Kathleen Hanna resurfaces as Julie Ruin
By Douglas Wolk
SEPTEMBER 28, 1998: Kathleen Hanna is a one-woman tornado, a delighted rush of contradictions, an army of one. As Bikini Kill's lead singer and head preacher, as one of the most influential 'zine writers ever, and as the only-sort-of-willing figurehead of the riot grrrl movement, she's been the focal point of an awful lot of attention, and she's responded to it in kind.
It follows, then, that she's got just about the strongest personality of anyone in the music world. She talks breathlessly, sometimes near-rasping, in an everything-at-once rush of thoughts, veering between prefabricated rhetoric and dazzling verbal fantasias, making savagely forceful points and ending them with Valley Girl-style implied question marks. As an artist, too, she reinvents and repeats herself, coming back to certain essential points -- Bikini Kill released three versions of their quintessential anthem "Rebel Girl" -- and pushing herself to explore new artistic ground.
Earlier this year, Bikini Kill broke up after almost eight years together. Hanna says, simply, "It was time for a change. I think all three of them [drummer Tobi Vail, bassist Kathi Wilcox, and guitarist Billy Karren] are amazing, awesome people, and I look forward to everything they're going to do in the future."
Hanna's own post-Bikini Kill musical career has just begun, with the release of her first solo album. The disc, issued by Bikini Kill's longtime label, Kill Rock Stars, is titled after, and credited to, Julie Ruin. So, what's up with the name?
"I just got really bored of my name?" Hanna admits, with one of those implied question marks. "I just got sick of hearing it? Julie Ruin was actually a character I developed when I lived in Portland for two years, and she's a lot more confident than Kathleen in a lot of ways. She was able to distance herself from bullshit in a way that Kathleen has never been able to do, and she wanted a record. I wanted her to have a record."
Wait a sec: when you talk about Kathleen in the third person, is that Kathleen-you or Kathleen-the-singer-from-Bikini-Kill? The latter, Hanna indicates with a smile. "And so I needed a new character. Kathleen had sort of outworn her welcome in my life, and the Julie Ruin character in my head had done really wonderful things for me, like really helped me? Helped Kathleen, basically, out of some really tight spots, and I wanted to give her a present, so I gave her this record, and I let her do what she wanted. And I helped -- I'm helping her now, doing the press. I know it sounds like I have MPD . . . "
Could be: that's only the beginning of the multiple personalities currently residing in Hanna's head. "Oh, my God, I have so many. There's my publisher, Babe Anderson, who is a beer-drinking water-skiier who also has a publishing business, and she's a total flake, she never does her job, but she's really fun to hang out with when you're depressed. Who else is there? There's Susan Richardson, my manager . . . " By this point, Hanna, who's sitting next to me at a park in NYC's West Village, has become so agitated that she accidentally knocks my tape recorder to the ground. When it's restarted, she's calmed down a bit. "See, these are all, like, still me, but . . . it's boring. I don't wanna talk about my weird inner life in my head."
The Julie Ruin project started about two years ago, when Bikini Kill were still intact. Hanna began by recording on her own with a four-track recorder and a $40 drum machine. "When you're doing collaborations for seven or eight years, there's three other people that you need to be in constant communication with: how are we doing to make this decision, how are we going to play this song, how are we going to do this show? The collaboration part is so awesome -- you learn so much about yourself -- but it can also get super-annoying, because you can't wipe your ass without asking someone a question. I wanted to work, and I didn't want to ask someone, 'Is it okay if I play guitar on this song?' I'd been going through some hard times in my personal life, and it's just a way to stay sane, just a way to experiment."
Hence, Julie Ruin, recorded by Hanna on her own, with only a couple of guest appearances by friends. It's much less of a rock-and-roll record than Bikini Kill ever made -- it "has a lot to do with being eight years old and listening to the radio," she points out. Much of the disc is built around samples from almost-familiar songs repeated over and over, the way little kids will do in their heads, with Hanna declaiming lyrics that are more abstract that anything she wrote for Bikini Kill in a girlish singsong. It's got its moments of playfulness -- best line, from the chorus of "V.G.I.": "I wear a scrunchie!" -- but Hanna's Ruin is apt to turn suddenly serious. For example, "Crochet" ("You make me wanna go away/You make me wanna crochet!") hints at the way traditional forms of "women's work" are numbingly repetitive and time-consuming.
The music of Julie Ruin is a breakthrough for Hanna, an attempt to integrate what DIY means in terms of electronic music with what it means in punk rock. Raw, twitchy, and rough around the edges, the album's not always successful, but it's usually surprising, and Hanna's two-finger guitar playing is crudely effective. The disc also has some elements that are refreshingly poppy: plinking keyboards, a stolen hook or two, sampled voices. "I love the Archies," Hanna admits. "I love early Donny Osmond, before he got really rock. I'd love to sound like that, but I can't afford to sound like that. So some of Julie Ruin is what happens when you try to sound like something you can't afford to sound like. It's like I'm wearing the fake Prada outfit instead of the real Prada outfit."
The other big change with Julie Ruin is that, for the first time in a long time, the mainstream-press-shy Hanna is talking to newspapers and magazines. "It's just pretty much economic -- it's free advertising. Kill Rock Stars couldn't afford to get an advertisement in the Boston Phoenix. I'm doing this work, and I want people to know about it. I'd like to make the $800 I spent on the eight-track back. That was a lot of money for me to save."
Resettled in North Carolina, in a house she shares with the video/record distribution company Mr. Lady, Hanna's already working on her next album, and she'll be touring as Julie Ruin in a few months. "I am not at liberty to disclose what the live shows will be, but I will be working with other women. All I'll say is that I'm planning a big present for everyone." She's also been working on videos -- there'll be one for "Aerobicide" ("Kind of like a feminist Devo") directed by low-tech wonder Sadie Benning. "These aren't being made for MTV, they're just being made to show my friends. . . . I don't think anything on MTV has cultural power. It has marketing power, maybe."
Hanna does know a thing or two about cultural power, though she defines it differently from the way most people would. "It's not in terms of how many units anything sells, but when something I do affects other people to do their own thing." Which she's done her share of: as the godmother of riot grrrl, she's inspired a whole lot of cultural reaction, from Sleater-Kinney (whose roots are in the Bikini Kill wanna-be bands Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17) to work by young filmmakers, to certain aspects of, brace yourself, the Spice Girls (though Hanna notes in a Punk Planet interview that "it can be cool if . . . people hear 'girl power' and they want to know more about it, so they go the library instead of going to the mall").
So what's her relationship with her fans like? She thinks for a moment. "I don't think I have fans. I think there's some smart, cool people who sometimes like what I do and sometimes hate what I do, but I don't think I have fans."
What she does have is mail -- lots of it, from people who have been powerfully affected by her work, and it's tremendously important to her. "Thirteen-year-old girls don't write me letters that end up in the trashcan -- I fucking read 'em, you know what I mean? I don't give it to friends, because a lot of the stuff that they write to me is really personal, and they share some really intimate things sometimes. I feel really glad that the work that I've put out in the world has made them trust me, but I also feel really sad that they trust some stranger who makes music more than they can trust their family or their friends. . . . I don't get a lot out of 'You're the greatest, you're a goddess,' but when another woman who's worked in the sex industry reads my lyrics and understands, I lose my shit. You know what I mean?"
At this point, Hanna is in full swing, and she keeps going -- mail is a big part of her life. "Girls write about their teachers who are sexists, who'll make fun of them based on their gender or make fun of feminists in the classroom, and these high-school girls are going to their principals and demanding that this be stopped, are getting community groups together -- and when those girls write to me . . . that makes me feel really good. That's when the music or the writing works: when they feel inspired by something I did, or my band did, or a friend of mine did, and then they do something and I feel totally inspired back. It's not just like I create this product and they consume it."
Having brought her ideology and her art together, and having inspired a
certain generation of young women who've come after her, what obligation does
Hanna feel to the people who have been fascinated by her work? "I don't feel
like I owe anybody anything," she says. Then she corrects herself: "I owe a
huge debt to feminism, and I'm gonna pay it off by creating some fucking good
work in the next few years."
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