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How Kim Gordon Makes Music

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Musician and artist Kim Gordon is known for being the coolest person in the room. She is one of the co-founders of Sonic Youth, the band that pioneered alternative rock for 30 years with albums like “Daydream Nation” (1988) and “Goo” (1990). Today, Gordon is focused on her solo work as well as new noisy and avant-garde collaborations. Here the music icon breaks down how she made the satirical song “Air BnB,” a single from her debut solo album “No Home Record,” in this rare glimpse into her creative process.

Joe Skinner: In 2015, musician and artist Kim Gordon moved to Los Angeles, and found herself frequently driving around, drawing inspiration from what she was seeing.

Kim Gordon: I always thought about Los Angeles and kind of carried it around with me. I find L.A. to be the most visually interesting city, just all the juxtapositions of things.

Joe Skinner: It’s in this setting that she laid the groundwork for her first ever solo album, called “No Home Record.”

Kim Gordon: A lot of lyrics for the record I got from driving around and looking at all the signage, and just seeing all these different words in signs juxtaposed next to each other. It is kind of interesting seeing billboards and with advertisements more and more, it seems like they’ve really mined the private or inner psychology to such an extent that a lot of the ad copy reads like a poem.

Joe Skinner: Kim Gordon’s interest in California actually goes way back – to a time over 150 years ago when settlers came west in covered wagons and staked their claims.

Kim Gordon: My mom’s side of the family, they were gold rushers, you know, they came to Sacramento Valley, and people who came west, weren’t looking for security, you know, they were looking for adventure or they were escaping. I feel like California – that’s the last place you can go.

But it also symbolizes death in the sense, if you’re going to be really literal about the setting sun and just this idea of, kind of this darkness lurking underneath of what looks really bucolic and benign. Gas stations are landscaped and it’s kind of like, just trying to make you forget, you know- it’s oil. You know, it’s polluting the air. I’ve just been always fascinated by that.

Joe Skinner: I’m Joe Skinner, and this is American Masters: Creative Spark. In each episode, we bring you the story of how one work of art came to exist – in the artist’s own words. Today’s focus, Kim Gordon on the making of her song, “Air BnB.” Kim Gordon channeled her fascination with the billboards and signage that litter the streets of Los Angeles into her debut solo album, “No Home Record.” And on that album, the song “Air BnB” is a standout single that takes her critique of consumer culture and the American dream the furthest.

Kim Gordon: I probably wouldn’t have made a solo record if I had moved to New York, instead of LA, just because it wasn’t really on my radar. I was going to really just concentrate on doing visual art.

Joe Skinner: Before her move to L.A., Gordon was based in Western Massachusetts, where she and musician Thurston Moore had ended their marriage and musical partnership in 2011. Their band, Sonic Youth, broke up after more than three decades of groundbreaking noise rock music.

Joe Skinner: Albums like 1988’s “Daydream Nation” defined the sound of alternative and indie rock music for countless bands to come. And they first took their sound into the mainstream with their 1990 major label debut, called “Goo.” With songs like “Kool Thing.”

“Kool Thing”: Kool Thing sittin’ with a kitty. Now you know you’re sure lookin’ pretty. Like a lover, not a dancer. Superboy, take a little chance here. I don’t want to.

Joe Skinner: Now in a new era in her career, Kim Gordon still has a lot to say, diving deeper into a fine arts practice that she felt had been sidelined by her music career. It was in this practice that she discovered the seedling for what would become her song, “Air BnB.”

Kim Gordon: I always tried to keep my art practice and music kind of separate, but on this record it sort of merged together. I kind of was looking at Airbnbs mostly just for art ideas. And then I just thought, “oh why not, you know, get some lyrics here.” I was kind of obsessed with it really.

Joe Skinner: The kitsch-y art that frequently adorns the walls of AirBnBs drew Gordon’s attention, and she couldn’t stop scrolling through the images.

Kim Gordon: One of them I saw was all black and white. it probably was in New York. Everything was black and white. Then there was also a black and white Dalmatian, which I thought was really going above and beyond. L.A. ones: they’ll have a surfboard with a sign that says “surf’s up.” They get these slogans, like “have a great life” or “home, sweet home,” “sweet dreams.” What do people think? Does this work? I was just interested in AirBnBs and how art is being used to promote the lifestyle. How everything can be designed and how people would like to escape more than ever, you know, just the world really sucks right now. So I just decided to use that as a subject matter.

Joe Skinner: To bring her conceptual vision for her first solo album to life, Gordon worked with an outside producer for the first time – L.A.-based producer Justin Raisen – who’s worked with Sky Feirrera, Charli XCX, and a number of other performers.

Kim Gordon: Justin really just kind of bugged me about doing something all the time. (laughs) His studio is built out of his garage and the great thing about L.A. is that you can have small but great studios just in where you live. We’d usually start with the rhythm track and I was playing him some No-Wave music from the early 80’s in New York to give him a sense of a herky-jerky, dissonant quality that I wanted it to have. Bands like DNA.

Excerpt from DNA’s “You & You.”

Kim Gordon: No-Wave music was, I think kind of nihilistic, but also very free, as well as obviously dissonant. Punk rock was taken from traditional 3-chord changes and No-Wave really didn’t follow any of those rules. It’s kind of what made me want to play music. And it just seemed fun.

Joe Skinner: No-Wave came about in the late 1970s in New York, and was a grittier, harsher reaction to the punk music at the time; rejecting it’s rock and roll roots in favor of avant-garde noise and atonal dissonance.

Joe Skinner: Sonic Youth was probably the biggest band to rise out of the No-Wave movement. You can hear its signature sound in their 1983 debut album, “Confusion is Sex:”

“Kill Yr Idols:” Kill your idols. Sonic death. It’s the end of the world. Confusion is sex.

Joe Skinner: The No-Wave genre is deeply embedded in Kim Gordon’s musical D.N.A., and in her art-making practice too. So it was just a matter of articulating that to her producer, Justin Raisen.

Kim Gordon: So he knew what I was talking about, like rhythmically or just with the breaks. And he put down a drum track, and then I basically turned up all the knobs and did a couple of noisy guitar parts.

Excerpt from “Air BnB.”

Kim Gordon: I just find it easier to play improv with the guitar —  they’re much lighter. And then he put a bass on. I don’t have any really deep process in songwriting. I did my vocals and I had a bunch of lines written out and, um, I guess did I have verses even? I guess I did.

“Air BnB”: It’s a good life. I am delicious. Delicious. AirBnB, yeah. Blue towels, and water bottles.

Kim Gordon: I see myself as sort of a non-singer. I have a super limited range so I work with what I am good at, which is maybe rhythm and spacing and it’s very hard actually to sing in a not normal tuning.

“Air BnB”: AirBnB. AirBnB. AirBnB. Gonna set me free. 

Joe Skinner: It is amazing to learn how much Gordon leans into the collaborative aspect of her music-making process. “Air BnB” maintains a quintessential Kim Gordon sound, even with significant input from her producer Justin Raisen.

Kim Gordon: Justin is funny, he’s such a cheerleader. He’s very enthusiastic. Basically I could probably take any abstract lyrics to him and he would make a song out of it. I’ve really pretty much trusted him actually. I was happy to give up that sort of control, just to see what it was.

Joe Skinner: What excites you so much about collaboration?

Kim Gordon: I mean, you end up doing things you wouldn’t ordinarily do on your own, which is interesting. Someone is going to bring their personality to it and what they know and that influences the music. It’s fun.

Joe Skinner: To me, the lyrics in Kim Gordon’s song “Air BnB” have the biting sarcasm and attitude of an East Coaster appraising Los Angeles from their car on the freeway, and remarking upon the phoniness of it all. So I’m always surprised to learn that Gordon actually grew up in L.A., and is by no means just a tourist.

Kim Gordon: I grew up in West L.A., which feels pretty suburban. It’s nice Mediterranean houses but kind of boring. I literally felt as a teenager, nauseous, maybe I just felt stuck, you know, as a teenager, I think that’s a, maybe a common feeling.

“Air BnB”: Malibu or getaway. Artistic oasis, you are a plague.

Joe Skinner: So what is the goal of “Air BnB? for you? Is it recalling those childhood feelings of nausea?

Kim Gordon: It’s kind of to increase awareness, I suppose. Not everything is fine. You’re being marketed to, you know, it’s basically giving you a false sense of freedom because you’re being offered all these things. But that’s not freedom.

“Air BnB”: 47 inch flat TV, yeah. Lounging, daybed. American idea, American idea. Copyright.

Kim Gordon: The homeless situation’s worse. You know, the wealth gap is still getting bigger. Companies like BlackRock are buying up houses with cash in whole neighborhoods for more than they’re worth. So no one’s going to be able to be a homeowner, even middle-class.

People like to call it an experiment, the American experiment. I think that’s kind of a good way to look at it, because it is ongoing and things are really bad now, but I feel like this could be a huge turning point. It could be an awakening of social, you know, disparity and, trying to rectify systematic racism, but you know, what are the odds?

“Air BnB”: Airbnb, Airbnb, gonna set me free. AirBnB, AirBnB, AirBnB, gonna set me free. Come on down.

Joe Skinner: Thank you to Kim Gordon for her interview, and for opening up about her creative process and what drives her to make music and art. You can check out the song “Air BnB” and others just as biting and noisy on her album “No Home Record.”

“American Masters: Creative Spark” is a production of The WNET Group, media made possible by all of you. The show is produced by me, Joe Skinner. Our executive producer is Michael Kantor. Original music is composed by Hannis Brown. Funding for American Masters: Creative Spark was provided by the Anderson Family Charitable Fund and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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