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

Sonic Youth in 1990

Award-winning Irish writer Sinéad Gleeson was 16 when she first caught Kim Gordon’s eye in a snaking queue outside a sweaty dive called McGonagles in Dublin. Gordon, playing that night with her band Sonic Youth, casually strolled out of the venue to grab something from the tour bus: “And there was this huge, collective gasp from the crowd,” Gleeson recalls.

“She looked at me and I looked at her – [we] properly noticed each other,” she says. “Probably partly because the queue was 90% guys. She was such a figurehead to me and to 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 the bass – very not like anybody else.”

They would finally, formally, meet in 2019 at the Irish Museum of Modern Art; Gordon was playing with her experimental guitar duo, Body/Head, while Gleeson was there to interview her: “And I did this big speech about how much she meant to me, trying to rein myself in … then afterwards we bonded at a little old-man Irish pub and talked into the small hours.”

The pair are now co-editors of an ambitious new collection of women’s writing about 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, chock-full with Moog synthesisers, which she played with while writing her essay for the book, on electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos.

Gordon joins us from her home in Los Angeles, an impossibly cool, somewhat shy presence on the screen. She had been looking for someone to work with after her UK editor, Lee Brackstone, came to her with the idea for the project, but no one had yet scrubbed up. “And then I met Sinéad. She was incredibly sharp and loved music. I just trusted her.”

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

Gordon is an author too: 2015’s Girl in a Band was one of a slew of no-holds-barred memoirs by women that revolutionised music publishing in the last decade. The book begins at a devastating moment – the simultaneous breakdown of Sonic Youth and her decades-long relationship with bandmate Thurston Moore – then picks apart what it was like to create in a male-dominated world. She met Gleeson after the Irish writer had just published Constellations, the story of her life through her body – from hip replacement in her teenage years to leukaemia and childbirth later.

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

Gleeson is a huge music fan too – as an Irish Times journalist, she has interviewed Kate Bush and Nick Cave. Recent music books by women have inspired her, including US indie artist Kristin Hersh’s Paradoxical Undressing and Tracey Thorn’s 2015 exploration of the voice, Naked at the Albert Hall. “For a long time, we were given the same boring chronological narrative – ‘I was born in x, joined a band in y’ – and that’s just not interesting any more. The best music books aren’t just about music, anyway. They are about the human experience – grief, politics, loss, family. Music leads us into myriad 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 sit alongside authors, including Margo Jefferson and Leslie Jamieson, as well as Ottessa Moshfegh on playing the piano and Booker prize nominee Rachel Kushner on rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson.

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

Gleeson also brought in Irish Booker winner Anne Enright, who writes about what fandom means for both subject and devotee: her piece is centred on her meeting with Laurie Anderson on the street in New York, an experience so overwhelming that it made her “frontal lobe fritz out”. “The idea that Anne would be fan-girlish about anyone was hilarious to me,” Gleeson says.

There are also newer writers including the British 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, manning the phones as the world suddenly converged on Seattle. Gordon suggested her for an essay – “she witnessed this history that was so interesting” – and Gleeson guided her through the edits, loving the experience of helping her “find her confidence”.

The experience made Gleeson think about her music press-reading teens: “All we usually heard of genres like grunge were the ‘dude stories’, and we still do.” Music magazines are still often dominated by men in their cover lines and their contents, with little being done editorially to redress the balance, we agree. “Those stories have been done to death. This book is trying to point you towards the women who were an essential part of those times, whose stories still don’t get glorified … who were often working overtime in the backrooms.”

This Woman’s Work also tackles music and politics: Yiyun Li writes about songs in communist China and Fatima Bhutto on music in exile, and as resistance. While editing the book, Gleeson realised how music is often a kind of “sneaky vehicle for getting across very important ideas”. Books got banned in Ireland often, she says, but provocative songs rarely did.

Gordon’s contribution is an interview with Japanese avant garde artist and multi-instrumentalist Yoshimi, with whom she has played for years in another alternative rock band, Free Kitten. Yoshimi speaks some English, but Gordon speaks no Japanese; this barrier meant they had never had detailed conversations before. “So I took this as an opportunity to find out what she really thinks – I was just puzzled how this magical sort of unconventional woman came to be, growing up in a society built 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. Photograph: Marc Broussely/Redferns

Their exchange includes a joyful moment where a sound engineer gets worried about an elderly woman at one of Yoshimi’s gigs, standing on 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 disconcerting effects of fame, which – Gordon admits today – often make her feel alienated from herself. She liked Yoshimi’s reply: “All the different people who receive my expression will have different mental images of me … by the time a person receives my expression, I don’t exist there any more.”

Both Gordon and Gleeson hope that readers of the book will take the essays as springboards to embark on further reading and listening. “Sinéad’s making a playlist,” Gordon says smiling. Gleeson grins back: “It’s gigantic!”

This year, with memoirs by Neneh Cherry, Vashti Bunyan, Martha Wainwright, and Kathy Valentine from the Go-Go’s, the strong, diverse list of female voices in print continues. “Good music writing is intimate, conversational, human,” Gleeson finishes. Gordon nods in agreement: “Not exclusive. It lets people in.”