“I’m awesome, why don’t I deserve a movie to get made about me? I’ve worked my ass off,” said Kathleen Hanna in speaking to her initial reservations about The Punk Singer, a documentary that offers an intimate portrait of her rise to fame as a feminist icon and legendary musician. And as the a leading figure of the Riot Grrrl movement, Hanna has over two decades of groundbreaking work behind her—from the rough and angry early days of Bikini Kill to the days of Le Tigre her latest musical endeavor The Julie Ruin. In 2005, Hanna was forced to stop touring when she was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease, a crippling illness that left her wondering if she’d ever step on stage again. But through the eye of The Punk Singer and Hanna’s recent live appearances, its clear there’s really nothing that she can’t endure and conquer.
With the documentary—directed and producer by Sini Anderson—we’re given an deeper look into Hanna’s life that’s inspiring in both its honesty and its portrayal of a woman who has never stopped giving her work everything’s she’s got and more. Through archival footage dating back from her early days performing spoken word poetry to a small crowd to the massive audiences she now garners, The Punk Singer also features interviews from those who’ve also made a name for themselves as women of importance, both in the music scene and out, with everyone from Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein to Joan Jett and Tavi Gevinson. And of course, Hanna’s husband Adam (Ad-Rock of The Beastie Boys) is also featured and helps to go further inside her personal life outside the media and give a well-rounded view of the woman who remains the central figure of a movement that has been shaking up the social landscape and stimulating creative energy for years now.
A few weeks back, I got the chance to sit down with Hanna to chat about the need to tell her story, how her illness has effected the scope of her work, and how culture has changed the way we’re able to connect and progress.
So how did Sini approach you about making the documentary and did you have any reservations about doing it?
Sini asked me to do it, I think, in 2010 and I was pretty reluctant at first. And then I went home and was like, well, why not? I was sick at the time and still didn’t know what I had, and didn’t know if this would be the last chance for me to tell my story—that really played into it. I’d always—at least in the 1990s and even in Le Tigre to a certain extent—downplayed my importance because I didn’t want to be set out from my feminist community.
I didn’t want to be a star of the thing because there were so many people that worked to make Riot Grrrl happen and to create the feminist community that I felt very much a part of, and I felt bad taking attention from other people’s projects. There were bands that were just as good as our band that didn’t get attention. And while that’s all true, I started to realize there was a component to that way of thinking that was like, scream your face off into a hot towel. Like, you know, you don’t deserve to say, “My work is valid, my work has mattered, my work is important.” But then I was like, “I’m awesome, why don’t I deserve a movie to get made about me? I’ve worked my ass off.”
You’ve always been so emotionally open in your music and candid in your interviews, and yet people have always misconstrued you or made generalizations that weren’t true about who you are. Did you see this documentary as another way to really expose the work you’ve done and be a way to tell your story?
It was Sini who did the interviews, and I’d know her for 15 or 20 years, and then my friend Tamm came in a crafted the story. So there was a lot of trust there. I could be as honest as I wanted to be, and then I trusted that if there was something that I absolutely didn’t want in there they would take it out. There wasn’t anything really, except that there’s a photograph of my father in the film and I felt really weird about having his face in there. They put it in and it’s their movie, but that was one thing that made me cringe— well, a lot of it made me cringe because it’s me. But I don’t want to embarrass my father, and even though we don’t speak anymore and he’s a total dick, I still don’t want to hurt him, he’s still alive. So it was hard for me to be like, god is it okay to put this photograph in here? I don’t want his friends to see it. But then I was like, none of his friends are going to see The Punk Singer. So then I thought, fuck it. But that was the hardest thing for me. And the rest of it was gravy.
For a film focused on one person—you—, it also does a really great job of opening up interest about Riot Grrrl and could be informative for those not so familiar. Was that important to you?
There’s definitely an overview of the Riot Grrrl movement and the feminist electronic music scene and that kind of stuff, but there’s two movies currently being made about Riot Grrrl—one in English and one in French, and I was already interviewed for the American one and I’ll be interviewed for the French one next month—and I felt like because I knew those movies were happening that I didn’t have to explain as much. It’s not a movie about Riot Grrrl, it’s a movie about me and that’s okay because I was somebody who was an impetuous for Riot Grrrl.
But I was in a band and I toured a lot, so I wasn’t at every Riot grrrl meeting and I wasn’t in Minneapolis going to meetings. I went to some meetings in DC and I called the first meeting with my friend Alison, but I was much more of a cultural activist than a political activist or someone who ran meetings or anything like that. All I have is my perspective of the good things and the bad things that happened, and that will be much more in the other films. There’s an overview of that in The Punk Singer, hopefully to get people to search out more information.I remember saying to Tamara that I really wanted the stuff I said about how fucked up Riot Grrrl got and how weird things got towards the end, to be in there. And she said, it’s not about Riot Grrrl, if it was, it would be called Riot Grrrl the Movie—it’s about you. And I was like, you’re right! And I’ve done a million other things besides call that first meeting or whatever, so it’s just what I’ve been most heavily associated with.
How does it feel watching the film now and looking back on yourself from such a young age, to first finding success, and then getting sick? Is that difficult to see?
Well, I’d already seen a lot of Le Tigre stuff because there’s a Le Tigre concert movie, so I had had to watch a bunch of that—and I was sick when that was being filmed too. And if you watch it, you can actually tell because my face is a little sideways and you can see that I was really struggling during the filming of that movie. But I hadn’t seen a lot of the Bikini Kill footage and being sick watching it was really difficult. I’m excited about it now that I’m feeling so much better, but it was hard to see my younger self having so much energy and then think god, will I ever be on stage again? And you adjust, like maybe I can’t move around as much as I used to or whatever, but I think I still have a lot of energy on stage. I’ve been touring and having a lot of fun, so luckily the worst case scenario didn’t happen—but it’s freaky.
But you must look back on those days with a sense of pride as well.
The very first scene is me doing this really embarrassing spoken word that, when I found it was online, would actually write to the people asking like, can you take that down? Because it was so embarrassing. And of course they decided to lead the movie off with it. So every single time I see it I have to be like ahhhh because it’s really intense. I’m like, god, I can’t believe I did that, especially when it was such a male dominated scene. Just to get up and be like, “This song’s about incest,” was not cool. “Not cool, Julie!” And now it kind of is cool, and that’s awesome because it wasn’t cool in the 90s and it was really, really difficult. So I love that people like it now.
Culture has changed so much since the early 1990s, and so have the ideals of feminism. Do you find that your own views have changed a lot as well?
I’ve grown as a person, obviously, and I have a lot of really, really great friends. And it’s not that none of us have sexism or racist or classism or any of the isms, but I hang out with a pretty great group of people. So when I encounter somebody at a show or a party who will only talk to my husband or not want to talk to me or be introduced to me, I’m always really shocked and I don’t understand. And when I hear something specifically sexist said in my presence, I don’t even get it. It’s like it goes over my head, like , wait…really? It’s like seeing a UFO now. But I know there are still people that experience that stuff like all the time and aren’t in a position to be like, woah is that a UFO? But for me, maybe I’m sheltered enough in my own little fantasy friendship land that I am really shocked when it still happens.
Rather than meetings, people can just go on the internet now as a means of connecting. You made zines, people now make tumblrs.
It’s great that there’s choices. With the internet, it’s like any tool, it can be a powerful tool for good or a powerful tool for evil.
Well, you’re able to vocalize your opinions and find people that have the same understanding as you but when you’re than open in such an anonymous and wide sphere, it’s also much easier to get it served back to you.
Typically, artists of color and female artists are going to get the most vicious, hateful comments and I think that’s really tough— especially for younger people to deal with. We didn’t have to deal with that. If people wanted to write me hate mail, they physically had to get out a piece of paper or three and write: “You’re the most horrible bitch in the world, I think you should die,” and then fold it up and put it in an envelope and write the address and put a stamp on it and walk to the mailbox. It’s like you don’t have to do that now. You can write any crazy shit and you’re totally anonymous. I knew that if somebody didn’t have a return address on the envelope to just throw it away because I knew what that was going to be. If they didn’t want me to write back they clearly weren’t my friend.
But recently, I went to see Atoms for Peace at the Barclay’s Center and on the way home I saw these girls—two of them went to the show knowing each other and the other had this t-shirt that was like “Tom York is cute” or something like that and she had homemade it and she hadn’t met the other two girls but they had met on the internet. And they were like, “Oh you’re so and so from the like Tom York appreciation club website,” and then I heard them making plans to hang out, and I was like wow, this internet thing this really does work, and when it works to create face to face meetings.
I remember growing up and listening to your music but being really disconnected from what it all meant on a grand scale. There weren’t very many people I felt like I could share my part of that with and had I know more, would have definitely felt less alone.
Yeah and that’s what’s really nice. I didn’t grow up in New York or LA, and my mom is awesome but she read romance novels. It wasn’t like I came from this super sophisticated standpoint. I found out about punk on TV—but that’s the thing that is great about the internet, girls hook up in chat rooms. It’s a great way for people not to feel alone. I really think face to face meetings are really important and finding that one weirdo in your town is really important, even if you don’t have exactly the same musical taste.
I also still believe in the power of a good flyer at a coffee shop. Girls will come up to me at lectures and stuff, and say I want to start my own feminist club or feminist group how do I do it? And I say like go to wherever the cool coffee shop is or wherever people hang out ad just hang flyers up, just do something, anything. It’s not going to be perfect but just start it.
When you were sick and couldn’t make music and became more isolated, did that force you to turn back to your other interests and creative outlets?
Yeah, I actually started writing a TV show called Bridgett Drives the Bus with my husband when I was stuck and sitting on the couch; comedy became very important to me. So I started going to Joe’s Pub in New York and watching a lot of comedy, and this woman Bridgett Evert became very important to me because I felt like when I watched her sing a) she’s a way better technically singer than I am and I really enjoy her voice, b) but I was really able to kind of live through her. I had performed a lot, and it was really great to be able to kick back and watch other people perform. I just wanted to start writing comedy because I needed to make myself laugh.
Did that also fuel moving into The Julie Ruin?
Yeah, I remember just lying in bed having a fantasy band—and I thought this even in Le Tigre even before I was in touch with how very ill I was—like a fantasy basketball team, a fantasy band. And I kept getting sicker and sicker and like the movie, I was like, if I don’t do this now I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it later. And I always had it in my head that I’d like to do another record that was based on the same working process and hopefulness as my solo record in 1997 called Julie Ruin. So I always wanted to revise that project as something fuller; I always like those songs were just sketches of songs and they were never fully realized and I always wanted to fully realize them.
Did bringing in a band help bring those sketches to life?
Yeah and it was great because instead of having to hole up in my apartment—because I was super depressed about my band breaking up or people thinking I was the bitch from Bikini Kill and feeling alienated from my community and all the things that made me depressed in 1997—I holed up in my apartment and I made this record in 2010 or right as the movie was starting to be filmed. And that helped bring me to a place of hope; that helped me because I was like, I don’t care how sick I fucking get, I’m going to finish this record. I have to finish this record. It gave me something to look forward to, to have a well day and be able to sing. What’s funny is, I listen to the record and I don’t think I sound sick. I feel like I heard myself again for the first time in years. “That’s me! That’s me. I’m not just this sick person.” I think they had to take this quote out of the movie, but the Bob Marley quote: One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain, that was something I thought about all the time in every practice. I would go in so exhausted and just couldn’t do it and I didn’t know if anything was going to come out of my mouth when I started singing, and then I would practice for three hours and just sing and sing and sing and I was like, oh my god.
Are there any young female musicians that you’re really excited about that you feel are doing something really interesting?
I still love MIA, ever since she came out I’ve been a really big fan. I love Grimes, I like Lorde, Priests from DC, CHVRCHES. And I love Bridget Everett, she’s like my favorite all-time singer right now. I love the performance artist Erin Markey, whose also very much a feminist and Neil Medlyn whose also a feminist and performance artist. I’ve been really into downtown New York performance art and cabaret.
Will you ever do a cabaret show yourself?
When I’m 65. I’m definitely going to do an all-woman off-off-off-off-off Broadway show because my husband told me that’s what he pictured in the future. So I feel like I kind of owe it to him, maybe on his birthday I’ll just come out with my off-off-off-off-off Broadway show.
I think going to concerts started to feel like work to me, so going to see these different kinds of musical expression and performance art was like a breath of fresh air. I moved to New York so it was like, I can get into the comedy scene and the cabaret scene.