Is Beth Ditto the New Stevie Nicks?
Beth Ditto has always been ready for her close-up, but now the fashion-forward singer is ready for a brighter spotlight, too. After years of churning out upbeat anthems which felt at home in both dance halls and punk clubs, today the former Gossip frontwoman is belting power ballads on her new album, Fake Sugar – and the vibe is completely addictive.
The 36-year-old singer, clothing designer, and staunch feminist says songs such as “Love in Real Life” and “Lover” showcase another side of her voice – one she discovered after undergoing throat surgery while writing Fake Sugar. “Removing the polyps made all the difference,” Ditto says of the procedure (the same one endured by Adele before the making of her album, 25). The contrast is noticeable in Ditto’s “cleaner” alto vocals, which soar on the rhythmic standout track, “We Could Run.” The hit-to-be sounds as if it was plucked from Stevie Nicks’s early-1980s solo catalogue.
“I wrote that song about (Gossip bandmate Nathan Howdeshell) and me before the breakup (of the band),” Ditto says. “The song is about being teenagers in the the middle of nowhere, escaping from Arkansas, and making up adulthood as you go along.” The abandon in the song’s chorus gets at the heart of Ditto’s upbringing in a Southern town with no malls, no rock shows and a conservative Christian college which she says dominated every aspect of daily life. “I grew up between two worlds – it wasn’t like Nashville or Atlanta or even Little Rock. It was isolated, so music was our only way to break out.”
Between its late-1990s beginning and 2016 split, Gossip formed in Washington state after Ditto left Arkansas, toured with Sleater-Kinney, released music on the indie-pedigreed Kill Rock Stars label, built a huge UK following, played Glastonbury music festival, recorded with Rick Rubin, and synced its song “Heavy Cross” to a Dior parfum commercial. Along the way, the trio’s sound floated between Giorgio Moroder-inspired beats and Southern punk-funk. Pitchfork readers may have found the concept of Gossip too mainstream in its final days as a band but Ditto’s metamorphosis from alterna-babe who plays dive bars to TV talk show frequenter has no doubt inspired singers such as Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard and younger acts such as Haim and Hey Violet down a similar path toward wider recognition.
Just because Fake Sugar is long on listenability doesn’t mean diehard fans of Gossip should worry this second solo effort from Ditto (she also released an EP in 2011) is too soft on attitude: “Fire” and “Oo La La” – which recall the tribal sound of Bow Wow Wow’s remake of “I Want Candy,” only with an added dose of second-millennium steroids – keep the deep bass, heavy drums and “zero f***s” spirit that has defined Ditto’s career thus far. The Stevie Nicks comparison might seem like a lazy example, but this journalist is not afraid to be the 100th to say it. There’s something big brewing on Fake Sugar inside these melodic choruses about childhood dreams. Ditto’s voice may recall the way the Fleetwood Mac singer gravitates between a vulnerable vibrato and a massive arena wail, yet who wouldn’t want to hear a vocalist like that on the airwaves in 2017?
Let’s hope chiffonheads (as Nicks’s diehard followers refer to themselves) embrace the comparison, because it’s too late to turn back now: Ditto’s hair is already blowing in the wind on a stage near you.
(Photo: The Fun Star)