Kathleen Hanna – The Collapse Board Interview
KATHLEEN HANNA: I guess lyrics are a little bit hard for me actually. I’m really trying to be a lot less literal. I’m a very literal person … actually it’s not that I’m a literal person … I don’t even know what kind of person I am — I’m probably a total jerk.
When I started making music I really saw a space for women singing about feminism in a really obvious way, because no one was doing that. It’s not like it was a shtick or a marketing thing, I was just obsessed with feminism. It’s what I was thinking about and what my life was made up of, not just academic feminism but I worked in a domestic violence shelter. Seeing the shelter fill up time and time again and seeing the dudes at my school telling me that feminism didn’t exist and I felt very passionate about making sure feminism did exist for my generation and the generations after me.
When I first started writing lyrics it was really important to me that people knew what I was talking about and that I was a feminist. That’s actually a really scary position because a lot of times people want you to write in these abstract ways that everybody can insert themselves into whereas I thought, nobody is writing songs for girls! I want to write songs specifically for girls that they understand, that they take into their hearts and that they decide it’s about them or, that they decided that they’re not into it at all and that they’re going to write a song that’s 100 times better. That was the point.
In Le Tigre there got to be a lot of pressure on us to represent something, to represent the crossover of a couple of different communities. It’s hard to write lyrics under that pressure and under the whole “you’re an icon” like what you said Kaia said about me. The hard thing for me has been to let it go and write what I actually really want to write now. Some of what I want to write is more like poetic nonsense. I have to be ok with that. I don’t care if other people like it [laughs].
I was checking out people’s interpretations of your song ‘The Punk Singer’ from the first Julie Ruin album on a site where people discuss song lyrics.
KH: Oh I didn’t know about that. Oh that is so scary! I’m not going to look at that but … you’re obviously going to tell me [laughs].
Some of the ideas people had about the meaning of the song were: it’s your alter egos battling; it’s a song about two people looking at the same thing differently; it’s a response to the ‘Kill Rock Stars’ song Nofx wrote…
KH: Oh, I have definitely never written anything in relation to that band [laughs]. The people that said it was about two sides of myself were in a way totally right, a lot of it is about battling addiction. You can make a choice whether to be in “the dark bar getting wasted” or to be “enjoying the moon in Texas at night” you can make that choice. It’s a lot harder if you have addiction in your life. At the same time it was directed towards the part of myself that can be a real addict. It was also directed at the fact that I was living in Olympia at the time and there was a lot of heroin and people were dying. I was really frustrated with it. I really wanted to be the one to help people; I really wanted to be somebody that helped people get rehab. In that song I am angry, I was a little bit fucking sick of it. I was singing like, look at me! I’m having this great fucking life because I’m not doing heroin and look at you, you’re stuck in this bummer situation because you’re getting wasted all of the time and you’re ruining your life and all of your friends are watching you ruin your life. That’s what it is about to me but really it’s about what anyone thinks it’s about to them. I can’t even believe that anybody listened to that song.
Do you revise your lyrics much?
KH: I totally have to work at my lyrics. The way that I usually work is that I have some kind of music going on like a loop I’ve made or something that the band plays and I just start singing what feels natural to me or I try a more formal idea that I’ve always wanted to try. Sometimes the lyrics just start coming. A lot of times though, I sing nonsense for a long time. There was a song in Bikini Kill called ‘Demirep’ and we used to play that song live all of the time and I never knew the lyrics, I made them up every night. I would sing nonsense or whatever I was thinking. The day before we recorded it and we were in England, I had to go to a coffee shop and be like, these are the final lyrics. I had taped it on a cassette of me singing it and I just listened to what the words sounded like [laughs] and wrote them down and they became the lyrics. I’ve been working that way ever since. Sometimes I’ll craft it more into the thing that I think it’s about. When I started I’d write the lyrics first and now I do it totally the opposite.
In an interview from late 1998 you said that in regards to The Julie Ruin, you had a vision of it being feminist pop music; what’s your vision for it now?
KH: You know I don’t really have an overall vision for it. I think that’s the exciting thing. I am trying to be a little bit more present in the moment as much as a total control freak stress out person can be. I’m not trying to save the world at the moment. I’m not trying to make this thing to please other people. I’m really making something I want to make with my friends and I’m having an enjoyable time doing it. I’m not thinking about this is feminist pop music or this is this kind of thing that’s going to have this kind of effect and make this person feel included. I feel like I’ve done that, I feel like that is the work that I’ve already done. It would be really boring if I wrote the same record over and over again. I’m really glad that the Bikini Kill records exist, I don’t have to write the songs again.
I also read that in high school as a teen you were pretty much obsessed with three things: going to punk and reggae shows, smoking weed and drinking alcohol; now as an older lady what are the things you’re obsessed with now?
KH: Oh wow! Well, I’m obsessed with watching downtown performance artists such as Neal Medlyn and Erin Markey who is just a fucking genius! Cole Escola. I just really like seeing performance art in New York and just all of the great things that are going on here. That’s what I’m obsessed with more than going to shows. Shows for me became work because I toured so much that walking into a club became this experience of … I’ve always had horrible stage fright, every show I have ever played I’ve had horrible, horrible stage fright!
Wow! You definitely don’t show that.
KH: [Laughs] I think it adds to the tension of the performance. So when I walk into a club … unless it’s to see a band like Comet Gain which is one of my favourite bands and whenever they come to New York and I see them I just feel so super happy. I went to Diamond Rings’ show and I really love that guy, he has such a beautiful voice and beautiful presence. I still do like going to music shows but I much prefer to go see performance art.
I’m also obsessed with the 10 minutes I spend talking to my husband before I fall asleep. We have a thing that we talk for 10 minutes before we go to sleep [laughs]. We see each other all through the day and we talk all through the day too but it’s just like a special “what happened today?” conversation. I’m super into my husband! I love being around him.
Oh I truly know that feeling. Me and my guy hang out all day every day, he’s an artist and musician and then I do my thing too, finding that person that’s so supportive and that listens to you, that you can bounce ideas off of it’s the ultimate!
KH: Yeah and it lasts! How crazy! It’s really amazing when you realise, wow! This just keeps getting better. I keep waiting for it to suck [laughs]. There’s been bad times for sure but you just think, when is this going to start sucking? and it hasn’t happened.
Is there any ways in particular that he has expanded your world since being together?