MG: It must be very glamorous to be a rock icon. But it must be sort of weird sometimes too.
KG: Well, you do forget that people see you in a certain way. Like even if it’s just thinking that you’re taller than you are. You suddenly becoming intimidating when you don’t see yourself that way. And you don’t know if you want to expend the energy to get past that.
MG: It seems like you [could] easily lose yourself in all that projection, but your sense of self seems strong, you don’t seem like you’ve lost it.
KG: Well, maybe I have lost it and I don’t know it. You never know what you’ve lost. Just in your lifestyle – you’re touring, you’re always away, it’s hard to maintain friendships. When you’re away you want things at home to stay the same and they can’t. When you’re a teenager, when you’re fantasizing about being a rock & roll star, you don’t know about that stuff . . . I’m sort of obsessed with innocence, especially since I’ve had a daughter.
MG: What do you mean by innocence?
KG: I guess just a lack of self-consciousness. Like, you’re not paralyzed by truth. Nietzsche use to talk about that, at least that’s one of the few things I remember. [Laughs] Like when we first started out we were making this music and we didn’t really know what it was. Then we put this record out and people started writing about it and it was hard to ignore that. I try to remember what it was like to be innocent, and it’s hard. I remember being young and still being paralyzed by self-consciousness. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t.
MG: Sometimes your voice has this quality – it’s not exactly innocence, but it’s a kid-like quality. Especially on Washing Machine, it’s like a kid, but a kid that’s pushing against something. It’s fighting something, but it’s got a wistful quality, like it doesn’t think it’s going to win, but it’s trying anyway. And then there’s also an adult part of the voice that’s like putting an arm around the kid. It’s like you may not be able to break through the barrier for her, but you’re there with her. It’s very unusual. It’s a poignant, vulnerable quality, but there’s also something feisty that’s going to keep pushing.
KG: Yeah. I am trying to put myself in the position of a teenager who thinks she knows everything but obviously doesn’t. Like the kind of girl who acts tough around boys.
MG: When you write songs, are you sometimes creating characters?
KG: Oh, yeah. It’s like telling a story.
MG: When you perform that stuff, what’s it like? I’m wondering because when I write something, the words on the page have a distanced quality, even if it’s something I feel very strongly about, just because the medium has distance innate in it. Music is much more visceral. Like sometimes I hear lyrics that sort of discomfit or even scare me, even when they’re about subjects I deal with in my writing. It’s because when you hear it sung, especially live, there’s no protection, you’re right in the presence of it. It’s like having sex with the scary thing. It must be thrilling to perform that live.
KG: It is thrilling. I like to put myself in scary situations, but I also do feel very vulnerable. People don’t know that, they see me as really tough. But I have so little defence I’m not sure why it comes across as tough – a lot of it is the sheer joy of moving, it can be kind of aggressive, but it’s still vulnerable.
MG: Your presence has a strong female quality, especially in the protecting-the-kid thing. It’s nurturing, but not in the usual way. It’s this intense strength coming through the vulnerability. Maybe people read that as tough because they don’t know how else to categorize it. It reminds me of when I met you. I was watching you move through this party talking to other musicians, and I watched them respond to you. They seemed to really respect you and like you, probably partly because you’re older and you’ve survived.
MG: But also I felt it was something specifically about you as an older woman. Like you were bringing in this soulful quality that they needed. That female presence has changed rock & roll a lot in the last 20 years.
KG: There’s so many different kinds of women though, it’s hard to generalize.
MG: Yeah, it might be impossible. But I know when I was 15, it was almost purely this young male thing. It was beautiful, but then women came in and it sort of grew up and lost the purity and became more interesting and complicated. Well, maybe it wasn’t like that. But it is different.
KG: To me rock has always been about mixed-gender stuff though. Like it’s where men get to touch each other and tell each other their feelings with music which they’d never do with words. They take on a female persona, which has always been at the heart of rock, for me anyway.
MG: There’s a negative side to a female persona though, and that’s narcissism. That’s very present in rock.
KG: That’s true. Now that I think of it, the desire to hold onto innocence is a kind of narcissism. To grow, you have to become conscious of yourself.
MG: Yeah, and putting innocence and self-awareness together is a big issue for people who are growing up, which is part of why kids like rock so much, I think. Most of rock music has a hard, artificial quality – even if the music is soft, still, it’s theatre, it’s a performance. Yet, it also has this tender, genuine, emotional thing inside it. It’s a combination which is very dramatic and it’s part of why rock and glamour go together. It’s really fun to play with, to get into costume with. But if you take it real seriously as a matter of identity it can get painful and ugly. It’s not allowed to get old or to be human. That kind of glamour seduction is there for all people, but it seems so strong in music now. I was wondering what it was like for you to negotiate that.
KG: Well, we came more out of the tradition of Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, and they weren’t so much about that. It’s true that it’s hard for women to get older – like, I remember when I got pregnant, people made such a big deal out of it and they don’t if men become fathers. They’re not as kind to women who’re getting older, either. It’s funny, I saw Anita Pallenberg recently, and it was amazing. She’s still into dressing really rock & roll. And for me, I’m not gonna dress the way I did 10 years ago, I’m not gonna wear hotpants or whatever. But it’s kind of cool, I admire it when I see an older woman like Anita who’ll still wear the leopard print.
MG: I heard this story once told by a classical music conductor who, when he was young, went to hear an aging tenor perform. The tenor had been a big star but his voice was sort of fucked up and the conductor thought it was crap. Then he looked around at the audience and he saw they were so into it, they had tears running down their faces. He didn’t get it and afterwards, he told an older conductor how dumb he thought the audience as because technically, the guy wasn’t that good any more. And the older guy snapped at him, “If you think that was bad, you don’t know anything about music.” And years later, when he was telling the story, he’d understood what the guy meant, that it was the feeling the audience was responding to, even though the voice was no longer perfect. That’s still there, that respect for feeling, but it’s being less and less allowed.
KG: People sometimes talk about drugs as the search for the ecstatic. Do you think music is that way, for teenagers?
MG: Yeah, very much so.
LG: And that you carry that with you into adulthood?
MG: I don’t know that everybody does. I think for some people, when they’re young, they let it in as a burst of feeling, but then they don’t let it develop. So they leave it behind and just think of it as kid stuff without ever really knowing what it was. But music is primary. It touches people very deeply, which is why people get obsessed with rock stars. If somebody can touch you like that, of course you’re going to revere them, regardless of who they are as people.
KG: You know, when I play, that’s the only time I feel self-conscious in a good way. It’s like the music is up-lifting, you can feel it all through your body. It’s rising and falling all around you and you can feel all the other people around you. It’s corny, but it’s really like being one with the universe, like being enveloped.
MG: You know that song you did about Karen Carpenter, “Tunic”? Where you talk about getting smaller and smaller it’s like you’re talking about being obliterated, but at the end, it turns into this exalted thing where she makes it into heaven.
KG: I was trying to put myself into Karen’s body. It was like she had so little control over her life, like a teenager – they have so little control over what’s happening to them that one way they can get it is through what they eat or don’t. Also I think she lost her identity, it got smaller and smaller. And there have been times when I feel I’ve lost mine. When people come and ask me about being famous or whatever and I don’t feel that, it’s not me. But it makes me think about it.
MG: Obviously, that doesn’t only happen to famous people, but it’s more stark there. It’s like another facet of the glamour thing. Her voice was so pure, so piercing, and their public presentation was so perfect, but if you only allow the beautiful thing to show, the ugly thing just gets more horrible. You get so airy and piercing until there’s nothing left. Thought that’s what you were talking about.
KG: The music is definitely about the darker side. But I also wanted to liberate Karen into heaven. . . . You know there’s all these families out there trying so hard to do everything right and be perfect. There’s this book called Mother-Daughter Revolution about that, how women exhaust themselves trying to be all this stuff they can never be and how they pass it on to their daughters.
MG: It’s like people who only want to see heaven wind up creating hell.
KG: I was walking around SoHo with my niece and we kept seeing these models, this glamour that’s all about “I am the model” or only having a certain look. We’re thinking of moving out of the city because I don’t really want my daughter to grow up around that.
MG: That stuff can be really fun if it’s treated lightly. Like Patti Smith and Debbie Harry or you – there is a glamour element, but it’s like you’re playing with it, it’s a very different thing.
KG: There’s very little sense of irony about it now, it’s all about looking like a model.
MG: I once saw a funny thing on MTV, a cartoon where a skinny little girl is looking at the TV in horror as these babes with huge boobs and butts wildly gyrate. Now, as an older person, it’s sometimes fun to wear the ridiculous babe outfit because it’s like a little piece of you and you’re expressing it with humour. But for a really young person to have that stuck in her face so aggressively, like this is supposed to be you, it’s pretty awful.
KG: Yeah, to play with that you have to know who you are.
MG: Did you ever have any sense of conflict about that female identity thing?
KG: I guess there was a period when I worried about it more. When you have a kid you just don’t have the time for that. Although I still love clothes and trying to find stuff that nobody else is wearing . . . it’s the kind of thing you’d do with your girlfriends. Like being in your room putting on makeup together.
MG: There’s the innocent part again – or well, maybe it’s not so innocent, I don’t know.