Freelance Journalist Interview with Hermione Hoby
Writing about UK-type things (we're thinking perhaps 'The Jeremy Kyle Show', Greggs' sausage rolls, leaving your umbrella on the train) from a UK-point-of-view (perhaps feeling guilty about liking 'The Jeremy Kyle Show', buying two sausage rolls on pay day, missing umbrellas you haven't seen for years) is a challenge Brooklyn-transplant Hermione regularly takes on for publications like The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times.
Well, UK arts, culture, books, music and gender is what Hermione actually writes about, so we pose some Big Questions on those topics: Are music awards ceremonies complete tosh; what's holding back the feminist movement in the recording industry; and, while we're at it, what has Justin Timberlake done for us lately?
Hermione! Firstly, is writing about us over here in the UK tough when you’re physically removed from our (usually, but not today) rainy shores? Does social media/digital contact make for a good substitute?
I've been here nearly four years now and increasingly I feel like a New Yorker rather than just a London-to-New-York-transplant (recently an editor had to excise an Americanism that had crept into an interview of mine and I felt equal parts bewilderment, shame, and pride). But most of the things, or rather people, I'm writing about have transatlantic appeal: their albums or movies or books are released in both the US and the UK. About half the people I follow on Twitter are Brits, other half American, so yes, I remain connected, virtually at least, to those rainy shores.
Do you also freelance for US publications? Is this something you’re thinking about doing more of in the future – writing on more US-centric culture?
A unavoidably boring answer: my visa right now means I can't write for the US, but I'm working on that because yes, I'd love to.
How did you originally get started in journalism, was it what you’d always wanted to do – did you write for your University paper, for example?
I began writing arts journalism for my student newspaper and would no doubt eat my own face off with chagrin if I were made to read my 19-year-old self's sentences. I think it's a dangerous myth that writers are born not made. I was terrible, for a long time, and it’s taken a long time to become incrementally less terrible. I became the student paper's arts editor, and perhaps through that uncertain honour managed to get some work experience on the arts desk of The Observer where I eventually ended up working for several years.
TeamRock’s Scott Rowley recently told us “we hear from a lot of amateurs, or bloggers, who don’t have a lot to offer – everybody thinks they can write a live review, and it’s not really the case". How did you make your mark in music journalism – what advice can you give to all the bloggers out there looking to break into this area?
Oof, burn! God, I don't know. Twitter seems to be a more powerful means of getting hired now. So, um, tweet a lot, very brilliantly?
Awards shows are a big money spinner for the big music acts and their record labels, but how much importance do they hold for you, for example? Which awards do you think actually reflect quality and genuine achievement (if any)?
Yeah, they're all ridiculous, arbitrary, and fraught with human ignorance, aren't they? See: Kendrick Lamar losing out to Macklemore. It's cheering when very talented artists get critical recognition and financial reward but I tend to see big music awards more as meme-generators and scope for social media witticisms, rather than any true reflection of talent. Grammys judges are sent a note reminding them to actually listen to the records. Which I think says it all.
There’s much being written about nudity/displays of sexuality from big female pop stars (Miley Cyrus/Katy Perry/Rihanna, et al) at the moment, and whether or not this is ‘choice feminism’ in action. As someone who writes on gender issues, what’s your take on it – do you think these stars are empowered/empowering?
When Justin Timberlake won’t walk around in a thong as well?
Despite my numerous requests for him to do so?
JT in a thong – the great chimera of the feminist cause. Only then will we know the good fight's been fought! More seriously: I think way more disturbing than anyone's frotting is the nasty mess of prurience and prudishness that meets it. We're still conflating female sexuality with shame. Still! It's 2014! Let them all twerk if they want to! I just saw Lena Dunham Instagram a photo of herself wearing a badge that says "Bad Feminist" and she commented, "Rock a Roxane Gay button to let the world know it's complicated." Amen.
Take us through some of the most memorable pieces of work you’ve done. Any that were particularly fun – or perhaps challenging – to write?
It's always hard when you have an existing admiration for the person. Chan Marshall, who records as Cat Power, fell into that category and the situation was compounded by us getting drunk. It was unavoidable: she's the sort of person who makes it hard, if not impossible, to decline a tequila shot. She also speaks in this incredibly erratic, elliptical way, so following her thoughts was like running after some Lewis Carroll creature. More recently, I interviewed Raymond Pettibon, which was an exercise in patience. He speaks more slowly than anyone I've ever met. Over the course of two hours I kind of entered this altered state, induced by the motionless waiting of seconds and seconds and seconds between every word. He was beyond worth it. And then we ended up playing baseball in his studio. It was the first time I've ever picked up a bat – I'm horrified by sport – but sending baseballs ricocheting the length of his huge studio (he seemed eminently unbothered by them smacking his paintings) was pretty satisfying. A few days later my boyfriend walked into the room and said, "Raymond Pettibon just commended your baseball skills on Twitter". I assumed he was making a poor-to-middling joke, until he showed me the tweet.
Of all the interesting people you've interviewed, who’s made the biggest impression on you? And is there anyone else you’d love to have time with that you haven’t pinned down yet?
I remember being really taken with Julia Roberts’ charisma (duh) and Jeff Bridges' humility. He truly is, by general consensus, and his own sheepish admission, The Dude himself. Matthew Barney seemed like the realest deal I'd ever met. It sounds absurd, but I felt I was in the presence of someone whose resonancies were just finer-tuned than the rest of us. I interviewed Debbie Harry a while ago, which also fell into the cross-off-the-life-list category.
As for a wish list: I love Ryan Trecartin's work so if anyone wants to commission me to interview him, please go right ahead. Also Kanye, obviously. And let's put Kim Gordon, David Byrne, Laverne Cox, Charlie Kaufman, Annie Clark, Frank Ocean, Zadie Smith and Laurie Anderson on there, too.
Done. Without naming names (…or with naming names, if you like…), have you ever had a difficult interviewee? What tactics did you employ to get them to warm up?
Twenty minute segments with exhausted and bored actors at the end of a long junket day with a PR hovering behind them is never a recipe for the most revelatory conversation. But whatever the situation, it's about tuning in to the person, listening to them, in every sense of the word. I have to remind myself that people at the beginning of their career are often very nervous, that they're often struggling with a feeling of fraudulence and so I do what I can to make it feel like a chat, rather than an interrogation.
With really established figures, I tend to take the approach of considering what the "cultural narrative" is on them and then sort of hold that up to the light. I also have to remember that they will have been asked everything three hundred and forty times already, so I have to be imaginative with oblique questioning. I also remind myself that I'm rarely seeking information, I'm seeking good quotes, and they're not quite the same thing.
Do you have a lot of dealings with PR people in your freelance work? What kind of things do you find useful from them?
Yes, lots. The great thing is when you get to know people to such an extent that they think of you for a particular project. I just interviewed Ronnie Spector ahead of her Southbank shows and that was through the PR person suspecting it would be right up my street (it was; I was enormously grateful). I get about two or three hundred press release emails a day, so reading them all is pretty much impossible but when I get my shit together and go through advance streams of albums it's a useful and pleasurable thing.
What TV shows are you really into at the moment?
Oh I'm pretty crap with TV, although I have a lot of admiration for 'Orange is the New Black'. I'm basically a failure of a cultural journalist, what with television being Our Age's Foremost Medium and all that. Although I have been watching old Lisa episodes of 'The Simpsons' – what a generational icon she was.
No mention of 'The Jeremy Kyle Show', Hermione? For shame!