeah, but I think it's important. I mean, I understand the role model thing to a certain degree — and I'm not gonna tell people it's good to do heroin, you know? But at the same time, I need to be myself and work through my own things. You can get dehumanized whether people are saying you're the worst person on the planet or some kind of Goddess. I'm not superwoman or anything; but I'm also not a piece of crap who deserves to be constantly abused and annoyed. I think it's really important that I show myself in all three dimensions, as a real person who bleeds like everyone else. Part of the reason I came to do this in the first place is because of personal experience. It's not like I'm a feminist because I had an abusive history — I'm a feminist because I believe in the equality of everyone — but this happens to be a part of my history, like so many other women. I've sung about it before, but in a more vague way. Now I'm singing about personal experiences more; these are my stories.
The song "Mr. So and So" — about creepy guys who pay lip service to the idea of a being a feminist — really made me laugh. What made you write it?
I mean, 25 years of tokenism and being underhandedly complimented — mainly by men in positions of power doing weird things and acting like it was feminist when really it wasn't. Like, "Look, I have a Girls Kick Ass! sticker on my car, you can't accuse me of being sexist!" I was pissed about this one day because something had happened, I can't remember what because this shit happens so often, and I thought, "I'm going to use what you just did to fuel me." So I wrote a song that is totally sarcastic and, like, made the intern who was working in the studio laugh her ass off when we recorded it. But because I also wrote it based on other things people have told me about, it's not just about the tokenism of being a white woman in a band. I think that other people who have been tokenized for different reasons will be able to relate to it. I mean, they might have to twist the wording a little bit — which sucks, I know, because marginalized people always have to twist everything to feel included. But I feel like at least it's a start to the conversation.
Back in 2001, when you were in Le Tigre, you released a song called "Get Off the Internet." How do you feel about the relationship between online activism and IRL activism now?
I think it's developed in a really positive way. I mean, there are people with disabilities who can't get out the house and the only way they can do their activism is on the internet — and I wanna acknowledge that, because when I was really sick, all I could do was sign petitions and donate money and stuff. I couldn't go to Occupy Wall Street because I was on an IV drip. But on the other hand, there are people who can get out into the world and it's amazing now that there's more of a connection between the two. We're seeing it now with Black Lives Matter; although it's obviously super-sad that during their valid and important protest, somebody shot a bunch of people. But in the States, people are using the internet really well to amass a movement and then actually go out on the streets and block traffic. So I do feel a lot differently, but I always feel there needs to be some kind of sympatico between the two. It makes me sad to see someone who could be out there protesting just sitting on the internet writing mean things. So if you have time, if you feel strongly about something, please do something about it, rather than just writing "Fuck this!" somewhere on the internet!
Hit Reset by The Julie Ruin is out now.
Text Nick Levine