Interview: 'Punk Singer' Kathleen Hanna

SALLY HEDBERG | Updated 2/3/2014

Feminist punk icon talks new biopic "The Punk Singer," facing death and her riot grrrl legacy.

Kathleen Hanna
Courtesy IFC Films

Kathleen Hanna thought that she was going to die.

The seminal riot grrrl feminist and Bikini Kill/Le Tigre/Julie Ruin frontwoman - known and harshly scrutinized for her outspokenness - was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease in 2010. And after years of misdiagnosis and terrible illness, she was certain the end was near.

During that period of uncertainty she agreed to let an old friend, Sini Anderson, shoot a documentary film cataloging her life achievements. The film promised a unique window into the mind a formerly guarded but highly important thinker, musician and feminist icon. Thankfully, Hanna’s health has greatly improved.

Sini Anderson’s film “The Punk Singer” - which will screen to four sold-out audiences at the Trylon on Wednesday and Thursday - follows the release of "Run Fast," Hanna's standout debut with new band the Julie Ruin. had the privilege to speak with the ultimate '90s rebel girl ahead of the showings.

Q: It’s been a big couple of weeks now that “The Punk Singer” has been released and is reaching wider audiences. As a person with a complicated history with the press and the spotlight what kind of emotions does all of the positive feedback conjure up?

A: Positive. I guess I’m just really grateful for it. I’ve been sick for a really long time and now I’m feeling a lot better and am sort of coming out of seclusion, of some sort, and having people embrace my work. The ‘90s are back in and so people are interested in riot grrrl and Bikini Kill and then that gets them into Le Tigre. It’s just really exciting to see young girls who are in high school be like, "Oh whoa! This happened?” And they are excited to learn about it. That’s what makes me feel really good, more than people being like “You’re so great! You’re awesome.”

The film is so overwhelmingly positive and I do kind of wish that it had a little more of a critique, a little more questioning of some stuff I did. I’m a flawed human being like everyone. But it’s weird because it’s not my movie, it’s not my vision. But It’s made me feel proud of my work thus far and be able to look at it at a distance. I’ve always ran from the past and just kept moving, so it made me stop and honor what I have done and made me feel almost lighter.

Q: You’ve expressed that you only really agreed to allow the film to be made because you thought you were very close to death. At what point did that fear really set it?

A: You know, it was years before the film was even made. I just knew, really deep inside. I was actually on vacation in Hawaii and was all of the sudden just like, “I’m dying,” and I knew something was really wrong. When I got home that was when I really in earnest started looking into what was happening, because it just kept getting worse and worse.

The seriousness and the gravity of it was around 2009 when I was doing the riot grrrl archives and I was just getting rid of a lot of stuff. That’s what people do when they’re not sure if they’re going to live or die. My husband’s grandma gave me a bunch of stuff right before she passed away. I was just getting rid of things and getting ready to move on, and I was diagnosed during the process of the movie.

So you didn’t even know when you were getting rid of things that it was late-stage Lyme disease?

No. I didn’t have a name for it. I mean, during that same period I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, M.S. and all of these other different immune illnesses, some that would have gotten worse to the point where I wouldn’t have even been able to communicate or  formulate sentences. I thought if I lost the ability to communicate that’d be everything. I was in a panic.