How did you first get introduced to music?
It all goes back to Ashford & Simpson’s production of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Diana Ross. I was two years old. I remember finding the 45 single in my mom and dad’s record collection. Hearing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” singlehandedly revealed to me the transformative power of music. The introduction, the choir, the orchestration, Diana’s voice, the build towards that climax, Paul Riser’s arrangement, the unique structure of the song … all of those elements created a masterpiece that still moves me to this day. At two, I wasn’t analyzing any of that of course, I just knew that I wanted to hear more. In fact, the other night I was talking with Joshie Armstead, who was one of the background singers on that song, and even she still marvels at how that song was produced, so it was very special for me to share that love with her. The flip side of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was “Can’t It Wait Until Tomorrow,” which I also loved. The yearning in Diana’s voice really got to me, the way she almost cried “tomorrow.” This is why I hold Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson, and Diana Ross in such high esteem and so dear to my heart. They started me on my journey through music.
What made you want to become a writer (and not a DJ to share your love of music)?
Growing up, I collected all of these books about music, Billboard books, the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Music, etc. Initially, it was just so I could have photos of my favorite artists but then I became fascinated by the words on the page. I was eight when I got my first music book, “Paul Gambaccini presents the Top 100 Albums” where all these critics listed their Top 10 albums, which Paul Gambaccini then compiled into a master list of 100 albums where he wrote comments about each album. The seed for writing about music must have been planted there. I just absorbed all of these facts. I still reference some of what I learned back then in the essays I write today. Lily Tomlin calls that process “imprinting.” You spend the first 20 years of your life imprinting all of this information and then you spend the next 20 years releasing it through your work.
When I was 12, I wrote my first artist bios, just for fun. It wasn’t a school assignment or anything like that. I used my sister’s typewriter. CHIC and Patti Smith were the first artists I wrote about. I must have had a fascination with NYC. It wasn’t until college that I even considered the possibility of a career in writing. Before then, I’d majored in music and theatre, I’d done many musicals in high school, but I finally realized that I didn’t want to be involved with music from the performance side of things. It was actually through writing about plays in my theatre classes that I realized how much I enjoyed writing, period. After trying four different majors, I finally created my own major and took courses that gave me the opportunity to write about music by examining the social and cultural conditions that influenced artists and their work.
It’s funny you should mention DJ-ing. When I was eleven or twelve, I used to make mixes on cassettes where I’d create my own edits of songs. In college, I bought DJ gear and actually played a couple of parties …. so maybe I have some latent desire to be a DJ! Actually, the main reason why I could never be a DJ is because I enjoy dancing too much. I’d keep leaving the console.
How would you describe your working day and the process of writing?
My working day always begins with a good cup of coffee! I work from my apartment. The day can start as early as 5:30 a.m. and end as late as 3 a.m. I try my best to avoid having too many late nights, though. The day itself varies depending on whether I have to prepare for an interview, conduct an interview, transcribe an interview, research, write an essay, or edit an essay … or some combination of all those tasks. Today I’m putting the finishing touches on a Kleeer essay and preparing for an interview with Kathy Sledge later this evening.
My actual writing process? A professor of mine once said, “Writing is re-writing.” That is so true, especially if you know the writing’s going to be published. I think of the specific kind of writing that I do as storytelling. Ultimately, I just want to tell the story about the artist and their music. I try to find some some sort of hook that I hope catches the reader’s attention and keeps them reading.
One mantra that I created for myself is “It’s better to be clear than clever.” It’s easy to be impressed with a word or sentence you wrote but what good is that if your audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying or if it disrupts the tone of the essay? Sometimes the things that I want to include the most end up in the trash bin because I realize they’re only significant to me and wouldn’t mean much to anyone else, at least in the context of the essay I’m writing. That ties in to another tenet I observe, especially in writing liner notes: be invisible. I know that’s antithetical to everything we’re supposed to do in 2015 but I learned this when I started writing for PopMatters in 2006. When people are reading about an artist, very few of them want to hear about you the writer, unless there’s some compelling reason that you need to insert yourself in the essay. Over the years, I’ve been very careful about using “I, me, my” in anything I write. There are a few instances where I did “appear” in the essay but it was to establish the fact that the quotes were culled from a first-hand interview. All that said, these are just my personal guidelines and what I’ve found works best for me. I’m still growing. Oh, one more thing that my 8th grade English teacher Linda Fuller told our class: “Lay off clichés.”
I know it’s a big ask. But who have you most enjoyed interviewing?
Wow! There isn’t just one person because there have been so many. I’ve interviewed more than 300 different artists, and have interviewed some of those artists on multiple occasions. Donna Summer was the very first artist I interviewed, so that conversation will always stand apart from the others, especially since it pre-dated my first published article. The interview was for an independent study I was doing in college that I later presented at NYU. I will tell you that one of the most meaningful and memorable interview experiences I’ve ever had was interviewing Nona Hendryx, Ruth Pointer, Kathy Sledge, and Rochelle Fleming onstage at the Apollo Theater earlier this year. I’d interviewed each of them previously but to have them all there together and see the rapport between them … I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I’d never moderated a panel before so to have that be the first panel, especially with those phenomenal women, was a life-defining moment for me.
Do you find that the more famous a person is the more guarded they are?
To tell you the truth, no. I think it really all depends on the person and how comfortable they are with themselves and with whoever’s asking the questions.
Tell us about life living in New York?
I love living in New York. I’ve lived here since August 2004 and have lived in Hell’s Kitchen, specifically, since March 2005. I’m very aware of the history that gives the city its lifeblood, though much of that history is disappearing. I’m glad I could attend shows at CBGB’s and the Lenox Lounge before they closed, or dance at the Roxy before it shuttered. It’s still a thrill to walk by Studio 54, even if it’s not a club anymore. With the type of work I do, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Everyone comes through this city! If I may, I must give a shout-out to The Public Theater, which houses my favorite music venue in all of New York, Joe’s Pub. I’ve hosted and/or produced eight shows there over the years for artists like JOHNNYSWIM, Aziza Miller, David Bronson, as well as a benefit concert I founded called Three of Hearts. It’s intimate, sophisticated but not pretentious, centrally located, has an excellent staff and superb sound/lighting. Let’s see … that’s where Amy Winehouse made her NYC debut, where I saw Alice Smith for the first time, where they supported Allen Toussaint after Hurricane Katrina, where Janelle Monàe danced on table tops, Carly Simon held a private CD release show, Nona Hendryx climbed atop the drum set, Martha Redbone premiered “Bone Hill,” Alfa Anderson and Norman Jean Wright sang “Saturday” and “I Want Your Love,” and Martha Wash/Linda Clifford/Evelyn “Champagne” King recently performed two-sold out shows as the First Ladies of Disco … I could go on and on. They support developing and established artists alike. They just do amazing work.
Is there such a thing as bad music or is it all in the eye of the beholder?
Mostly, I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Music is such a subjective thing. I respect music critics and I respect the institution of music criticism but I just don’t enjoy critiquing music. I’m much more interested in documenting the stories behind the songs. That’s why I pretty much stopped writing CD reviews. Who am I to say something’s bad if it brings you joy? If my 8-year old niece is smiling and dancing to a song, even if it’s a song that I’d never willingly listen to, then that’s a beautiful thing. However, I’d want to make sure that she also knows some of the classics and expose her to other types of music. (Actually, my sister already does a good job of that!) I know there’s music I loved when I was 13 that I’d never listen to at 36, yet it helped me through that particular part of my life. I think of it as another stop on the journey.
Truthfully, some albums that are considered the most influential of all-time are albums that I wouldn’t necessarily play or have in my collection. I personally might favor the Brand New Heavies over the Velvet Underground, but I understand the appeal that both bands have, depending on the listener. It’s easy to fall into a herd mentality where you buy something or force yourself to like something just because it’s on every critic’s list. Over the years, I’ve kept myself in check about that. Do I like this because it moves me or because Pitchfork says I should I like it? I also don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I feel that’s a construct created by the rock elite who secretly or “ironically” enjoy a song like “Physical” whereas I openly, un-ironically enjoy “Physical.” Why feel guilty if you enjoy the music?
I must say, Smokey Robinson was the artist who instilled that belief in me. I remember when the 20th Anniversary of Rolling Stone special aired on TV. I think it was 1987 because that was also the summer PBS aired a special on “The Summer or Love” and I saw the Monterey Pop Festival documentary for the very first time. I taped both all those programs and would watch them over and over again. Anyhow, I can remember Smokey’s quote from the Rolling Stone special almost verbatim: “Music is a thing that touches you way deep down inside where you cannot deny yourself. You can’t say to yourself, Hey I don’t like that because I’m not supposed to like that. If you like it, you like it.”
What are your thoughts on the art of songwriting now?
I was at a panel sponsored by the Polar Music Prize back in April where one of the panelists made the point that pop songwriting used to be more about melodies and chord progressions and now it’s about hooks and beats. I thought that was an interesting way to characterize the difference. I know songwriters who are doing fabulous work but either they’re new artists who’ve yet to get massive support from the industry or they’re veteran songwriters who the industry doesn’t seem to value anymore. That’s really a shame because both the emerging songwriters and veteran songwriters have things to say. In the case of established artists, some of them are even better now than they were 30 years ago. I must be honest though, in the realm of dance music, I’d take anything that was written or recorded in the ’70s over contemporary EDM any day. Give me strings, horns, chord changes, a rhythm section, and outstanding vocals!
What are you looking forward to in 2016?
I’d love to build on all the high points of 2015. It’d be wonderful to lead another panel discussion and work on a music documentary. For years, people have been asking me about writing a book so maybe I’ll start exploring what that book could be. There are lots of great re-issues on the horizon. As you know Greg, I’ve been writing the essays for BBR’s re-issues of Ashford & Simpson’s Warner Bros. albums. In early-2016, BBR will release A&S’s first two Warner albums, Gimme Something Real and I Wanna Be Selfish, so I’m looking forward to that since it will complete BBR’s campaign of all the studio albums Ashford & Simpson released on Warner. I’m also working on a re-issue of Circle of Love by Sister Sledge. It will include bonus tracks of the group’s work with Phil Hurrt and Bobby Eli. Lots of good stuff happening in the new year!
Photos by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.