Anton spent 3 years working at an online music magazine as a writer, interviewer, photographer, editor, and eventually co-editor-in-chief.
Every journalist has their own way of getting to the juicy marrow of an artist’s creative motivations. Of course, we must take into account that we are all human, and there will be days when a given person will be more willing to placate an interviewer with great content. While there is no formula for getting the perfect answer—or writing the perfect question—there are certain guidelines that may assist a writer in extracting that golden nugget of information.
In my years of working for an online Metal music magazine, I got a chance to interview the likes of Gus G (Firewind, Ozzy Osbourne), Bob Kulick (KISS), Bjorn “Speed” Strid (Soilwork, Disarmonia Mundi), and Dwid Hellion (Integrity). And, although hesitant at first, I quickly discovered some insights on how to separate your interview from the 25 others that these artists would do to promote their records.
These insights are by no means groundbreaking, but they did earn my interviews praise, even from some of the artists themselves.
Although I’ve had to step away from music journalism, I remain a big admirer of the genre. Therefore, I would like to share some of my insights with those who may be just starting out on their way to interviewing the greats.
Some of you may find these helpful, while others may already know more than I do. But, regardless of your status in the field, I hope that you may discover something useful within these tips.
Tips for Interviewing a Musician
- Have a consistent structure.
- Study their career.
- Analyse Their Writing
- Find an obscure reference.
- Ask personal, but respectful, questions.
- Be levelheaded, but don’t be a pushover.
- Throw them a curve ball.
- Ask a question that makes them think.
- Close with a strong question.
1. Have a Consistent Structure.
Always have a slight theme to your interview. Don’t bring a bunch of spit-ball questions that are scattered like notes in a jazz improv. Combine them into their own sections that feature similar topical leanings. Make it flow. That way, it becomes more than an interview, it becomes an exposé.
2. Study Their Career.
The artist has you at a disadvantage. After all, you’re talking to them about something that they’ve slaved over for at least a year of their lives and they know every crack and every drop of blood and sweat on that record. So, when you’re speaking to them about their baby, make sure you know more about the album than just its release date. Study the interviews that the artist has already done so that you know what not to ask (there’s no merit in two interviews of the same kind) and what to expect from the music. That way, you go beyond the perfunctory press release description.
3. Analyse Their Writing.
Now, this is a dangerous one. You don’t want to offend an artist by not doing the research on a track or by uttering something so outlandish that they find it completely demeaning to their creation. Try to offer subtle assumptions about what a given track might represent. Also, make sure you understand the themes on the album and how they might reflect on their personal lives. Go through their discography and pick out some seemingly recurring allusions or imagery, then ask about their role in the artist’s music. Consider it as though you’re researching a piece of literature and not a record. Your insight might impress them.
4. Find an Obscure Reference.
This one may be relevant to the research section, but it’s a little more than that. It’s going that extra inch to find a deep cut that they forgot or asking them about a certain show that is considered one of their greats. This extra digging may inspire some nostalgia that may lead to a great story.
5. Ask Personal, but Respectful, Questions.
When asking personal questions, make sure you tread lightly. If done correctly, this can show the artist that he or she is more than just another 20 minutes of tape in your dictaphone, and they may open up on a whole other level. However, try to stay away from the dirt. No one appreciates when you drag skeletons out of the closet or bring up a topic that has already been beaten to death. That said, some artists may actually enjoy that. If so, don’t go overboard.
6. Be Levelheaded, but Don’t Be a Pushover.
Don’t be afraid to put on the gloves. Never bring a confrontational attitude to an interview. That will get you nowhere. Nevertheless, don’t be a pushover. You’re a professional who is doing their job and you need to get that answer on the page. So, prod a bit harder if your subject is being hard on you, but don’t turn into a raging bull (or make their nostrils flair either).
7. Throw Them a Curve Ball.
Keep it fresh. If you see your subject getting restless, throw in a question that might surprise them. I’m not a fan of camp or novelty questions like 'what's your favourite food’ or ‘who’s the one person you would etc. with,’ but to each their own. I just find them to be a waste of time that could be spent on more poignant questions. But, when it comes to lighting the atmosphere, play off the interviewee. Follow their lead, and try try to get them to say something fun off the cuff. These make for truly authentic moments.
8. Ask a Question That Makes Them Think.
Try to make your subject fall silent for all the right reasons—to really make them think. Find a universal question that a musician never had to answer before. This kind of question is a real gem, because it can cause you two to truly connect.
9. Close With a Strong Question.
Save the best for last. While this can be a risky move (because your subject may be fed up by this point in the interview), I’ve always found this to work great. Finishing on the poignancy factor allows for the answer to be a brief, but powerful, crescendo. It throws the interviewee off guard. But, be mindful of your timing. You don’t want them running off towards the stage before you get the gold.
There you have it! While this might be an amateurish guide for a veteran interviewer, for someone who is interviewing a rock star for the first time, this may be a good starting point.
© 2019 Anton Sanatov