How Not to Interview Musicians 101

Morgan Enos taught himself how to interview fellow musicians by trial and error. Here’s what he learned to avoid.

I had three missed calls from Brian Wilson and I felt like an idiot. I was at the tail-end of my editorial internship with Billboard in 2018, and I got an opportunity that felt like science fiction: Wilson’s rep was going to connect us for an interview. I love the Beach Boys, and I took it very seriously. I contacted a friend who had interviewed the embattled legend many times and took careful notes. I drafted, then redrafted, a set of questions with surgical detail, taking the ups and downs of Wilson’s entire career into account.

On the company sofa with my phone and MacBook, jittery with anticipation, I saw the clock tick to the scheduled time — and without a ring, missed calls racked up on my screen. I knew I had a very short window to be connected; what was going on? When I called back, I realized my problem, one that could have sunk the whole opportunity: For all the preparation I thought I’d done to speak with a towering figure of 20th century music, I had neglected to turn off “do not disturb.”

The interview with Wilson went fine, but after that close call, I knew I needed to tighten it up. Now, I don’t miss appointments. I’m relaxed and prepared. I’ve got a wildly color-coded calendar that could blind oncoming traffic. I’m not where I want to be yet — but after a particularly edifying interview with Danny Boyle, Sean Lennon or Rickie Lee Jones, I feel like I’m hurtling there.

Interviewing musicians, at its core, is like interviewing anyone else who has a passion. You want to talk about that passion and help the reader understand it better. As a musician myself, I’m passionate about the skeletons of songs; I’m much less interested in cool pedalboard setups or the “studio versus the stage.” But that’s just me. You want to home in on what really makes them tick and dig in — which requires research and a heavy dose of empathy. 

Over the last several months, a lot of friends and strangers have been contacting me, eager to interview musicians and unsure of how to go about it. Like I was not so long ago, they may have more enthusiasm than experience, which can lead to pitfalls along the way. Whether you’re interviewing a musician over the phone or in person, here are 10 things to avoid — some of which I learned the hard way.

Fumbling the facts.

Start with the basic stuff. Make sure you’re pronouncing the artist’s name correctly. Brush up on their body of work and general career trajectory. Say their album titles correctly. Be presentable if you’re meeting in person. Did you double-check the address, time, and their rep’s contact info, if applicable? Don’t get caught flat-footed.

Risking it with recording technology.

You’re going to need a solid recording app. There’s a lot of them out there. Get something ad-free that won’t glitch and crash; your interview is too important. In fact, I have a minimum of two recording devices going for any interview, no matter how minor or how much I trust my device. If you can’t salvage your interview from broken thoughts and severed sentences, you can’t do it all over; it’s rude and wastes their time. Record with two laptops, two iPads, two phones — whatever you’ve got. Don’t let your dream interview die a preventable death. 

Asking more than one question at a time.

I’ve always suffered from this foible. I used to come out with five-headed questions right out of the gate (what was v like, how did it lead to w, did that inspire x, and how does it affect y, and what will you do about z?) leaving subjects puzzled and overwhelmed as to which to answer. Keep your questions honed to a fine point.

Acting like a rookie.

I think this applies to any work situation, but act like you’ve been there before, man. Even if you’re talking to a huge public figure, don’t pepper them with unnecessary comments like a cheesy fan with a backstage pass. Even if you’re overcome with the jitters, try to pretend you’ve got 10 interviews that day, and this is just one of them.

Repeating tired lore back at the artist.

You wouldn’t want somebody asking you about a story from your past that isn’t true. Same goes for musicians. Unless you have a solid citation (not a friend of a friend) and it’s appropriate for the interview, don’t include questionable gossip or shaky record-nerd lore in your line of questioning. I see this backfire all the time, even with experienced journalists.

Inserting yourself in the story for no reason.

You may have grown up with this artist, mapped all your experiences on their career choices, laughed and cried and drank and danced to their music. That’s great! But in an interview context, it doesn’t matter at all. You can’t assume the reader had the same experience you did. Sometimes, real commiseration can happen, but you need to approach it tastefully, and only when they’re broadcasting that they want to go there with you.

Veering too far from what they’re promoting.

Although musicians are often broad-minded types liable to go off on tangents, they’re usually talking to you for a purpose — to sell something. Your job is to tell a story for your editor within that framework that isn’t just parroting the press bio. And you’re probably not being connected by the publicist to talk about their entire body of work, or some old chestnut in their discography you’re particularly hooked on. Find something captivating about what the current release they’re stumping for and find unique questions to ask about it.

Acting like a robot, not a human.

While you should always be professional while interviewing, this doesn’t mean acting wooden, like you’re making small talk in a dentist’s waiting room. Make the subject comfortable. Put yourself in a position where you’re receptive to what they’re saying, and try to draw out their innermost thoughts. This applies everywhere from first dates to therapy sessions — asking good questions, sitting back, and really listening.

Leaning too hard on written questions.

Don’t get me wrong, you want to come prepared with thoughtful questions. Just be ready to throw it all out if something more interesting comes. What if a musician wants to veer off-script and talk about a movie, album, or book that’s a bugbear for them that day? Use that as a launching pad — you might end up somewhere far more interesting than you think, if you keep it within the orbit of your thesis.

Putting everything they say in the final copy.

To me, this is the most important stage of all — how you write your story post-interview. This involves a lot of pruning, both on the fly and after the fact. Even if everything your subject says is interesting to you, this does not mean it will be the same for the reader. Most of the time, you don’t need to transcribe and use everything; far from it. Nowadays, when I’m doing an interview, three-fourths of my brain is listening intently and the last fourth is saying “Not the story, not the story, not the story… there’s the story.” Only write down what they say if it supports your thesis and moves the piece along. You’ll save time, energy, and have much stronger copy to boot.

Final note: when it’s time to transcribe, always make the subject look as smart as possible. Who knows, you could even make a new friend this way. Never say never!

Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in BillboardHuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.