September 23, 2022

“The mythification of the history of music concerns men”

In the summer of 2019, Kim Gordon – musician, visual artist, writer and former member of legendary rock band Sonic Youth – arrived in Dublin. She did a live interview at the Light House Cinema with writer Sinéad Gleeson. “I interviewed Kim about her art, because her solo show had just opened at IMMA,” says Gleeson. “His band Body/Head also played a great show in the IMMA yard, and [afterwards] Kim, her daughter Coco, [singer] Heather Leigh – who was also on the bill – and brilliant American poet Elaine Kahn all hung out at the Royal Oak [pub].”

Soon after, Gordon was in London where she met publisher Lee Brackstone, who had left Faber to launch a new brand of music books, White Rabbit. Brackstone asked Gordon about the possibility of working on an anthology of women’s essays on music. Gordon had plenty of experience as a writer – her memoir, Girl in a Band, was published in 2015 – but not as an editor. She thought Gleeson, author of the acclaimed collection of essays Constellations and editor of several award-winning anthologies, would be a perfect collaborator. “I had just met Sinead just before I saw Lee in London, so it felt natural,” says Gordon. “Because, you know, she’s awesome.”

The project immediately appealed to Gleeson. “So [much of] the mythologizing of music history is about men,” she says. “So, well, why not make a book that’s not about men?”

The result of this fortuitous sequence of events, This Woman’s Work, is a dazzling and unpredictable collection of essays (with an introduction by Heather Leigh). The book brings together novelists, essayists, music and literary critics and poets from around the world, from Anne Enright, Fatima Bhutto and Ottessa Moshfegh to Yiyun Li, Maggie Nelson and Margot Jefferson, writing about everything from folk to trap, from American jazz to Pakistani resistance songs.

Sinéad Gleeson: “I think if this had been a book about 20 people that we all know very well, it might not be such an interesting book.” Photography: Brid O’Donovan

When planning the book, Gordon and Gleeson approached potential contributors, who were given carte blanche regarding the topics and forms of their essays. “There was no memory,” says Gleeson. “And sometimes it can be a little scary because you don’t know what you’re going to get back, or if it’s going to be what you’re looking for. And in this case, fortunately, it was. The only conversation we had was about diversity and inclusion. We didn’t want this book to be written by a lot of people from the same background as me or Kim. It was important.

Both Gordon and Gleeson believe that giving contributors such freedom has led to more powerful pieces. “I think if you tell people they can write about whatever they want, they tend to write about things that are really important, things that they’re passionate about,” Gleeson says. “And I think that comes through in the strength of the writing. No matter what you’re writing about, if you know your subject and really care about it, chances are it’s going to be a very impactful text, if all that [feeling] is in it. And I think that’s the case, in all these rooms.

Gordon agrees. “I don’t know all the writers, not that many actually,” she says. “But the ones I know, their personality really comes through in the writing and what they chose. Juliana Huxtable’s play [on the groundbreaking experimental jazz singer Linda Sharrock], it’s so her, you know. It is poetic and also abstract.

Gordon believes that a plurality of voices can challenge preconceptions about female musicians and writers. “A lot of female musicians get asked the question, ‘How does it feel to be a girl in a band?’ And all of that assumes we’re all [basically] the same person. But the more women play music, the more different personalities you see. So it’s not just about being stereotyped in one way or another. And I think these essays kind of do the same thing.

While some of the contributors have already written extensively about music or are involved in the music industry and music journalism, Gleeson and Gordon believe that the fact that many of the contributors were known for other forms of writing was a bonuses.

“I think there’s something really interesting about asking people who write mostly fiction, who create other worlds, fake characters and fake universes, to write something that isn’t invented,” says Gleeson. “Novelists can hide in fiction…but you can’t hide in non-fiction. So I was really excited to see what fiction writers would do, because there are no pillars behind which they can dodge. Gordon suspects it could have been liberating. “When you write in a genre you’re not used to writing, maybe it’s easy, because there’s no don’t have the same expectations,” she said.

Both were struck by the variety of contributions. Although none of the contributors knew what the others were writing about, there were, says Gleeson, “little echoes throughout the book, such as Lucinda Williams appears in a few essays and Kraftwerk is mentioned a few times”. The variety continues in the forms of the essays themselves. One of the most striking pieces in the book is What Is Going On in Rap Music, the Music Called ‘Trap’ and ‘Drill’? by scholar and poet Simone White. “It’s an incredibly hybrid and brilliant essay,” says Gleeson. “I don’t think a lot of people will have seen that kind of writing in a piece like this, because…it’s very formally different. And she just knows her stuff inside and out… It won’t be for everyone, but this piece will blow some people away. Personally, I’ve never seen this kind of hybridity in music writing.

Composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos at work in her New York recording studio, October 1979. Photograph: Leonard M DeLessio/Corbis via Getty

Composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos at work in her New York recording studio, October 1979. Photograph: Leonard M DeLessio/Corbis via Getty

Both publishers contributed parts. Gordon chose to conduct an in-depth interview with Japanese musician Yoshimi Yokota, drummer for The Boredoms and Gordon’s former Free Kitten bandmate. The result is a fascinating and revealing portrait that helped Gordon gain new insight into the life of a collaborator and friend. In the interview, which was conducted through a translator, Yoshimi was able to express herself to Gordon in a way she had not before.

“It was an opportunity, because she could really explain things,” says Gordon. “Even though I’ve known her for years, her English isn’t very good; she can understand much more than she can speak. She’s such an unconventional musician and person in a culture where conformity is highly valued, and I’ve always been curious about her early background and upbringing. And I felt like maybe that would inject a different kind of energy into the book as well.

Gleeson wrote a powerful essay on Wendy Carlos, the brilliant musical innovator best known for her hit album Switched-On Bach and her soundtracks for The Shining and A Clockwork Orange. She chose to write about Carlos because “there isn’t a lot written about her. And because she’s become so reclusive, there haven’t been any interviews or recent interviews. I started to feel very sad that her legacy is fading away and many people, especially future generations, don’t know her. [They] won’t know what an absolutely monumental influence it has on the history of synthesized music, modular synths, filmmaking, all of those things.

Both Gleeson and Gordon hope the book will inspire readers to discover the musicians featured, some of whom were previously unfamiliar to the two publishers. “I think if it was a book about twenty people that we all know very well, maybe it wouldn’t be such an interesting book,” says Gleeson. “I hope a lot of people will discover specific songs or movements, or genres, or singers from this book, and immediately go away and find something that they might not like, or that might be something that they’ve been waiting to hear their whole lives.” She is creating a Spotify playlist to accompany the book, making it easier for readers to discover the featured artists.

The co-editors hope the book’s ripples continue to reverberate. “I hope this inspires women to write their own essays about their memory and experience of music, because everyone has that. [experience]says Gordon. “It’s a great way to get someone interested in writing.”

A British journalist recently told Gleeson that she thinks the book has the potential to become a series. Gleeson is tempted by the idea. “There are so many other stories that we don’t know, or that need to be told or deserve to be told,” she says. “So maybe come back to me and Kim when we’ve had a good rest.”

This woman’s work is published by White Rabbit.