Beth Ditto On Turning Real Heartbreak Into “Fake Sugar”

Embarking on a national tour, the feminist icon has a new boyfriend, but the same punk spirit.

Beth Ditto just turned 37, or, as she puts it, “I’ve been out now longer than I haven’t.” Ditto, who came out as queer when she was 18, celebrated by drinking margaritas and champagne and getting “Postmates Jack in the Box at 5am drunk” with her best friend. When I speak to her over the phone three days later, she’s just starting to feel normal again.

“I celebrated a little too much,” she says, from her home in Portland, OR, before exhaling from her vape. “It’s a little discreet one,” she says. “My boyfriend’s friend calls it a douche flute, which I think is fucking hilarious.”

Between starting a new relationship, releasing Fake Sugar—her first LP as a solo artist—and embarking on a national, 15-city tour March 7, there’s a lot for Ditto to celebrate. But these achievements have emerged out of the embers of two life-defining relationships.

Mary McCartney

Gossip, the queer garage-punk trio that the singer-songwriter fronted for 17 years, split in 2016 after bandmate Nathan Howdeshell moved back to Arkansas. The following year, Ditto separated from her wife, Kristin Ogata, who she’s known since she was 18 (they’re still married). She funneled this turmoil into Fake Sugar, out last June. “Every love song on that record is sad,” she says, “because I was really sad.”

Fake Sugar’s 12 tracks represent a homecoming for the Arkansas-native, a pastiche of sleek southern rock adorned with dollops of disco, flourishes of doo-wop, and a sly nod to punk. Binding it all together is Ditto’s voice, a powerful instrument that hollers, aches, and snarls its way through the trials of a corroding marriage. On the standout track “We Could Run,” Ditto opens tenderly, her feet planted firmly on the ground: “There are rules that I’m in to break / you could call this a great mistake.” By the chorus she’s soaring, belting to the rafters over an apex of synths and guitars.

But it was “Lover” (“Whatever happened to the person that I used to know / And who are you now?”) that caused journalists, during promotion for Fake Sugar last summer, to pry about the state of her marriage. “I remember just lying in interviews, which is really different for me,” she says. “Like, ‘It’s a hypothetical.’ But no, that whole thing was real. We had a really fucked-up time for a while. And it just never got better.”

Ditto says getting caught up in “the dream of marriage,” rather than the reality, caused her to ignore the warning signs. “The thing is I knew, not that it was her fault or my fault, but I knew that I wasn’t ready for it and we should have never done it before it even happened,” she continues. “I feel like if you have those feelings those are the strongest things you can listen to. Because those don’t go away when you’re married. In fact, they get worse.”

Making sense of her feelings has extended to reclaiming her relationship to home. It’s no coincidence that her tour kicks off in Arkansas. “Every member from my crazy southern family is going to be there—like, every single member. So that’s gonna be a hootenanny,” she twangs. “My uncle was like, ‘Beth, I hope there’s a table that we can sit at because I can’t stand for too long.’ Those are the kinds of the things I’m thinking about: I guess we need a table up front, and so-and-so is diabetic.”

In spite of the familial support, she still needs to bring her A-game. “They’re all like music critics,” she says. “Like they’ve all played in bands. So it’s going to be a lot of ‘This could’ve been better, that could’ve been better.’ And it’s just like, ‘Shut up!’”

Fully owning her southerness has meant reconciling the perception of her red state with her lived experience. Growing up in a liberal household, Ditto stresses that her mother’s biggest lesson was practicing empathy and respect for people’s differences. “My family is so left. Not just Democrats, but borderline leftist. Where I grew up, racism is rampant, but racial slurs were not allowed in my house. You couldn’t call someone a fag. It wasn’t cool.”

“I’ve talked to other southerners, like Cody from Ssion [the queer artist opening for Ditto on tour] and we’re like, ‘I don’t know where these weirdo Trump voters came from,’ because none of our family members voted for him. It’s really odd.”

Also joining Ditto on tour is her boyfriend and bassist, Teddy Kwo, an openly transgender man. Just the mention of Kwo prompts a squeal. For the sake of their four other bandmates they try to be professional—“Like, ‘Hey there, bassist’”—but she knows it’s palpable. “I’m so in love and it’s so fun. We moved in together and everything moved really fast and I just feel like my old self, in the best way,” she says. “And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Someone asked me earlier, ‘How do you feel about the current administration?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t even pay attention because I’m in love, so fuck off!”’ (Her Twitter suggests otherwise.)

Dating a trans man has urged Ditto to consider the privileges of being perceived as a straight woman. “Boyfriend… I haven’t said that since I was in high school,” she says, noting that the difference between how people treated her with Ogata is “like night and fucking day.” “That’s the fucked up thing about it, too: You didn’t realize how much you’re watching your own back, especially when you’re dating someone who is butch. I was always really afraid, I was always really protective,” she says. “Straight privilege is real.”

Although she’s traded the political pointedness of anthems like “Standing in the Way of Control”—Gossip’s queer call to arms—for songs that square more tenderly for the heart, Ditto maintains that her stage persona contains “the same punk spirit,” with one exception: more talking. She describes the difference as “less X-Ray Spex and more Dolly Parton,” but with “some shitty jokes.”

In both monologue and music, there won’t be much rehearsing, something Ditto says she abhors, preferring to preserve a sense of spontaneity and improvisation.

“My favorite part of shows is when everything falls apart and goes wrong. Those are my favorite things. Yeah, because then I get to fix it.”

Beth Ditto’s debut LP Fake Sugar is out now. Her national tour launches March 7.