Kim Gordon On Her Second Solo Album ‘The Collective’, Capitalism & Her Coolest Act Yet

By Lindsay Zoladz
New York Times
Kim Gordon in Los Angeles. Photo / Molly Matalon, The New York Times

At 70, Kim Gordon, the onetime Sonic Youth musician, is releasing a blistering new solo LP, finding new fans on TikTok and making art that continues to surprise.

The day she turned 60, the artist and musician Kim Gordon felt, by her own admission, “shipwrecked.”

She had recently gone through

Gordon’s 70th birthday party last year, though, was another story entirely.

For one thing, it was in Los Angeles, the city she’d grown up in and returned to in 2015. But also, as Gordon explained on a video call from her book-strewn home in late February, it doubled as a celebration of finishing her second solo album, The Collective.

“It was kind of great to have done that on my 70th birthday,” she said and laughed from behind tinted sunglasses. “Because I’d actually worked that day and felt a finality to the project, it was really satisfying.”

Not many artists welcome their 70s with a new album, and virtually none with a record as blistering and gloriously strange as The Collective, which has more in common with postmillennial SoundCloud rap than the dulcet tones of 21st-century indie-rock. (The title is partially inspired by Jennifer Egan’s novel The Candy House.) But left turns are business as usual for Gordon, a restlessly curious artistic polymath who has never settled for the conventional, expected or familiar.

“She’s one of those people that was meant to be an artist,” said musician Kathleen Hanna, who has known Gordon since the early 1990s. “Painting, writing, music — she’s one of those people who was born to be around any kind of art.”

Justin Raisen, the 41-year-old LA-based producer who worked with Gordon on The Collective, noted that “Lots of careers go downhill with age, but there are also lots that go upward.” He cited as examples David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave — and Kim Gordon.

Raisen and Gordon make an odd pair. Last year, Gordon had a show of abstract paintings at the 303 Gallery in New York, while Raisen helped produce a track on Drake’s album For All the Dogs. In conversation, she is as taciturn — a “woman of few words,” Hanna said — as he is chatty. And yet, the dynamic works.

Photo / Molly Matalon, The New York Times
Photo / Molly Matalon, The New York Times

“I probably wouldn’t have made a solo album if Justin hadn’t bugged me to do it,” Gordon said, referring to No Home Record, their first collaboration from 2019. Raisen told her he was excited to play The Collective for some of the rappers he knows, telling her, “It’s going to blow their minds.”

Gordon said she doesn’t listen to much contemporary hip-hop — other than what Bill Nace, her bandmate in the improvisational duo Body/Head, sends her — but she’s long been influenced by rap music. Sonic Youth’s 1990 alt-rock hit Kool Thing was partially inspired by the collagelike sound of LL Cool J’s debut album, Radio, and featured guest vocals from Chuck D, whose group Public Enemy had been recording its landmark Fear of a Black Planet while Sonic Youth was making Goo in the same studio. “We really felt like there was a similarity,” she said of the two groups’ densely layered recording processes.

Gordon wanted The Collective to be “more beat-oriented” than her previous album. “I don’t have a great singing voice, or I’m not a natural singer,” she said, “so rhythm is one of the things that gets me inspired.”

Gordon and Raisen met after his brother, Jeremiah, a music producer who makes beats under the name Sadpony, had a chance encounter with Gordon at an LA restaurant in 2015. He mentioned that his brother had recently worked on alt-pop star Sky Ferreira’s acclaimed album Night Time, My Time.

“I liked that record, but I’m not normally impressed when I hear the word ‘producer,’” Gordon said. “My ears kind of close up.”

When Raisen began sending her some tracks, Gordon was taken aback: “Oh, he really gets my sensibility.’” She described that work with words she frequently uses as her highest artistic compliments: “minimalist” and “trashy.”

A process developed: Raisen sent Gordon tracks he thought would inspire, and she laid down vocals in his studio, later adding layers of distorted guitar and other effects. Gordon has a complicated relationship to the word “musician,” so Raisen has taken to calling her a “noise designer.” “She’s really good at noise designing,” he said.

Sadpony was visiting Raisen over Christmas when they created the foundation of what would become the new album’s corrosively arresting lead single, Bye Bye. The pair had just been making beats intended for Playboi Carti, an iconoclastic rapper known for his music’s rough edges and in-your-face attitude. When they finished this beat — which begins with a loop that sounds like a car’s seat-belt alarm and eventually ignites into a conflagration of synthesised chaos — Raisen said he told his brother, “I think this might be a little too wild for Playboi. But it could be cool for Kim.”

Photo / Molly Matalon, The New York Times
Photo / Molly Matalon, The New York Times

It was. “I thought it would be good to do mundane lyrics,” Gordon said, “as opposed to making it as intense” as the instrumentation. The finished song finds her reciting a packing list in a rhythmic deadpan, giving the whole composition a hypnotic strangeness: “Milk thistle, calcium, high-rise boot cut, Advil, black jeans, bluejeans, cardigan, purse, passport.” Is this Gordon’s actual travel list? “Kind of, but it was embellished,” she said. “I don’t actually travel with milk thistle.”

When Bye Bye was released in January, it resonated beyond Gordon’s usual fan base. The song has blown up on a certain corner of TikTok: One post that has been viewed 300,000 times shows a young, tattooed musician listening to Bye Bye in awe, with the caption, “Kim Gordon just cured my fear of aging.” Another popular post shows a man nodding along to the track; caption: “Kim Gordon making this absolute banger at the age of 70.”

“What Kim’s doing is totally, absolutely normal. What’s not normal is when women or people who are marginalised in other ways have stopped making art” for reasons having to do with ageism or sexism, Hanna, of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, said. “We’re not witnessing a miracle; we’re witnessing what happens when the thing that’s supposed to happen is just allowed to happen.”

Raisen sent Gordon those TikToks, and she’s not sure what to make of them. “It never occurred to me that I would be seen as cool because I’m 70,” she said with a dry laugh, “considering that I’m still waiting to feel like an adult in some ways.”

But — despite being roughly as synonymous with countercultural coolness as water is with wetness — Gordon is still not quite used to being seen as “cool,” for any reason.

“Honestly, I think if I really felt cool,” she said, “I would probably be a giant asshole.”

Kim Gordon performs in Sonic Youth in Belgium, 1992. Photo / Getty Images
Kim Gordon performs in Sonic Youth in Belgium, 1992. Photo / Getty Images

On a bitter, rainy Sunday in late January, so early that most of New York was still sleeping off its Saturday night, Gordon arrived for coffee in a near-empty hotel cafe. She was bundled in a puffer jacket, but she said she didn’t mind the weather: “Sometimes too many sunny, 77-degree days in a row can be worse.”

Gordon moved to Los Angeles when she was 5 — her father was a sociology professor who took a job at UCLA — and again when she was in her mid-60s. But she enjoys visiting New York a few times a year, especially to spend time with her 29-year-old daughter, Coco. (Gordon was partially in town to attend Coco’s poetry reading.)

Coco is also the star of the first two music videos from The Collective, including a stylish clip directed by film-maker Alex Ross Perry for the album’s caustic second single, I’m a Man. On that track, over a grinding drone, Gordon vamps in an exaggeratedly masculine persona: “So what if I like the big truck?”

Gordon said the song was “inspired by people like Josh Hawley,” referring to the Missouri senator, “saying things like feminism has destroyed men and masculinity. I just thought that was so funny. My version is that capitalism and consumerism have destroyed masculinity.”

Gordon has long had a way of sneaking cultural and political ideas into music without coming off as didactic or overly earnest. But no one who has paid close attention to her art would mistake her signature deadpan for apathy or nihilism. On Sonic Youth’s bracing 1985 album, Bad Moon Rising, when she bellowed, “Support the power of women,” she was almost daring the listener to disagree.

In the ‘90s, as Sonic Youth reached its commercial peak, she made feminism seem vital to the girls who idolised her while also managing to radicalise some of the boys who liked the band, too. (Raisen recalled that the first Sonic Youth song he fell in love with was the snarling 1992 track Swimsuit Issue, about an executive at the band’s label who had sexually harassed his secretary.) As Gordon asked Chuck D on Kool Thing, one of the band’s most popular songs, “Are you gonna liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression?”

Then and now, Gordon’s cultural critique has been grounded in a distaste for capitalism. But as a solo artist in the 2020s, she has found that musicians are often expected to have a sort of grinning reverence toward certain corporations and arms of the industry. She’s especially critical of streaming culture, which she believes has helped erode much of the community aspect of musical discovery and subcultures. Artists, too, are pressured to play along with smiles on their faces. But Gordon still knows how to say, in the refusenik words of Kool Thing, “I don’t wanna, I don’t think so.”

“I think I was asked to do a shoutout at the end of the year,” she said. “I don’t know if it was by Apple or Spotify or whatever. Like, ‘Thank you for choosing my music,’ or something.” She laughed. “The example they sent was Taylor Swift, the most cheerful pro. I was like, ‘I’m not doing that.’”

Photo / Molly Matalon, The New York Times
Photo / Molly Matalon, The New York Times

It has now been nearly 13 years since Gordon and Moore broke up or, to measure it in Sonic Youth terms, longer than the time between Goo and the band’s post-9/11 landmark Murray Street. “Some people have this Sonic Youth nostalgia, so they want to talk about him or the relationship,” she said. “But that’s all just so in the past to me.”

She and Moore are in touch “only if something happens,” but “hopefully it’s cordial.” Referring to his recently published Sonic Life: A Memoir, Gordon said, “I’m genuinely happy that he has his book out.” When asked if she’d read it, or if she planned to, she shook her head.

“I’m a slow reader,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “I have a lot of other books I have to read.”

And, perhaps, to write. Next month, art-book imprint Karma will publish an unconventional collaboration between Gordon and her late brother, Keller, who died almost two years ago. A paranoid schizophrenic who was also a Shakespeare scholar, Keller’s notebooks — full of drawings, Cy Twombly-like scrawls and the occasional sonnet — will be published in a volume that also features a moving essay Gordon wrote about him. “I actually like writing a lot — it’s maybe the thing I like the most,” she said. “It’s just kind of good for my sanity.”

She described her difficult but ultimately loving relationship with Keller in her 2015 memoir, Girl in a Band. “He really did shape me so much,” she said of her brother, “in being mean to me or just having to prove myself in a certain way. I was never the writer. He was the writer.”

But what Gordon has proved in this past decade is that her art, her life, her cool — if she’ll forgive the word — has never been contingent upon anyone else. With time, and through continued art-making, she has righted her own ship and pointed it once again in the direction of thrillingly uncharted waters.

“Kim Gordon is kind of like a shark, in that she needs to keep swimming,” Hanna said. “She needs to keep making art. It’s just who she is.”

In our last conversation, Gordon said it had recently occurred to her that, despite their stylistic differences, there were parallels between the way she works on her solo albums and the way she worked with her former band.

“In Sonic Youth, I basically ended up singing on the most abstract pieces,” she said. “I’m kind of used to figuring out where to put vocals on beats. We would make those kinds of songs sitting together and jamming and arranging stuff, but ultimately it would be a piece of music that would pose a challenge. So I think that was good preparation for working this way.”

She added, perhaps speaking about art as much as life itself, “You have to kind of create what it is.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Lindsay Zoladz

Photographs by: Molly Matalon and Getty Images


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