Beth Ditto is bubbling over with ebullient things to say about Music for Men, the new Rick Rubin-produced set from her punky Portland trio Gossip. But she's equally passionate, if not quite so optimistic, about a no-less-timely subject: the current debate over health insurance reform. In fact, she has a modest proposal for a reality show she'd like to take to the BBC when the band's tour reaches the UK next month.
"I think it would be really interesting to take seven people from different regions of America with varying opinions on the universal health care idea, and switch them with seven people from Europe." All of them would have medical problems, she explains, and then they would all go about trying to get treatment.
Flash back four harrowing years, sighs Ditto, to a period well before Gossip had broken through and signed its major label deal with Columbia Records. The band had already worked with a number of respected indies, including K Records and Kill Rock Stars, and Gossip was finally beginning to make waves, thanks in large part to Ditto's incredible voice and the band's sharp songwriting. In fact, the group's third album, Standing in the Way of Control, would go on to top the British indie rock chart and subsequently go gold in the UK.
But what should have been an auspicious time for the proudly plus-size singer was anything but. Ditto was in terrible pain, desperately needing to have her gallbladder removed. Complicating the problem was the fact that she had no health insurance to speak of. After trying every last homeopathic remedy, she staggered into a hospital emergency room, where doctors finally agreed to treat her. To pay the staggering $13,000 bill, however, artist friends like the Decemberists ended up staging Beth benefit concerts.
"I had zero options," she recalls. "I'd lived with the pain for two years, until one night it was so godawful that I just thought I was gonna give up and die. So I would love for Americans to see Europe, where you just walk into the doctor and say 'I have tonsilitis' or 'I have a gallbladder that's about to infect my whole body — can you take care of that?' And then just be able to get it taken out for free. They should see how that feels, just once. Then they'd see how incredibly ill-informed they are."
But Ditto retains the campy sense of humor that's always seen her through. Music for Men, which sports a gender-bending portrait of pompadoured drummer Hannah Blilie on the cover, is replete with the bluesy belter's lyrical talent for snarky social commentary. And subtly danceable ditties like "2012," "Heavy Cross" and "8th Wonder" — augmented by Brace Paine's jagged guitarwork — feel like the Bush Tetras under the tutelage of Stock-Aitken-Waterman.
Ditto has also become something of a fashion-world sensation: After posing nude in a number of magazines, she is now dressed by top designers.
"I was always a big person," she says. "And it's expected, even OK, for you to tell yourself that if you're fat, you are immediately ugly or worthless or lazy.
"It took me a long time to realize that I am none of those things!"