Interviewing someone is a tricky business. By tricky I mean downright difficult. Particularly if that person is 17,000kms away, and on the other end of a dodgy mobile connection, with a Boston accent. And a musician’s temperament.
The ancient art of the interview should be old hat for this girl. Back when I was meant to be into strawberry-scented ‘My little ponies’ and rainbow-embossed Care Bears, I was, instead, wielding one end of a skipping rope handle and interrogating anyone who’d yield; moonlighting as Jennifer Keyte and publishing the articles in our family newsletter ‘Boundy Union Monthly’ (created by me, read mostly by me). 12 years later, my first real job was interviewing patients with severe psychosis in a hospital ward in Liverpool, and I spent a large chunk of my twenties interviewing everyone from doctors to small children and their MGB (Main Grocery Buying) mothers, often in a group setting, attempting to penetrate the minds of consumers. I’ve interviewed scientists on live radio and drug addicts connected to EEG machines. But that’s all child’s play compared to the telephone interview with someone vaguely famous or talented. It turns out that in these conditions I turn into a flirty, breathless mess with absolutely no regard for the formal protocol of the time-honoured interview modus operandi.
Groupie magazine was the first publication I pitched to as part of this experiment, the first to publish an article of mine, and has been a regular source of writing jobs since – unpaid alas, but the contra in free gigs and festivals has more than sort of made up for it. An unexpected-but-not-altogether-unpleasant-by-product of having a semi-regular gig is the chance to write about stuff you’d never think to pitch, and the opportunity to talk to people you’d never otherwise meet.
For instance, until a few months ago, I thought Aussie Hip Hop was merely a blight on our musical horizon, an offensive assault on the senses that had me reaching for the mute button every time on JJJ. But after interviewing the lovely young, philanthropic, and incredibly charming Pez, I was converted, to the tune of iTunes and a credit card payment. I’d never heard of young soulster Eli “Paperboy” Reed until the chance to interview him from his couch in New York (sans pants) nor spunky 60s all-girl outfit ‘The Like’ and both are now on high rotation. But upon listening to the recordings of each interview to write up the story, a few things became embarrassingly clear. Aside from a couple of mortifying gaffs* I realised most of the interview was me giggling and wanting to converse and share my own anecdotes as though it was a chat with a old mate, rather than an interview with a clear goal of a good story at the end.
Here are a couple of things I’ve learnt over the past few months when conducting a phone interview, which I’m slowly learning to put into practice:
- Listen. Listen until they stop talking and then listen a bit more. Don’t be afraid of pauses and feel the need to fill them with reassurances (“yes, I know the feeling!) and more questions… this is often when they’ll keep talking and fill the space with the juicy stuff. Because this medium lacks the body-language cues of the face-to-face interview, this is really the only way you know the interviewee is finished.
- Probe. If the interview goes off track or you hear something interesting, explore it. This can often provide the colour for a story.
- Challenge, especially if something contradicts a point you’ve read or heard about them. New angles and controversy are what differentiates your story from the press release everyone got
- Recap and clarify, particularly on an interesting point. A few times I felt silly asking what they meant (assuming I’d look like a bit of a twat) but missed out on a really interesting point that I couldn’t use in the article for lack of context
- Have a list of some interesting questions (beyond the usual stuff) at your disposal – a) because sometimes they can be fairly monosyllabic and run out of material and b) it usually makes a more interesting story
- Don’t try to befriend them, revere them or laugh at all their jokes. You’ve both got a job to do, and if nothing else, there’s nothing more torturous than having to hear your own sycophantic cackle played back when transcribing notes.
Which is a timely segue to the most important point – record it! Put the phone on speaker and record it on your iPhone Voice Memo, or computer if you’re using your mobile (you can use Garage Band on a Mac or Sound recorder on a PC, or download free software such as audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) for this very purpose). Attempting to reread your hieroglyphics of notes or get a quote right from a few scribbles is both impossible and potentially dangerous (did someone say litigation?) and not having to take notes frees you up to be present in the conversation.
Looking forward to putting these into practice next interview (unless of course the Editor reads this and sacks me on the basis I’m not quite the music aficionado I once claimed).
* such as asking the lead singer of ‘The Like’ if she was going to put her hand in the ‘last shadow puppets’ herself in a dream collaboration, without realising they were actually a prominent HUMAN band, led by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, and not, in fact, puppets at all.