For three decades, Kim Gordon helped shape the sound of underground music with her band Sonic Youth, whose wall-of-dissonant-sound approach was known as "no wave," in contrast to the poppier 80's "New Wave" sound. Gordon played bass and guitar, wrote and sang; she touched on topics that were rare in rock music — female desire, eating disorders, workplace sexual harassment.
Sonic Youth split up in the early 2010s, when Gordon separated from her husband and bandmate Thurston Moore. On Friday, Gordon released the first solo album of her career, No Home Record. Some of the sounds are familiar, but in other ways the record marks a clear break from her work with Sonic Youth.
For one thing, Gordon tells NPR's Ari Shapiro, this was the first time she relied on a producer as part of the creative process. Justin Raisen has worked with pop acts like Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira, and once told an interviewer he tried to manifest a collaboration with Kim Gordon by chanting her name.
"I never worked with a producer in this collaborative way. I guess I was just skeptical of producers, and it comes from years of being a post-punker," Gordon explains. ""I kind of just looked at it as an experiment, and he made it really fun. It was almost like a challenge — like, OK, make a song out of this, motherf*****."
Gordon says she associates this mode of music-making with Los Angeles, where she now lives after spending much of her career in New York, embedded in its creative scenes. Her new hometown's influence is there in the lyrics, too: The idea for song "Get Yr Life Back" comes from a sign she spotted in L.A.'s Atwater neighborhood.
"I was walking down the street, and there was one of those plastic sandwich signs with plastic letters, and it said "GET YOUR LIFE BACK YOGA." And it just struck me, anything can be branded," she says. "You see a big logo in a juice place that says "Be Here Now" — taking eastern philosophy and making branding taglines out of it. It's kind of funny."
Even in her time with Sonic Youth, Gordon's career has long been split between music and visual art, and in recent years she's spent more time in galleries than recording studios. Still, she says that on this album it's clear that those parts of her life sometimes blend.
"I always sort try to keep them apart but I feel like they're merging more together," she says. "Like that song 'Air BnB': I've been kind of obsessing over looking at Airbnb's online. I really see them as contemporary landscapes, interior landscapes, how everything sort of matches. The whole image, it just kind of looks like art to me."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Kim Gordon and her band Sonic Youth helped shape the sound of underground music in the 1980s. They came up in the experimental New York no wave scene, which was a rejection of the poppier new wave sound of the time. And for three decades, Sonic Youth was a major force in alternative rock and indie music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KOOL THING")
SONIC YOUTH: (Singing) I don't want to. I don't think so. I don't want to. I don't think so.
SHAPIRO: Kim Gordon played bass and guitar. She wrote and sang, and she touched on topics that were rare in rock music - violence against women, eating disorders, workplace sexual harassment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWIMSUIT ISSUE")
SONIC YOUTH: (Singing) Don't touch my breast. I'm just working at my desk. Don't put me to the test. I'm just doing my best.
SHAPIRO: Sonic Youth stopped making music in 2011, when Gordon separated from her husband and bandmate Thurston Moore. This month, Kim Gordon is putting out the first solo album of her career. Some of the sounds are familiar. And in other ways, this is a break from the work she did with Sonic Youth, like she relied on a producer for the first time. Justin Raisen has worked with pop acts like Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira. He once told an interviewer that he tried to manifest a collaboration with Kim Gordon by chanting her name.
KIM GORDON: Yeah, that's Justin.
SHAPIRO: How long were you working together before he confessed that to you?
GORDON: Pretty immediately (laughter).
SHAPIRO: And did that make you want to work with him more or less?
GORDON: He's just funny. I kind of already got over being skeptical of him, I suppose.
SHAPIRO: What made you skeptical, the fact that he's worked with so many big pop stars?
GORDON: Yeah, just that I associate working with a producer in this way more LA in a way, like building a song or something. I'd never worked with the producer in this collaborative kind of way. And I'm just skeptical of producers. And it comes from years of being a post-punker.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKETCH ARTIST")
GORDON: (Singing) In the day. In the sunlight. Dreaming in a tent.
SHAPIRO: You came up in the New York post-punk scene. But now you're living in LA. So I guess it makes sense that you would do banking music in a more L.A. way, huh?
GORDON: I guess so. I kind of just looked at it as an experiment. And he made it really fun. And it was almost like a challenge (laughter). Like, OK, make a song out of this (expletive).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKETCH ARTIST")
GORDON: (Singing) And the wind chimes strike. And your dead stare strikes. And the wind chime strikes. And your dead stare. And your dead stare. And your dead stare is like an omen.
SHAPIRO: So as we mentioned, you were so strongly identified with New York. And now you live in LA. And so much of this album, from the videos, to the subject of the songs, feels very Los Angeles. Can you talk about how making music in LA produces something different for you than when you were doing it in New York?
GORDON: Well, it was just, you know, I was driving around LA a lot, as one does here. And I don't know, it just kind of observing things and soaking it in and getting ideas for lyrics off signs and sort of collecting, kind of, materials.
SHAPIRO: Was there a specific sign you can remember?
GORDON: Well, one is the one in "Get Yr Life Back."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET YR LIFE BACK")
GORDON: (Singing) The end of capitalism. Winners and losers.
In Atwater, I was walking down the street, and there was one of those plastic sandwich signs with plastic letters. And it said Get Your Life Back Yoga. And it just struck me as - I mean, anything is really - can be branded.
SHAPIRO: Right. It's not enough to just do yoga. It has to be yoga with the purpose of getting your life back.
GORDON: Yeah. And it's just like - it's just how, like, you know, you see a big logo in a juice place that says, Be Here Now. And, you know, I don't know, it just kind of taking Eastern philosophy and making and branding taglines out of it. It's kind of funny.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET YR LIFE BACK")
GORDON: (Singing) With the lights in a plastic sign, you get your life back. Plastic sign. Get Your Life Back Yoga.
SHAPIRO: You've made art constantly through your whole life. And not all of it has been music. I mean, you, at this point, are much more often shown in galleries. So when you have an artistic idea, how do you know whether it's going to take shape as a song or as a different kind of artwork?
GORDON: I always sort of tried to keep them apart. But I feel like they're merging more together.
SHAPIRO: In what way?
GORDON: Like that song "Air BnB." I've been kind of obsessing over looking at Airbnb's online as kind of - I really see them as contemporary landscapes, interior landscapes, how they're - everything sort of matches. And the whole image, it just kind of looks like art to me.
SHAPIRO: Like it's aspirational you mean, or what?
GORDON: I don't know. It's kind of sociological (laughter).
SHAPIRO: How others live.
GORDON: And I guess - I just kind of been interested in things like that that I use in my art.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIR BNB")
GORDON: (Singing) American idea. American idea. Copyright. Copyright. Airbnb. Airbnb. Airbnb. Gonna set me free.
SHAPIRO: Does releasing a solo album at this point in your life after you've had big success with the band, a successful art career, make it more or less pressure?
GORDON: Well, I mean, if I'd really thought about it so much, maybe I wouldn't have done it. I guess I'm more nervous about it now, just doing it live, I guess.
SHAPIRO: Because you don't have the band around you?
GORDON: Yeah. And I've just never - you know, it's just weird putting a band together and working with people who I don't really know.
SHAPIRO: So many women musicians look up to you. Do you talk to younger artists about their experiences coming up in this industry and how it might differ from yours?
GORDON: No (laughter). I mean...
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Fair.
GORDON: ...I literally - I mean, my head is really more in the art world. And I...
GORDON: ...You know, when someone says, oh, I was really inspired to take up the bass because of you, I really don't know what to say because, like, I never set out to be a bass player in a band (laughter). You know, I was inspired by sort of weird no wave music. And I felt like that was a little bit more pure than what was going on in the art world in New York. And I just sort of - like, a lot of people kind of in this sort of post-punk world got kind of pulled into playing music. And if I was growing up now, I don't think I would do that.
SHAPIRO: Kim Gordon, it's been great talking with you. And congratulations on your first solo album after all these years.
GORDON: Thanks so much.
SHAPIRO: Wait, there's one question I forgot to ask. As I am about to say the name of the album - I don't know if this is a question you've been asked a thousand times or never before - is it "No Home Record" or "No Home Record?"
GORDON: "No Home Record."
GORDON: I mean, it can be whatever you want it to be.
GORDON: It could also be "No Home Wrecker..."
GORDON: ...As a friend of mine said.
SHAPIRO: Kim Gordon, her new album is "No Home Record."
Thanks so much for talking with us.
GORDON: Thanks a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MURDERED OUT")
GORDON: (Singing) Murdered out of my heart. Covered in black matte spray. Will you see when I'm not there... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.