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Kim Gordon’s Ode to the End of the World

Navigating modern American life, fashion, and politics, the indie icon envisions a future bordering on science fiction in her new album, The Collective.

by Gaby Harrie

Photos by Danielle Neu | Design by Erik Grice

For almost four decades, Kim Gordon has been your favourite rockstar’s favourite rockstar. As the fearlessly experimental frontwoman of Sonic Youth, she left an indelible mark on the alternative rock landscape, spawning a thousand sub-genres and launching the careers of bands like Hole and Nirvana into the mainstream.

Gordon’s effect on women in music cannot be overstated. Her groundbreaking presence in the male-dominated indie rock scene of the ’90s inspired the vital Riot Grrrl movement that empowered underground female rock musicians to pursue their maddest artistic visions, utterly unencumbered by the male gaze. The raucous soundwaves of Kim Gordon’s musical impact reverberate to this day in the work of modern indie queens like Courtney Barnett, Jenny Lewis, and St. Vincent.

Materializing in a tiny corner of our Zoom call, I spot the legendary Kim Gordon surrounded by eggshell walls, barren except for a solitary unhung painting of an alien in a pink wig that has been crossed out in screeching neon green paint. Sage and serene, Gordon settles by a sunlit window in her California home, shucking off an emerald shacket and sipping lightly at her tea. Roughly 1,500 miles away, her presence still charges the air, her inimitable cool effortlessly demanding greatness.

The mythos surrounding an artist of Gordon’s calibre would suggest that a day like this one, where she’s taking on her third interview at just 11:30 a.m., would begin with a rockstar morning routine that involves various serums, a gourmet breakfast, and an unpronounceable form of exercise you’re not cool enough to know about. One could almost mistake her for a mere mortal as she chuckles brightly before breaking down her morning. The rockstar routine in question? Yogurt and a slice of peanut butter toast eaten while watching the news. To her credit, forever abhorring the establishment, she doesn’t just flick on CNN. “There’s this political show called Breaking Points with someone from the left and someone from the right,” she says. “I mean, they basically agree on most things in that they’re kind of anti-corporate media and corporate Republicans and Democrats, but I love watching that every morning.”

 

 

The seminal nature of Gordon’s achievements has made it hard for the public to understand the person behind her persona, making her a victim of her own lore. In reality, she’s refreshingly grounded and considerate, taking care in answering each of my questions and frequently pausing to look out the window in thought.

More than a decade after Sonic Youth’s disbandment and her subsequent separation from bandmate Thurston Moore, Gordon, who recently turned 70, remains as prolific and dynamic as ever. I ask her whether reaching this milestone has affected her artistic process. In the midst of her busy schedule juggling multiple creative projects, she co-leads the experimental duo Body/Head with guitarist Bill Nance, exhibits her avant-garde artworks globally, and boasts a prolific authorial record, including the New York Times bestselling memoir Girl in a Band (2015), and its visual follow up, 2020’s No Icon.

Jokingly, she remarks that the whole business of aging is more of a dull nuisance than a panic-inducing threat: “I’m just not one of those people who’s ever been like, life is short, and I have to do this and this and this and this,” she says. “I guess I notice more people I know dying, and I have things like estate planning, which, trust me, nobody wants to talk about.”

Unsurprisingly, not even age is a match for her creative force. On top of her extensive multidisciplinary artistic efforts, Gordon, a fashion icon for the past 30 years, still finds time to cultivate her personal style. Her face lights up as she mentions that she is currently awaiting the delivery of a pair of red Maison Mayle trousers. Delighted, I mentioned that I myself recently purchased a pair of red bell-bottom pants, leaving out the fact that I bought mine at the GAP. Still, she grins and stares toward the glowing window beside her, reminiscing on her first pair of bell-bottoms. “I lived in Hong Kong when I was 12 or 13, back when Hong Kong was completely noncommercial or Western, like no hamburger places, not one,” she says. “But on the island, there was this British store that sold mod clothes, and I saved up and bought a pair of these red, corduroy, hip-hugger bell-bottoms that I was completely obsessed with.”

It’s not difficult to picture a young Kim Gordon running through 1960s Hong Kong in search of the perfect, trendy, mod outfit. Her passion for fashion is well-documented. X-Girl, the clothing line she co-founded with stylist Daisy von Furth in 1993, popularized the androgynous, DIY, grungy streetwear we’ve come to associate with ‘90s alt-rock bands and became a cultural phenomenon, setting a trend for musicians venturing into entrepreneurial pursuits.

However, Gordon is underwhelmed by the fashion sensibilities of today’s mainstream musicians. “It’s like another level of communication, what you wear on stage,” she says. “Starting from Little Richard, who had this larger-than-life idea about what to wear on stage and played around with gender so much. I always thought Debbie Harry was interesting because she was kind of ironic, and she really played around with fashion and had a sense of humour. Madonna was also like that. I think now it’s kind of a bit boring in the mainstream.” 

 

 

When asked if any artists are an exception to this rule, she drops an unexpected name: “You know, Billie Eilish seems to be having fun with it. She’s not doing this stereotypical ‘using sex to sell’ sort of thing, which can be really boring when everyone has sex on their sleeve.”

Questionable stage outfits aside, as a lifelong advocate for the rights of independent artists, she does feel for modern musicians coming up in a system that vastly under-compensates them for their work. Gordon insists that her main concern for the future of the music industry lies in streaming but that, contrary to popular belief, Spotify is not to blame.

“I don’t think streaming platforms have been really good for artists. It’s made people think music should just be like water; you’re turning on a faucet, and it’s just there,” she says. “Also, you can be put on a playlist made by Nike, and all of a sudden, you’re endorsing Nike and not even getting paid for it. People are always pointing at Spotify and Apple Music and saying they’re ripping off artists, but it’s actually still the labels who made those deals.”

Her activist sensibilities are on full display as she laments the lack of a strong union for musicians that would have the ability to trigger a strike in the music industry similar to the SAG-AFTRA strike we saw in the back half of 2023.

These apprehensions about the industry’s future, and the future in general, are the centerpiece of her upcoming sophomore solo album, The Collective. Sonically, it’s a departure for the indie-rocker, who, in the lead single “BYE BYE,” can be heard rapping the contents of her suitcase over a dirty, blown-out trap beat, courtesy of Justin Raisen (Lil Yachty, Charli XCX, Yves Tumor), with whom she’s collaborated throughout the new record.

 

 

“It’s not easy to go against the grain of homogenized culture…”

— Kim Gordon

 

The Collective is rife with the same masterful abstract lyricism that always gave Sonic Youth an edge over blunt hardcore bands in the ‘90s. Hypnotic, poignant and never sanctimonious, the veteran songstress speaks on America’s disastrous political divide, late-stage capitalism, gun control and sexual politics through the lens of a potentially not-so-alternate reality. “The record is like Philip K. Roth sci-fi, where things are kind of in the future, but they’re fucked up and broken down. Really, they’re deteriorating already,” she says. “It’s not easy to go against the grain of homogenized culture, so in that sense, as much as anyone in America can truly be political, I feel this record is definitely.”

Her expression hardens with purpose as she speaks passionately about calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, encouraging negotiations to end the war in Ukraine, and restoring the reproductive rights of women in the United States. In 2019, this passion drove her to support Bernie Sanders, canvassing with friends and hosting phone banks for his campaign. With a deeply political musical catalogue and a history of activism that spans her entire career, I wonder if she would ever consider running for office.

The answer was a crisp and resounding “No!” Bewildered, she continues, “I’m no good at public speaking!” At this, I give Kim Gordon, who is factually one of the most influential rock stars alive and has been playing to crowds of tens of thousands since the Reagan administration, an incredulous look. 

Gordon laughs outright and clarifies that while she is firmly for the cause, she doesn’t fancy a formal seat at that proverbial table, nor does she see why anyone else would. “Politics is so frustrating and corrupt, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be president,” she says.  It seems, for now, she’ll simply have to forgo the title of President Gordon and settle for being the Queen of Noise Rock and the Godmother of Grunge instead.

Although we won’t be seeing her up on any podiums any time soon, the iconic songstress, artist, and activist has harnessed her musical magic once again to capture the ever-shifting chaos living within her and around her. Through her entrancing political poetry and sensory-overloading soundscapes, Kim Gordon has crafted an artistically thrilling ode to the end of the world on The Collective.

 

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