The rock icon is back in Los Angeles and about to drop No Home Record, a project that melds dirge-y electronica and distorted guitars with her observational poetry.
Kim Gordon has scored a booth at Little Dom’s for lunch. She says it like a lucky customer, not like the bona fide legend she is — one who’s contributed more to punk and counterculture in the past three decades than most of the celebrity types who frequent this East Hollywood restaurant. Gordon, now 66, lives nearby having returned from Upstate New York a few years ago. She is unmistakably L.A. in style. Her blonde hair frames a face so angled and art-like that she could be a long lost cousin of Joni Mitchell’s. Her voice is meek and soft, and often hard to hear.
Born in Rochester, Gordon’s parents soon moved to L.A. and raised her here. But she left for New York City in 1979, where she learned guitar, picked up a drum machine, and formed Sonic Youth with eventual husband Thurston Moore. In the ’90s she became a cult pop culture figure, founding clothing label X-Girl and producing Hole’s first record Pretty on the Inside. Once Sonic Youth disbanded in 2011 after Moore and Gordon’s divorce, she wrote her autobiography, Girl in a Band, and formed an experimental music project titled Body/Head with Bill Nace, while also exhibiting her visual art. She’s now putting out her first album under her own name. Titled No Home Record (out Oct. 11), it’s produced with Justin Raisen (Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira) and melds dirge-y electronica and distorted guitars with her observational poetry. Over a salad and one meatball on the side (“My two favorite things”), Gordon spoke to EW about the new project, her approach to songwriting, and moving back to L.A..
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you surprised it’s taken you till now to do a solo record?
KIM GORDON: Well it just never occurred to me that that’s what you’re supposed to do when your band breaks up. I accidentally did a song with Justin a few years ago. He was always very encouraging and told me, “You should do a record.” He can be a real cheerleader. Justin DM’d me, and kept sending me stuff. I wrote some lyrics. Then he took all the leftover bits [and] put a trashy beat to it.
What did you find in him that you hadn’t previously?
Well I’d never worked with a producer before as a collaboration. I was curious. It was almost like a challenge to make something out of it. My idea of a producer is Hollywood slick, old school. I was skeptical. But he has a home studio. It wasn’t what I thought. I had New Yorker preconceptions.
The album is humorous. When you’re writing music are you trying to evince an emotion or is it more abstract?
It’s both. When I did the song “Cookie Butter” I wanted the guitar to be the feeling. It’s like a circular snake or something eating itself. Everything always seems kinda tame to me. Curated.
Has your relocation and return to L.A. influenced some of the musical choices?
Well I always thought about L.A. when I lived out East. I carried it around in my head. So being here it’s like, “OK now I can really write some songs inspired by something.” Not that I haven’t in the past. I’m always looking at signs for lyrics, collecting words.
What do you find interesting about L.A. since coming back?
Seeing so many juice places, coffee places. Being so aware of the homeless situation. It’s so weird that people live with a lot of stuff on the street — furniture. It’s almost like you’re intruding on their privacy. What was public is now private. New York always feels formal to me. It’s a real city with real density. But L.A.’s always been this transient place. Art wise, you can still be more anonymous here in the art world. It’s such a fishbowl. It allows for some more eccentric things to happen.
Has being here slowed down your process?
It has and every day looks the same. I know what the seasons are: Virus Season, Pollen Season, ha! One reason I moved to New York to do art was because I take on the energy of the environment around me. You can feel like you’re doing stuff [in New York] even when you’re not doing anything because it’s stimulating. I really liked that. I guess I feel more confident now that I don’t need that but I do need stimulus, and I travel a lot.
There seems to be disparate influences on this record. How much are you connected to contemporary music or discovery?
Anything can be inspiring to me. I got inspired listening to that first Cardi B hit. It sounded so punk-y.
Yeah. And the attitude of Lizzo is inspiring. Other than that, I like the last Kurt Vile record, some indie rock like J Mascis. I don’t listen to abstract noise so much. I’m more into seeing that live. I didn’t think about the contemporary aspect of my record or how it would fit in. I’m making the only record that I can make. I guess I really do still see myself as a post-conceptual artist. There are influences in my life that I wanted to pay homage to: The Stooges and Mark E. Smith.
Mark E. Smith’s passing was such a loss. Did you hang out with him much?
Not really. I remember early on when we first started going over to England he said something in an interview to slag us [Sonic Youth] off. He was backstage at one of our shows, he offered me a cigarette, and I was surprised. He goes, “Well I know what it’s like not to have a cigarette.”
It’s interesting that you’re drawn to the attitude of female rappers. You don’t really identify as a musician per se. There’s musicianship to rap music but it’s also resourceful.
I’ve always liked how rap makes music sampling all the records that have ever been made. That’s how I think about gathering words. It’s all just materials to use. Art isn’t how well you can draw something or how well you can play guitar. So I relate to it. It developed as a real art form.
You were born in Rochester but grew up here. What was it like to return after so many years in New York City and then Northampton?
I just didn’t feel like moving back to New York and I didn’t have to live in Northampton any more because my daughter had gone off to college. I was sick of the winters. New York had changed. There were certain things I missed: the smell of night-blooming jasmine, the Santa Anas. I always thought of L.A. as about money. During the recession in 2008 when I’d come out, things looked more quaint and the grass was a little brown. It seemed not as glossy. In a weird way it was more like the ’70s L.A. that I remembered, even though a lot of it’s gentrified. It’s hard to be observational in New York. There’s never any distance physically from anything. It’s so in your face.
Tell me about the single “Air B’n’B.” What is it about short-term rentals that captured you?
They can look so juicy. I find it sociologically interesting, how everything is curated for you. It’s the opposite of what your home is. It’s another way to escape who you are. The fact that now it’s becoming about lifestyle, you can go on a camping trip with horses and pretend you’re in the Old West, that’s fascinating.
I love the lyric “You’re a mystery like a horse” off album opener “Sketch Artist.”
That’s a line from a night walking around New York after an art dinner. I found a police horse at one in the morning on the Lower East Side by itself. It was a beautiful, gorgeous horse, like out of a movie. I went up to it and was petting its nuzzle and it just licked me. I broke out into hysterics.
The track “Get Your Life Back Yoga” is quite a violent-sounding song. What is your relationship with yoga?
I’m not skeptical of yoga itself. I was walking in Atwater [Village], saw this plastic sign and the letters said “get your life back yoga.” It struck me as absurd. Everything gets branded. Yoga helped me at a certain time in my life. So much of the conversation is about body, exercise, what we eat, our diet… Maybe I should start thinking about that at my age! The landscape of L.A. is what I’m describing.
Do you think that the purpose of art has changed over your career?
I do think the purpose of art has changed. Still the best case scenario is that maybe you can have some kind of intervention to the culture that wasn’t there before. What has changed is the idea of the artist, the mythical figure. That’s become more entwined.
What do you think about art as a political platform? Do you feel like it’s effective?
I think feminism’s become branded. It gets people aware but then there are no details. I’m as bad as anyone — who has time to read about everything? There’s different kinds of political art. I listen to the news. I did a series of protest paintings. The news is rife with horrible things. It’s a minefield.
What are the things that give you joy?
I like making things, coming up with a good idea, hanging out with my daughter.
Are you nostalgic? If you reflect on your career was there a period that was your favorite?
I guess it would be now. It was so exciting when I first moved to New York but it was hard. I didn’t have a gallery. It was hard to figure out how to make art. Because I’m not raising a daughter anymore or managing a house, I have so much more time and it can be anxiety provoking. Isn’t it Jean Paul Sartre who said: “Anxiety is what freedom feels like”?