Music journalism, and art criticism as a whole, is special because it offers the writer a chance to articulate something intangible, and to provide crucial narrative and context to an artist or piece of art.
Interviewing a musician gives the writer an opportunity to find outside information that gives that music more weight and impact to listeners. There’s some real power in that, but in order to get there you need to make sure you’ve done the necessary research, asked the right questions, and told the story in the right way.
This can be a little intimidating, especially for young writers or music lovers just getting into journalism. You have an artist or piece of work that you really care about, you know there’s a story to be told, but you don’t know where to start.
Despite how intimidating writing about music and interviewing an artist can be for someone who is new to the form, breaking down the process into some simple steps can make the whole thing a little more straightforward.
I’m not the end all and be all, there are far better or more qualified music journalists out there, but I’m able to call myself a music writer, and I’ve gotten here without much formal training. Here’s how I approach interviewing an artist and writing a full featue.
#1: Find your artist, get in touch
As simple as it sounds, in order to interview a musician, you have to find them first. While this is pretty obvious, there are plenty of reasons that this step can provide some frustration. First, you should be affiliated with some sort of platform that you can pitch them with. A personal blog might not always work, but you can always become a contributing writer for Kulture Hub and contact them after signing up!
Timing is everything. You need to find an artist that is eager to do press. Whether they just released an album, are about to go on tour, haven’t been covered much before, just had a near-death experience, or tweeted that they want to be interviewed, make sure that you’re reaching out to an artist that has a need for press at that moment.
Once you have an artist, find their contact. Whether that’s a personal email, a press contact, a manager, comb social media profiles or their label website. Press contacts are the best because their job is to get their artists as much publicity as possible.
Once you have a press contact, send them a message articulating your desire to cover their artist, why this artist intrigues you, and what sort of angle your potential story would have. Obviously you don’t know the final angle of your story before the interview, but give a tentative outline to what you want your story to highlight.
Quick tip: find yourself some PR contacts and foster a working relationship with them. As a music writer, these people are your best friends. If you establish yourself as a solid option for press with a specific contact, it’s a non-stop pipeline of new artists and music to cover.
#2: Research EVERYTHING
You’ve found your artist, contacted their manager, and figured out a time to talk. Now comes the actual work.
This is when you get to put your musical passion into practice. Listen to the artist’s entire discography, read every piece of press, and go through their social pages. Try to pick up on the crucial themes in their music (songwriting, production, who they’re working with).
Also begin to paint the picture of an artist as a person. Behind every piece of art is a human being and no music story is complete without understanding who is behind the sounds you hear. Your duty is to make that person come to life.
This is the most crucial part of the entire process. Your research will help shape the questions you will ask and where you decide to take the interview. Maybe the artist changed up their sound completely between their 2nd and 3rd albums. Maybe they moved cities before their last project. Maybe their dog died. Your duty is to find the pertinent information about this person that will help you do the best work.
Go into the research process with some questions that you want to be answered or addressed. If you know what kind of things you’re looking for before listening or reading, it will help you when it comes to formulating questions.
Leave no stone unturned during the research process.
#3: Craft questions that tell a story
Your research should be such that after listening to this artist’s music, reading up about them, and scrolling their socials, you already have dozens of questions about their recording process, influences, personal life, and career prospects.
After your research you will have picked up on certain themes that you’ll want to highlight. When you’re crafting your questions, try to think from the biggest fan’s and biggest detractor’s perspective as it pertains to your artist.
Find the questions that the most devoted listeners to this artist will want to hear. What kind of things do you find relevant to this artist that haven’t been addressed in past features?
Also ask questions that you think would answer people’s criticisms of this artist. Presumably you like the music this person makes if you’re moved to interview them, ask questions that you think address the issues people may have with this artist.
Your questions should follow a similar theme. A bunch of random questions may work for a Q&A, but if we’re crafting a full interview feature, keep your questions to a common idea, whether that’s their songwriting process, their upbringing, how they started making music. This will make it easier for them, but also for you when you sit down to write, your questions will have already formed a sort of outline for the story.
Quick tip: never ask a question in “talk about” format. “Talk about your latest album” is not a good question, make your questions as specific and direct as possible.
#4: Talk to the artist…
Yes, this seems obvious, in order to interview someone you will indeed have to talk to them, but actually talking with your words is best.
In person meetings are ideal, but phone calls will work as well. The point here, avoid emails, DMs, or texts whenever possible. It’s really easy for someone to write out an email to a question when they can think about their answer, but it’s a really fast way to lose a lot of the human emotion you’d get by talking in person or over the phone.
An in-person meeting or phone call will also allow you to ask questions on the fly, if you picked up on something interesting that the artist is talking about a lot, but you didn’t plan on asking about it, go down that tangent!
As convenient as an email exchange may seem, a face-to-face interview or phone call will give you the ability to connect to the person your interviewing, improvise, and ultimately make your interview much stronger.
Quick tip: you can use FreeConferenceCalling.com to conduct your interview and record them.
#5: Structure your story around answers
You have your answers. Whether you went through the miserable, painstaking process of transcribing the interview yourself or paid someone too much money to do a shoddy job of transcribing for you, the interview is in writing, which means you basically have your story already.
If you did your job in asking good questions that tell a story, go into your transcript and begin annotating it, breaking up each answer into sections. In this sense, the answers will provide you with a proper structure for your story. Edit your transcript, highlight the most important answers, discard the things you don’t need.
Arrange these sections out and create an outline for your story. The answers are the backbone of the story, your work is mostly done for you, all you have to do is create the connections and transitions between the different sections.
#6: Plug your writing in around the artist’s answers
The answers the artist gives you has already formed the structure of your story, now all that’s left to do is build the base. Think about what the title of your article is going to look like and how you can make it different from any other piece of content that’s already been created about them.
Find the idea(s) that you want to highlight most and make this the point, or thesis, of your article. I know it may bring back some PTSD, but this is no different than writing a high school english class essay, just a lot more fun.
When you make a statement, back it up with evidence from the interview. Everything should go back to that bigger idea, whether that’s how the artist moving to New Orleans shaped their album, how they changed their songwriting process, how listening to Ready to Die every day for a year influenced their most recent work, find the most important idea from your interview and make your article emphasize that point.
In the end, make the artist’s words do most of the work, your job is to make the links and transitions between their words and put emphasis on what’s most important.
The reader is here to find out something new about the artist, not read your writing. So write clearly and passionately about the music, don’t overcomplicate the piece with dense writing. Simple is best.
Ultimately, have fun with the entire process. You’ve gotten the opportunity to ask someone who makes interesting art how and why they make it, go as deep into the details and minutiae as possible.
Go forth, young music writer, spread your wings, uncover the hidden truths within the art, write glowingly about music that inspires you, and wield the incomparable power of the written word.