It’s 11am, just as the new year is beginning, and Kim Gordon is busy with her first project of 2020. She’s in New York City prepping for a visual art show at 303 Gallery in Chelsea that opens the following week and will run into February. Right now, she sounds sleepy: “I’m just waking up,” she explains gently in a low, frail purr.
Gordon is back in her former stomping ground, where in the 1980s, her band Sonic Youth grew out of the hip downtown No Wave scene, which was built on the remnants of punk rock’s societal disaffection. By the 1990s, Sonic Youth had grown into a major label-signed alternative rock band, and its sudden demise in 2011, spurred by Gordon’s split with bandmate and husband Thurston Moore, stunned the music world.
Her starkly personal 2015 memoir, Girl in a Band, both told Gordon’s story and captured the adrift feeling that such dissolution brings. With her band split, marriage broken, and her daughter Coco headed to college, the girl who once was in a band headed west from her longtime New England home to her hometown of Los Angeles — somewhat rootless, yet rooted. It is this new space she inhabits that Gordon explores on her first solo album, No Home Record, a galvanizing set of dissonant punk-fueled rock and roll, released by Matador Records last fall.
“I’ve always thought about California as this space where people have adventure and opportunity.”
“It’s always been within me,” she says of the West Coast city where she grew up listening to jazz — “Billie Holiday, Coltrane,” she lists. “When I was a teenager I listened to more avant-garde jazz, but also the Laurel Canyon sound: Joni Mitchell … Dylan. And the Rolling Stones and The Beatles — pretty much that music of the Sixties when rock was the sound of rebellion.”
“I grew up there, but hadn’t lived there in a long time,” she continues. “I’ve always thought about California as this space where people have adventure and opportunity.”
Gordon says she wasn’t actively seeking to make a solo record, and it’s not as though she hasn’t been busy enough post-Sonic Youth. Besides the memoir and her ongoing visual art (in 2019, she debuted her solo exhibitions “She Bites Her Tender Mind” at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin and “Lo-Fi Glamour” at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh), she also added to an occasional though impressive body of film and TV roles, notably in director Gus Van Sant’s 2018 movie, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. Gordon also exercised her musical ideas, recording and touring as part of the experimental duo Body/Head, an ongoing collaboration with fellow artist and musician Bill Nace.
Gordon credits producer Justin Raisen (Charli XCX, Ariel Pink, Sky Ferreira) with pushing No Home Record into being. “He kind of talked me into it,” she says matter-of-factly. “He wanted to work with me, and I finally said, ‘Yeah, why not, it could be fun.’ I look on it as a kind of experiment.”
The experiment included different avenues of song creation, one of which was building a song from a beat, rather than a lyric or melody as she usually might. “Justin’s brother [Jeremiah] is a producer who makes beats, and we asked him if he had any we could use. He played something and I thought, ‘Oh I could definitely do vocals to this.’ ” she explains. “He likes to name beats after his favorite food. That one was called Paprika and his DJ name is DJ Pony, so I called it ‘Paprika Pony.’ That song came together very quickly.”
More difficult is the upcoming tour for No Home Record and resuming her familiar role in the rock world. “That’s a little different, being pulled back into that part of the music world,” she ponders. “I don’t know what it will be like, but it will be strange for me.”
Regardless, she says, live performance still offers her, at its best, creative transcendence: “There are moments when you’re playing on stage, and it just feels good to be playing what you’re playing.”
At this point in her career, Gordon could rest on her laurels as an indie rock icon who has inspired countless other girls to break rock and roll’s glass ceiling. Instead, she is stretching out, evermore herself in her art and life, and her actual role as an iconoclast is more keenly defined.
She laughs approvingly at the designation and has no desire to be anyone’s women-in-rock poster girl. “That’s good!” she exclaims. “I think of myself as a visual artist first, and I approach my lyrics in terms of ideas and perceptions I notice about the culture. I don’t have any challenge to craft a story in a conventional way. I don’t have any interest in doing that. There are plenty of people who do that quite well. To me, music has to mean something beyond that.”
Kim Gordon will be a Music Keynote at SXSW 2020.