Photo Natalia Mantini

Kim Gordon's Ready to See You Now

On the eve of the release of her first solo album, "No Home Record," the artist talks California, "Socialist Realism," and why she doesn't want to be a "celebrity artist."

by Carrie Courogen
Oct 6 2019, 9:42am

Photo Natalia Mantini

Kim Gordon is digging through a canvas tote bag for an extra layer. "Restaurants are always too cold," she says, looking more like any other New York woman schlepping a day’s worth of stuff in a free-with-subscription media tote than punk icon. The Italian one we’re sitting at in the East Village is no exception. She finds the black Rodarte sweatshirt she was looking for and shrugs it on over her black tee shirt and high-waisted jeans with a shiver, the words Los Angeles, California—her old and once-again hometown—written in a swooping cursive font across its front.

Gordon was raised in LA, and recently moved back, though New York is the city she spent more than 30 years both defining and being defined by. New York is, of course, a much different place now than it was when she arrived in 1980. Two blocks from where we sit is CBGB’s, the club she played with Sonic Youth, only it’s a John Varvatos store now. The Soho loft where she scored her first art world job as an assistant in a gallery run by Larry Gagosian and Annina Nosei is a short walk away, but that’s gone, too.

The transience of modern cities fascinates Gordon. This concept of what it means to call a place constantly in flux home—be it New York’s ceaseless remodeling by the wealthy or the sprawling unnatural greenery of LA—inspired No Home Record, Gordon’s first-ever solo album, out this week. Against a radical blend of the chaotic noise rock she helmed with Sonic Youth and genre-bending experimentalism, Gordon’s lyrics cooly run a razor blade along the edges of LA to examine what’s below the city’s artifice.

It’s this resistance against a finite label that pushes Gordon to continue pursuing a dizzying number of projects over a career spanning four decades and multiple mediums, from music and art to fashion, film, and writing. Ahead of her latest release, Gordon talked with GARAGE about the overlap between her music and visual art, the dark underside of LA, and embracing the unconventional.

Kim Gordon Natalia Mantini
Photo Natalia Mantini

You've done so much in the past few years, this year especially—the album and the art shows simultaneously—how do you approach them creatively?
I probably just really [do] what is the most urgent. It's a lot of emails, quite frankly. I feel like that sometimes takes up more time than anything, just, like, long distance doing a show with a museum. And same with the record, it’s just ticking them off the list—done, done, done. Art is more kind of long-term thinking, you know, it takes awhile to figure out. You think of an idea and it's just different, less immediate than making music, for me. They're both somewhat intuitive and then there are performative aspects or even fake-performative—to the painting—where the music is all pretty much immediate or more visceral.

There's a lot imagery in the album that reminds me of the way Joan Didion talks about LA and California and a little bit of Eve Babitz, too, in the humor of it. Do you see that same kind of critical eye coming back now?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve always really thought about LA, so I kind of wrote about it and just carried it around in my head. LA's been one of my favorite places to think about. Maybe partly because my mom's family has roots there going back to the gold rush; they were one of the first families. That idea of moving somewhere not for security but for adventure is kind of interesting, although you feel like that's become part of your DNA in a certain way. I always like to think about the dark underlying aspects of LA.

Moving away from home and spending so much time during your formative, early 20s adulthood, it creates this separation in a way where you're able to look back at where you came from with a more detached viewpoint.
I feel like even when I grew up in LA, I always felt kind of detached. Like, there was always a part that I sort of didn't relate to or just, like, the neighborhood where I grew up was very flat and suburban and that always made me feel a little nauseous. When I read Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, I was like, “Oh yeah, that really describes the way I feel.” Especially as a teenager, you know, you hit boredom. I always felt like an outsider. I went to an unconventional school, a lab school at UCLA that was learn-by-doing and girls could wear pants at a time where the other girls had to wear skirts and dresses. So I always felt a little different.

How did coming back to and being immersed in LA influence this album?
It just felt very natural, because I live in a different part of the city than where I grew up. It's easier to think about and romanticize LA in the ‘70s than it is now. [Laughs] I mean, there are parts of the city that still look like that, obviously, like it is so spread out. But there is an inherent banal, ugliness about sprawl and mini malls and things like that.

But, at the same time, I’ve always found it interesting how nature kind of enters into city life, and in LA, it's fakely funny because it's a desert. So much of what you see that's green is fake and artificial. And I didn't realize that ‘til when I was living in New York and I came back for the first time. I was like, “Something really looks weird… it's uncanny looking" and then I remembered, “Oh, yeah, it's a desert.”

For me, the hardest part is being taken seriously in the art world as an artist. I don't want to be a celebrity artist. Just an artist.

Was there a spark that really made you want to put this on your own album?
I didn't really think about it that much. Sometimes I'd get ideas like, "What if I did a weird jazz record!?" But I don't know. I kind of accidentally met [producer] Justin Raisen, he asked me to sing on a project he was working on, and he ended up making a loop out of this sort of leftover vocal that I sang for this other person and he put, like, a trashy drum beat to it and sent it to me and I was pleasantly surprised. So I went back and did more vocals on it and put guitar on it and that turned into “Murdered Out.” And then we just kind of put it out on the internet, and then I just thought, “Oh yeah… I should just do some more.” And it was fun. It was kind of a novel way for me to work.

Did anything surprise you about it when you were working on it and it was unfurling itself for you?
Well, it just surprised me how open people are to the record and into it.

Did you think people wouldn't be?
I just feel like it's it's hard to figure out where it fits in the scheme of contemporary music. To me, it's almost like they're little mini films or something other than songs.

Speaking of how you see them as mini films — does that come in while you're making it or after you're done?
It only occurred to me the other day that, you know, I love films and I always felt that it was easier for me to think of lyrics or vocals if the music was kind of in the spirit of or evocative of something or if I could get my head into, like, taking on a different persona or role or something, like a character. My friend who wrote the press release, she said something in it, like, that my music isn't something you listen to so much as experience. I thought, “Oh, that's an interesting way to describe it.” Because, in a way, it has this dimensionality that I don't hear in a lot of music and that just makes it different to me. It's not like it's better; it's just different. But I was thinking, maybe I'm writing music this way because it's easier. [laughs] I can't afford the apparatus of making films, which are kind of expensive.

What was it about No Home Movie that spoke to you that you referenced it [for the album title]?
Well, I like that title. [laughs] I was reading this book [Socialist Realism] by Trisha Low. She was talking about the ideas about home, which I’d been thinking about while writing the lyrics, because LA's a very transitory place. A lot of the architecture is very cottage-y in places and reflective of places people had been to, when they came to seek their Hollywood stardom or whatever, and then all the homeless… this idea of LA being transient.

She's from [Singapore] and she moved west for college and then didn't go back. She talks about her identity and this displaced feeling—where do you fit in, where's your home, and she talks about these [Chantal Ackerman] films, in one she's cleaning a house really slowly and really badly, doing domestic activities. And then she sort of tapes everything up and turns the gas on and the house explodes. It’s this kind of statement about the machinery of domestic labor and women's roles and everything. And I just liked the idea. And I like the challenge of saying "no" in a title.

So how do you think you came about finding that balance of what you want from the art world?
I don't know, there are so many different sides of the art world, so who knows? You can kind of get out of it what you want, or participate in parts of it that appeal to you and your values. So, it's, again, kind of all about striking a balance between the idea of doing what you're interested in and also what you're participating in from a commercial aspect, in the sense of showing at a commercial gallery or something. It's just a constant process. [Laughs]

Kim Gordon Natalia Mantini
Photo Natalia Mantini

Always recalibrating?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I'm kind of grateful to have an art career now because I put off really focusing on it for so long. I guess around 2000 I realized I had to get my ass in gear, otherwise I'm gonna be disappointed in myself. Because I always wanted to be an artist, since I was five, and I know that sounds like a cliché, but I've never thought about doing anything else.

It always sounds like a cliché, but I think people who feel the same are like, "no, of course."
For me, the hardest part is being taken seriously in the art world as an artist. I don't want to be a celebrity artist. Just an artist. And I also have to just deal with who I am. I feel like I have an art practice that fits my personality. Even though I thought I wanted a conventional career or practice as an artist, I kind of ended up with something that maybe suits me more. It's not as conventional.

Thinking about creating and audience and the media, what do you think about the “Kim Gordon” that media has kind of mythologized?
Wow... I don't know, I don't like to take it seriously. The icon thing is sort of disturbing because it makes it seem like your career is over or you're solidified into something. But maybe I should look at it differently. Maybe I should look at it the way you described, like you're kind of the same person you always were, but you just become better at it or deeper in it or something. Then eventually people notice you. I don't know.

Well, in the past several years, you've done a lot of different things that I think are, in a way, fighting against it. They feel really authentic and not expected by people who have one fixed image of you.
I think that's one reason to keep doing things. I mean, it’s to follow one’s interests, but also to kind of fuck with people's expectations. That's mine.

sonic Youth
Kim Gordon