No one believed Kathleen Hanna was sick.
Sure, she hadn't put out an album in a few years, but she hadn't exactly gone into hiding. In New York, where she relocated after establishing her rep in the Pacific Northwest, she was still a frequent face in the crowd at rock clubs and political rallies. She had a documentary made about her, and donated an archive of her old fanzines to New York University. Besides, who'd imagine the flame-throwing poster grrrl of post-punk feminism could be taken down by something as dull as an autoimmune disorder? But Lyme disease is a fickle affliction. It'll allow the stricken the illusion of health one week, then keep them quarantined for the next month. Hanna began comparing herself to Brigadoon, the fictional village that becomes visible to the world one day every 100 years, then disappears into mist.
"It's this feeling nobody gets, except maybe the person you live with," says Hanna, 44. "Nobody gets what's going on. They think, 'What are you complaining about? I saw you at the Planned Parenthood march. She's not really sick.' They don't know that I go home and, after just getting up to speak, I have to sleep for a week, because that was so much work for my body."
That was three years ago, around the time Hanna started thinking about revisiting her 1998 solo project, the Julie Ruin. It makes sense she'd fall ill then: Twelve years earlier, when she recorded the original Julie Ruin album, Hanna's life hung in a similar state of uncertainty. Her band, legendary riot-starters Bikini Kill, had just broken up. With no clue what to do next, she holed up in her apartment in Olympia, Wash., with an 8-track, a drum machine and a sampler, and produced what many in her cult of devotees consider her greatest personal statement. It was so personal, in fact, that Hanna couldn't figure out how to bring it from her bedroom to the stage. Out of her failed attempt to assemble a backing band to play the songs live, she formed Le Tigre, the dance-punk outfit that would put out three beloved albums of its own before going on an extended hiatus in 2007.
And so, bandless once again, Hanna went back to the Julie Ruin. This time, she actually managed to get a group together, made up of friends from different stages of her career, including Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox. Just as the band was starting work on its debut, Hanna got sick. Faced with the very real prospect of never making another album, she didn't wait to get better.
"I'd be sick for three weeks, then well for one," Hanna says. "And during that one week, I'd sing my fucking little heart out. It was really important to me that, if it was going to be my last record, I wanted it to sound alive."
Indeed, the newly released Run Fast doesn't sound like the work of a woman on her last legs. It contains all the hallmarks of a Kathleen Hanna project: spiky punk guitars, buzzy synths and her distinctive, piercing wail, deployed with equal parts clenched-fist subversion and unbridled joy. But Hanna says if it weren't for her diagnosis, the album would have turned out much differently. In a way, the disease actually helped her as a songwriter. If the lyrics on Run Fast read a bit more abstractly than the pointed feminist screeds she's known for, that's because Lyme disease sometimes causes patients to misuse words. Hanna decided to keep her mistakes on the record, as a document of her illness, but also to embrace nonsense for once.
"I've always been obsessed with communicating, and communicating really clearly," she says. "Maybe it was my time to be a little more poetic and not have to spell things out for people.â
With Hanna in remission, the Julie Ruin is finally on the road—which means those songs from the first Julie Ruin record are finally on the road as well. For Hanna, it's an opportunity to examine a short but pivotal time in her life, one she never got to hash out in public, and see how far she's come since. And so far, the biggest revelation has been that, in many ways, she hasn't come that far at all.
"Sometimes I'm, like, celebrating while I'm singing: 'Oh my God, I'm so happy I'm not in that same place anymore,'" she says. "And in some cases, I'm like, 'This is so weird: I wrote this one song about this one relationship, and I'm having the same problem in this other relationship now, 17 years later.' So I'm seeing the places I've changed, and the places I've really stayed stuck.â
SEE IT: The Julie Ruin plays as part of the Time-Based Art Festival at the Works at Con-Way, 2170 NW Raleigh St., on Thursday, Sept. 12. 10:30 pm. Free. All ages.