It’s been almost three years since the last album by the Julie Ruin, but the band is back with Hit Reset, an ambitious LP that’ll make you dance. And laugh. And cry. And then dance some more. MAGNET asked actress/comedian (and huge fan) Amy Poehler to interview riot-grrl icon Kathleen Hanna. It might get loud.
The Julie Ruin’s Kathleen Hanna makes great music. In the Q&A below, I asked her about her new music. We also talked about other fun and interesting things. MAGNET listened in and took notes. (Fingers crossed!) —Amy Poehler
Kathleen Hanna: So where are you? What are you doing?
Amy Poehler: I’m in California, and I’m physically moving to a new house, so I’m currently sitting on a water bottle to soothe my sciatica. What about you?
Hanna: I’m sitting in a park with my mom in New York. She’s in from Pasadena, and then I thought, this is a really good place to do an interview! It’s the first really nice day in a while, and I really want to be outside. I’m sick of being inside.
Poehler: Are you on tour right now? Or are you going on tour?
Hanna: Yes, we will be going on tour in July when the record comes out.
Poehler: Let’s talk about the video for “I Decide.” Did you shoot that in Austin?
Hanna: Yes, my friend shot it at SXSW, and it was literally the first time that Katie (Crutchfield of Waxahatchee) had heard the song. You notice that she gets more confident, and then less confident, and then more confident again.
Poehler: It’s funny to notice who was noticing her. It was such a cool video. I think it really gets to how people experience your music; I know it’s how I do. You can listen to it, it’s very personal, but it’s still an “of the people” feel. The perfect way to listen to your music is walking around among people. Because you can feel like it’s speaking to you, and I always feel like you are speaking to me.
Hanna: I am, actually. [Laughs]
Poehler: Thank you for confirming that. [Laughs] I loved that. It’s so hard to capture the right tone for a video.
Hanna: It was my bandmate who thought of it. I think the thing is, being a woman and wearing headphones on the street, it’s a private time. And I was alive when the first Walkman came out, and that became my lifeline. It was how I tuned out people on the street who were hassling me or looking me up and down or whatever. You tune people out, and it’s perfectly wonderful and like a Toyota ad. But sometimes it’s not, and I’ve used headphones as a way to create my inner landscape. And now I’m the person helping create that, and I’m the 16-year-old.
Poehler: Do you think that when you write lyrics? Do you think about the person listening?
Hanna: I used to but not as much anymore. I see all these great younger bands doing whatever the fuck they want. I started to feel like I wanted to express myself a little more abstractly; it started to become a service job. I felt like I had to write about something, because I was getting a lot of letters about this issue. We have to address our fans. Sometimes that was successful, and sometimes it seemed overworked. Too planned and not spontaneous and exciting. Sometimes I write for people, but I write more for myself now. Like twisted Post-It note memos like, “You can do it!” and “You’re wonderful!” and “You’re a lovely person!” A lot of the writing has to do with getting into relationships and then thinking this isn’t something good … but how do I get out of it? And feeling like that’s OK. As a teenager, it was like, whoever wanted to be my friend or whoever wanted to date me, I felt like I owed it to them. And now I’m like, “You get older and you have less time, and you have more shit on your plate,” and I think, “I don’t want to waste my time with people anymore.” But how I grew up was to have good boundaries and all that kind of stuff.
Poehler: Does that transfer? Working on having healthy boundaries to being on the road? Now that you’re touring 20 years later, how does that work with managing your time? How do you keep energy and what helps you on the road?
Hanna: I guess I used to be more accessible. I used to go out and talk to people, but now I feel like the music is enough. I think a lot of my songs are pretty great, and if it helps someone out in the crowd, I think that’s great! But I’m not specifically writing for people or myself, I’m writing the music I hear in my head. I don’t have to also be counseling people after shows. Giving 110 percent onstage and going to voice lessons and eating right and all that stuff, I’m putting everything into the show; that’s all I care about. I’m not out partying. And that’s how I say thank you for paying the money and coming to the show. And now that I’m older, it’s enough. When I was like 21 and I was working at a domestic-violence shelter, I was totally down to counsel everybody at the party where everybody was getting wasted and I was talking to somebody about gang rape in the corner. But I can’t do that anymore. I can’t take it. I have my own problems. And that doesn’t mean I don’t care about other people and their issues. And that does happen, and it’s awesome and it’s the right timing, but a lot of the time, I just hide backstage! It used to be, I have to go sign every T-shirt, I have to go sign every album, talk to everybody.
Poehler: Well, your music is about self-love and self-acceptance and struggling with that, and that’s what you’re doing. You’re taking care of yourself first and living by example. I think that’s the hardest thing. It’s hard to learn as a person of the world, and especially a female person of the world, because you’re really taught to sublimate your needs and desires for your entire life! How did you write this album? Did you write with the band or with yourself ?
Hanna: Wow, you really came prepared, Amy!
Poehler: You know it! This is MAGNET. I’m not gonna fuck around!
Hanna: I wrote the whole album, which is what I did with the whole Nirvana album, Nevermind. [Laughs] No, I’m just kidding. I brought in some samples with ideas for verses and people also brought in ideas, like Kathi (Wilcox) would be like, “Here’s a guitar riff.” It was really super-collaborative from everybody. It was the first time we had really great interchange and conversation within the band, especially when someone would say, “Oh, this isn’t working vocally. I like the thing you did on the earlier practice tape.” People really cared about what we were making, content wise, and formally. They didn’t say, “Oh, I’m not really loving that.” They would say, “I’m not really loving that, but here’s an idea.” You know what I mean? And that’s awesome. Everyone in the band is incredibly awesome. We signed with Hardly Art, which is run by Sarah Moody, and there’s so many great bands on that label, like Protomartyr and Tacocat and Chastity Belt, and a lot of feminism going on. I was actually interviewing Tacocat earlier today, and we were talking about how there’s actually male feminist bands now. You say you’re a feminist and your entire life people will say, “Oh, what’s that? What’s your process?” And I want guy bands to get asked, “Are you a feminist band? What do you think of Beyoncé having “feminist” written behind her at the VMAs? Why is it only girl bands and musicians getting asked that? Why aren’t I being asked about how I’m in bands that are usually all white?” It’s absolutely bizarre. Well, what are you up to right now?
Poehler: Well, I’m producing and directing some stuff. Broad City’s third season is on now, and Difficult People, the show for Hulu, and I’m going to be working on another film in a few months. After Parks And Recreation, I kind of chilled out for a minute because I knew how special that show was and how special that experience was, and I just took a minute. And it’s been really nice. It’s so rare to do that, to take a minute and to grieve and process something in real time. So I’m feeling really creative, and it’s great! I feel really rejuvenated because I’ve been doing something other than acting, which is not the most powerful of positions in a way.
Hanna: Is it because you’re pretending to be someone else? Lying for a living?
Poehler: [Laughs] That’s what I put on my résumé: professional liar. Let me ask you about this record again. First of all, I can’t wait to see you live; I’m blown away by you as a performer. I don’t think I’ve told you that in person. And what I love about the way you perform, not just your honesty, is that you love to party! And I love to party, too. I love a good party, I love to dance, you love to dance. For this record, do you consider it a dance record? Or a party record? Is it a strut-down-the-street record? Is it all of those things?
Hanna: Like walking down a runway?
Poehler: Yes! Or you pretend you get on the subway and there’s somebody watching you.
Hanna: I think it’s a loud, driving-in-the-car record. And I feel like it’s a walking-in-the-city-like-you’re-walking-a-runway-with-your-headphones-on record. There are definitely songs you can dance to, but we didn’t set out to make dance music. Sometimes you’re inspired by a certain band or a certain sound.
Poehler: Who inspired you for this record? What were you listening to? Hanna: I think it might sound more dance-ier because there’s more keyboard on it. The last record had more guitars on it, so it was more rock, but there’s definitely a message of “fuck you.” It’s a real “fuck you” record in a lot of ways. Whether it’s a sad “fuck you” or a happy “fuck you,” in a lot of ways.
Poehler: Explain more what you mean.
Hanna: There’s a song on it called “I’m Done,” and it’s just, like, “I’m done with you and all your bullshit. I’m done with this.” It could be about a friend or an ex or a group of people harassing you on the internet, but it was basically like taking power and saying, “I have the right to be here.” I’m fine disagreeing with people, but I won’t be someone’s punching bag. When you’re a performer, people tend to project their own stuff on to you, and for me, I’m totally done with that. There were songs where I was crying in practice. There are two songs about euthanasia on the record, one that I wrote and one that Kenny (Mellman) in my band wrote, and I was like, “Your song is about euthanasia, too?” [Laughs] We were destined to be in the same band. I couldn’t write that stuff as honestly when it was really happening. Like what you said, I had to regroup and have me-time. It was really like, “Now I can deal with this and how bad it really was.” And how much I was faking it to make other people feel comfortable. And when I dealt with it, it was really beautiful. I would start crying and losing pitch, and the band would be like, “Do you want to stop?” And I would say, “No, we need to work through this now, because if we are onstage, we will have to work through it then.” I can’t pick when I get too emotional.
Poehler: That’s interesting. It’s funny you say that because it is balancing that level: How much do I want to keep for myself, and how much do I want to share? Whether it’s onstage or on my record, how much do I have to keep balanced? How much real estate does everything take up? Onstage, you’re a very emotionally expressive person, but when someone gets out of control, I know it’s the same way with acting. You are kind of losing it that you lose your way in the scene. You become disassociated, just like losing pitch. Do you do any throat exercises before you sing?
Hanna: [Makes machine-gun noise with mouth, then laughs] But actually, yes. I sing scales and stuff like that, and I have a voice teacher, and with what you were saying, I do have to work at it. When you get good at something, like when I saw you at Upright Citizens Brigade, I was like, “Wow, these people are like major-league basketball players on top of your game.” To me, improv is the hardest thing in the world, and to make it look so effortless … I have to work really hard behind the scenes to be able to perform at the top of my game. And then to get to the place of bringing in emotion, I know it must be the same for acting because I’ve done lectures, and I have to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse to be able to bring that emotion. And being able to express the emotion without being the emotion? It’s hard to explain. Like, I have to cry at home so I don’t cry at the college.