People who saw "The Punk Singer" or heard of Kathleen Hanna's battle with Lyme disease over the past decade will be surprised to hit play on the new Julie Ruin album and hear just how ... 1991 she sounds.
On the opening track on her first album in a decade, the original Riot Grrrl greets us like a teenager throwing a tantrum on "Oh Come On."
To what do we owe this rush of exuberance?
"Since you saw the movie you know that I've been ill and being ill sapped me of energy," she says, sounding more grrrlish than riot-y in a phone interview.
"I was exhausted all the time, and so when I had these brief moments where I was well, I would sing. I sang the record at my house in a mic on any day that I was well. Because I was so sick and tired, I needed to get back in touch with my energetic self and kind of who I really am -- which is like an attention hound who wants to bounce around and sing as often as possible and be on stage.
"I kind of lost that person by dealing with my illness," she continues, "so on my well days, I sang my heart out, and it's funny what you say about exuberance, because that's the thing we were talking as a band about. The most important thing to me is that this record sounds alive, and 'exuberant' was one of the adjectives that we used. It has to sound like it's living, and when I sing, it has to sound believable. I didn't want to sound like I was a sick person singing from my bed."
The grrrl who had famously scrawled "SLUT" across her belly had every reason to make this her bummed-out acoustic record.
"Yeah, yeah, I know, my Leonard Cohen moment," she says. "There's definitely some sad moments on the record, but because I was sick, I really needed happiness, I really needed joy, and I really needed to sing about cookies and the things that make me happy -- like cookies. I think a lot of musicians probably have that -- when they're super depressed, they cheer themselves up by writing happy songs."
"Cookie Road" is something of a departure from Ms. Hanna's roots as the frontwoman for Olympia, Wash., band Bikini Kill that came along to spark a brash new wave of female-fronted punk in the early '90s. The band's Riot Grrrl code pushed against the male-dominated, testosterone-powered punk scene of the day to promote a "girls to the front" feminist agenda through the music and fanzine. Angry by the way it was misconstrued by the press, the former spoken-word artist instituted a media blackout in 1993, refusing to do interviews.
Her story is told, with vintage clips, in last year's documentary "The Punk Singer," which to her was a type of out-of-body experience to watch.
"It was pretty horrifying," she says, laughing. "It was hard. Parts of it is like watching somebody else, because I always experienced shows from the stage and not from the audience. So, for me, it was like watching a new performance and being like, 'Whoa! That girl's weird.'
"There's this one CBGB experience and I remember the whole thing. So watching that performance as if being in the audience was so surreal because I had no idea what I looked like. In the '90s, it wasn't like everybody had a camera phone or anything. Video cameras were like huge things that people, like, rented. We never watched the videos of ourselves. We didn't really know how we appeared to other people. So watching that stuff now is like pretty insane. And it was a little hard to see me talking about my dad and that kind of stuff. I think that was probably the most difficult."
He was inspirational, in a completely wrongheaded way, in her formative years by letting her know after the school talent show that she made a fool of herself. It's a heart-breaking little revelation in the film.
"It feels good to get that out, because even though it's so horrible, I feel like somehow it drove me to perform," she says. "It made me stronger because I realized that I was going to get criticized and continue. I had such a drive to be a singer or dancer or actor, whatever kind of performing arts I was going to go into. Mime ... I tried mime in the '70s. But I had to perform so much that even my dad telling me I [was bad] wouldn't even stop me. I think it made it easier to take criticism later from other people, because it was like, 'I've already gotten criticism from one of the people who is supposed to support me the most in my life, you can't really hurt me. It's been done.' "
Riot grrrls set out to make the atmosphere better for women at punk shows while also addressing larger issues of female empowerment and shining a light on sexual assault.
Looking back on what they actually accomplished, she says, "I think every project is unfinished. I think we really had the goal of being a lot more intersectional and dealing with race and class and LGBT issues in a lot better ways than we did. I think that that's the future. I think there was a lot of talk about that but not a lot of action, not a lot of positive coalition-building. I don't think any of us knew how to do that, really. So that part will never be finished and it was not successful.
"But I think what was successful in that there's more women in bands. It's not weird to go to an indie-rock show and see bands that are not all straight white guys and to see a way more diverse audience. I used to go to shows and I was one of three women in the audience. So, there are those things, and the girls rock camps started. To me, those are the really positive things that I see related to Riot Grrrl in some way that I'm really proud of, but I don't feel like it was this massive success."
When Bikini Kill split in 1997 after two full-length albums, Ms. Hanna retreated inward, making a bedroom electronic recording, "Julie Ruin." A year later she assembled a band to perform that record live, but Le Tigre became something else entirely, an upbeat dance-punk/electroclash band very different than either of her previous projects.
"Johanna Fateman and I started Le Tigre, and it was like, 'Let's try to play the Julie Ruin songs live,' but we couldn't figure it out," she says. "We weren't electronic musicians. So we started writing new songs and that became the first Le Tigre record and we only played one 'Julie Ruin' song and we played it live like twice."
In the mid-'00s, with Le Tigre going strong (the band played here in 2002 and 2003), the singer started to feel the effects of Lyme disease, which was attacking her central nervous system. She bailed out, saying that she just wasn't inspired anymore, but really, she was too sick to continue. She retreated to her home life with husband Adam Horowitz of the Beastie Boys taking care of her.
The new project is so named because it began as another attempt to revisit the "Julie Ruin" album.
"I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to perform that solo record with a band and to see what it sounded like live," she says. "It was really important to me. When I got sick and I would have these brief moments of [feeling better], I would be like, 'I need to do this now.' So I got together with my friends and we learned all the songs and then Le Tigre started writing a new record and it was really an outgrowth of learning how to play the solo record live that brought about the new songs. We felt a real connection between them, between the two records and just the first record was kind of born out of me trying to figure out who I was separate from Bikini Kill, and this record was born out of me [figuring out] 'Who was I aside from being a sick person?' "
Along with the Lyme disease being treated and under control, she sounds as good or better than ever on this set of songs that blend her punk/electronic/pop tendencies.
"I actually have more range because I had a vocal polyp removed in 2004, 2005, and that actually was hampering me quite a bit, and I didn't even know it," she says. "So I feel like I'm able to do so many more things now than when I was younger. And also, I only play shows now that have monitors. When I was in Bikini Kill we would play punk houses and stuff, and I wouldn't be able to hear myself half the time. And it's really hard to sing your best when you can't even hear what you're doing, and now I make sure that I can hear myself and I give myself the tools that I need, and I'm experimenting using vocal pedals to enhance what I'm doing. It's sweet of you to say I can still really sing because you never want to be the older performer who people are kind of looking down and going, 'Ooooo, she sounds like she smoked 20 packs of cigarettes.' "
As to how she's going to manage, energy-wise, on a full tour, she laughs and says, "I guess we'll see. I did a West Coast tour, I did Australia. I did a bunch of one-offs, and I've been totally strong at all the shows and had a great time. So I don't foresee any problem. There are days when I have more energy than others, and I have to be careful about how much I pack into one day. I can't do as much as I used to do. I'm not fully healed yet, but I will be. I'm not touring three months at a time. We're going out like two or three weeks at a time. All the shows have been great. So, knock on wood. I'm knocking on wood right now. These shows are like the happy ending to the movie for me."
She recalls being here for a panel discussion not too long ago, but she hasn't performed in Pittsburgh in more than a decade.
"All my friends are super into Pittsburgh right now. Pittsburgh's like really hot. Everyone's like, 'I wanna move to Pittsburgh.' What's going on? I'm excited to come there and see what all the hype is about because I haven't been there in a long time. I do always get lost in the car when I get there. I thought you guys were trying to keep people out by having a really confusing roadway system. It's like, 'Look, we have something really cool here. We don't want you.' "