"The ocean, the Pacific. The smell of night-blooming jasmine and eucalyptus trees … the terrain that one grows up with …”
Scent and sea – this is what Kim Gordon missed most about the landscape of her youth, the sprawling heat of California’s Los Angeles. “I spent a lot of time thinking about L.A., even when I wasn’t living here,” she tells me down the line from her house in Franklin Hills, part of the city’s Los Feliz district, where I’ve called to talk about her debut solo LP, No Home Record. Gordon is jetlagged, and more than ready to be done with the press junket that inevitably follows an album release (“I’m kind of looking forward to getting past all the promo for the record just so I can actually do some more work again”), but her voice is cool as ever, still laced with that signature sandpaper rasp. Perfectly deadpan, it was a hallmark of the late 80s and 90s when she harnessed it gutturally at times, confessionally at others, as co-founder, lead singer and bassist for art-rock iconoclasts Sonic Youth.
It’s a little jarring to picture Gordon at home in L.A., so synonymous is she with New York City. It’s easier to imagine her back at Tod’s Copy Shop on Mott Street, between Prince and Spring, where she worked with Sonic Youth bandmate (and soon-to-be husband) Thurston Moore, assisting the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Jean-Michel Basquiat xeroxing scripts, artworks, résumés. Or maybe at Greene Street Recording, the studio where they laid down tracks for the group’s fifth record, Daydream Nation. Even Northampton, Massachusetts, where Gordon moved in 1999 with Moore and their daughter, Coco, certifying the area with their presence as a suburban sanctuary of sorts for other settled alt-rockers.
But that isn’t the Kim Gordon of today, and she’s not interested in pretending it is. When her split with Moore was announced in October 2011 after 27 years of marriage, the world was sent into a collective sense of whiplash. They were, as described by Rolling Stone music critic Jon Dolan, “easily one of the most admirable institutions in rock history”, whose breakup was “like having a rock thrown through your bedroom window”.
Because the demise of Gordon and Moore’s union also signalled the demise of Sonic Youth, a band that epitomised the spirit of NY’s avant-garde, experimental art and music scene. Insight into the relationship’s unravelling, and more, soon came in the form of Gordon’s 2015 memoir, Girl In a Band, which chronicled everything from her childhood years through to Sonic Youth’s final performance in São Paulo, Brazil (“I don’t think I had ever felt so alone in my whole life”).
“I didn’t really think of the writing as cathartic,” she tells me of the memoir’s drafting process. “I just thought it would kind of help me think about things … I don’t know, it’s kinda almost like I’m not a person when I’m writing, or something …” Gordon isn’t afraid of a little auditory tension – her music is practically defined by it, and our conversation weaves around large pauses that she’s in no hurry to fill. Towards the end of writing Girl In a Band, Gordon packed her life in Northampton into her Subaru and began the long journey west – a ‘goodbye to all that’ of sorts, akin to fellow Cali local-turned-East Coast transplant Joan Didion.
That was five years ago, and a lot has changed for Gordon since. Besides crafting music as one half of Body/Head (alongside Bill Nace), she recorded a track with Stephen Malkmus – Refute, a break-up Western centred on marriage and infidelity – and has recently released the aforementioned No Home Record, the result of a happenstance meeting with producer Justin Raisen. “There wasn’t much premeditation about it. I kinda accidentally met Justin and we did one song together, which became Murdered Out [the record’s fourth track],” she explains.
“He wanted me to work on this other project, so I went over there and did some vocals and he sort of took these leftover bits and put a drum track to it that was kind of trashy and sort of punk in a way.”
The record provides a new canvas for Gordon’s prowess; an opportunity for reinvention – Get Yr Life Back was inspired by a plastic sign promoting yoga, though it’s hard to not read it as autobiographical (I feel bad for you / I feel bad for me), and then there’s the lyrically deadpan Air BnB, a comment on the culture of the American ideal (Rustic, romantic / Malibu getaway / Artistic oasis / You are a plague). Has songwriting changed in the years since she was penning lines for Sonic Youth? “Technology has changed the way people listen to music – I guess that’s been the biggest change over time,” she considers. “People are more song orientated because of that, rather than whole albums … Spotify’s making playlists for people’s moods. Kinda like, making everything more convenient is a plus and a minus, you know?”
Where she used to be defined by her band’s cult status, nowadays she operates in her preferred state: visual artist first, musician second. “When I was a teenager I really liked Rodin … And then I went to see some show, van Gogh at the L.A. County Museum. That was super interesting because it’s so different when you see work in person, rather than reproductions, it’s like a completely different thing. You can see the human brush stroke,” she recalls.
Gordon spent the late 70s studying at L.A.’s Otis College of Art and Design, exhibiting her first solo exhibition, Design Office, in 1981 at New York’s White Columns, and has been exploring, creating and deconstructing art ever since. Her latest series (her first solo show in North America), Lo-Fi Glamour at the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, featured painting, sculpture and figure drawings as well as a commissioned score for Andy Warhol’s 1963–64 film, Kiss. A general sense of irreverence towards hierarchy and an allegiance to punk mentality pervades. “A few years ago a survey showed my artwork and I could see kind of a thread through it, going through it through the years, and I felt like that was kind of interesting. You know, those kinds of ideas I had when you know I was in my 20s, I’m still interested in.”
“Better to be a young older person than an old young person,” Gordon wrote in a 2013 tweet (she currently boasts 124,500 followers, though I doubt it’s a figure she dwells on). To paraphrase Didion once more, then, does Gordon still find herself on nodding terms with the young person she used to be – that post punk icon so emblematic of New York and experimental freedom? It’s clear by the length of silence I’m met with after asking that it’s a trip she doesn’t really feel like taking. “When I think about the past, I mostly think about the past … you know, like about my childhood or being a teenager,” she says. “My mum used to say that I was kind of the same person since I was five … I know that’s not really true because obviously you know, you go through life and experiences. But in a certain way, I guess I am.”
As for the here and now? “I like that I have a lot going on even though I do get kinda stressed out by it,” she laughs. “I have a show coming up in January at 303 Gallery in New York, so I’ll be working on that, and then at some point I guess try put a band together and do some live shows … Making songs, rehearsing and then performing – I haven’t done that in a long time. It will be different.” She pauses again, reflecting in the extended silence. “It will be definitely weird.”