Kathleen Hanna on Becoming a Brand and the Julie Ruin’s New Album

Photo: Andrew Toth/Getty Images

From her Bikini Kill days, when she taught young feminists how to speak up for themselves and gave birth to the Riot Grrrl movement, to her Le Tigre days, when she advanced queer politics via dance beats, Kathleen Hanna has been an undeniable force in music. Her latest outfit, the Julie Ruin, will release Hit Reset, a raw, emotional exorcism of an album, on its new label Hardly Art, on July 8.

Formed out of the ashes of Kathleen’s independent synth project Julie Ruin, in 2010, the band consists of Kathleen, her former Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi Wilcox, Carmine Covelli, Sara Landeau, and Kenny Mellman. On Hit Reset, they deal with ending toxic relationships, sticking up for yourself and your politics, and questionable male feminists. Kathleen talked to the Cut about all of the above.

You’ve been entrenched in the music industry for many years now. I’m wondering what you think of the recent trend of music writers writing about feminist music” as though it were some sort of brand or genre.

I think that’s always been the case. There are always gonna be assholes everywhere, and if someone’s gonna tell an artist that their record isn’t feminist, or is less feminist than the last, then maybe they’re not the right person and aren’t really listening and picking up on the nuances. I just think that’s a crummy way to write about music, personally. It’s like maybe on your last record you sang about worldwide hunger, and now you’re singing about something else. I wrote a record about having Lyme disease; now I don’t have it anymore so I’m writing about something else. It’s all just people writing about their lives and it’s all subjective.

It was pointed out to me by your publicist before doing this interview that the members who make up the Julie Ruin, yourself included, obviously, try really hard to focus media attention on the new album Hit Reset toward the band as a whole and not just you. Have you reached a level of exhaustion at this point in your career, being singled out as sort of the spokeswoman for strong women in music, let alone the spokeswoman for your band?

I just know that it’s part of the job. I didn’t know what branding was for years and then people started to be like, “Well, you’re a brand,” or I’d have interviews and they’d tell me, “Just try to stay on brand,” and I was like, “What?” I didn’t start doing things in a way where I ever thought anyone outside myself would hear it. I never thought I’d be called a feminist icon to my fuckin’ face; it’s totally weird. But my band is really, really good at allocating stuff so everybody’s doing something right now. I’m making videos and I’m doing a little bit more press while they’re setting up a booking agent and stuff like that. And I just like to talk and I feel really lucky as a feminist artist to still have that kind of engagement.

How accessible do you think a performer needs to be to their fans? Justin Bieber recently said he’s not taking pictures with fans anymore because he feels like a zoo animal, but other artists seem to look at it as though it’s just part of punching the clock. How do you feel about that, and has that view changed throughout your career?

Oh my god, I have to take notes. People will walk by and be like, “Where’s the feminist party?” Or wanna sit on my lap to take a selfie. I started to feel like the Easter bunny or something. It just feels ridiculous and like a waste of time. Why don’t we just talk about our projects or something? I typically try to engage people and stuff when I’m in the mood, but if I’m not in the mood I don’t. But I used to all the time because I came from a domestic-counseling sort of background, dealing with people who suffered sexual assault, and I felt like everywhere I went I had to take that work out on the road. So anywhere I was, if a girl walked up and was like, “I’ve never told anybody this, but …” I’d stand there and talk to them for however long it took.

You’ve mentioned in interviews before that you’re a fan of Beyoncé. She’s an artist who’s been accused of perhaps disingenuously using feminism as a brand, which circles back to the sort of marketplace feminism” I brought up before. How would you weigh in on the scale of those who think she’s  a positive, powerful role model for women and those who think she’s pandering?

For me, I’m just such a big fan, and when she did that song “If I Were a Boy” I just thought that was so beautiful and touching. And of course there was “Survivor,” and yeah, that was Destiny’s Child, but it’s just such a great song. I guess it’s hard for me to not feel protective. I can’t really speak to the question of “Is she or isn’t she?” I don’t really know how she’s using feminism. I would hope that in her mind she thinks she’s using it in a really great way. Not to quote myself, but “that’s the sound of hundreds of thousands of girls typing the word into the internet.” At least it’s something. I don’t get the cynicism.

One of the topics you deal with on the new album is how to remove yourself from toxic relationships. What does it take for you to reach the point in relationships where you’re like, No, I’m not doing this anymore?”

Someone has to actually push me off the fire escape. Like, I’m that bad. Yes, this is your feminist icon. [Laughs.] I’m the most co-dependent person ever, and I’ll just let people walk all over me. I’m not Pollyanna; I mean, I’m a total master manipulator, I love attention, I just think I’m really loyal. For this record I just really wanted to write some “I’m done” songs. “I’m not doing this, I’m not having these kinds of relationships.” It’s a testament to a lot of therapy, but I’ve learned that there are people who are standing in front of your real people. There are people who maybe you don’t feel right about but you don’t know why, but you feel like it’s gonna be Armageddon if you kick them out of your life. And there could be someone standing right behind them that you’ll never see, but they’ve been there the whole time while you’re fucking around with all this shit.

If you were to consider the various stages of your career to have themes, or be chapters, what theme or chapter would you be in now?

I mean, I don’t wanna say the late stage. I don’t wanna say the ending chapter, but we’re definitely about 75 percent through the book. But I wouldn’t name the chapter something super bummersville, so that’s good news. Like two years ago I would have named it something like “I hate this world.” Maybe I’d write a chapter about feminism and call it “Bed Bath and Beyoncé.”

Kathleen Hanna on Becoming a Brand