How best to interview a musician about his career?
May 24, 2012 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Looking for tips on interviewing a celebrity musician about his career to write liner notes for upcoming re-releases of his catalog.

So, I've been tapped to write some liner notes about some albums by someone famous. I've never done this before, although I have written about music in various capacities over the years, and know quite a bit about writing. I just don't know much about interviewing.

The scope is about 1500 words about each of 5 albums, some nearly 30 years old at this point. The interview will be conducted by telephone or Skype, and I'll have ~20 minutes to discuss each album. The scope of each interview is supposed to be about the creation of the album in general, or specific songs and their inspirations, and anything else that might be interesting that I can draw out of the artist or that he can remember.

Aside from doing my research (listening to each album, reading what I can online), I'm wondering what tips others might have about conducting such an interview process to get the most out of my limited time talking to the artist.

I'm looking specifically for examples of good leading questions that might open doors to memory, ways to build quick rapport with someone I've never talked to before, advice on talking to someone I admire about their career without falling into fanboy sycophantic nonsense, ways to prepare for the interview (creating questions, etc), interview techniques regarding how conversational to be vs. how much to just do q&a stuff, and generally any other whatever that might help me make these interviews deliver the most bang for the buck and help me to write awesome essays about the subject at hand.

Insights from both those who have done interviews and those who have been interviewed would be welcome. Also insights from those who have thought about being interviewed and what they might want to have happen during such a thing. Basically, anything might be helpful will probably be helpful.
posted by hippybear to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
leading questions are annoying

just ask questions from the heart

I'm a professional journalist. I'd either mentally put yourself in the shoes of a fan, and think of what they would like to know. Or, better yet, ask some actual fans what they might like to see in liner notes on what you are writing for.

Remember, you are writing for a reader. Keep that reader in mind.

Don't talk to much. Listen as much as you can. Let there be long silences, that's usually when the subject breaks the silence by saying the really unrehearsed stuff.

Finally, narratives are really the best. Just get them to tell you the story. To take you on the ride. Be curious. Try not to ask things everyone else probably has already.

Ask them what THEY think is important to tell. So many interviewers go into interviews with only their own sense of what is important. Subjects find it refreshing to be given the lead.
posted by Salvatorparadise at 9:08 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

too much, rather. spelling and grammar for me are atrocious when writing on the web.
posted by Salvatorparadise at 9:09 PM on May 24, 2012

My first thought would be that you are not really interviewing to be impartial. You are writing liner notes for his/her life's work. You should be sympathetic to them.

I would ask about their memories of making the album. Anecdotes about being in the studio, was any song written about anyone special in their life and looking back how do they see this album fitting into their body of work. Was it a step forward, an album that needed to say something or was it simply meeting a contractual obligation? Were there any songs or music by their contemporaries that influenced the album? What about the producer? Did he help> Did you get along with him? What other projects did you work with the producer or the studio musicians on? Was there any song left off the album you wish you had included? Was the order of the songs particularly meaningful? Etc.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:10 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

spend a few minutes listening to Terry Gross (although I'm sure you have already done so). She's, without doubt, one of the best interviewers of our generation.

Have faith in your knowledge. Your music FPP's are fantastic... believe that your skills in communicating about music are as impressive as their skills in producing it.

And don't forget that musicians are just people... I was on a movie set once, and was introduced to a fairly well known actor. My comment, because I didn't know what to say was "It's an honor to meet you!"... he stood there for a moment smiled, and replied, "Well, of course it is" and laughed. He honestly didn't see the "honor" part... These are folks, they will respond to your honest knowledge and enthusiasm about music....

Have fun, you'll do fine!
posted by HuronBob at 9:46 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had a chance to interview some of my own music "heroes" in the past, and one of the things that worked really well in those conversations was my sincerity. I was honest that I was a fan, but I wasn't fawning or over the top. The familiarity I had as a "fan" really helped me cut through the crap a lot of interviewers rehash again and again.

I knew their music fairly well, but I also researched my ass off so that I could decide whether I wanted to drag out content form older interviews or to take things in new directions. Avoid canned questions as much as possible, but if things really stall, it doesn't hurt to have several general areas of discussion sketched out so that you have somewhere to go in a pinch. Salvatore has given you great advice above.

Try to think of the meta narrative you are likely to structure the work around upfront, and identify the holes you need the interview to fill (but don't be afraid to trash that direction if the interviews don't support it). It's a great idea to arrange at least one follow up interview after you've done the first round and started writing so that you can fill in any of the last few blanks.

Good luck!
posted by hamandcheese at 10:07 PM on May 24, 2012

"What do people always get wrong about you (or your music, or this album)? Set the record straight so I don't make the same mistake."
"What questions did you expect me to ask that I missed?"
"What do you wish I'd asked?"
"Are there any topics you were really hoping to avoid? Willing to talk about them?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:16 PM on May 24, 2012

I wrote up my own interview tips based on my experience here on mefi before.

Broadly speaking, if you bother putting in some work (which it sounds like you are), that is so much more than the vast majority of interviewers do - subjects can see it and will respond to it.
posted by smoke at 10:17 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are a fan. Presumably, anyone taking the time to meander through the liner notes will be a fan. I know this is kind of cop out in regards to answering your questions here but honestly, I'd really think about what YOU would like to know about the process and meanings behind each album and ask that.

Clearly you're an experienced writer and while I am not, I can say that in meeting and talking to some of my favorite musicians over the years, I've thrown caution to the wind and led with, "Dude, huge fan!" and then I've proved it, a la William Miller in Cameron Crowe's "The guitar work was incendiary" scene. Being a genuine fan doesn't mean you have to kiss ass and fawn but I think that your love of the musician and their work should shine through. If it does, I really believe it's a boon to what you'll write up in the end.

And as croutonsupafreak mentioned, I don't think it's a terrible idea to ask your subject the question's put forth in that answer. It might lead to some great things that you didn't think were on the table for discussion and maybe some things your subject wanted to talk about. I'd let them guide you in that respect.

And I don't know if it's worth mentioning but personally, as a fan reading precisely because of that, I really do hate the whole Interview Question/Interview Answer format. Please, sweet baby Jesus in a manger, do not do that. It's always so cold to me and while I hunt hard for the feeling there, I can never find it. Perhaps head through the Rolling Stone archives (notice I said archives and not the actual mag they're putting out as a music zine these days) and read some of their best interviews. If you'd like an All Access pass, memail me and I'll loan you mine, but I don't think taking cues from some of the best rock writers and putting together more of a story than an interview is a bad idea.

Last (Jesus tits, this is long-winded), don't shy away from adding your personal bent and way of storytelling to this project. Obviously, the artist (or at least their management) digs your style and the way you work. Let that shine through.

(And congrats on the gig! Though it sounds daunting and nerve-wrecking, this is a totally badass thing to get asked to do. But you probably know that already, fellow music nerd.)
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:16 AM on May 25, 2012

If you are a fan of the artist, don't let your ideas and preconceptions of his or her work get in the way, in other words, try not to ask questions to validate your own ideas.
posted by prolific at 7:42 AM on May 25, 2012

Here's a previously from a few years ago that might help.
posted by catlet at 1:57 PM on May 30, 2012

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