- 11 May 22
Having broken through with her 2019 collection, Constellations, Sinéad Gleeson has now collaborated with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon to co-edit This Woman’s Work: Essays On Music, a marvellous compendium of music criticism by and about women. Impressive, but how will she fare in the Hot Press Quick Fire Book Round? Quizmaster: Pat Carty
Tell us how This Woman’s Work came about.
Something happened in Dublin in 2018, and if it hadn’t happened, I don’t think this book would exist. Kim had an exhibition on in IMMA and they wanted to do a Q&A with her, with someone who kind of knew about art and about her music. I’m a massive fan, loved Sonic Youth back in the day, went to see them in my teens, so I did this introduction and I think I got a bit carried away, going on about what a figurehead she is and how important Kim was to me. Kim went to London the next day to see Lee Brackstone [editor at White Rabbit Books] and he said he was thinking about doing an anthology about music by women. Kim was like, ‘I’m not that much of an editor, but I’ll do it if there was somebody who would do it with me’. She said she just did a thing in Dublin with this woman, and Lee knows me and said, ‘Absolutely, that’s the combination right there!’ That’s where it started, but if I hadn’t met her in Dublin, it might not have happened.
Seeing Sonic Youth at sixteen must have been something special...
I saw them in 1990 and ’91, but ‘91 is the is the big one with Nirvana. A weird connection to that gig is Megan Jasper, who is the CEO of Sub Pop now and has an essay in the book. I used to buy vinyl – obviously I went into the Abbey Mall and Freebird and all those places – but I used to buy direct from Sub Pop, through those crappy little ads in the back of the NME. Megan has said to me that she was the girl who answered the phone and sent out all the records. Sonic Youth in McGonagles still ranks as one of the top five gigs of all time, just the loudness, the sweatiness and the craziness. For Nirvana [who supported Sonic Youth in the Top Hat, Dun Laoghaire in ‘91] my friends and I were the only three people there who seemed to know who they were. There was no ‘Teen Spirit’ at that point. It was chaotic, but phenomenal, and to have seen that now, given what happened with Kurt. There’s something about seeing music when you’re that age. It’s overpowering how potent it is.
How did you select your contributors?
We split it down the middle; Kim could pick who she wanted, and I picked who I wanted. My eight people were probably people you’d know more as novelists or fiction writers and I wanted to see what they would do with the essay form, people like Anne Enright – who you wouldn’t expect to be writing essays about music at all, even though she’s a big music fan. I’d love to have made a book with more people but that was the brief, they wanted big, meaty pieces, 5,000 to 8,000 words. We didn’t tell people what to write about, the only thing we did was check near the end, ‘What are you doing?’, in case someone else was doing it.
You must have given them some direction?
Is there a genre you really like? Is there someone you think isn’t written enough about, which was my own feeling with Wendy Carlos. Is there someone you’re obsessed with that you want everyone else to know about? We didn’t say it must be a singer, it must be a profile. It could be whatever form they wanted, so Kim did an interview, Simone White’s is a very hybrid, experimental piece. Some are love letters, some are about memories, some are very personal, and some are more straightforward pieces about musicians like Lucinda Williams, or Rachel Kushner writing about Wanda Jackson.
Your website says the book seeks to “challenge the historic narrative of music and music writing being written by men” so I presume you asked your contributors to write about women?
I think they understood the ethos of the book, the spirit of celebrating the pioneers or the people who were outside the margins, so without us specifically saying ‘Don’t write about men!’ everyone just wrote about women.
As you mentioned earlier, you’ve chosen to write about electronic music pioneer, Wendy Carlos. What is it about her and her work?
Years ago, my husband [composer and producer Stephen Shannon] started introducing me to her as someone who no one writes or talks about who he thought I, as a Kraftwerk obsessive, would be interested in. I was going to write about someone else, who’s quite well known, but nobody needs to know more about them and Wendy’s kind of obscure, and I’m quite concerned about her falling out of view. A lot of the idea for this book is about women on the periphery who didn’t get the same kudos as some of the men did. She’s someone I wanted to tell everyone about. You can find very little about her – she’s a mysterious figure but absolutely way ahead of her time. I think the work’s incredible. The Shining soundtrack, that opening section, there’s nothing like it, and people won’t know about Switched-On Bach [Carlos’ 1968 million-selling debut that helped put the synthesizer on the map]. I’m interested in her because she did things on her own terms, and that extends to her transition as well. I hope more people will try and find her work.
As much as I enjoyed Anne Enright getting tongue-tied in front of Laurie Anderson, and Zakia Sewell getting to know her mother through music; Leslie Jamison’s essay, where she retells her own story through mixtapes, is my favourite. I think the best type of music writing – your essay has it, as does Jamison’s – is as much about the person who’s writing it as the subject.
I agree. They’re my favourite kind of essay to read. Essays become more inclusive when you invite the reader into them. Even if someone’s writing about their mother, you won’t think about their mother, you think about your mother. I think also Leslie’s trying to make the point that some – or all – of our personal connections can be made through music, through gigs, the song your dad used to sing, or the one seven-inch your mother owned or whatever it was. Even think about all the big occasions in people’s lives, like weddings and funerals and all that; music is such a central part of that because it’s so rooted in memory. It’s the thing that makes us think about all the times we’ve had. It’s so important. I’ve never really met anybody… I know one person who tells me they don’t listen to music, which I can’t fathom. ‘What’s wrong with you?!’ I don’t know what I’d do without it.