Interview by Bianca Valentino
Kathleen Hanna is a feminist artist based in New York City. Her art has entertained, inspired, raised awareness, educated, created thoughtful discourse and sparked creativity in others for over two decades. Celebrated as spirited front-person for the groundbreaking 90s punk band Bikini Kill and more recently avant-garde multimedia group Le Tigre, Kathleen has, for better or for worse, worn her heart on her sleeve, navigating and sharing her journey. While exploring herself, the world and her place in it, she has become an incredibly loved and truly special person to many, to those that know her personally and to those that know her simply through her art. Latest musical project, The Julie Ruin, finds Kathleen with no expectations, creating for pure enjoyment, relishing the company of collaborating with friends and living a balanced, flourishing life.
When did you first become aware of music?
KATHLEEN HANNA: I used to do dance class when I was a really little kid, when I was about five or six. They had specially made singles for our dance class [laughs]. I remember getting them and playing them. I remember being really into Tony DeFranco and The DeFranco Family, which was kind of like our teen sensation, kind of like our Justin Bieber of the 70s. Probably my biggest record was Carole King’s Tapestry that my mom had that I just listened to over and over and over again and the soundtrack from Chorus Line [laughs]. I loved music when I was little, I just never really had very much of it. I had the 7 inch of ‘Dancing Machine’ by The Jackson 5. Probably one of my biggest musical moments was listening to that song over and over again and making up dances to it in the basement.
I used to do that to that same song too!
KH: [Laughs] No way! That’s crazy!
I have two nieces that are close in age to me and we were always making up dance routines in the backyard to The Jackson 5 and then later Janet Jackson and things like that when we were little.
KH: [Laughs] That’s so cute.
Recently you mentioned in a post on your blog that NYC and Brooklyn is having a total renaissance and some of the best art and performance is happening there at the moment.
KH: Yeah! I just saw Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show the other night and it was absolutely incredible. I was lucky enough to see it develop about a year and a half ago. They had the show in a ‘work in progress’ mode and then they had a Q&A afterwards. It was one of the most interesting/devastating experiences I’ve ever had because the show had a lot of language in it that was talking about the history of feminism and what does feminism mean now. It also had dance performance, female nudity. Afterwards the performers sat in chairs and the audience members asked questions. I was really struck by how the show was called Untitled Feminist and how the audience kept asking questions or making comments like, why didn’t you represent this one certain kind of feminist? How come you didn’t mention this? Or saying, you need to instruct men about feminism more, that’s really your job. Everything was kind of critical comment about how she wasn’t doing enough. It was really interesting to me, I feel like it was because the word ‘feminist’ was in the title. I feel if that word wasn’t there the questions would have been completely different. I’ve heard some of these same critiques of my own work over the years so I felt really sensitive about it. I just saw the new version of the show, and a year and a half later it had no language in it, it was all dance; there was some singing, a little bit in Italian. I’ve been really interested in the idea of how do you communicate ideas without language. I really want to ask her if that Q&A just turned her off language forever [laughs]. She’s a performer that has done a lot of stuff in New York that is really, really exciting.
It’s interesting that you mention doing things silently and communicating without language. Are you familiar with the magicians Penn & Teller?
Then you’d know Teller is usually silent for most of their act. Well, I was reading the other day why he decided to do that and apparently it was because people would heckle him while he was doing his act vocal. He decided to try silence and found people stopped heckling and focused more on the act and what was happening. Letting the piece speak for itself.
KH: Wow that’s interesting. I don’t think that Young Jean Lee’s piece was a cop out at all; it said so many things without language. I didn’t think she was afraid like everyone didn’t freak her out about language forever but, I did wonder how much of the Q&A influenced what she did. It also made me think about when I was 19 and in school doing photography. I was so nervous about objectifying women’s bodies that I was afraid to have my friends’ bodies in my photographs. I started doing work about objects. In a way, if you don’t grapple with difficult subjects, if women don’t take pictures of other women ever, then we never find other ways of being. If we just say “Capitalism sucks! Fuck it!” you can’t really escape it. We have to find other ways that meets people’s needs that is fair instead of just throwing your hands up in the air and being like, I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to drop out and be the opposite. When you’re the opposite of something you just totally reinforce it.
A project you’ve been working on recently was the set design for Neal Medlyn’s Wicked Clown Love.
KH: Yes! I worked on a piece about the Juggalos [laughs]. It’s really interesting because ICP [Insane Clown Posse] which is the really big band that the Juggalos have formed around, I think they’ve only played in New York once or twice, in the Midwest they’re absolutely, horrendously huge. I think a lot of what Neal’s show was about was class. Also, geographical location and how snobby New York can be and how snobby the New York art scene can be [laughs]. There’s so many great things about the New York art scene but it was a really gusty move on his part to be like, I’m making art about this total phenomenon that means a lot to certain people. Neal also comes from a small town and didn’t have a lot of money growing up; he related to the Juggalos and wanted to explore the masculinity within their culture. It was really, really strange watching very sophisticated New York audiences react to this phenomenon they didn’t know very much about and to point out this huge phenomenon that a lot of people don’t even know exists. It actually made me think a lot about Riot Grrrl. About how to me and my friends it was such a big deal but if you ask nine out of 10 people, they have no idea of what it is or what it was — it’s been such a huge part of my life.
Do you find that when you work on projects that you’re consumed by them?
KH: Not so much anymore. I’ve really found a balance between my personal life and art making. It’s hard for me to stop sometimes when I am enjoying myself [laughs] and to remember things like, you have to eat to live. I’ve had problems in the past where I could be a real asshole when somebody would disturb me when I was working. I started to realise that that is not what life is really about. My friends and my family actually feed my creativity, they’re not trying to take it away. That’s something that I have come to in the past five years or so. I don’t find that I make my best work when I hole myself away and don’t talk to anybody.
How does singing make you feel?
KH: In public or in private? [laughs]
I guess both, I didn’t really think about singing in private vs. singing in public.
KH: It’s different. Right now I’m at the end of finishing our [The Julie Ruin] album and I can’t watch singing on TV, I’m having a weird relationship with it, it feels like work right now. I’m stressed out because I have a little bit of a sore throat and I’m like, am I going to be able to get these songs done? Will they sound how I want them to sound? In general, I find singing just lets me explore different parts of myself. I know that sounds so fucking corny. When I’ve been singing lately, up in my home studio, I might have a rough idea of what the song is about or rough lyrics but a lot of the time just weird stuff comes out and I don’t know what’s going to happen. To me letting something happen and to not control it is a real new experience [laughs]. For me that’s what singing is about — letting go and not trying to control an experience. Then there is the technical side of going back in and getting what I want out of it.
How did you learn to sing?