Talk To Me

On the art of conversations with artists


Recently, I was trying to compile a greatest hit(s) of radio interviews I’ve done for a compilation reel.

I thought maybe I should include some of the worst as well. I can only imagine they might be just as interesting to a listener. You can hear the flop sweat coming through your speakers. On second thought it won’t get me a job, but I’ll gladly share some with you.

Interviews of artists I personally love are especially challenging. It took me a long time to understand that it’s not fair to expect that our conversations will translate into something as meaningful as I find their work.  

There have been many I loved, where I learned something truly special—indelible lessons. Trent Reznor was a standout. His retelling of Johnny Cash, in the twilight of his huge career, covering one of his songs, was tremendous. Reznor described the feeling of scribbling the words to ‘Hurt’ in a journal as a young, goth-y man. Flash forward many years, and he’s hearing those words come back to him in Cash’s sage baritone: “I hurt myself today to see if I’d still feel.” He described it as one of the most humbling and powerful experiences in his career.

I was then compelled to venture into the uncertain waters of talking about David Bowie, as they shared both a working relationship and genuine friendship. Hearing him explain Bowie was the only artist that exceeded any expectations he had, first as a fan and then a collaborator, reaffirmed what I already suspected as a Freak Out in a Moonage Daydream fan myself. My final question to him was if he thought David Bowie owned a pair of sweatpants. The answer, predictably, was NO.

I fondly remember my conversation with legendary writer, historian, actor, and Pulitzer Prize-winner  Studs Terkel, who, at the time of our interview, was rounding 137 years of age. Despite the squealing feedback from his hearing aids, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. This cat was a storyteller from another time. The fact that he could recount a detailed story of falling down a flight of stairs, breaking his neck, with such humor and poetry had me laughing so hard I should’ve been struck by lightning on the spot.

Addressing his advanced years, he left me with this golden nugget: He told me that he would never have understood as a younger man that the most important part of growing older was the desire to feel needed. As my uncle would holler before sinking the eight ball in the corner pocket: “SCHOOL’S OUT!”

During the pandemic, my first Zoom interview was a transatlantic chat with Laura Marling. This was the infancy of the COVID era, so zero kinks had been worked out. A musician at home is not a sound engineer. The annoying sound lag/echo was a fresh hell challenge, which resulted in lots of talking over each other. Coupled with intermittently frozen video screens, I could not wait for it to be over. (No shade on Marling.) Thinking we had signed off, I declared to myself aloud, “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?!” Whoops, we were still connected. Probably the only clear thing she heard me say all interview.

Should’ve known, because I also despise phone interviews, known in the trade as “phoners.” They always sound like a 911 call transcript.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“When we went into the crackle crackle Electric Ladyland studio…”

At best, they remind me of a local news eyewitness account to a tornado: “It sounded like a freight train.” Wow. That’s enlightening.

Once, while doing a phoner with Richard Hell, I asked if he believed in Revolution which he mistakenly heard as Evolution, resulting in a few minutes of awkward miscommunication from the godfather of punk, his assumption being he was talking to some hayseed flat-earther.

Thus, I always prefer the in-person chat. One, I love to see what a person is wearing. Give me faces, footwear, and road funk. Two, it’s a helpful visual to know if the guest wants to kick my ass, or the other way around. 

Once, I was walking down a corridor for a live interview with Alt-J, a band that seemed, to me, to be only taking up unnecessary space. Just before entering the studio, I was informed I could only direct my questions to one of them. A very Mariah Carey-like demand. It didn’t help that I didn’t know who the fuck who was Alt and who was J. I figured whichever poser didn’t look at me was the diva in question. There’s only two of them making this dreck, and I still have no idea which one I directed my questions to.

And I once nearly exchanged punches with a DJ duo from LA. Going into the interview, all I knew about them was that Joaquin Phoenix had directed one of their videos.  

The lead douche never removed his sunglasses, yet I could feel his eyes boring a hole into me. I asked a fairly innocuous question that was either perceived as a slight or, frankly, I don’t know what. He took a full 30-second beat of silence, so I did what I always do in those situations, which is change the subject or insist another tune should be performed. Ray-Ban Bag of Anger had a real problem with that and accused me of being rude.

What happened next usually only happens in my dreams, but I said exactly what I was feeling out loud. “I don’t care if you want to talk or not, I have a headache.” I was wearing a short skirt that day, but I was fully prepared to go at him like a wild spider monkey.

The “interview” ended when one of them finally walked out in the middle of this excruciating cringefest. My producer reassured me we wouldn’t air it, to which I vehemently insisted we do air it exactly as is. I had to believe if I was sitting on an onramp in rush hour, hearing two strangers nearly coming to blows would be worth a sustaining membership.

Or, at the very least, they’d get to hear an engineer asking the offended guest what he was looking for, only to be told, “An exit.”


In the Street, Big Star

Born to Lose, Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers

Hold On Hope, Guided By Voices

A Sunday Kind of Love, Etta James

Sleeping Lessons, The Shins

Balloon Man, Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians

I Need to Know, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Long Time, Blondie

Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Pretenders

Destination Diamonds, Diamond Nights

On Top of the World, Cheap Trick

Artificial Flowers, Bobby Darin