Kathleen Hanna On Working Through Illness And Focusing Anger
In 1997, Bikini Kill, the feminist punk band that spent the 1990s challenging assumptions about women in music and the world at large, was inching toward breaking up. Unsure what would come next, frontwoman Kathleen Hanna began working on a record by herself in her apartment in Olympia, Wash., which incorporated her newfound interest in electronic music. It was, she says, an experience of extreme ambivalence.
"The smart answer would be that I really wanted to take over the means of production, record myself and get better at listening to my own vocals and not being afraid of my own voice. And that really is true. But the emotional reality of the situation was, I was really pretty depressed," Hanna says. "My band was winding down. They were my family. My band Bikini Kill had been my life for a really long time and I needed some kind of outlet for all the feelings that I was having — trying to figure out, 'Who am I if I'm not the lead singer of this band?'"
The album, Julie Ruin, was released the next year — to little impact. But the ideas contained in it became the seed of two groups Hanna would go on to form. One was Le Tigre, a New York-based trio who brought a punk ethos to dance music. The other is a brand-new ensemble, featuring a lineup handpicked from Hanna's past and present, simply called The Julie Ruin.
Run Fast, the debut album from The Julie Ruin, is out this week. It's the first proper release from Hanna in nine years, during which health problems sidelined her from performing and she turned her attention to archiving her work. She recently spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden about what it means to come back now, and why a 20-year career has left her "pissed off as ever," but with a new focus to her indignation. Click the audio link to hear more.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REBEL GIRL")
BIKINI KILL: (Singing) Rebel girl, rebel girl, rebel girl you are the queen of my world.
LYDEN: Snarling, raw, utterly compelling. This is the song "Rebel Girl" from the '90s band Bikini Kill. The song is iconic in the Riot Grrrl movement, an offshoot of punk that's openly feminist and encourages girls to come up to the front at shows and on stage.
Bikini Kill broke up in the late '90s. Its front woman, Kathleen Hanna, stopped putting out music for almost a decade as a result of a long illness. Now in her early 40s, she's drawing rave reviews with a new band called The Julie Ruin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "COOKIE ROAD")
LYDEN: The band evolved out of a solo project that Hanna started around the time Bikini Kill was phasing out.
KATHLEEN HANNA: The kind of emotional reality of the situation was I was really pretty depressed. My band was winding down. They were my family. My band Bikini Kill had been my life for a really long time, and I needed some kind of outlet for all the feelings that I was having of trying to figure out, who am I if I'm not the lead singer of this band?
LYDEN: You know, right out of the gate, the first song on this record, "Oh Come On," is really powerful. It's so upbeat, it's so dancey. The lyrics, though, a little more of an ominous overtone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH COME ON")
THE JULIE RUIN: (Singing) Shake it on the stairs, in the air on the town. Oh come on. Make it popular but still say it with a pout. Oh come on. Throw all your words in the deepest ocean. Oh come on. Cover all your wounds with Calamine lotion. Oh come on.
LYDEN: You know, I thought: Wow, this really reminds me of what I loved about the power and the rawness and the edge, if you will, of Bikini Kill itself. Were you going back to those ideas?
HANNA: I don't even think I really needed to go back to them. You know, I still feel the pressure of, you know, oh, you're supposed to represent this thing because you're a woman in music. And I think that's really frustrating to any marginalized person who's in a, you know, nontraditional job where it's like you're supposed to represent your entire kind of group of people. And a lot of that frustration came out in that song and also, you know, the conflicting things of being a female performer where people are like, you know, I did a photo shoot recently where someone was like, OK, I want you to look really soft and really pretty but very angry.
And it's just like, how can you be all of these different things? And in that song, I was trying to just write about that, about how in the end all you can do is just, you know, (Laughing) do you.
LYDEN: Let me go back to the album. If there's one favorite - I mean, I'd hate to have to choose, but I've got to say I wanted to be back in some earlier version of my life so that "Girls Like Us" could be my anthem.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLS LIKE US")
THE JULIE RUIN: (Singing) Girls like us like cotton candy, plastic handbags, alcohol. Girls like us sometimes ignore people on the street, even other people that we know. Girls like us sneak breaks at Wendy's and girls like us invented jazz. Girls like us have no foundations, creation myths are so passe. Girls like us.
LYDEN: Tell me a little bit about how this song came to be. Give me more of the lyrics. What's going on here?
HANNA: You tell me. The lyrics are really kind of random. It's like, girls like us eat salt for breakfast, girls like us stand back to back. They're kind of an anthem for the people who there is no anthem for. You know, it's meant to be kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing of like, we're all different. I thought that song was a really playful way to say there is no girl like us. You know what I mean? There's just as many different kinds of feminism as there are women in the world.
LYDEN: My guest is Kathleen Hanna. She was the front woman for the legendary punk band Bikini Kill. She's going back on the road with her new band, The Julie Ruin.
You were forced to take a long time out. It is your first album in nine years. People were wondering what had happened. And recently, it came to light that you were suffering very seriously from an undiagnosed illness. Would you tell me more about that?
HANNA: Yeah, I have late-stage Lyme disease. And I still, you know, have good days, bad days, good weeks, bad weeks. And I'm still in long-term treatment. It's been a tough nine years. And I didn't think that I would ever be performing again. And that was a very bitter pill to swallow along with the other 84 pills I take every day. (Laughing)
LYDEN: Well, it's always - there's nothing like a brush with mortality to focus the mind, you know, in a very crystalline way. There's a song on this album, "Goodnight Goodbye."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODNIGHT GOODBYE")
THE JULIE RUIN: (Singing) What happens when you're not 20 but 41 and you have to sink into the you you've now become? Will the teenage sneer you so cultivated sneer back at you and make you feel so hated?
LYDEN: You know, to me, I thought that's almost a song that any of us in midlife could write to our younger selves. Are you on good terms with the woman who started Bikini Kill?
HANNA: I think I am now. I've kind of made peace with the mistakes that I've made and also feeling proud of what I've made. I think that people who are involved in community activism, it's like, don't stand out. We're all equal, you know, especially if you come from a punk rock background that's anti-hierarchy. And I always had this thing of, like, don't be a leader. And I think that fed into me not being able to say: Hey, wait. That was really cool what I did.
I had to, you know, downplay the interesting things that I had made, kind of even to myself. And I'm still as pissed off as ever before. I think I'm just a little bit more directed. I have a better direction for my anger. It's less kind of loosey-goosey all over the place. And I'm more apt to look at a larger world view than just, you know, what's going on inside my apartment building. And now I think both the 21-year-old and the 41-year-old are pretty happy with each other. So...
LYDEN: Kathleen, let's just take this out on one song. Let's talk a little bit about "Run Fast." That seems like a real tribute to you and what you've been through.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN FAST")
HANNA: It's a tribute to my friends from when I was 12 or 13. I really had no idea what that song was going to be about until I just one day in practice started singing it. And it always brings me back to living in the suburbs and having guys yell stuff out of the window of their cars and, you know, riding my bike in Rock Creek Park and doing something so liberating but also feeling afraid.
And to me, it's a really, really personal song. And I was trying to connect feeling that way and then in the end being in a band and taking over the stage and realizing I had to contend with some of the same exact male dominance that had become a creepy force in my life before. You know, I tried to be really honest. It's some adult content in there, so you might not want to have your 5-year-old dancing around to it. But maybe you do.
LYDEN: Kathleen Hanna is the singer and front woman for the group The Julie Ruin. You can hear the band's album "Run Fast" in its entirety at nprmusic.org. Kathleen Hanna, thank you so much and congratulations.
HANNA: Thanks, Jacki.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN FAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.