There are about a dozen reasons why former Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna adopted a new persona as "Julie Ruin" for her soon-to-be-released first solo album, appropriately titled Julie Ruin.
Among them: to break with her storied past; to combat assumptions that women write strictly from their own experience; and to put the sound of a new name on people's lips and in their ears.
Of all the reasons she rattles off, however, there's one in particular that smacks you in the gut with its inspiring sincerity. And like the best of Bikini Kill, as well as Julie Ruin's new album, it's all about power.
"I'm also just showing that I'm powerful enough that I can change my name whenever I f---ing want," Hanna said recently from her new part-time digs in New York. "I don't care about the marketing possibilities inherent in being the girl from Bikini Kill doing a solo record."
The advertising cachet of the Bikini Kill name is certainly strong. While the Olympia, Wash.-based band was never a chart-topping act, in the early 1990s its singles and concerts motivated untold numbers of fans to pick up instruments and belt out their rage, most notably the musicians who became the acclaimed Sleater-Kinney. Bikini Kill songs such as "Suck My Left One" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Rebel Girl" (RealAudio excerpt) became rallying anthems for the riot-grrrl movement.
Earlier this year, however, Bikini Kill decided to split up after Hanna moved to North Carolina and bassist Kathi Wilcox moved to Washington, D.C.
With the 15-song Julie Ruin (Tuesday), Hanna sounds utterly familiar while also wading out into uncharted waters. Without abandoning the sharp sense of melody that helped define Bikini Kill, she now accompanies herself with cheap, electronic drums and samples, captured on a worn-out, four-track recorder she set up as a mini-studio in an apartment closet in Olympia. The result is a high-energy, high-emotion album that melds punk and lo-fi electronica into one of the most unique experiments of the year.
"I wanted to make something that I wanted to hear that I wasn't hearing," Hanna said. Boastful lines such as "I'm makin' bulls--- disappear like I'm Hou-f---in'-dini," from "V.G.I.," turn the often misogynist swagger of hip-hop on its ear to serve Hanna's radical, feminist vision.
The staccato beats and distorted wail of "A Place Called Won't Be There" take on what Hanna/Ruin calls the "fake feminist police-force" of activists such as Andrea Dworkin, whom she claims rails against pornography and prostitution without having had firsthand experience in the sex trades.
Paul Schuster, who helped Hanna with some of the album's keyboard and bass tracks, said he envisioned the Julie Ruin project as a complete album from the start, even though Hanna recorded it in spurts over an 18-month period.
"There were times we were mixing it and I was going through tapes and found a song and said, 'This is great' -- and she wasn't even planning on including it," said Schuster, 29, a member of former indie-poppers Some Velvet Sidewalk. "But I thought this one song was awesome, so I told her to sing some 'doot dee doo,' and I sampled that over the song, which became 'My Morning Is Summer.' "
Elsewhere on the album, Hanna undercuts the structures of pop culture with direct challenges to their traditional themes. "I Wanna Know What Love Is," for example, uses a soft-rock, love-ballad format to critique society's ills.
"I feel real, legitimate pain about these things," Hanna said. "The whole idea for the juxtaposition with a love song is that these phony love songs on top-40 radio are supposed to be about all these emotions. But I don't have the same emotion about compartmentalized, heterosexual love as I do about this kind of stuff. So part of it was making fun of the emptiness -- the emotional response that I don't even think is real -- and trying to also take something that's superficial and give it content."
Hanna's form-vs.-content experiments are among the myriad elements that attract Bikini Kill-inspired performers such as Madigan Shive to her work. "She is not afraid to really let us know that these political systems really affect all of us on a day-to-day level," said Shive, the 23-year-old leader and cellist for Bonfire Madigan. "As an artist, she makes no bones about that and even makes it a priority."
While Hanna's electronic punk marks a clean break from the jagged-guitar base of Bikini Kill, Slim Moon, owner of the Kill Rock Stars label, sees Julie Ruin as a continuation of the work Hanna began forging years ago.
"In all the different bands she's been in -- from Bikini Kill to the Fakes to Viva Kineval to her work with Joan Jett -- the most consistent thing has been her great voice and melodic sensibility, and her imperative to be very forward with her opinions," said Moon, 30. "Of course, with Julie Ruin, it's an alter ego, but it's still pretty forward."
While Hanna said she'd like to tour as Julie Ruin next spring, she's not yet sure whether she'll hit the road under that name or as part of a band, of which Julie Ruin will be a member. For the time being, she's working on another record, which may or may not be attributed to Ruin.
"I'm just working and having a good time and seeing what develops," Hanna said. "Which is so awesome, because you don't know what's going to happen, and I'm letting myself do that a lot more than I ever have."