Sinéad Gleeson and Kim Gordon in conversation: “The best music books are about grief, politics, family, loss” | music books

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AAward-winning Irish writer Sinéad Gleeson was 16 when she first caught the eye of Kim Gordon in a winding queue outside a sweaty dive called McGonagles in Dublin. Gordon, who was playing that night with his band Sonic Youth, nonchalantly walked out of the venue to grab something from the tour bus: “And there was this huge collective gasp from the crowd,” Gleeson recalled.

“She looked at me and I looked at her – [we]stood out,” she says. “Probably partly because the queue was 90% guys. She was such a figurehead for me and for so many female musicians who came after her.

Why? “Because everything she did was on her own terms, including the way she sang and played bass – like no other.”

They will finally meet again, formally, in 2019 at the Irish Museum of Modern Art; Gordon played with his experimental guitar duo, Body/Headwhile Gleeson was there to interview her: “And I made this big speech about what she meant to me, trying to get myself under control… then afterwards we bonded in a little Irish pub and talked until early morning.”

The duo are now co-editors of an ambitious new collection of women’s writing on music, This woman’s work, and the three of us are talking on Zoom. Gleeson is at home in Dublin, in her composer husband Stephen Shannon’s studio, jam-packed with Moog synthesizers, which she played with while writing her essay for the book, on electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos.

Gordon joins us from his home in Los Angeles, an incredibly cool and somewhat shy on-screen presence. She was looking for someone to work with after her UK publisher, Lee Brackstone, pitched her the idea for the project, but no one had yet responded. “And then I met Sinéad. She was incredibly strong and loved music. I just trusted him.

Sonic Youth in 1990, left to right: Steve Shelley, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Kim Gordon. Photography: Chris Carroll/Corbis/Getty Images

Gordon is also an author: 2015 girl in a group was one of many limitless memoirs by women who have revolutionized music publishing over the past decade. The book begins at a devastating moment – ​​the simultaneous breakdown of Sonic Youth and its decades-long relationship with bandmate Thurston Moore – then breaks down what it was like to create in a male-dominated world. She met Gleeson when the Irish writer had just published Constellationsthe story of her life through her body – from hip replacement in adolescence to leukemia and later childbirth.

Gordon really admires Gleeson’s writing. “It’s like the way he speaks – so focused and precise. She never misses anything. She is also able to portray the emotions she has towards music. There aren’t many people who can bridge the analytical and the emotional. She knows that music has vibrations – it goes into the body – that it’s not just cerebral.

Gleeson is also a huge music fan – as irish time journalist, she interviewed Kate Bush and Nick Cave. Recent music books written by women have inspired her, including that of American independent artist Kristin Hersh. Paradoxical undressing and Tracey Thorn’s voice exploration in 2015, Naked oneyou Albert Hall. “For a long time we were given the same boring chronological narrative – ‘I was born in x, I joined a band in y’ – and that’s no longer interesting. The best music books aren’t just about music anyway. They are about the human experience – bereavement, politics, loss, family. Music takes us into a myriad of things.

For This woman’s work, the co-editors picked eight writers each and told them their essays could be about anything. American critics such as Simone White and Jenn and Liz Pelly rub shoulders with songwriters including Margo Jefferson and Leslie Jamieson, as well as Ottessa Moshfegh on piano and Booker Prize-nominated Rachel Kushner on rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson.

Electronic musician Wendy Carlos, subject of Sinéad Gleeson's essay in This Woman's Work.
Electronic musician Wendy Carlos, subject of Sinéad Gleeson’s essay in This Woman’s Work. Photography: Len DeLessio/Corbis/Getty Images

Gleeson also brought in Irish Booker winner Anne Enright, who writes about what fandom means both to the subject and to the enthusiast: her article centers on her encounter with Laurie Anderson on the streets in New York, an experience so overwhelming that it made her “frontal lobe”. shiver”. “The idea that Anne would be a fan of anyone was hilarious to me,” Gleeson says.

There are new writers too, including UK broadcaster Zakia Sewell and Megan Jasper, an intern and receptionist in the 1990s for Sub Pop Records, home to Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. Her essay recounts her friendship with Kurt Cobain before fame — going to barbecues with him, holding the phones as the world suddenly converged on Seattle. Gordon suggested her for a trial – “she witnessed this story that was so interesting” – and Gleeson walked her through the edits, loving the experience of helping her “find her confidence”.

The experience made Gleeson think of his teenage music press readers: “All we used to hear about genres like grunge was the ‘guy stories,’ and we still do.” Music magazines are still often male-dominated in their covers and content, and little is done editorially to redress the balance, we agree. “These stories were made to death. This book tries to point you to the women who were an integral part of that time, whose stories are still not glorified… who often worked overtime behind the scenes.

This woman’s work also discusses music and politics: Yiyun Li writes about songs in communist China and Fatima Bhutto about music in exile, and as resistance. While editing the book, Gleeson realized how music is often a kind of “sneaky vehicle for getting really important ideas across”. Books have often been banned in Ireland, she says, but provocative songs rarely have.

Gordon’s contribution is an interview with Japanese avant-garde artist and multi-instrumentalist Yoshimi, with whom she played for years in another alternative rock band, Free Kitten. Yoshimi speaks some English, but Gordon does not speak Japanese; this barrier meant that they had never had detailed conversations before. “So I took this opportunity to find out what she really thinks – I was just baffled at how this magical sort of unconventional woman was born, growing up in a society based on conformity.”

Yoshimi P-We of Boredoms, formerly of Free Kitten, was interviewed by Kim Gordon for This Woman's Work.
Yoshimi P-We of Boredoms, formerly of Free Kitten, was interviewed by Kim Gordon for This Woman’s Work. Photography: Marc Broussely/Redferns

Their exchange includes a joyous moment when a sound engineer worries about an elderly woman at one of Yoshimi’s concerts, standing in a chair near the speakers “with her arms in the air, screaming”. It turned out to be Yoshimi’s grandmother. Gordon also asked Yoshimi how she feels about the unnerving effects of fame, which – Gordon admits today – often makes her feel alienated from herself. She liked Yoshimi’s response: “All the different people who receive my expression will have different mental images of me…the moment a person receives my expression, I no longer exist there.”

Both Gordon and Gleeson hope readers of the book will take the essays as stepping stones to embark on further reading and listening. “Sinead is creating a playlist,” Gordon says with a smile. Gleeson smiled back, “That’s gigantic!”

This year, with the memoirs of Neneh Cherry, Vashti Bunyan, Martha Wainwright and Kathy Valentine of the Go-Gos, the strong and diverse list of female voices in print continues. “Good songwriting is intimate, conversational, human,” concludes Gleeson. Gordon nods, “Not exclusive. It lets people in. »

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