interview: Kathleen Hanna

by laura maw
interview first published on Oh Comely

The Julie Ruin’s second album, Hit Reset, in Kathleen Hanna’s words, is about beginning again. Darker and more intimate than the band’s debut Run Fast in 2013, Hit Reset is a kaleidoscope of fury and candour in which Hanna confronts illness, abusive relationships and toxic friendships. “That’s what ‘Hit Reset’ means: I’m gonna hit reset before all this shit happened, I’m going to somehow let it go. And, you know, you have to look at it to let it go – you can’t turn away from it. Before you hit the reset button you have to do a lot of work.”

Kathleen Hanna hardly needs introduction. Frontwoman of seminal riot grrrl band Bikini Killin the 1990s, she stole the hearts of thousands of young women in the feminist punk scene in Olympia (and, twenty years later, I was routinely wearing a Bikini Kill t-shirt to my sixth form English classes). She turned to dance-punk with Le Tigre in 1998, and formed The Julie Ruin in 2010 with ex-Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi WilcoxKenny MellmanCarmine Covelli and Sara Landeau.

After leaving Le Tigre in 2005 due to ill health, Hanna suffered for six years with Lyme Disease before it was correctly diagnosed, and underwent an intense summer treatment course in 2014. Did illness alter her writing in the period between the two albums? During our phone conversation, she tells me, “I really love our first record [Run Fast], but I have to say I feel so much more connected with the material on this record. I was just way more honest. With the first one, I wasn’t sure what was happening with my illness. Now that I’m not ill, I’m able to write about those feelings.” This honesty threads itself through her writing on illness and relationships on Hit Reset. In turns poignant and humorous, she pairs unsettling lyrics (“can’t take the tears away” / “I belong to the wolves who drug me”) with the sonically upbeat melodies of ‘Let Me Go’ and ‘I Decide’.

  • “I let myself be poetic when I felt like it, and not try to be super didactic about it.”

By her own admission, this light-hearted approach was the result of being able to find humour in her illness. She tells me about learning to undo her bra while attached to the IV drip, describing it as an “IV pole dance”, and together we plot the potential title of her autobiography – Kathleen Hanna: Cured By IV and Song. Hanna’s incontrovertible sense of humour, honesty and courage is what punctuates Hit Reset.

Taking power through the cathartic expression of trauma also translates to her writing on her abusive relationship with her father, victimhood and vulnerability. She notes, “The trauma of being trapped in a body that you can’t control is very similar to being a child trapped in a household situation you can’t control, like I was. Having [my illness] happen to me in my adult life made me aware that I hadn’t worked through all of my childhood stuff and that I needed to go back to certain situations.” In her reflection on her childhood, she navigates the difficulty of dealing with abusive familial relationships, addressing the complex emotional turbulence of anger and self-blame. The album opener, ‘Hit Reset’, begins with a claustrophobic scene of “a chair that blocked the door” and her father “punishing the people he loved best”, then furiously asserts “I don’t think you’re sorry at all”. On ‘Let Me Go’, she softly asks, “would you love me enough to let me go away?”, overlapping disquieting lyrics with electro pop refrains – a catharsis you can dance to.

“I get that I’m not to blame, but if you’re a control freak like I am it’s really hard to actually in your gut believe it,” she reflects. “My illness wasn’t my fault. In the same way, I didn’t grow up with an abusive alcoholic dad because I made him that way – it happened to me. I made a connection between the two. I needed to sing about some childhood stuff and be really honest about it so that I could move on.”

Like its title track, Hit Reset begins as a poignant account of trauma and victimhood and develops into a powerful narrative of self-reclamation and possession. Hanna has challenged the injustice of women with ferocity in song-writing and feminist activism for years, inspiring countless others to vocalise their anger. ‘Mr So and So’ is scattered with phrases commonly used by the faux male feminist ally figure many women are painfully familiar with (“oh come on, it was just a joke!” / “you play so good for a girl”). She explains that the track ‘I’m Done’ was a similar response to empty misogynistic criticism online. “I try to take seriously the stuff people say that hurts my feelings, and investigate, trying to work on it and be really appreciative of people who honestly tell me how they view me or my work. There’s a fine line between that and criticism that’s just like, ‘I hate you’,” she says. “I finally want to speak back to that shit. And it’s definitely more pronounced toward women, especially women of colour – this kind of venomous attack.”

Was writing about traumatic experiences difficult or upsetting? “I’m happy to finally speak back to power, you know?”

  • “It’s not depressing to say ‘I’m fucking sick of this shit, I’m fucking done.’”

“It’s important for people who are marginalised to celebrate their anger. A lot of the time I take celebratory-sounding songs to be the most pissed off. I feel it’s a real relief.”

The Julie Ruin play Koko in London on 2 December. See you down the front.

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