Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon strikes out on a solo tour

Kim Gordon playing for an audience. (Courtesy Linnea Stephan)
Kim Gordon playing for an audience. (Courtesy Linnea Stephan)

Kim Gordon is going out on the road under her own name for pretty much the first time. There was a 2020 tour that was scrapped due to COVID-19 — just three March dates — and two warmup gigs last September in Chicago. But her U.S. tour, which kicks off at the Paradise Rock Club Sunday night, March 13, will be the first time most people will see her play outside the context of Sonic Youth.

Sonic Youth was the up-from-the-underground New York no wave/alt-rock she co-founded in 1981 with guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. Highly influential for years, Sonic Youth hit its peak of popularity in 1990 with the Gordon-sung, MTV hit “Kool Thing” from the “Goo” album.

Then, five years later, they headlined Lollapalooza’s main stage. (I reviewed that set for the Boston Globe and called the music “the epitome of dissonance and beauty.”) The band exited the world in 2011, not long after Gordon’s split with Moore, her husband of 29 years.

Now, Gordon is touring behind her nine-song, 2019 album “No Home Record,” a collaboration with producer Justin Raisen, who’s worked with Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira and John Cale, among others.

Gordon sees this album as a “fresh start,” in a way. “I wouldn’t play Sonic Youth songs without Sonic Youth,” she says, on the phone from her Los Angeles home. “I played those songs so much, I don’t want to play them [anymore], basically.”

Gordon, now 68, played in other collaborative formats: Body/Head with Bill Nace (who will open the Boston Show), Ciccone Youth, Free Kitten and Glitterbust, among them. She co-directed The Breeders’ “Cannonball” video with Spike Jonze, took small acting parts, and created a fashion line. But Sonic Youth is most people’s main reference point and Gordon hopes it reaches a point where she won’t be asked about Sonic Youth so much, adding “It’s been so long. I don’t think about it, really.”

Her all-female tour band includes guitarist Sarah Register, bassist Camilla Charlesworth, and drummer Madi Vogt. While Gordon was primarily the bassist and a secondary singer in Sonic Youth, she hasn’t played bass since the group split, and now plays guitar and sings lead.

If Sonic Youth was radical for its day — with its heavy use of distortion and dissonance — “No Home Record” may be even more so.

“It is, in a way,” Gordon concurs, “because I feel like people are so used to dissonant music now, in every form, from rap to pop music. As Sonic Youth went on, we got more and more refined. I do feel like now I’ve employed the things I was originally inspired by — no wave music, [the band] DNA, Arto Lindsay, The Fall. This felt natural to me. I don’t know how else to make music. I do like to disrupt things or do something unexpected.”

“No Home Record” is often electronic, beat-heavy and ominous sounding, with Gordon half whispering, half singing. Both lyrics and music often seem like collages. Rolling Stone described the opening track, “Sketch Artist,” “as if she’s traversing a post-apocalyptic terrain and the ground is still shifting beneath her.” The Guardian called the album a series of “treacherous soundscapes.”

The process that Gordon took with Raisen “was a totally different way of working for me.” They’d send tracks — vocals, beats, guitar parts — back and forth and mash the fragments together. One of the inspirations, Gordon says, was “early hip-hop, especially because it was so minimal.” The first song was a yearlong process that turned into “Murdered Out.” The result was something she gave a thumbs-up for being “trashy and cool.”

The title of the album, “No Home Record,” is meant to suggest rootlessness and that carries over into the music. Before buying a 1930s house in the Franklin Hills neighborhood of LA, Gordon spent some time doing the Airbnb thing in Echo Park. “You’re eyeing matches and you set up a fantasy of a lifestyle that you can indulge in,” she says of those days. “You’re escaping from your home and your life.” She wrote the song “Air BnB” about that.

“I had been thinking of the idea of what home means,” Gordon continues, “and people who leave another country and come here to go to school. Where is their home? You leave your whole culture behind, yet carry it within you, obviously. In terms of myself moving back to Los Angeles, I live in a different part and my closest friends and daughter are living back east. Home is actually not an architectural thing.”

Gordon is not just a musician; she’s a visual artist and in fact moved from Los Angeles to New York in the 1980s, to pursue that course. “My aspiration wasn’t to be a bass player in a band,” she says. “Nothing wrong with that. But I kind of fell into playing music.”

In the late ‘90s, Gordon and Moore left New York City when their daughter Coco was five and moved to Northampton, Massachusetts. They bought a century-old house and spent 1999 to 2015 there, becoming part of the area’s art-music scene.

In 2015, Gordon published a memoir, “Girl in a Band,” and in it discussed her bitter breakup with Moore. They’re not the first romantic couple in a band to break bad. (You can go back to Sonny and Cher or Ike and Tina Turner or Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and David A. Stewart.) But Gordon and Moore were, for a certain generation, the cool couple, the one that made it work artistically and personally. Until it didn’t. Gordon goes into it in her book — he cheated, she found the texts — and considers the topic closed. “We don’t really speak,” she says.

Her interests, as always, remain split between music and visual art. “Not that I have heavy goals,” she says. “I’m just trying to make work that’s interesting.”

While there’s certainly aggression in her music, Gordon avers, “I don’t think what I’m doing is all that aggressive, honestly. Not all the songs are that way. But it’s easier for men to do things that are more dissonant or not conventional. People have different expectations about what women should sound like and what the boundaries are if you’re playing music. Do I have something to prove? I don’t know.”

Gordon understands she has iconic status as a pioneering feminist/rocker for many young women musicians, and says, “That’s fine, but it feels weird, a little uncomfortable. I try to not feel self-conscious about what I’m doing and that doesn’t help. But I’m very grateful to have fans, people interested in what I’m doing, and that makes me feel relevant.”


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Jim Sullivan Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.



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