With the Julie Ruin's new album, an acclaimed documentary and more, the pioneering riot grrrl behind Le Tigre proudly steps into a new spotlight
Kathleen Hanna is about to open her latest ASCAP check, in hopes that it can relieve some of the damage done to her bank account lately. She's just self-financed and self-produced Run Fast, due Sept. 3 on TJR Records, her second album under the name the Julie Ruin and first with a band under the moniker.
"It's like winning an Oscar," she says as she peels open the envelope. "Let's see if I got $17 or $400."
Sure enough, the amount turns out to be on the higher end of the spectrum-likely thanks to "blanket cable" airings of TV shows and films (including "Dirty Girl" and "The Quiet") that featured songs from her most commercially successful band, Le Tigre. In the right context, the songs on "Run Fast" could very well add to those checks someday. It's a fiercely melodic, blisteringly paced collection of rockabilly and doo-wop-influenced punk pop, reuniting Hanna with Bikini Kill's Kathi Wilcox on bass and featuring Kenny Mellman of New York cabaret duo Kiki & Herb on keys. (Drummer Carmine Covelli and guitarist Sara Landeau round out the quintet.)
Throughout, Hanna's signature wail pierces riotous, post-feminist anthems like "Oh Come On," "Girls Like Us" and "Ha Ha Ha." On the latter she calls an unnamed peer (Courtney Love, maybe?) "more histrionic than historical" and declares, "If anti-you means anti-us/I guess we just bit the dust." Such statements are what Hanna grappled with the most while making the record as she assessed what it means to be a riot grrrl in 2013, both privately and in a new documentary, "The Punk Singer," which made the film festival circuit earlier this year.
"I spent a good deal of my 20s and even my 30s thinking about the idea that we can be a community that disagrees with each other, but we can still agree on one thing and work on that," she says over lunch in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.
Revisiting Julie Ruin, which originated as a solo act for an album of the same name in 1998, is the latest in a series of projects Hanna has embarked upon after recovering from a battle with Lyme disease that nearly cost her her voice, which she chronicles in "The Punk Singer." In addition to the film, Hanna has compiled a book, "The Riot Grrrl Collection," for New York University and hosted a series of lectures on the scene for the school.
"Part of my whole resurgence, or whatever, is when I was younger I would say, 'No, I'm not gonna take credit for anything,'" Hanna says. "And I still believe that any success I've ever had has been because of the friends and other people I work with. But I also worked my ass off and never made any money. So now I'm like, 'Fuck it.' I wanna step up and say, 'Actually, I do deserve that.' I'm done with all that sort of female volunteerist shit. Like, 'I'll just be the candy striper and never the doctor.' Now it's like, 'Actually, I'm kind of the doctor.'"
Hanna's musical legacy was sturdy enough to make "Run Fast" a top priority for the record's sole collaborator, James Murphy (DFA, LCD Soundsystem), who mixed "Just My Kind," a disarmingly sweet love song dedicated to Hanna's husband, Beastie Boys' Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz. "I had no time at all when she called me, I wasn't in the country, and she wanted to do some mixing," Murphy recalls. "I got off a plane, ran to a studio and worked with her every waking hour I could. I only got to give a song to them, but I was quite happy with it. She's someone I would do anything for. It's nice when someone is that much of a badass but also incredibly sweet and concerned."
Now 44, Hanna is pleased to see that her audience has started to grow with her; some of the usual suspects come to her shows, as they did when the Julie Ruin played its first gig in June at a Pitchfork-curated showcase during Brooklyn's Northside Festival. "I was in my 30s with Le Tigre, and there was a point where I was like, 'Are all my fans in their teenage years?'" she says. "What if I grow up and the audience all stays the same?' But I looked around and it was women's studies professors, some twentysomethings."
Hanna hasn't been on the road with any project since 2005, which is why Ground Control Touring co-founder Eric Dimenstein thinks there will be plenty of demand for the Julie Ruin's first tour, which kicks off the same day the album is released at New York's Bowery Ballroom and includes eight more stops, culminating at Austin's Fun Fun Fun Fest Nov. 8-10. "She toured great with Le Tigre, and the audience is definitely still there," Dimenstein says. "We think after a few warm-up dates there will be demand well into 2014."