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Kim Gordon - Autumn/Winter 2019 1
Kim wears hemp leather and shearling coat and jersey blouse Chloé, jeans Jacob CohenPhotography Laura Coulson, Styling Helena Tejedor

Kim Gordon’s first solo album looks to the heart of the new American dream

After three decades as the emblem of East Coast cool, the artist is back in LA and confronting corporate banality on her first ever solo release, No Home Record

At Kim Gordon’s Cafe Oto performance in London this summer, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye played in the background, slowed down until Elliott Gould and Nina van Pallandt – him smoking, her blonde in a nightgown – dissolved into a sort of jerky pulse. The musician was in town to play with Body/Head, her experimental guitar duo with Bill Nace, but she was also gearing up for the release of her long-awaited first-ever solo album. The slow-motion film thing, Gordon writes in her 2015 memoir, Girl in a Band, is a trick that her and Nace used to do in collaboration with filmmaker Richard Kern, to make as though “the crowd were observing a soundtrack”. Fittingly, the gig was hushed, almost ceremonial and not at all like No Home Record – which, produced by Justin Raisen who also works with Yves TumorSky Ferreira and Charli XCX, is actually kind of funny.

The album’s title, Gordon says after the performance, is a reference to the Chantal Akerman film No Home Movie, as well as the 80s no-wave punk scene she was drawn to when she first moved to New York and formed Sonic Youth with ex-husband Thurston Moore. It’s also inspired by LA, where she now lives. Gordon grew up in California and, in her memoir, she describes similar tensions to those canonised by the west-coast boheme-intellectual literature of the 60s and 70s – idyllic family fishing trips at the Klamath River, juxtaposed with a charismatic brother with paranoid schizophrenia who dated an eventual Manson-girl. She recently read California literary icon Joan Didion – for the first time, despite the tempting parallel with Gordon’s side-project release The Whitey Album – and felt herself relate. “When I lived on the east coast, I always carried a little bit of LA with me,” she recalls, “but growing up in LA, a lot of the suburban banality depressed me, the penchant for newness, the status symbol present every time you got into the car... (After moving back) I just wasn’t sure where I fit in. It kind of made me restless, the pressure to be joyous.” On No Home Record, Gordon turns this everyday dread into a mocking pop take on the banality of American life: as well as a song called “Airbnb”, it includes lyrics like, “The end of capitalism / winners and losers / lyrical waxing / shopping of a cliff”, and a track about sexual harassment written from the point of view of a man (“Hungry Baby”), which sounds like something that would play in a Xerox shop or a drive-through.

There was, however, the more tangible worry of where the album would fit in with the current landscape of music distribution. “The title (also) refers to technology,” Gordon explains. “Where does a record as an object fit in? And, maybe: where do I fit in, within contemporary music? I don’t really see (the album) fitting into the landscape in the usual way, (with) how people listen to music now.”

Though she dislikes the term ‘performance artist’, Gordon has always thrived on the tensions inherent in a live show. Playing a harmonica and swinging one arm behind her in a signature, gangly gesture, she looked hypnotised and kind of psychic at the Café Oto show. “Onstage, Kim has magnificent charisma and she also seems like she’s in a trance, which I think people appreciate because it’s genuine,” says the writer and Gordon’s friend, Rachel Kushner. In May, the two were in conversation at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where the first North American solo show of Gordon’s visual art had just opened. They discussed beauty, self-presentation and Debbie Harry as a camp icon of she- punk. “Kim and Debbie Harry both have a very particular understanding of their own beauty,” says Kushner, “and, just as importantly, an innate understanding of what beauty is. There are beautiful people who just keep on trying to be beautiful, as though it’s a mountain you can climb forever. But Debbie Harry has always used beauty as camp, (whereas) Kim is too cool to be camp.”

“She once told me,” continues Kushner, “that she plays in shorts or short skirts because she gets power from her bare legs. And not (just) because her legs are really amazing! Maybe that says something about her.” Is it possible to be the camp version of cool – to be sexy and cool and also know it, and also make fun of it? Maybe not but if so, that’s what Kim Gordon is.

Let’s start with your new album. How did your move back from the east coast to LA influence your work?

Kim Gordon: LA is something I always like to think about – it’s an interesting and weird place. Very visual. You are always in a car looking at it... I was always interested in the postmodern ideas of Robert Venturi and how signage becomes the architecture. What I do like about Los Angeles that’s different from New York (is that) New York is more ‘formal’, whereas in California there’s no real feeling of centre, so it becomes a place for eccentric ideas to grow. There’s this perception that people in LA are superficial, but I think there’s a different way of communicating (here). When I do art installations, I feel like they have this ‘feeling’ to me of Los Angeles in some weird way, a sprawl to them. When I moved to New York, it was very familiar to me. Maybe it’s because I had lived in Hong Kong for a year, which is a dirty, noisy place. When I got to Chinatown in New York, I liked it – I liked the energy. You can be in New York and feel like you’re doing stuff, even if you’re not, just because of all the stimulation. You can just feel the hum of the city. LA is a dreamier place.

Have you lived in the city at any point since you were a child?

Kim Gordon: I was there for just a few weeks, renting an Airbnb when I was writing my book. I treated it like a writer’s residency in a way. I picked one that looked really uplifting. (laughs)

We’re thinking about what ‘hardcore’ means this issue. I wanted to talk to you about your status in the New York scene in the 90s, and that almost mythical idea of what the city was then, with the overlapping music and skate and rave scenes. As someone who was there, what do you think was inspiring about it? Is the hype justified?

Kim Gordon: For me, it was really more about the 80s. When I first moved there, that was hardcore.

In what way?

Kim Gordon: There was a lot of crime and drugs, garbage strikes, the city (had gone) bankrupt... The music that I heard in the downtown scene was pretty dissonant and very free and very rhythmic: people like Lydia Lunch and no-wave (artists) like Vivienne Dick and Beth and Scott B, Richard Kern, Kathy Acker. It was pretty hardcore. (laughs) It was all pre-internet, we were poor, putting up posters in the freezing winter.

“Growing up in LA, a lot of the suburban banality depressed me, the penchant for newness, the status symbol present every time you got into the car... (After moving back) I just wasn’t sure where I fit in. It kind of made me restless, the pressure to be joyous” – Kim Gordon

Was the energy different from today? I’ve never lived in New York, but I think there has been a similar change in London.

Kim Gordon: Yeah, when we started coming to London, it was nothing like it is now. We had this gig lined up – in Leeds, maybe – that was cancelled because the city went bankrupt. Everyone was on the dole. It looked like quite a different place.

Has your relationship to fashion changed? You seem to be someone that found their style early on.

Kim Gordon: I think it took me a long time to find my style. I was poor, so it was diffcult unless you wore all black, which was the only way to look chic if you didn’t have any money. But I did not ever feel cool in the 80s. There weren’t any streetwear designers downtown – (that didn’t come until the) 90s, with stores like Patricia Field and Daryl K. My mother grew up during the Depression, so she always made clothes, or I bought clothes in thrift stores. When you’re young, you are more into trying on clothes, trying on your mom’s clothes and fantasising... Eventually, I found myself having less and less time to do that. But, in a way, what you wear tells a story about yourself, or hides a story – it’s either revealing or hiding.

A lot of brands are now looking back to that time in 90s New York.

Kim Gordon: When I started (my label) X-Girl, there wasn’t really that much; it was us and APC, Urban Outfitters... My friend (and X-Girl co-founder) Daisy von Furth has a really good eye for fashion. I was always into how cool Brian Jones and Anita Pallenberg were. When I was in Hong Kong, I would save my money and go to this store that sold cool mod clothes, buying hip-hugger red corduroys, things like that. And then (in New York), Daisy and I would go look for boot-cut 70s corduroys and perfectly fit t-shirts. It was about finding a fine line between being cool and looking good. You know – what’s sexy? It’s not always the most obvious thing.

It’s very shocking for me to hear that you didn’t always feel cool.

Kim Gordon: I was around boys and I used to wear a lot of t-shirts, band shirts, and eventually I started to wear oversized shirts, just with boots and a choker... I remember Mark Arm from Mudhoney saying to me once, ‘Why are you not wearing t-shirts any more?’

In your book, you talk about the pressure of being interviewed by male journalists in the 90s, how they would always ask you about being a girl in a band and a ‘mum in rock’. Is this sort of pressure easier now? Every celebrity now gets asked about Me Too, even though it’s a very specifc thing, it becomes a formulaic question – by virtue of being a woman, you should have something to say.

Kim Gordon: (They’re both) very broad questions. It’s kind of like asking, ‘What’s it like to be a human being?’ I was always a tomboy and I was interested in male bonding. I liked that men would show their female side on stage. I would say, ‘If you want to know what it’s like to be a girl in a band, you have to explore what it’s like to be a boy in a band.’

What do you mean when you say they were showing their female side?

Kim Gordon: Their emotions and how they relate to each other, in a kind of homoerotic way. Or not relate to each other, and not communicate. Or communicate in a passive- aggressive way. Growing up in a male-dominated world, that was the landscape, so I guess I was trying to invert that somehow. As far as the Me Too thing, it’s always difficult because everything is very black-and-white now, everything becomes so reactionary, and subtleties get lost... But I think every movement has to start that way. Hopefully, we can go back to more subtle areas of grey when talking about feminism. Whatever happened to structuralism? Maybe that will come back. I have this song on the record, ‘Hungry Baby’, that’s about sexual harassment – it’s in the man’s voice. I thought it was obvious, but in the last interview, they had no idea. I made it very over-the-top, almost like an anthem at the end. I wrote a song about it in 1990, too, ‘Swimsuit Issue’. I guess I could update it. (laughs)

Is there any artist working now that makes you think, ‘That’s hardcore’?

Kim Gordon: There is this artist K8 Hardy, who I follow on Instagram. She shows at Reena Spaulings gallery in New York. She did this light presentation, where she took a photo of herself every day. I think she did a fashion show once, but mostly it’s documentation. Valie Export has recently been more in the public (eye), she’s an Austrian artist who’s done performance and film. She’s inspiring.

What about their work stands out?

Kim Gordon: You just have to see it. Things that are hardcore are not necessarily overtly so. Like Josephine Pryde, I used one of her photos on my cover. She works a lot from stock photos and it’s subtle, but it says a lot. To me, that’s hardcore because it’s cutting into the culture. Actually, I would say (Greek poet) Sappho is pretty hardcore!

I was looking at your daughter Coco’s work –

Kim Gordon: She’s pretty badass, I would say. (laughs)

– and I noticed that she was also posting about Sappho, is her poetry something that you got into together?

Kim Gordon: We have a mutual friend, Elaine Kahn, (who is) almost like a member of the family. She’s been kind of a mentor to Coco. She’s in her 30s, but we’re both friends with her. I think Elaine turned Coco on to Sappho. Thinking of other women, I think Lizzi Bougatsos from Gang Gang Dance is pretty badass too.

If you were starting out now, where would you gravitate to in terms of making art?

Kim Gordon: I think I would probably just stick with (visual) art. I kind of got involved with music through the scene that was going on, in the punk or post-punk wave. For me, it was almost like an escape from the art world.

Do you think that you would still want to move to New York now?

Kim Gordon: I don’t know, maybe not... I was drawn to New York (through) reading about the Judson Dance Theater scene, Process Art, The Factory and The Velvet Underground. The excitement of art in the 60s and 70s. I guess that’s maybe how people now think of New York in the 80s and 90s: they wish they had been there. 

No Home Record is out on October 11

Hair Kota Suizu at Caren using Bumble and bumble., make-up Celia Burton at JAQ Management, lighting Jack Symes, Heather Lawrence, styling assistant Samuel Galan, production Webber