In 1997, Kathleen Hanna holed up in her bedroom to get back to the heart of why she ever started making music. She was young, still in her late 20s, but already emblematic of a feminist wave in rock music through her work with the influential punk band Bikini Kill and the subsequent Riot Grrrl movement it had empowered.
Reeling from Bikini Kill’s recent demise, Hanna was depressed and unsure of whether she’d ever front another band. She wrote, recorded, and produced her first solo album by herself under the guise of Julie Ruin, drawing heavily on samples and electronic beats. It liberated her to make a record that, in her words, was a way to “escape what had happened to me.”
Some 15 years later, that bedroom experiment has had the same healing effect on Hanna at a very different stage in her life. Her one-woman project has evolved into a five-piece band called the Julie Ruin, ending a grueling hiatus brought on by years of health problems that she largely kept private except to her husband, Adam Horovitz (better known as Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys).
Hanna has been the subject of a lot of discussion and discourse lately, from a 2010 tribute concert honoring her accomplishments — which coincided with the archiving of her career through writings, photos, posters, and so on — to a recent documentary about her journey called “The Punk Singer.”
Hanna is only 45, so the intense focus on her legacy, and the uneasy act of looking back, is slightly comical even to her.
“I was like, ‘It’s like I’m dead already.’ Then I started archiving my work. I was sick and I thought I was dying and started planning for my own death,” Hanna says ahead of the Julie Ruin’s sold-out show at the Sinclair on Thursday. “And then I lived, and now I’m like, ‘Oh, no! I’ve erected all these statues to myself that I have to stare at.’ Ugggh.”
After a few years of deteriorating health, never truly knowing what was wrong, in 2010 she was finally diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease. It meant she had lived with it for nearly six years, during which her energy and drive had seriously depleted as her latest band, the dance-punk outfit Le Tigre, was at the peak of its powers.
“I was sick and I had kind of lost who I was apart from illness,” Hanna says. “I was dealing with illness 24 hours a day, and all my focus was on that. And then I thought, ‘Wait, what about my dream?’ When that happened, I had all this hope. The great thing was this time, I wasn’t desperate and holed up in my apartment by myself. This time I reached out and my friends came through for me.”
“So I assembled the band with the idea that we would play my solo album,” she adds. “They learned all the songs in literally 45 minutes. They’re such good musicians. So then we just started writing new songs, and it felt right.”
For the Julie Ruin, she enlisted longtime friends, including Kathi Wilcox from their days together in Bikini Kill, and newer ones such as Carmine Covelli, Sara Landeau, and Kenny Mellman (the piano-playing half of the defunct alt-cabaret duo Kiki & Herb).
The songs on “Run Fast,” their 2013 debut, are among the most expansive and revelatory Hanna has ever written. It’s not that she has ever obscured her message; this is, after all, the woman who once rallied her audiences at Bikini Kill shows with a simple but revolutionary call to arms: “All girls to the front.”
But this time, instead of writing anthems directed at others, she turned inward and to address her own life with songs that retain the punk sensibility and urgency of her earlier work. “Stop Stop” confronts her frustration with her disease and how others treat her because of it. “Goodnight, Goodbye” turns a gimlet eye on her tumultuous past and coming to terms with it: “It happens when you’re not 20 but 41/ And you have to sink in to the you you’ve now become,” Hanna sings. “Will the teenage sneer you so cultivated/ Sneer back at you and make you feel so hated?”
“It’s been hard to give myself permission to write about myself,” Hanna admits. “I needed to give myself the present of doing whatever I wanted to do, because I was at my wit’s end. The only thing about the record that was important to me was that there was life in it and some twists and turns you didn’t expect.”
If there has been any common thread in Hanna’s story it’s the notion that she — and, by extension, we — can find strength and power through music. One of the more heart-rending moments from “The Punk Singer,” which was released on DVD earlier this week, is of Hanna tearfully admitting that when she told her husband and bandmates that she was done making music, it was a lie. It was her way of taking control of the situation, when in fact her failing health was dictating she couldn’t do what she felt like she was born to do.
‘It’s been hard to give myself permission to write about myself.’
“In making this record, I wanted to sing about what’s going on in my life,” Hanna says. “I wanted to explore abstract lyrics because my brain was all screwed from this [expletive] Lyme disease. That’s why it was so important for me to put this record out and go on tour and show people, ‘Look, I’m still a viable artist. I’m not dead. I made it through this thing and I’m back. There’s a whole other part of my career that has yet to come.’ ”James Reed can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.