Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Writer Melissa Febos and singer Kathleen Hanna ruminate on the creative process, including how to juggle social responsibility, personal integrity, and the complexities of feminism.
When I was a teenager and just fumbling for a sense of what it meant to have a feeling, an idea, an impulse—and to articulate it on paper—I was listening to Kathleen Hanna sing about that same process as the leader of the seminal Riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, and later, as the frontperson of Le Tigre. At fourteen, I was just starting to try to name what it felt like to be a girl, to be angry, and to tell a story that maybe someone else could relate to. Hanna was articulating these same ideas and emotions at a time when I had yet to fully comprehend them.
Through my girlfriend—who is making a film about Hanna called The Punk Singer—I’ve gotten the opportunity to get to know Kathleen and to talk to her about the similarities and differences between our artistic processes.
Making something out of the everything inside you is hard. Sending that something out into the world is a whole other kind of hard. That, I’ve learned firsthand. Before our conversation, I suspected that Kathleen knew a lot more about it than I did, twenty years into a career that shows no sign of slowing. I was right. She knows a lot about the pain of making good work, the risks and rewards inherent in seeing something through to its truest form. And she knows about the hell of online commenters, of Googling oneself, and how one hate letter can outweigh a hundred love letters on the wrong day. She also knows something about moving past all that. About how we might all do better to take some cues from Beyoncé.
Melissa Febos I have to warn you, all my questions are about process.
Kathleen Hanna I love talking about process.
MF It’s my favorite topic, really. Plus, I was just in the woods working on this novel for a month.
KH And I’m in the middle of writing an album.
MF That’s what I was thinking. And I got really curious, because whenever I talk to other artists, the same fundamental issues tend to come up for everybody, especially in the middle of a long project—be it a book, or an album, or a symphony, or whatever. For me at least, the process involves equal amounts of exhilaration and complete torture. In the middle of this residency, I was calling all the novelists I know, and begging them, “Please remind me that feeling gross and stupid is part of the process.”
KH And sick of yourself, and sick of your own voice. I think being sick of your own voice is probably something we have in common. When you’re recording you have to listen to your own voice, raw, with nothing on it. But we’re working as a team, so it’s not that thing where you’re writing a book by yourself, and you see your own poop-stained underwear—you know what I mean!—and no one else sees it. Recording, everyone sees it. The engineer, your band-mates; they all see your totally embarrassing moments and to me that’s one of the big differences, that collaborative element.
There’s solitary stuff too, because I’m the songwriter and primary lyricist. I’ve been having a hard time with this one song that we wrote. I know it’s called “Goodnight, Goodbye,” and I know what it sounds like, and I know the melody, but when I go to write the verses … I’ve already written thirty versions! But I have to lock it in, so I pick one, and that’s the one I sing for the rest of my fucking life.
MF That’s what scares me about writing fiction: there are so many possibilities. I have this raw material, and I just have to mess with it until it takes the right shape. It’s like a puzzle. But with fiction, like you, I start out with a basic impetus. But the intricacies of how these initial impulses play out changes all the time. There are infinite ways of exploring them in fiction, and it can be paralyzing.
KH How do you make your edits? Do you pick the most challenging road? Do you pick the easiest road? Do you pick the one the audience is going to like the best?
MFI think the story usually knows, if that makes sense. But you have to shut your own mind up enough to hear it, and that’s hard. It’s hard not to pick the one you think other people will like best, or the one that you think will most transparently communicate what you’re trying to say. I’m afraid of being misunderstood, and I know you know what this feels like. You desperately want to avoid being misunderstood but, it’s impossible. Sometimes the safest, most direct choice is the best one, but sometimes not.
KH But you’re a writer. We want to hear your voice. We don’t want to hear you making the right decisions.
I feel like I was trying to please other people so much with a lot of the Le Tigre stuff. Or just trying to write the missing song. I’ve been talking a lot about the whole idea of, Well, nobody’s ever written about this, or, There are no catchy songs about sexual abuse. There are no catchy songs about the complexity of female friendship. I totally write about that constantly because there’s such a dearth—is that the word?—or absence in our culture of stuff about the continuum of relationships between women and how complicated they are and how deep they run. I find myself thinking, What would be helpful? And sometimes I think that that has gotten in the way of writing a better song.
MF It’s really hard to depart from what you know works and from what you know people respond to. It’s been such a struggle figuring out the best way to tell this story because I want to represent that exact thing: the complexity of female friendship, which I’ve never seen fully explored before. I want to represent the weird, funny, spooky, romantic, scary parts of it—not just jealousy and bonding. But then there’s also, like you said, the song or the story, the concrete part of it, the characters, the plot, the structure. The story sort of grows a will of its own and you have to shut yourself up to be able to hear it and then listen to it when you do hear it, and it’s not always easy to do that. It doesn’t always look like you pictured it.
KH I think as women who consider ourselves feminists, there’s a legacy of responsibility, of feeling like there’s not enough of us and so we have to do things right. Just being women in male-dominated fields, we feel like ambassadors and we have to do a really good job. We have to not only make this great work, but we also have to instruct and educate. I’m trying to get away from that. In a way, I feel like it becomes more even more sexist, where I’m not just a musician making work; I’m everyone’s mom, cleaning up their fucking dirty dishes.
MF It’s a real challenge to believe and know that just making art that’s the best art that you can make, that you most believe in, is an incredibly strong message. It’s enough. And some people won’t be moved by that, but some people who really, really need it will be. I have to let myself off the hook, and my characters, too. If they don’t want to be the right kind of hero, and the story wants to become something other than the perfect feminist fairytale, I have to allow that to happen.
KH So, when do you bring readers into your process?
MF Pretty soon now.
KH After you’ve already written 400 pages?
MF After 400 pages.
KH See, that’s scary to me. I think that that’s really anxiety provoking.
MF It’s terrifying because I’ve made a huge investment in something that might just pop like a balloon when you show it to someone, and they’re like Sorry, but it sucks; you just wasted a year of your life. Or two, or three. But it can be dangerous for me to show someone a story before I have the integrity of it in place.
KH Oh, that’s interesting!
MF I’m just too fucking sensitive. I get discouraged easily.
KH Yeah. It’s good that you know that about your process. I wonder if that’ll change with your next book. It reminds me of having a hard time listening to my own voice. I used to be really weird about lyrics. I would kind of write them in a corner and I would sing them at practice, but a lot of times, people couldn’t understand what I was saying. I would wait until the last minute and show up at the recording with my lyrics done, and as I was singing them, you could hear the stress in my voice because I was totally afraid that my band was rolling their eyes like Oh my god, those are so stupid, or whatever. Now I’m really letting them into that a lot more. My lyrics aren’t all done by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s about 10 songs that I pretty much have the basic idea lines of; there’s some dummy lines, but they’re pretty fleshed out and I just emailed them to the whole band.
MF Collaboration is so brave. Writers, we can be fearful people in that way.
KH Well, you’re isolated for so long and then you show up with 400 pages.
MF It feels safer, I guess. Even in the vacuum of my own practice, it’s a challenge to just experiment and let myself make mistakes. It gets easier, though. I get better at accepting that the goal is not perfection, but to explore and figure out what feels right.
It’s always slower growing when you do it alone.
KH But it seems like the more books you write—maybe on your fifth book, you’re going to have people reading every chapter as you go and find that that’s a new part of your process. I went from having to leave the room and smoke an entire pack of cigarettes during the part of mixing that involved my voice coming in, to now being able to show up with really crappy demos with dummy lyrics and just play them. And I’ll gasp for a second, but I’m really amazed with how much I’ve changed as I’ve aged. We’ve created a really supportive atmosphere, but in a grown-up sense. I think of them like doctors; they’ve seen naked people before. They’re musicians; they’ve heard someone sing off key by accident before. They’ve heard somebody try a rhythm that doesn’t work. They’ve done it themselves. They’re not going to want to kill me. And if I don’t share this with them, we’re not going to finish the record. And my whole thing is that I don’t have time to waste anymore. I don’t have time to fuck around. Now, I’m like, Fuck it, I’m going to do it and see what happens.
MF It’s interesting, too, because I’ve read and heard you talk a lot about when you started making music, and how a huge part of what you wanted to show was the process of learning and not doing things perfectly. It makes sense that you were doing something that you needed to see yourself.
KH I’ve put out embarrassing stuff, too! Especially writing in fanzines and stuff. I look back on some of it now, and it’s so melodramatic and serious. I mean, even so, I wouldn’t take it back if I could. I’m over it. I’ve already shown my pimply butt to everyone. It’s too late, you know? But it’s so nerve-wracking. I’m working with my friend right now, talking about possibly starting a memoir and it’s like … I’ve written a bunch of stuff trying to get through to it. You know, a 100 pages of, Why do I want to write a memoir? Is this stupid? Am I farming out my life? I’ve always had this whole idea about memoirs. That I’m a farmer and I have this hoe and I’m like, tilling the soil of my life and selling it. It’s like selling yourself.
MF I know, I know.
KH And both of us have sex work in our histories, so I’m sure you had a fake name and a fake history and the whole thing. I had all these stories I used to tell back then, about the character I played as a sex worker. It was Kathleen and Sage, which was my stage name, and they never met. They were completely separate entities, and it let me feel like, I can sell my body, but you can’t have my personality or my soul. That’s mine and it’s something that I put in a lockbox that nobody could have. And then add onto it, later on, the minor amount of celebrity that you get from being somebody on a stage, and that lockbox just became tighter and tighter and tighter. I had to say, This is my personal life, this is my private life, this is my private time where I’m not on stage and nobody knows about that except my ten people, and that’s it. I became very guarded about it. The idea of writing a really honest memoir is completely crazy.
MF Yeah, I had similar feelings about it. I almost published Whip Smart under a pseudonym because I couldn’t deal. But then the irony of that—I just couldn’t stomach writing a book about eschewing a secret life and then creating a secret identity under which to publish it. But, I’m really glad that I didn’t. I mean, it didn’t stop people from thinking of me as a former sex worker who also happened to write a book about it, instead of a writer who happened to tell the story of her own experience in sex work.
KH You jumped into a vat of burning oil.
MF Yeah, it was hot!
KH I mean, you’re going to encounter every feminist-hater possible. I understand not wanting to be out as a sex worker.
MF Yeah, feminist-haters and anyone who wants to say that you can’t be a feminist who acknowledges having a sex life, or wanting to be desired, or any of that. As if doing anything but wearing a potato sack and carrying a picket sign you can’t be a feminist. But I have to say, once I started writing, when I was actually telling the story and investigating the questions that really motored my writing of it, I didn’t worry about any of that. That’s part of how I knew it was worth telling.
People—readers especially—have had such an amazing response to it. I get emails every day, and now I’m so glad I used my real name. And I’m sure that the response you’ll get will be exponentially bigger. It’ll be huge.
KH Yeah, I don’t care anymore. I mean, of course I do on one hand. You can’t help being nervous about backlash from just having your face everywhere for a while. It feels really overexposed, because for me, that’s not about the work.
When I was in Bikini Kill, a girl wrote me this really awful hate letter, all about how we were sellouts because we played a show for $10 or some crazy shit. Or we were in Spin Magazine, which we couldn’t control in the first place. I remember being really bent out of shape about this letter at the time. And now she’s 30-something, and she came up to me at a lecture and said, “Hey, I wrote you this really mean letter and I just want to apologize. You know, I was 18, living in my parents’ basement. I had no idea what was going on in the world.” She told me, “Now I’m an artist and I’m trying to do things and I’m realizing that everything I criticized you for is the same stuff I’m facing.” So now I know: unless it’s a friend saying, You’re really going down a bad path, you have to be able to let it go.
MF You have to. Even while I was doing things I knew were provocative, and were meant to be provocative in certain ways, still it was so painful to think, Why don’t they understand? They’re not reading. It’s like they don’t even want to understand, which is exactly right, sometimes.
KH People have lazy readings. And now, with the Internet, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can write some horrible review and post it for millions to see.
MF Totally. Commenters. I love talking to my friends who publish things online, because they all know who those people are. It’s a very special breed of person who leaves nasty comments on things. So while I’m not completely over it, it does push you to a place of acceptance, where you have more freedom on the other side of it to make work and say, Yes, people are going to say mean things about it and not understand it or not like it. And I’m going to make it anyway.
KH It’s part of the job. And that famous saying that all press is good press—it’s there for a reason. It’s there so people keep making work. The old saying is true: the silence on the other end of the phone is way worse than the conversation. I would rather have a bunch of people writing shitty reviews and putting my picture in their magazine, so that other people think, Wow, how bad is this? and then find a video on YouTube and decide for themselves, That’s weird. I like it. I’m going to buy it.
Beyoncé isn’t Beyoncé because she reads comments on the Internet. Beyoncé is in Ibiza, wearing a stomach necklace, walking hand in hand with her hot boyfriend. She’s going on the yacht and having a mimosa. She’s not reading shitty comments about herself on the Internet, and we shouldn’t either. I just think, Would Beyoncé be reading this? No, she would just delete it or somebody would delete it for her. What I really need to do is close the computer and then talk back to that voice and say, Fuck you. I don’t give a shit what you think. I’m Beyoncé. I’m going to Ibiza with Jay-Z now, fuck off. Being criticized is part of the job, but seeking it out isn’t. That’s our piece to let go.
For more on the work of Kathleen Hanna, visit her website.
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart. For more, visit Febos’s website.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.