Music brings former lead singer of Bikini Kill Kathleen Hanna back to Olympia

It will be a happy homecoming for former lead singer of Bikini Kill Kathleen Hanna; She’s in Olympia this weekend with a new band for film festival

Contributing writerNovember 8, 2013 

The Julie Ruin

What: The Julie Ruin, Kathleen Hanna’s new band, kicks off the Olympia Film Festival after a screening of the dramatic comedy “Swim Little Fish Swim.”

When: Film at 6 p.m. Friday, concert at 9 p.m.

Where: Capitol Theater, 206 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia

Tickets: $20, $15 for Olympia Film Society members and students

More information: or

Also: The concert is open to all ages; beer and wine will be available in the mezzanine for those 21 and older. Kathleen Hanna is back — in more ways than one.

Hanna was the lead singer and songwriter of the pioneering riot grrrl band Bikini Kill but hasn’t performed in Olympia since that band’s final show, which happened at the Capitol Theater.

Sixteen years later, she is returning to the theater to kick off the 30th annual Olympia Film Festival with her new band, The Julie Ruin. On Saturday, she’ll introduce the West Coast premiere of “The Punk Singer,” a documentary about her life.

“I’m kind of returning to the scene of the crime,” Hanna said.

“Olympia is so huge in my heart,” she said. “It’s a huge homecoming for me. I’m going to have to fight back the tears.”

But Hanna, who now lives in New York City, hasn’t just been away from Olympia, where Bikini Kill began. In 2005, a mysterious illness took her away from performing — and away from life as she’d previously known it.

“I didn’t have a diagnosis, and I was rapidly deteriorating to the point where I couldn’t walk up stairs, and I was sick for two weeks out of the month, and I started having seizures,” she said. “I felt like, ‘Am I dying?’ ”

The diagnosis of Lyme disease a couple of years ago was just the first step of a long journey back.

“At first, I was so excited,” she said. “I was like, ‘There’s a word for this, and so there’s a cure for this,’ only to find out the cure is often more painful than the disease.”

Music was with her through it all.

“Playing music on the very few days that I was well was the thing that kept me going,” she said. “I would see my old self. I would play with my band and I felt good just while I was playing the music.”

And it’s music that has brought her back to Olympia. The Julie Ruin is touring in support of “Run Fast,” an album released in September. It was three years in the making, because the band worked only when Hanna felt well enough.

Because she wanted to tour, Hanna waited until her health had improved to release the album. Still, she wondered whether she’d feel well enough to play or have to pull out of scheduled shows.

“The shows went off without a hitch,” she said. “It was hard for me to keep it together during the shows because I was so happy. When I was in bed, I was thinking, ‘I’ll never play shows again. This has taken my life.’

“You really realize what you had when you don’t have it anymore. My priorities have become very clear.”

The belief that she might never perform again was what led Hanna to lay her life bare on camera for director Sini Anderson, a longtime friend, and to donate her papers to New York University.

“I decided to be completely honest,” she said. “When you think, ‘I might be dying,’ there’s no reason to hold back. I thought, ‘This might be my last chance to say what I have to say.’ ”

“The Punk Singer” mixes concert footage with sometimes harrowing personal interviews. The film, on its way to theatrical release, has played at numerous festivals and earned critical praise for its unflinching look at Lyme disease, which Anderson also has.

Entertainment Weekly’s Karen Valby wrote that the “intimate, invigorating portrait” was a film she couldn’t stop thinking about after she saw the world premiere at the Austin, Texas, festival South by Southwest in March.

“ ‘The Punk Singer’ is no dry polemic, and it’s not just for hardcore fans of the music,” she wrote. “There’s good laughs, and, my, what a romance. The movie revisits the early days of Hanna’s relationship with Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, whom she married in 2006.”

Now, Hanna is living a real-life happy ending to what she thought might be the final chapter.

“It’s this heroic return to music playing with The Julie Ruin,” she said. “All of our shows have gone really well, and I’m like, ‘This is the end to the movie, but it’s not really in there.’ ”

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