talking with tracy chapman


My profile of Tracy Chapman ran in the Sunday Times Culture section on Sunday – you can read it here (partially paywalled). We talked a couple of weekends ago in the Chateau Marmont, in a suite with that faded shabbiness peculiar to grand old hotels. Here’s the whole conversation.

I have distinct memories of crying to one of your songs on a bus in India when I was eighteen.

Oh wow. Someone else told me about some crying.

 Maybe you get a lot of people telling you about crying…

It does come up, yeah… but they always say, “in a good way” - it’s crying in a good way.

 I imagine a lot of people cried-in-a-good-way at your performance on Letterman.

Yeah, I can’t thank David Letterman enough for being so generous and letting us use the track. I can’t take credit, either, for having it on the record, because the record company had that idea.

 Yeah but you sung it!

That’s true, I can take credit for that. I was there! [laughs] It was so nice to get the call. I’ve been on that show several times over the course of my career and it was always a great place to be. I mean.. he had just the best staff, really professional, and he was always very nice to me. I continued to watch the show – I love watching some of the late night shows to see the music, it’s a great way to see live music on TV. So I was honoured to get the call and he made the request for that song and I didn’t know why, when they first asked me to do it. I didn’t know the story until right before I played.

 Oh, I don’t know the story.

Oh, well the story… Right before I started he introduced me but he said when his son was small he would sing a couple of songs to him before going to bed and one of the songs was Stand By Me.

 I’ve never heard that song sound so serene and trusting. Usually I hear it as kind of yearning but your rendition sounded like it had this assurance that the addressee will stand by you.

Oh! Yeah, yeah. I can see what you mean about that nuance. I’ve always loved that song. I’ve played it live on numerous occasions. In a way I think it’s one of those perfect songs – it’s simple, but it’s so emotionally evocative and there’s so much economy to it. It’s the sort of thing you strive for as a songwriter. So I’ve always liked it. It’s funny, when David Letterman asked for the performance I wondered if he’d seen a version of the song I’d done and I asked him if there was a particular way he wanted me to do it – because they offered a band – or if they wanted to do it solo, and they said just do it however you like. It was kind of short notice and I thought well, why don’t we just keep it simple – it’s just easy for everyone.

And congratulations on this. When I hear “greatest hits” I tend to think big, flashy pop…

[laughs, gestures at the CD on the table] Tada!

 Right! – As in, those are not words I associate with you. For me, your music has a real quietude. So I wondered if you felt there was anything out of character, just in having a greatest hits record?

In some ways it does and it’s interesting you mentioned that because I’ve sort of been fighting this record for years. The record company has made a request for more than five years for this. Actually, maybe seven years, even, but it just always felt it was too soon. And then also, as you point out, I’m not an artist who’s had a lot of top ten hits. I had one, or something. The album charted in various places but not in terms of a single. I’m not a singles artist. And it was actually my idea to call it Greatest Hits – because what else do you call it. There’s “Very Best Of” and I hated that idea.

 Tell me why you hated that idea.

Well because then it’s like all the rest of the song are not my very best! I remember Joni Mitchell put out a compilation package of “hits and misses”  and there’s a photo of her lying in the road as if she’s been just run over by a car. So it was very clever. But, you know, that’s already been done. So then I was like well maybe let’s not try to be too clever with it. And in a way this is not the first – it is not the first compilation record that I’ve put out – there was one, I don’t remember the timing, maybe t was 2000, no that was Telling Stories, but some time around then, there was another one that was only released in Europe. I called that “Collection” and that was my way of getting around this whole thing. It’s an “assembly”, a “gathering”, without qualifying it in any way.

So what made you finally relent?

Uh. Goodness. They wore me down basically! They came to me with a good proposal about how they wanted to approach it. And they also gave me total creative freedom – I was able to choose the songs and the artwork. And I guess I also started to feel… I’ve made these eight records now and maybe it’s a good time for reflection. It’s uh… yeah. So I guess the thing I was going to say is once I started working on it I actually enjoyed the process and I loved the end result, I’m so proud of it. It took me on kind of a personal, professional journey that I generally don’t make – I don’t sit around and listen to my music in my free time – I’m playing new things or thinking about what else I want to do, musically. So it actually was… [falters] obviously I can’t even say how it made me feel, but it was a pleasant experience. It one made me feel nostalgia for some of the moments in my career that came to mind as I was working on this and then the main thing that came to mind actually – and it was something I hadn’t really considered that much – is that I worked on the remastering with David Kershenbaum and Bernie Grundman and I’ve worked with both of them in the past but as you probably know David Kershenbaum produced my first record and then the second record and then we worked together again, we also worked on the compilation, the simply called Collection. And he’s been in my life for twenty seven years! And he’s a lovely man, as well as being incredibly talented in his profession – he’s got great ears – we have a friendship, after all this time. And then these photos started to come to light from the early days and I was so surprised to see the ones from the studio, with me and David at the console. And I’m shocked by how happy I look!

 Why are you shocked? Do you remember it as a miserable experience!

I don’t, but I don’t remember that I was that happy about [it] … I mean I was thrilled to be making my first record, probably nervous, I’m sure… in Los Angeles for the first time and I was here by myself, so… and, you know, I’d never met – I’d met David briefly, I think, in New York before coming out here but everyone else, everything else was new to me.

And you’d had kind of a rough experience before that in terms of producers?

Oh that’s right, you’ve done your homework. Yeah there was someone else who’d been assigned to produce my record from the record company that I was signed to and I just didn’t think it was working. It wasn’t working for me, I didn’t like the way it sounded. And the musicians were great – they’d brought in TM Stevens and Steve Jordan who at that time were both playing in Chrissie Hynde’s band, a kind of new version of the Pretenders, so those guys were there, we were all in the Bearsville, New York, at this studio that Albert Grossman used to own. So it was an amazing setting, great musicians but the music felt like it had nothing to do with me.

But it must have taken so much courage and conviction, when you’re young and it’s your first record to say no – I imagine you were under serious pressure to just do what you were told.

You’re right, there was, and I don’t know how I found the courage to say, “no, this isn’t working.” I think I had to say it several times and then finally I think I said look, I just think I’m going to leave, this doesn’t feel right – and I feel fortunate that they decided to listen to me and try again. And then you know there was tragedy in the middle, I don’t know if you knew, that the next producer who was chosen was Alex Sadkin and he had produced one of the Simply Red records, one that was pretty popular at the time. We’d spoken on the phone and I felt like I got along with him and then he was in a car accident in Jamaica and he died in the car accident. So then we were back to the drawing board again and that was when David’s name came up. And I’m not even sure who recommended him, but I liked him right away, we liked each other, I felt he got me, and, you know, the rest is…

Well the rest is this [gestures at record]

Exactly. And twenty seven years later, here we are.

I’m so curious as to what it’s like to revisit songs you wrote as a teenager. “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” you wrote when you were sixteen?


And “Baby Can You Hold Me” at eighteen? – Are you impressed by your teenage self?

Ah, I don’t know. It’s funny you say these things because I don’t think about it… it stuck in my mind that I was only sixteen when I wrote “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” but some of the other songs I don’t recall. But I do know that was an early one. But… I… I don’t know what to say. I mean I’m glad, obviously, that these songs are standing up over time and obviously my sixteen year old self – and eighteen year old self even – couldn’t imagine what course my life would take.

What did you think was going to happen?

At that point in time my plan was to be a veterinarian. [laughs] I have one dog and I sometimes feel like I’m a veterinarian because she’s in and out. She was actually attacked by a racoon right when we were working on this. I had to fly down here at five in the morning and at about midnight she was attacked in the backyard and pretty badly injured. And yeah it was horrible. But she’s fine now. But, you know, it was vet Tracy. We had to go to the emergency vet clinic. Anyway, I digress!

We were talking about you at eighteen.

Right, so that was my plan. I was studying biology and thinking that was what I was going to do. Things took a different course. I actually started taking classes that lead to a degree in anthropology and then I kept playing. I was just playing while I was in school, street performing and playing clubs and people started to take notice. And then all these things happened. While I was still in school I was getting offers from people in different places to make a record – some of the folk labels in Cambridge, a woman from Argentina, an executive from Warner Music dropped a card in the case while I was street performing one time and then a friend, someone who was a friend while I was in school, a classmate whose father was in the record business and that’s how I was eventually signed to Elektra. And then right out of college, instead of – I was thinking, oh I’ll go to graduate school and study ethno-musicology and… not find a job when I graduate.

Yeah, that lucrative field of ethno-musicology.

Right! Everyone was asking – where! [are the ethno-musicologists] So, instead of taking that path I ended up becoming a professional musician.

I can’t get over “Baby Can I Hold You Tonight” being written by a teenager. What did you know of love at that age!

[laughs] I don’t think I knew very much at all! I don’t think I know very much now, but…

It sounds so wise!

You know, it’s funny you say that… maybe it does. I’m not… goodness, I don’t want to say this in a way that offends someone but… I’m a solid person, I believe in the things that I can see but, in some ways, there are times when you feel like you’re channelling something in writing, that it’s maybe not fully coming from you, but it’s through you. I think that maybe sometimes that happens.

Have you always felt you can access that channeling?

I don’t think it’s something I can control, except in as much as I need to make myself available. I need to respect whatever it is, whatever this force of creativity is that comes through my fingers or down the pen to the page, I just need to make sure that I honour it. And so if something comes to me and I feel inspired then I drop everything else that I’m doing and I follow it. And that’s the only thing… I think, well, if I don’t do that, that’s disrespectful of what I think of as a gift.

Can you recall songs being delivered to you in a certain moment?

Well… I do a lot of reading about the creative process, I read a lot about artists, writers, painters, that sort of thing, trying to understand it, and the thing I’ve found in what I’ve read is everyone’s process is obviously unique but there are some similarities and something that happens for me – I tend to write in early morning hours or late at night. So I wake up with something in my head or I’m going to sleep and something comes to mind and what I think is happening – I’ve also started to read things about how the brain functions – is that you end up going in this state of… being less self-conscious and then your mind starts to make these associations that it wouldn’t normally make. Instead of having the neurons go the places – “I’m taking this road” – they go off and that stuff seems interesting, it piques my interest and I think well I need to follow that, I need to see where this goes.

So when I think of your music – well, “categories” is a really sterile word to use about it – but I think “love songs” and I think “protest songs”. I wonder whether they come from the same place?

Oh yes, absolutely. The source is the same. You’re right about the categories – for myself I don’t do it but I understand why people do it. It’s what we do – classify, categorise, try to find everything. I understand. I never thought of myself in those terms… I… a thing that drives me is my curiosity and I have interests that are wide-ranging and I think I ultimately end up writing about the things that are meaningful to me. So… oh there’s a knock at the door. So, I’ve said this a million times, but I don’t see myself as a protest singer, or even an activist necessarily. I’m writing about the things I care about and the things that move me and the things that are meaningful to me. I touch on various subjects from time to time but I see that I tend to go back to the same subjects – like you said, love, some kind of social commentary, questions about religion and the meaning of life.

The real stuff!

Right, the real stuff, the things that keep you up at night and there I am at two, three, four in the morning wrestling with it.

I often get stuck on “All That You Have is Your Soul” and I wonder whether that song – its sentiment – is kind of a lodestar for you?

Yeah I guess it could be. And you’re a writer so you probably know this: I love doing this job in part because I get to take on so many different perspectives and there are times when what I’m writing is directly connected to me and my life and my own experience and then there are times when I’m inhabiting a character. And that song’s a little bit of both. It’s not what my mother told me! – But, you know, it’s the kind of thing you might want to hear from your mother, it’s the kind of thing you might expect someone like that to say. And I think there’s a way in which that song… you know the way it’s connected to me – I’m not a religious person, I don’t even think I’d call myself spiritual. I did grow up in a family that practised religion – they were Baptist and one of my grandfathers was a minister. And I had to go to Sunday school. And I went to an Episcopalian high school. So religion’s always been part of my life but it kind of raises more questions for me than providing answers. So I think that’s part of what I end up writing about.

That seems a better way to live. Out of curiosity, rather than delivered truths. So when you mentioned “the real stuff”: I’d venture that fame might get in the way of the real stuff. I’m curious as to how you’ve negotiated that and… oh god I guess “kept it real” is the phrase that I’m unavoidably arriving at.

[laughs] It’s so funny you say that because it’s a joke I have with some of my friends when I say I’m keeping it real. They’re like, you’re going to drive yourself? – ‘Yeah, I’m keeping it real.’ For me it’s been essential to have some boundaries. And I think it’s important for everyone, more now than ever. There are more people who’ve chosen to live a life in the spotlight, to seek the limelight and I’ve never been that kind of person. If anything, this was not the right job for me, you know? [laughs] I’ve always been kind of shy and on the quiet side. Although, a funny thing… I think in the process of going through archives and looking for material for the greatest hits I also happened to stumble across my elementary school autograph book. Do you have those? At that time, when you graduated you’d have this little book and you’d get all your friends and teachers and family to sign it and you wanted them to, you know, wish you luck on your way. And they’d often tape coins in there and all the pages are multicoloured and get folded. It’s a funny thing, I don’t think anyone does it any more. But of course there are the silly sayings and the terrible poetry, but these old friends of mine, who I don’t know at this point in my life, they were saying such nice things, they kept saying, “to a nice girl.” [chuckles in disbelief] And it’s so funny because I’d never… I knew I’m not a mean person but I never thought of myself at that time… as oh, she’s a nice girl. But, you know, a nice girl like me in a business like this… it’s a little bit at odds with my personality sometimes. But for me the balance has been to have moments like this seven year moment that I’ve taken. I kept saying, ‘it’s a short break.’ A short break that got longer and longer. To take time and just be in the world, be at home, be in one place.

And home is San Francisco?


And is it just you and your dog?

Um. That is… I don’t go there, you know?


I’m trying to… I feel like in a way part of what I do… I don’t know. There’s a lot there that’s me, right? But in order to do that sort of thing I need to keep something for myself.

In terms of the way fame makes people want things from you: have you felt any kind of pressure to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement? Is there a distinction between artist and person when you consider these things?

As a black person in America these last two years are no different than, you know, the last forty nine. Technology has changed and now these acts of abuse are being documented, we have evidence and it’s not something anecdotal. But as long as I have been conscious and alive, I myself and every black person I know, has experienced racism at various levels. So, yeah, the conversation’s changed, that’s what’s different. The sad truth is that these acts of abuse have always been going on. And even with a black man in the White House this country is no further along. If anything, I actually think that since President Obama’s been in office, the discourse about race has become less civil, it’s coarser. People actually feel like they can be overtly racist in a way that they think is acceptable and it shocks me. But I think that it’s important that has been revealed. I think there was this idea that a black man in the White House marks the end, that we were now post-racial, right? Madness. And it clearly wasn’t. If anything, it really provoked a lot of people to kind of dig in a little bit deeper and feel justified in their ignorance and their incivility. So, you know, one thing that’s come up in some of these interviews is people have been saying these songs are still relevant and how do you feel about that. And on the one hand, as a songwriter, you think, ok great, a song that can stand up for a decade or two, that’s really something. But in terms of the songs that are about, you know, a desire for social justice and economic justice and racial harmony, to see that things aren’t changing, or in fact getting worse in some cases, is so demoralising. It’s such a disappointment. I’d rather put this record out and think, oh, can’t put Talkin’ Bout a Revolution on! Because we don’t need it!

Yes, to be like, ‘remember when racism was a thing?’

Absolutely! Yeah, we’re not there.

It doesn’t seem as if much contemporary music is responding to this discourse.

I think you hear it in some rap music. But you know too, that as the music business has declined, the drive or the push to make artists more commercial has increased and so I think in that climate it makes people less willing and less able, if they want to have a career, to express controversial things. So, in that way, I think it’s having… And also… that may be part of what’s going on.

Do you listen to a lot of contemporary pop?

I do! I do. I don’t get everything but I go record shopping regularly and buy a lot of different stuff. I went recently and can’t remember what I got. But in terms of pop music, I have Taylor Swift’s record, I have Rihanna, Sia, Hozier, The Black Keys. I love music and I’m always interested to hear what’s going on.

Tell me a bit more about the record industry’s decline, as you see it.

Well it’s a curious thing, because music itself has proven to be more important, I think, than some people ever expected. As we’ve kind of transitioned from this time of a physical format that was predominant to a digital format, you now hear music everywhere. And that’s wonderful. But what’s happened in the process is that artists are now being compensated less. Record companies as well. And so CD sales are steadily declining every year but the sales, the digital formats, have not matched that decline. And it’s a problem overall but it’s a much bigger problem for young artists because if you’re not established and you don’t have an audience that will support you in concert – which, you know, someone like myself or a lot of other artists can do that, then you don’t have that many options. You are almost paying to play. You yourself and maybe the record label if they believe in you are going to put money into a career that will never show a return. At least in terms of the sales of records. And that I think is pretty devastating. And I think it’s part of an overall problem that’s happening where art and the creation of art is being devalued. It’s a problem in the world of photography as well, you know, everyone’s a photographer now and holds a camera in their hand because it’s on your phone and I think then, that the understanding that someone like Herb Ritts was a genius, gets lost. And with that you have a technology that lets you do almost anything that you want with the asset that has value but value that often the artist, the creator, never gets to benefit from. And the thing is if you love what you do then you’re most likely going to keep doing it in some way. But everybody needs to eat and have a place to live and take care of their families. Why should we not be compensated.

But it’s not even just compensation, it’s a respect and valuing.

Yeah, absolutely. This may seem like it contradicts what I was sort of saying earlier – ‘it’s out of thin air! I don’t know where it comes from, this creative force!’ – but on the other hand I think I’ve actually been preparing to do this job for my whole life. I started playing music when I was really young, I started playing guitar when I was eight. They say I was singing as soon as I could talk. I have loved books and poetry and lived in the library as a kid and read everything I could. There was always music in the house and I love all kinds of music – when I was in college I was studying West African drumming and taking ethno-musicology classes and doing these things to educate myself and feed my mind and my soul and I feel like it’s all of that that goes into making records and writing songs. And it takes time to develop the skills. You know, as a writer. But I think there’s something about the process, especially when it’s a solitary one for an artist, that makes people think it requires no effort. And if you have some natural talent that, you know, that’s something that’s also just not to be valued. So… it obviously worries me, this trend. And I worry for myself to some extent, but I worry more, actually, for all of us. For our cultural life, you know. There’s so much that we will miss. There’s some people out there who are doing amazing work and we probably won’t hear them. I think in this climate, I wouldn’t make it.

That was going to be my next question. If a twenty four year old black woman put out a record now with the words, “poor people gonna rise up and take their share.” … that’s just not going to happen.

Right. I don’t think so. No. No. And then I think, even for the moment when I came into the business, there was a confluence of events that lead to people hearing my music and deciding to embrace it. had I never taken the stage at the Nelson Mandela concert I’m not sure… you know?

Remind me which artist it was whose faulty equipment we have to thank?

It was Stevie Wonder. Nothing to do with me.

[Laughs] You didn’t sabotage it deliberately?

I did not. I love Stevie Wonder!

That was an amazing moment.

Yeah, and then that lead to being on the Amnesty International Tour. And also, ultimately, it’s the fact that I have international audience that my career has been sustained over the years, because America’s been fickle for me.


Yeah, I mean the first record did really well here, the second record not so well. New Beginning did well here, but my European audience and my fans, they have supported me throughout – France, Germany, the UK – it’s really been remarkable. I’m like a rockstar over there but I’m not here. But I am over there.

Well at least you’re a rockstar somewhere. What is it like for you to be recognised?

These days it’s mostly ok. The thing that’s changed though – and this is another one of those technological changes – no one wants autographs any more, everyone wants selfies. I… I’m not a selfie fan. I don’t love having my picture taken anyway so it’s a little challenging. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings either. I mean I think I understand why it’s so popular… [laughs] maybe I don’t. It’s not something I do and as you’ve probably realised, I’m not on any social media.

Have you come under pressure from your label to be on social media?

They have made several requests. [laughs]

And you’ve politely declined?

Yes, yes.

So how do you negotiate those selfie requests?

There are times when I’ll do it but there are times when I’ll just politely decline and most people are understanding. It’s a strange new phenomenon though.

Yes, it seems like fame now entails an even greater visibility.

Right. I mean maybe it’s because it’s sort of open to everyone now which is funny in a way because you’d think well, democratising fame is a good thing, right?


Or not.

I think meritocrising fame would be even better than democratising.

Oh, yeah yeah. That’s certainly fallen by the wayside.

Do you feel bewildered by instances of fame: very young artists suddenly having millions of YouTube views and being signed?

I think I’m not always aware of that sort of thing because I’m not on social media. I read newspapers and I watch the news and I listen to the radio and I talk to my friends who are on social media so I come into contact with these things from time to time. I mean… I guess I’m not really shocked by it because the culture here and maybe elsewhere too has been trending that way. That there’s this… not even opportunity, I’d say it’s a demand – people are required to make these postings about their lives on a regular basis. And if they don’t it’s… it almost seems like it’s this new form of peer pressure and maybe there’s some social shaming that happens if you are not in the flow of that and that seems unfortunate. I mean there are so many things that are baffling about it to me because one if you are constantly posting about what you’re doing, then really what you’re doing is constantly posting about something that you’re probably only halfway doing. I was just joking with Matthew earlier, about making some silly film about someone who’s constantly updating – like, they’re on a water ski, you know, and they’ve got one hand and of course they fly off the back. Or they’re swimming with sharks.

You joke but Harpers magazine just ran a list of death by selfies!

Oh right right, like falling off the mountain because you’re trying to get the right angle. Yeah, so I guess it’s not that funny, it’s tragic actually. But it’s like, what does that do to the quality of life. And what does it mean. As an artist, I need time of repose. I need those moments when I’m doing nothing. I think it’s a way to clear the mind and you know, feel settled, if that’s what helps to gather your thoughts. And it seems like the way in which some of the social media apps require your attention – they don’t give you time for that. And then also… you’re not… you have no privacy. And I think it’s something people aren’t focusing on right now and they will at some point and when they figure out what they’ve done they’ll be horrified. You know, that they’re trusting their lives to these multi-national corporations. The most important moments – the birth of your children and weddings and birthdays.

Moments that used to be private.


I read this horrifying thing – I mean I hope it’s one of those made-up trends rather than an actual trend – but of people taking selfies after sex.

No. Good god. I’m speechless.

I feel so bad I told you that. Ok quick let’s move on to something more edifying. You used the phrase feeding your soul – other than moments of repose and privacy, tell me how you replenish yourself.

Books for sure, I read all the time, I read all kinds of things. I read a lot of non-fiction actually. In the time on my short break [laughs] I had some goals in mind, being in one place and one of my goals was to become a regular at a restaurant to the point where they knew what I wanted to order before I even said anything. And I feel that I’ve been successful in that.

May I be nosy and ask what your order is.

Well, there’s one breakfast place which unfortunately is going to close very soon – it’s just a simple diner – and I’d get orange juice, tea, scrambled eggs with mushrooms and wheat toast. And all I’d ever have to do is walk through the door.

That’s a solid order. Do you know the British artists Gilbert and George? There’s a restaurant that they go to in East London every single night. Maybe someone should make a book of artists and their regular orders.

Right, right. I’d read it.

So you achieved that goal.

Yes I did. And also I wanted to be more engaged with the art and cultural life of San Francisco so in that time, I’m a member of the San Francisco International Film festival so I’ve been attending that for, I don’t know, four or five years now, and I think we’ve already talked about this but I had a commission to write music for a play, for ACT Theater in San Francisco, it’s an Athol Fugard play called Blood Knot. And in doing that… I guess it was in the stage when they were making the request, they just started sending me tickets to everything, so I started going to plays on a regular basis and I loved it. I did go to plays when I was a kid in high school – there was some donor at the school who’d give tickets to Broadway shows so they’d put us on a bus. I saw Six Degrees of Separation and a few other things, so it’s something I’ve always liked but it’s not something I had time to do when I’m flying around touring. And so I’ve done that on a regular basis. And then San Francisco’s got some great museums so I regularly go to openings. And then there’s a lecture series in the city that’s been going for more than thirty years called City Arts and Lectures and I’ve attended so much that I’m sort of an honorary… I have some sort of title that means no money and mostly no recognition but… it means I get to hang out backstage. And the series is incredible, they bring in writers and politicians and scientists. Recently they had Ta-Nehisi Coates. I did, I did. When I met him I said I appreciate your book and I chose those words because I couldn’t say “liked” because it was so… it was painful to read; there’s so much truth in there. And even though it’s a short book I had to read it in doses. And he actually said as much on stage that night. That was a really incredible talk. Richard Dawkins, Margaret Atwood… so I’ve been going to those kinds of events and I find it fascinating. I love being a part of this… this art and culture community in my city.

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frida’s ghost



Just before Halloween I published an essay with Lit Hub about ghosts, idols, pain and dresses, specifically about experiencing a kind of haunting by Frida Kahlo. I wrote, “I know that when Halloween comes she’ll haunt me again in all the eyeliner-drawn monobrows of young women emulating the most idolized female facial hair in history.” And then of course Halloween came and went and I didn’t see a single Frida. Not one. Blood moons, bats, bullfighters, dead pop stars, Steve Jobses, Snow White, vampire Renoir and the Great British Bake Off, but not one single monobrowed Kahlo. I suppose I’ve exorcised her. Maybe that’s the point of writing.

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A conversation with Noah Baumbach



My profile of Noah Baumbach is in the Sunday Times Culture section today. Because I’d be nosey too, and because he had a lot to say, I’m posting the transcript here. Proper Times interview here! But here’s our conversation. We’re in a soundproof and very dim little screening room.

NB: Good sound in here.

HH: Yes, nice and dead. Your assistant mentioned you’re working on a documentary?

I mean, yes, it will fall in the documentary category but it’s about Brian de Palma and it’s really a conversation with Brian that goes throughout his whole career.

Sounds good. So, I really loved this film.

Oh good.

One of my favourite moments is when Brooke makes her big cinematic welcome on the steps of Times Square and then takes ages to make her way down the steps: that bathos seems to set up her whole character.

Right. I mean, yeah, the real answer is it just seemed like a funny introduction to someone. I guess now if I was going to think about it… I guess it does say a lot about her in that way, in that it’s also her fantasy of how this might go versus how this actually goes. And… in real life there are always too many steps.

And they have to be taken so slowly.

Right, right.

That dissonance between someone’s creation of themself and their reality reminded me of something Greta said about Frances as a character, which is, “Maybe she has some idea of how she thinks the world should work which people make fun of, even she knows is ridiculous, but in the end kind of happens for her.” That seems almost the opposite of Brooke. 

Right. I mean… it wasn’t… I guess it wasn’t really something we talked that expressly about, but of course, the reasons you decide to write about certain characters or certain characters are appealing to you when you then start to analyse it later you realise oh, probably because I’m interested in this and this. And I also think Brooke’s story is, in its own way, about coming down to earth. I mean Brooke at the end of the movie is sort of facing her reality in a way that she wasn’t before, which is similar, under very different circumstances and with a very different character, but is not dissimilar to where Frances ends up. What we always talked about with Frances was that by accepting compromise you actually… certain dreams can also come true. And I think with this one, I feel that she… what makes her so angry at Tracey for writing this and showing her this way is that… but I think in a way it’s freeing for her, ultimately, because Tracey still loves her, even though she sees through her. And I think that’s important for Brooke. And also what’s kind of beautiful about that relationship. And I think that’s where we find her at the end, she’s searching, but in a way she needs to start searching. Being adrift, or at least more consciously adrift, for Brooke is progress.

It occurred to me that the moment Brooke wants is very cinematic and Frances Ha has lots of  those moments – of her running and dancing. Were you conscious to avoid that kind of visual lyricism in this one?

Yeah. I mean, I guess it is… the filmic approach to Mistress and to Brooke’s character was certainly consciously different to how it was with Frances. And because Frances was in black and white – just because we see it much more rarely now, you can’t help but evoke movies, photography, because it is, by definition, photographic, because it’s not how we see the world. So once you’re in colour, you’re kind of like every other movie. And so in a way Frances leant itself to taking that and doing the “Modern Love” sequence. But I also think the shift the movie takes when we go to Mamie Claire’s and the screwball elements that enter into it are kind of cinematic in their own way. And heightened. So in a way the movie had its own flexibility, its own way of taking on a kind of movie…


-ness, yeah, and also, more so than Frances, we started thinking about the story of Frances was very much grounded in the personal and the character and being in New York City while also knowing of course that the photography was going to elevate it and turn it into this other thing. I think with this one Brooke always seemed larger than life from the beginning so the way we talked about the character and the movie was in terms of movies, it was heightened in that way. There were  conversations about those kinds of movies where everybody gets in the car and leaves the city. Or those movies where you meet somebody and they take you into another world.

You had this great phrase for that latter subgenre: “squares being batted around by less squares.” Does that ever happen in your own life, you find yourself batted around by less-squares?

[laughs] I don’t know. I guess I’ve had nights where things… you end up somewhere you didn’t expect. But… I think it’s more… I was thinking of it more in terms of a certain kind of movie, it’s almost like a subgenre, I’m not even sure it’s a genre. And it may only be a genre if you find the five movies that it is.

Three’s a trend.

Yeah, yeah. But it seemed right for Brooke. And for me I think it goes into this thing of taking people out of their comfort zone, or out of their familiar, which a lot of my movies have. Their routines being disrupted in some way.

From what I understand Brooke was originally going to be a bit-character.

A bit character in a different script so it wasn’t this movie at all.

I find, in my own relationship, that we have almost in-jokes of characters. And from what I’ve read, it almost sounds as though Brooke was that for you and Greta? So did you have any sense of woh, we made a movie out of something that began as a private joke?

Right. Well there is something about wow, we actually made this movie to fit this character. Probably more so than any movie I’ve done – I didn’t see this one coming. Generally, I have things that kind of circulate in my head that at some point crystallise and find their way into the script I’m writing. But they tend to feel like things that I’ve been making in my head for some time and now I’m finally figuring it out. Whereas Mistress really did feel like, you know, let’s just see where this takes us – we have this character, what movie would be this character, and we started talking about those other kinds of movies we like and those experiences with people when you’re young that you look up to and they seem kind of incredible but as you start to gain some perspective they maybe start to seem…. there’s more melancholy there. And, you know, oh they drink a little too much or whatever – you start to see things. And you kind of outgrow them even though they’re older than you. And I think that kind of story… that may be more a thing that came from observation but it really then started going from there. The second half, particularly, I think we wrote… – I don’t know, we wrote so many different versions of the story, we really didn’t know where it was going. And so when we finished the script and then made it soon after that, it really did feel like, where did this movie come from. [laughs]

 That feeling of not knowing where it’s going – is that less scary when you’re in a writing partnership?

Yeah, probably, yeah. Because you have each other to say, ‘is this ridiculous?’ But. I mean, it’s true of everything – even if I’d had the idea of couples, like we did with While We’re Young, even still, once I’m writing it I feel like I don’t know where this is going… you’re still writing, in some ways, without any kind of road map. But these weren’t even ideas – at least that I was conscious of.

With every movie you make do you feel less fear of not having a road map? As in, do you have more faith in yourself as a writer?

Yes and no. I mean, yes, in the bigger ways,  No, in the – every day I sit down to write. Because they all start with nothing, so, you know, that always feels like this is impossible. I mean I’ll convince myself on any given day that it is. You just have to get through those moments and get to the next thing. That’s easier with a partner. But even those days, when you’re like “what are we doing? This is kind of ridiculous.” But in the bigger way, at least I can tell myself, “I seem to have gone through this all on the last one.”

Is it true that the closet scene took 55 takes?

I guess so. I guess it was 55 or 57. Was it in the New Yorker piece?

I read it on IMDB.

Right, so it’s probably unattributed. [Sighs] yeah, that did.

 Can you say why?

Well, to be fair, that is a lot of takes, to be fair, maybe that’s a four-page scene in one shot? In some ways, it’s relatively simple. The camera doesn’t move that much, but there was a lot of choreography in it, and there’s a lot of dialogue that had to be nailed, and, Lola is in the closet, and Greta’s going in and out of camera. And Greta really has to run, because Lola is really just reacting and also off camera for most of the thing and she’s telling a lot of the story of her grudge, this is the big indignity in her life, and also what is going to take us forward, so we kind of have to remember some of this. So there was a lot that had to be done in that scene. It was a day where, we were going to have to shoot a lot of takes anyway, but on that particular day it just took more.

You and Greta made Frances Ha as you were falling in love. How different is it to make a film once you’re in a relationship, past the falling stage?

Do you mean the difference in being together and making the movie, as we were on Mistress, or do you mean just in general like the line between making something together and being in a relationship?

Oh, I meant the former, but obviously curious about the latter too, now that you mention it.

With Frances, when we were writing it, we weren’t in the same place, really. So there was a lot of emails, and getting on the phone and talking through what needed to be done. And it was over a fairly long period of time, just because we were doing other things. With Mistress, we had a window, we had talked about the script and had some of it, but we really had a window before I was going to make While We’re Young, so we discussed how we could actually try to squeeze another movie in, but we weren’t going to fully finish it, but we were going to start making it. In some ways we set a deadline for ourselves, and we really wrote the thing fairly quickly, but in that case it was really useful to be in the same apartment. We could just get up and do it and work. And in those cases you do have to draw some kind of line. But when you are working on it, and engaged in it, it works it’s way into everything. You start working on it, then you forget about it, then something else will happen, that would be good for that. It’s its own challenge because we were some ways, in our minds, we were making a kind of movie that we felt we would like at different points in our lives. Whatever that subgenre is. I don’t even know if the final product feels like those movies at all. It might not, and that’s fine, but I think for us it just felt like, it felt like the 80s to me, which also to me felt like my adolescence.

 Did either of you kind of have to take the role of shutting it down, in terms of, you know,  being at dinner together and needing a break from talking about it.

When we were in the midst of it, there really wasn’t any “shutting it down.” I think at that point, any idea at any point of the day is welcome. Maybe she feels differently, but I felt like it was all-encompassing at that point.

 I read that Frances Ha began because you kind of casually asked Greta  if she had any writing ideas and so began this email correspondence. Is there something about email that’s particularly conducive to people trying to impress each other?

I didn’t really think that until you just said, but maybe there is something to that. I always felt like she would send me things, and I would think they were so great, and I would then, in that way, I guess, if you write a good email you want to write a good email back. It’s hard to write four words back, or one word or phrase: “see you on Friday!” It certainly made me want to send her the best version of what I thought the scene could be. In that way, probably.

 Do you still feel like you want to impress her?

Yeah, in all ways, including things that we do together. When I first show her a draft of what I’ve written, or the first cut of While We Were Young, I want her to love it, of course.

 Are you honest with each other when you don’t like something? What are your mutual rules of tact?

I think, I mean, obviously we like what the other one does, so it all comes under that. I’ve always thought “oh this is terrific.” I never worry about “well, this is gonna sound negative,” because it’s always about how good it is. I think it feels that way when she’s responded to my things. I think if I’ve shown her something that I know needs a lot of work, I’m expecting her to agree any ay.

 So there’s this media narrative that you began your career sort melancholic, and are becoming increasingly lighter with each film, and, in terms of your creative and romantic partnership, it’s dark and thoughtful and cerebral you meets light and spontaneous Greta. I imagine it’s more nuanced than that, but is there any truth to that?

I’m probably the wrong person to ask about that. In terms of the trajectory the movies have taken, I feel like these are all aspects of what I find true human behavior, true human relationships, and the stuff of movies, you know, movies that I’m interested in making. With the sampling we have, with the way things have gone, maybe we’ve felt more darker shades than others. You go into not knowing what these things are going to be exactly, you have a feeling about it, or a thing that you know about the movie, and you don’t know about the movie at the same time, and all of these movies are inside me, the process of each one is expelling this, you’ve become infected with this thing, and you have to get it out.

 Sounds a bit The Exorcist.

It is in a way. So where it goes, I feel like there could, in the future, these lighter and darker shades will continue to live side by side.

Do you think it’s harder though, to give a more light-hearted movie the same freight as a movie like The Squid and the Whale, which obviously has hilarious moments, but is essentially full of pain. As in, I feel material that’s instantly classifiable as “dark” seems to confer more respect. 

That might be true, but I don’t find that one is harder than the other. They’re all hard. Some have their particular challenges. Some that you participate in, and some that you discover as you go. In terms of like, the balance, I’m asked about the continuity to the degree all the movies have serious and humorous things going simultaneously. I think the way I see it, I come at these things like I don’t consciously think about injecting a scene with humor to balance it out. I might be aware of the script where a joke might be too broad, or this moment, whatever the things are. There is real melancholy to Mistress America for how funny it is. I think that was always embedded in the material.

Was there more melancholy than you initially thought?

I don’t know. I think the premise has melancholy baked into it because it’s also about, as opposed to Frances, about a friendship that has real history to it, and probably has real future to it and how you maintain these kind of relationships as you change and develop in your life. This one is really about a kind of fleeting moment in these two lives. These people probably won’t see each other again. And that has melancholy baked into it, it wasn’t something that we really had to discuss that much, it was just going to seek out.

 In rewatching The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, I noticed this thing in particularly these two that you do – I’m not sure what the term is called in classical music, maybe “ostinato” – but it’s a kind of symphonic thing where you hit a note, and a bit later, you hit the same note, but in a refracted way. I’m thinking, for example, of the moment in Margot At the Wedding when Claude’s cousin points out he has a moustache, and it’s kind of contrapuntal with Jack Black’s character and his moustache. To me that felt novelistic. Which made me wonder why you chose film rather than theatre or novels or any other medium.

Well, I think, the answer to that is that while I love novels and plays, they aren’t in me, in the way that like from a fairly early age, even before I made a movie, I felt like I could communicate in movies, and not novels or plays. Certainly not plays as I didn’t see a lot of plays growing up. Even to this day, it’s not to say I wouldn’t watch it sometime, when I watch a play, the logic of where people are at some point, I don’t see it in craft. I see a good movie, I lose myself in the movie. I don’t think about those things. It’s something that feel that I understand, and connect to, and love. It’s just how I do it. I know what you mean by that feels novelistic, but I think there’s a big difference by things that feel novelistic and things that are very much movies. And things that are movies that feel like novels.

 I would get so pissed off when people would tell me I had to watch The Wire because it was novelistic. I always felt, you know, there are enough excellent novels out there, I could just read a novel!

Right, well, Brooke even says that on TV, she says “Well, here’s the new novel.” I think it’s that thing where why the best books actually don’t make the best movies. You could say that a lot of Bergman’s movies are so theatrical, and he did theater brilliantly too, or would feel novelistic in their themes, and everything is sort of present, and they’re so many filmmakers who use things like novels. I think so much of the feeling and impact is in the visuals and in the momentum and in the intimacy of that movie.

 There’s this kind of sweet irony of, as you get older, your films seem to get funnier and more optimistic while simultaneously being more concerned with aging. It made me wonder whether getting older is in any way a relief for you?

In some ways it is. I don’t know if getting older is a relief, but that it’s not the end of the world is a relief. That they’re actually positives to it. So yeah, I think so. My first movie is about people who feel much older then they are, and so in a way, those characters anyway, needed to grow into themselves a little bit, and I think that everybody feels that to some degree, this idea of like, what we’ve talked about in my movies, people who are squaring their ideas about how their life might be with how their life actually is, is universal. And I think in American culture, it can make you feel worse about that, you’re ideas of how things should go are sometimes way out of whack with how life works. And becoming more sanguine about that is a kind of relief. That’s what I was saying about Brooke, giving up on all this stuff. Leaving New York. Letting go of that restaurant. Letting go of all these things. It really lifts a burden.

 Were you anxious to be considered precocious when you were young and starting out?

There were definite stretches when I was. I was making fun of myself in The Squid and the Whale with that character because there were times in highschool when I was probably insufferable, in a way. Probably charming to somebody older. I certainly irritated a bunch of girlfriends. There were definitely periods.

 I’m curious as to your relationship with ambition in terms of aging…

I think I’m as ambitious as I ever was, but I kind of accept that more. When I was younger, there was a bit of embarrassment about that.

 I feel like people are allowed to be ambitious, particularly here in New York more than any other place I’ve lived in. I see that in Brooke, the vaunting, the blitheness of it.

LA too, I think. It’s a thing when you talk ambition, you have to make sure you are talking about the same thing, because so many people use it as a negative, and I’m using it just as a thing. There’s actually nothing wrong with being ambitious, it’s how you handle you and what kind of role it takes in your life, and I think a lot of my characters are embarrassed about their ambition, but also have high expectations for themselves. Greenberg would rather say he’s doing nothing than to say he’s a carpenter, because for him it’s either he had the dream of becoming a successful musician, or nothing. I understand that feeling; I see it in other people, particularly at certain ages. But I think it’s true, in the best version, the older you get maybe you let go of that stuff. I’m old enough now to see that in people, people I’ve known for a long time, who maybe didn’t, they’re having a different version of aspects of lives than they anticipated, but the ones who adjust to that and actually thrive, do seem happier to me.

 In one review, and I don’t actually remember which of your movies it was, but the critic used the term “the personal counterfactual” to describe what you do, as in a film begins with your own experiences, but then diverges from it. It seems to me that you’ve become more and more counterfactual and less personal, certainly since The Squid and the Whale. Is that fair to say?

For me they’re all equally personal. I don’t measure them in terms of how much autobiography is actually in there, and even just the way we were talking about Mistress America, even in thinking about movies from my childhood, it’s personal. My kind of connection to those movies is really because they were part of my own development and the time I was getting interested in movies. And I do really think that for me everything I do brings me back to my childhood in some way. The subject matter could have absolutely nothing to do with that. Maybe part of that is the sort of play in making movies. I just think that there’s something about my relationship and personal connection to my history and childhood is a kind of mode of creativity. I don’t really know why that is and I really can’t articulate it that well.

 Is it about reflecting on your childhood or the feeling of being a child?

It’s the feeling and it’s why I like being and shooting in New York. There’s something about feeling having been on this street. The feeling of all the history of the city and me and that and all of the people that have been in my life and that I have walked the street with. No matter what scene we’re shooting is probably, in some way that Proust understood better than anybody, or Knausgaard, that I feel some source of like, superpower, that ring gives you the thing. I try to put myself in that mindset as much as possible when I’m working. Maybe it puts you in the sort of time of less, it’s an emotional feeling, not an intellectual one.

 Something ineffable, yeah. I get that feeling from Frances Ha and Mistress America. There’s also that thing where you are watching some movie and you recognize a place and that’s analogous emotional process of like “oh my god I know this place, and I’ve been there.” There’s some kind of back and forth feeling, a kind of communion.

I love that in movies. I mean, you can get that in anything, a painting or whatever, but in movies, because it’s visual, it’s verbal, it’s characters, it’s actors, there are are so many elements in there, lots of color, or it could be texture of a jacket, or a song. Movies have more of it to put in there. And that’s I take that stuff equally seriously, because you want it all to be the right thing.

To me as a person who grew up very much not in New York, it looks like a movie. You know when I first came here and came out of the subway it was like,  “yellow cabs! Skyscrapers!”  For you, is there a filmic quality to New York that’s inherent? 

When I’m filming New York, I’m generally coming at it from a more personal way, it’s also because I’ve seen it in so many movies, at so many different times, and to your question before, why can you do the same song in multiple movies, or see the same part of New York in multiple movies, and when it’s in the right one, it resonates. Your own experience connects to it somehow, as opposed to like “I know that song.” It is more personal, but obviously when you are shooting in New York you have to be aware of the fact that you’ve seen these things in so many movies, so you have that in mind. I’m at the point now where like, any movie actually shot in New York from my childhood, certainly my younger childhood through the 80s, and probably the 90s will start giving me this now, but I can watch any of them, because I can just watch the background, even if its not my favorite movie. It’s moving to me to watch and see something and be like “I remember when that was still there.”

New York has that special quality — it’s both instantly recognizable and iconic, and at the same time, the city looks completely different to me, street by street, every month. tYOu know, that restaurant has gone, or that new building has gone up. I think that sort of feeds into the beautiful things you were saying about a place having layers. Changing, but but still the same place.

I think the ending of Mistress America, the sort of sadness… there’s hope for Brooke, but in some ways the sadness is that she has to leave New York to find it. Because in a way she’s a character that comes out of New York in my mind and New York stories. If you actually bring that character into reality, she’s gotta leave.

 In terms of the personal, or rather the autobiographical, I was just reminded of, in watching this, in watching the moment in Margot At the Wedding where the sisters confront each other, and you, in terms of plundering from a life for fictive purposes, and whether you have created a set of rules for yourself, in that respect? What are the ethics for you, of this.

I haven’t been asked if I have a specific ethic before. I guess it’s a little like the pornography thing where you know it when you see it. Or the supreme court. I actually feel like the Brooke / Tracy argument what I liked about doing that was I don’t think either of them was more right or wrong than the other. And they actually are two people. I don’t feel like you actually see too much of that in movies, where two people have good points and they’re fighting. Because generally, you want to take a side, but if you watch people fight in real life, sometimes you take somebody’s side, but usually it’s because you like them better. Or you’re obliged to. I thought that there isn’t an easy answer to this. I suppose I feel that too. But hopefully you know it when you see it.

 In terms of “it” being “a breach”?

Yeah, or you change to a degree that you still feel like it’s interesting to you, because I’m not actually interested in taking things from real life and putting that in movies, I’m interested in constructing something out of these things. I do like using real names, for the same reason that I like using the city, particularly in the early stages it helps me believe that these people exist. When you’re making up a name it just sounds ridiculous. Those happen to and you get used to it. I do like using, at least combinations of names, names that I’ve had in my head, they just seem preexisting. Ben’s character in While We Were Young is named Josh Shrebnick, and he’s a close friend of mine from college. I would never do it if I was actually using anything for that character. And Josh is fortunately comfortable and confident in his life that he’s not going to take offense. And Greenberg, Roger Greenberg, was an old friend of mine from my childhood. We don’t see other as much anymore, but he was a kind of meaningful person in my life. He was friends with the family. He was a little older, but a little older when you’re young feels very old, and like an older brother in a way. He was very sweet with me. I wanted to use his name, I don’t know why. It had nothing to do with Greenberg. But these are people that all signed releases and I told them about the movies and they were all on board.

 I know what you mean about names feeling fake. I have such prejudices and valencies with names. As in, if you meet someone called Samantha who’s a bitch to you when you’re thirteen, you’re never truly going to like another Samantha again. 

No, sometimes I will actually – because I agree with you – I might use a name of somebody I didn’t really like to sort of solve it and get through it.

 Does it work?

I don’t know, that’s a good question. [laughs] I haven’t done it for a main character. But you know Leonard Michaels? He wrote a novella called The Men’s Club, which I think was his most well-known one, but he wrote an essay about names, which I think was in a collection called Time Out of Mind… it’s a very beautiful way of talking about why he uses real names. It’s not even exactly the same as what I’m saying but it’s very interesting.

 And what are you excited about culturally right now – what are you reading or watching.

I just finished, today actually, the third My Struggle. I really, really like those books. They’re interesting because they’re hard to talk about to people who haven’t read them because there’s no way to really, unless you fall back on, “well, like Proust,”, but what works about them, and I’m not even entirely always sure what works about them… I find them really just the experience of them, more so than… in all of them there are… oh the thing… the sequence with his brother and the grandmother at his dad’s old house – you can point these things out, all these things are there and they’re great sequences but less so than other books I don’t really think about passages, I think about the whole experience of the thing, which is interesting. There’s something almost private about them, I actually find that I don’t talk that much about them with people, I sort of find that you have your experience with them, as opposed to, I’m trying to think what other novel-novel…

They’re not really debatable, are they.

No, no. Yeah.

 Do you watch TV? (I hear it’s the new novel.)

It’s the new novel I hear. I really don’t watch a lot of it… and in this day and age you can’t call that snobbery. Because that’s where all the good stuff is happening supposedly. I don’t, and I don’t really have a good reason for it, I just don’t find myself drawn to doing it. If I’m sitting down I usually find a movie to watch or sports or even waste time flipping around the channels. To the degree that I still have cable although I keep whittling down my cable package. In terms of movies that I’ve seen that I’ve really liked… I really liked the Mad Max movie. And I’ve been on a lot of planes so I’ve sort of caught up with all the Liam Neeson movies. Which I’ve enjoyed. Some of them I really enjoyed. I watched that documentary that Les Blank made about Werner Herzog making Field of Dreams. It’s really good. And then there’s the Les Blank movie on Leon Russell that I want to see, I heard that’s great.

My fiance just wrote about that! I really want to see it. But anyway, thank you for this, it’s been a real pleasure.


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unmagical thinking: some things I read this week



This was from Thursday night, in a tunnel somewhere near the West Side Highway. It gave me chills then, it still gives me chills now.

Reading this week has felt less like pleasant private nourishment and more like some kind of civic necessity. I thought of this line, from one of Joan Didion’s worst books: “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.” I didn’t lose my husband, but this is a kind of grief, the same bewilderment and disbelief. The difference though, is that this is the kind of national moment that violently prohibits magical thinking and instead demands the opposite: waking up. I really struggled to do any work this week, particularly the day after the Eric Garner verdict. I emailed a very beloved friend in London that day and she wrote:

I know exactly what you mean – I feel overwhelmed by the weirdness of going about daily life when so much is wrong. It all throws into relief the inconsequentiality of my existence, the massive omission being made by every trivial remark and social media post I make, the easiness of everything – and then I feel overwhelmed by the realisation that it always has been wrong, it’s just I am dimly noticing it now through a particular constellation of circumstances! I also am very much buffered from each turn of events because I’m so far away- it’s easier let it fade into background noise here and I can’t imagine how it must be in New York right now, with the roar impossible to ignore. It’s really good to let yourself be swept up in that, I think, and then to try and bottle some of that feeling because it will be so useful later on, when everyone is forgetting and moving on. And also it’s good to read and just absorb as much knowledge and Thought about what’s happening as possible, even if there seems barely time, because it’s so easy to simply form opinions in the molds made by others, to slip into them too easily without analysis.

These are some things I read.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic:

“Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level. What clearly cannot be said is that the people of Ferguson are regularly plundered, as their grandparents were plundered, and generally regarded as a slush-fund for the government that has pledged to protect them. What clearly cannot be said is the idea of superhuman black men who “bulk up” to run through bullets is not an invention of Darren Wilson, but a staple of American racism.”

Chris Rock, interviewed by Frank Rich in New York.

“Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger (1997)

“It is not the anger of other women that will destroy us, but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment. I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivialises all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it becomes no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”

Judith Butler, Reading Rodney King Reading Urban Uprising, (1993)

“…to the extent that there is a racist organization and disposition of the visible, it will work to circumscribe what qualifies as visual evidence, such that it is in some cases impossile to establish the “truth” of racist brutality through recourse to visual evidence.”

Tim Wise, “Repetitive Motion Disorder: Black Reality and White Denial in America”

“That so much of white America cannot see the shapes made out so clearly by most of black America cannot be a mere coincidence, nor is it likely an inherent defect in our vision. Rather, it is a socially-constructed astigmatism that blinds so many to the way in which black folks often experience law enforcement.”


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by the will and the intelligence and the heart



Not to reduce literature to some kind of palliative or lifestyle accompaniment or anything, but it turns out Stoner is an ideal book to read when you’re ill. It just coasts you along, steadily, gently, like a very well built boat down an old canal. Even though the canal is a deep one full of pain and regret and sorrow and human disappointment. I could blame illness, or I could blame, Herzog voice, the constant affliction that is human feeling, but these lines moved me hopelessly.

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”

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Women In Clothes, mismatches


A neat week late (I’ve been sick) my review of Women in Clothes, which is a treat of a book, ran in the Observer last weekend; it’s here.

My friend Emily and I talk about clothes a lot, in both an abstract, semiotic (!) way, and in a wanty, specific way. Several weeks ago we were in the garden of a cafe where every table had its own tiny jam jar of wildflowers. I was considering our table’s artful little sprig as I told her that for a long time I just want to dress in a way that read “nice”. Pretty, even. Which is an impulse I now think of with the special savage scorn we reserve for our past selves. The first and only article of clothing I bought in the weeks after leaving an abusive relationship was a black, very tight, leather jacket, which I wore zipped up, despite my vegetarianism and despite it being summer and 30 degrees C in nyc. I needed to feel as though I could roll off a motorbike at any moment and not graze my elbows. In fact, it made me want to roll off motorbikes, and tumble across the rumble strips to standing – encased and unscathed. My floral dresses languished (wilted?) in the laundry basket because fuck pretty, fuck nice, and do not fuck with me.

Over this very pretty breakfast we were having, wildflower posey between us, I told Emily that now the word I wanted to guide me as I got dressed was “intimidating”. I wanted to look just slightly scary. She smiled gently and slowly. I looked down at myself. I was wearing grey jeans, pale pink ballerina pumps, and a cream cable knit cardigan so big that sometimes, in a deflective or defensive way, refer to it as my sheep costume.

Having my own ridiculousness lovingly revealed to me by someone I love makes me love them so much more.

These mismatches – between the character we think we’ve dressed as, and the character we’ve defaulted to without realising – are so awkward and so painful and so human. I love them. However hard you might want to look like the baddest bitch, you might accidentally come as the girl from the vegan bakery.

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Move on another plane in the name of one’s own difference: Elena Ferrante


This is from towards the end of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan trilogy when Elena, our narrator, now thirty and the mother of two small daughters, begins to read contemporary feminist theory. It’s the late 70s.

I can’t remember reading a more intoxicating portrayal of an intellectual awakening, specifically the exhilaration of “turning books against themselves.” It’s unclear whether these words are the paraphrased sentences of the text that the character is reading (Carla Lonzi), or whether they’re Elena’s thoughts, born from that text, or whether they’re a rush of both. This is also kind of an irresistible moment to conflate author and character. Elena/Elena, killing me:


“Every sentence struck me, every word, and above all the bold freedom of thought. I forcefully underlined many of the sentences, I made exclamation points, vertical strokes. Spit on Hegel. Spit on the culture of men, spit on Marx, on Engels, on Lenin. And on historical materialism. And on Freud. And on psychoanalysis and penis envy. And on marriage, on family. And on Nazism, on Stalinism, on terrorism. And on war. And on the class struggle. And on the dictatorship of the proletariat. And on socialism. And on Communism. And on the trap of equality. And on all the manifestations of patriarchal culture. And on all its insitutional forms. Resist the waste of female intelligence. Deculturate. Disacculturate, starting with maternity, don’t give children to anyone. Get rid of the master-slave dialectic. Rip inferiority from our brains. Restore women to themselves. Don’t create antitheses. Move on another plane in the name of one’s own difference. The university doesn’t free women but completes their repression. Against wisdom. While men devote themselves to undertakings in space, life for women on this planet has yet to begin. Woman is the other face of the earth. Woman is the Unpredictable Subject. Free oneself from subjection here, now, in this present. The author of those pages was called Carla Lonzi. How is it possible, I wondered, that a woman knows how to think like that. I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves. This is thinking. This is thinking against. I – after so much exertion – don’t know how to think.”

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debbie harry in the telegraph, debbie harry at the supermarket, debbie harry at glastonbury, debbie harry eveywhere



Frankly, any post which allows me to use a picture of Debbie Harry is a good thing. But meeting Debbie Harry, asking questions of Debbie Harry and then getting to write about Debbie Harry is an even better thing. I spoke to her a few weeks ago, for the Telegraph, and you can read the interview here. This is also a good moment to flag up Wayne Koestenbaum’s predictably delicious essay on her, included in his collection My 1980s, which you’ll recognise by her Warhol-shot face on the cover. “Debbie Harry at the Supermarket”, excerpted in the New Yorker here, includes the greatest, most overblown and sublimity-seeking description of someone’s walk that I’ve ever read.

Her measured equilibrium led me to believe that she had undergone revolutions of belief and doubt, that she had passed through perils in this lifetime (if we are in the mood to believe in reincarnation, and tonight we are in the mood); she had found a peculiar restfulness, and it was her business to express this illumination to passersby on Twenty-Third Street. I elected the contemporary Deborah Harry as my neighborhood epitome of numinous attainment, achieved not by beauty or fame but by the fact that she had survived those eviscerating lures. Fame and beauty remained her possessions, but she ignored them, as she walked to Sloan’s—which now is Gristedes—and waited in line to buy her daily groceries.


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a conversation about music, music journalism and gender



Back in November Jenessa Williams, a music journalism student at the University of Huddersfield, interviewed me for her thesis on gender. It was so good to talk about these things. And I realise these sorts of things make me swear a lot. She kindly sent me the transcript of our conversation.

How did you first get into music journalism?

I guess it began at university. In my first year I was doing a lot of student drama, just because lots of the people I was around at the time were doing it too, so I was kind of swept up in it. I realized I wasn’t very good and by the end of my second year I started getting involved in Varsity [Cambridge University’s student paper]. I had that sense of, oh, these are my people. It’s so cheesy, but I just felt really galvanized and excited. I felt like I was surrounded by people who were a lot smarter than me, a lot more ambitious than me, a lot more talented than me, and that’s invaluable. It spurs you on and makes you pull yourself up. I actually started doing theatre journalism –  I didn’t do so much music stuff to start with, I think because I felt like you had to know everything and have an encyclopedic knowledge of rock and pop to write anything. And of course that’s unobtainable. I mean, I do know people who seem to have it, but it’s one of those things that builds up over years and it’s only one part of being a good critic. I think you have an obligation to be as informed as you possibly can be, but being a good critic goes across genres. It’s about being thoughtful and interrogating the material. But anyway, I was listening to more music than I ever had – I think a lot of people at university experience this when there’s so many people telling you about bands and exciting new music, it’s how a lot of those relationships form, people bond over music. I just got more and more into it, I just wanted to fit it all together to know what sound came from where and how everything informed everything else. I remember there was this book that the magazine The Wire put out called ‘Undercurrents: The Wiring of Modern Music’, which I read when I was maybe 21, 22, and that was so thrilling to me, to read writing about music that was that intelligent, going in so deep.

It’s really interesting actually to hear somebody coming about it from the academic approach straight away, because lots of people I know kind of got into music journalism just on a very basic level of “I like music, I like writing, lets put the two together.”

Oh I don’t want to sound like a knob, I wouldn’t claim that I was going about it academically! – As well as poncy shit by The Wire  I was reading newspaper music journalism and Pitchfork, like everyone else. But yeah, this is one of the things that excites me about music, you can intellectualize it but at the same time it’s just sound. It’s completely valid to just treat it as something to dance to. I love listening to and writing about pop.

What is your favourite type of music to write about? Are there any particular genres or specific bands that appeal to you?

I’m interested in interesting music, and that can be anything. One thing I’ve thought about a lot over the past year or so is the pleasure of writing about music that I don’t find sonically interesting…like Lady Gaga, for example, her music doesn’t do anything for me but I’m fascinated by the cultural phenomena that surround her, or surrounded her. I find that sort of thing interesting in terms of figuring out what we are investing in these figures and what they are reflecting back to us. I end of writing a lot about quite mainstream pop for the Observer, but I think my tastes are becoming weirder. I’ve been listening to this cult Australian band called The Necks, I listen to William Basinski all the time, he’s my absolute favourite. Recently, I’ve been on a Mulatu Astatke bender. He pioneered Ethio-jazz, I found him through Nicolas Jaar who’s one of my favourite current musicians. But the stuff I like to write about…it’s sometimes easier to write about stuff you have less emotional investment in. I think I would find it impossible to write about William Basinski, for example, because I’m so floored by it. It’s kind of beyond intellectualization or putting into words. But I loved writing about Miley Cyrus because she’s fascinating. I am a Miley Cyrus fan, it’s not like a condescending peering down my monocle fascination, I love her. But just not in the same way as William Basinski.

What is it about Miley Cyrus that you like?

Well in part it’s sort of the cultural thing, but she has also just has fucking great tunes. I think the video for We Can’t Stop is extraordinary, one of the best videos of the year. The thing about Miley for me is that she just looks like she is having more fun that anyone else. There is something very real and compelling about her sexuality that I think is glorious. I just think she’s amazing.

That’s very refreshing to hear when the news media is very much taking the approach of  “Miley please put some clothes on.”

I can talk about this for a long time so please shut me up at some point, but that pissed me off so much. The furore over Miley Cyrus naked on a wrecking ball just summarises the fuckedup-ness of particularly British but also American cultural standards, that toxic mix of prurience and prudishness. That whole argument was predicated on this incredibly insidious belief that sexuality is inherently compromising for women, and on some levels even shameful, which is an incredibly sexist attitude. It’s one promulgated by women too, which you can see in that pseudo-motherly approach by Sinead O’Connor. Its infuriating. I don’t think Miley’s responses about mental illness were cool, but I can understand her being really fucked off, because it’s this refusal to grant a young woman sexual agency. Wherever you go, people are frightened by female sexuality; it’s the same old thing.  People can’t cope with the idea that a very young woman might want to be naked on a wrecking ball and enjoy it. That might have been her decision. I’m sure its still the case that lots of women working on major labels and particularly in mainstream pop are coerced into shedding clothes, but it still infuriates me that we are denying these people agency, I can’t stand it. I’ve never watched a One Direction video so I don’t know if they get shirtless, but nobody would fret if Harry Styles took his clothes off. It just perpetuates the idea that men dictate and control sexiness, that it is something women have to be careful of and worry about. It perpetuates the victimization narrative – Miley is not a victim.

The Miley Cyrus example is a really good one for this – do you think maybe female journalists are making this whole sexism issue worse? Because most of the articles I’ve read that are particularly outraged by her do seem to be written by women who want to criticize other women for being “bad” feminists.

I find that whole judging other women’s feminism really wearisome. It does not help us. Let’s just stop doing that. I can understand there being a lot of women writing with passion and fury because stuff is fucked up – I’m not denying how problematic double standards and all those things are in music and pop are – but if I start calling out women on calling out Miley Cyrus, we’re in a vicious cycle of not quite slut-shaming, but feminist-credential-policing. Which is so stupid. I just read an Ellen Willis line about that – the way in which an oppressed group are made to turn on each other. Here’s the line: “To realise other women are not the enemy. To understand as a gut reality the phenomenon of rulers setting the ruled against each other.”

Based on your own experiences working for quite a few different publications, what do you make of the assertion that there are less women than men in music journalism, do you think this holds true?

I don’t know the numbers, but no, I feel like it’s not true. It’s far, far more problematic in literary journalism – I don’t know if you’ve heard of this organization called VIDA, they go through literary publications and tally the male bylines versus female and it’s incredibly depressing, you’d think that half of the population with double X chromosomes were illiterate. So often I scan down the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books content page and go, “dude, dude, dude, dude, dude, dude, woman, dude, dude, dude, dude.” But for music journalism…I feel as though it was the case in the 70s and 80s, maybe even the 90s, but now I don’t think it is. The Observer’s music critic is female – the wonderful Kitty Empire who I was privileged to work with – and I can name all sorts of prominent women in British music journalism, probably people you’ve been speaking to – Laura Snapes and Lucy Jones, they’re both great. And here in the US, Jessica Hopper, Sara Marcus, Amanda Petrusich, Lindsay Zoladz, Carrie Battan, Emilie Friedlander. So I don’t think it is true. I think hip hop is an interesting area. It’s interesting to me because hip hop in the US is a much stronger cultural force than it is in the UK. But then I do read women who write about hip hop – Ayesha Siddiqi, for example, who’s written great things about Kanye, she’s incredibly astute about the intersections of race and gender and pop culture.

I’m wondering if that assertion has come from the way that men and women talk about music. I’m so wary about making gendered statements because it bothers me how gendered our culture is, but it does seem to me, based on a non-scientific, non-sociological study of my personal experience, that when men talk about music, it’s about how much they know, it’s a oneupmanship. This is the same as when you see men bantering with each other, it’s a trying to out-do each other. By contrast, women seek consensus and are genuinely more interested in what each other think. It’s only in the last couple of years that male friends of mine have actually started asking me what I think of music, rather than just telling me what they think. And in fact, here’s a little anecdote. I ran into a friend’s ex-boyfriend at my yoga studio. I’d only met him once or twice. As we were on and off chatting I got an email through asking me to review the Jay Z record that day so I made my excuses and explained that I had an editor asking me about the Jay Z album. And then! : This guy just starts mansplaining Jay Z to me. It was extraordinary. He’s not a music journalist, he doesn’t work in music, he doesn’t make music, he doesn’t write about music. He was trying to educate me about Jay Z. I thought, this is amazing. And then I just kind of mentally wrote him off as a human.

That’s interesting because that sort of thing happens to me a lot. Like you’ll be sat talking about the albums of the year, and you’ll say something like “Arctic Monkeys was my favourite album” and the guy will turn to you and say “I liked them so much better when they were recording with so and so and making guitar sounds like this” and it’s a little odd.

Oh shit, it’s all coming out now; you’re reminding me of another incident. This was when I was with my ex-boyfriend and we had friends round, these two guys my age who I really love. They’re journalists who write about music, and they were talking about the Solange song “Losing You” and the Sky Ferreira song “Everything is Embarrassing” and one of them says “oh, they kind of sound the same don’t they.” I point out that that’s because they’re both produced by Dev Hynes, and they just don’t hear me. I say it again and they don’t hear me, but then two minutes later one of them goes “Oh, it’s because it’s produced by Dev Hynes” and then they all chat about that. Do you remember that Smack The Pony sketch at the board meeting where a woman says something and no-one hears until a man repeats it? It’s basically that. It is kind of funny, but oh my god it’s also infuriating.

Especially when – not that you’re trying to lord yourself over anyone – but you’re the professional.

Exactly. It can be hard to get heard.

Do you think there are any aspects of music journalism as a career that would seem off-putting to women? Lots of the academic research suggests that some venues are unappealing to young women in their inherent manliness.

That’s interesting. I mean, I love being in a big sweaty roiling crowd with my ears hurting, I don’t think that’s necessarily a gendered thing. But I have had so many experiences of being at concerts and shows where I realise shit, there’s only like three women in the room. I remember seeing Battles in LA and I genuinely couldn’t see another woman there. Which is crazy. So many times at 285 Kent I’ve been there at 1am in the morning and looked round to realise it was about 90% dudes. I don’t know why that is, I can’t work it out.

Lots of the books pointed out that it’s sometimes a parental influence on young girls – parents not wanting them to stay out late, and rock gigs traditionally don’t finish any earlier than 11.

Oh, interesting. I was very lucky in that I have ridiculously, wonderfully liberal parents, who didn’t mind whatever I did, they were kind of pro-sex and drugs and rock n roll really.

Have you ever experienced any other instances of sexism in the workplace or felt as if your gender has affected the kind of stories you’ve been assigned?

I think the professional sexism I’ve experienced has mostly been outside the workplace, and it’s all been a kind of unthinking, insidious sexism from friends, like we spoke about earlier. I’ve been lucky to work at a very liberal and enlightened newspaper that I really love – I think there are at least as many women working at the Guardian and the Observer as there are men. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced sexism at work, I always felt like I’m in a really great place when it comes to that sort of thing. People are just aware of it there, it’s a constant awareness. Before that though I worked at a current affairs start-up website, and there were a few young men who came on board at the same time, they were a little younger, I had more experience and was better educated, and yet there was just this weird assumption that I was going to be the office manager and order paper and make tea whilst they did the interesting editorial work. That was crazy to me – all because I was wearing a dress and they weren’t. I also think there is this other slightly dodgy thing of young women being pushed towards the first person confessional piece with photos of them looking pretty and sorry for themselves – those “my anorexia hell” or “my miscarriage hell’, and young men just aren’t. That wasn’t the kind of journalism I wanted to do and I had to resist that a little bit.

Do you think gender affects the commissioning process?

Perhaps only in that I tend to be more interested in interviewing women than men.

That’s interesting, I spoke to Lucy O’Brien and she mentioned that she often prefers interviewing female musicians because she feels as if it’s easier to strike up a friendship and a rapport faster.

I definitely approach every interview differently, because every person is different. But I do think gender does come into it. One thing I’ve noticed particularly with interviewing bands where all the members are male, I kind of feel like a beneficiary of low-level sexism because there is this kind of subconscious assumption that I’m less of a threat, that I’m not going to grill them. So I do feel like I have got more out of male musicians than my male equivalent might have. It goes back to what I was saying before about men and the way they communicate by point-scoring and showing their knowledge. I think they feel a little less on guard [with a woman], the whole thing feels a little less confrontational. They relax.

Have you ever had any bands be particularly difficult with you because of your gender? To give you an example, I once did an interview with a band, turned up and they said “we expected you to be a guy”…

No way! That’s extraordinary. And were they dicks to you?

Yeah a little. I can’t say for sure that that was because I was a girl or whether they were just difficult or even whether it was because I was a student journalist writing for the uni paper and they thought I was a little beneath them, but it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences.

That’s rough. I don’t think I have. I actually feel like being a woman puts me at an advantage when interviewing. Again, this is such a gendered statement, I keep making them… but I tend to think women make better interviewers than men.

Do you think this is just because of that more personal approach as opposed to the geeky ones?

Well I think women are better at reading people and picking up on non-linguistic cues. There’s that sexist and very facetious line of “all men being autistic” which is just ridiculous and also fairly offensive to people who are autistic, but, I know where that comes from. I think women are probably better at listening.

It’s good that you’re sharing your honest opinion with me, because I was wary when setting this case study up that people might be a bit reticent and prefer to tell me what they think the politically correct answer is. Do you think that UK press accurately represents male and female musicians in equal footing?

I think there is still this pseudo-feministic tendency when it comes to female musicians, when people think they’re being right-on by saying “look, she plays her own guitar!” or some bullshit like that. They think that’s constructive. Last year when Rolling Stone had their Women in Rock feature which made me fucking cringe, a Seattle weekly called The Stranger ran this piece called “Men Who Rock” which was brilliant and hilarious and threw into light all these clichés that journalists use when writing about female musicians. And it’s not just musicians, it’s everything. A friend of mine was posting lines from Doris Lessing’s obituary and saying can you imagine this being written about a man? – Lines like “as a woman, she pursued her own desires.” Ugh. So I find that really tiresome, I wish we could just get over it. People play music, and those people are men and they are women. In terms of “would I bring the artist’s sex into discussion” I think if it’s something that the band or musician is overtly performing and are visibly conscious of, then it is absolutely worth mentioning. But fetishing female drummers and people thinking they’re being right-on by doing that, no you’re not, get over it. I’m delighted that women are making music, but just because a band has a female drummer doesn’t make them cool and it’s not necessarily worth mentioning. I saw Savages play recently and their support act was this woman who performs under the name No Bra. She performs topless. And that’s totally worth mentioning, because she is obviously very aware of her gender and what it means. If you’re making a statement like that, it’s worth talking about.

Do you think the music press, the way that it’s written, appeals to both men and women? I know growing up, I started reading NME when I was 13 and it sometimes did seem to be a little bit male in its references to boozing and drugs and such.

Yeah, I was just reading Vice actually and there was this line about a book party saying “go! there’ll be loads of hot literary chicks” and I was like woah, you’re assuming that your entire readership is straight and male. I know it’s a small thing, and Vice would claim they’re knowingly mocking brohemia or whatever, but it’s a fucked up thing.

Even in this country, Q, NME, Kerrang, still I find that if you buy them in a supermarket, in lots of places they’re still filed under ‘men’s interest’, next to Nuts, FHM, Zoo, all of the lads mags.  

That’s extraordinary. That’s a huge problem, I didn’t know about that. I kind of want to write about that now…

They’ve stopped doing it in WH Smiths now, it has a ‘Music’ section which is still next to Men’s interest.

That’s infuriating.

It sounds kind of obvious, but it is interesting to hear that you don’t feel as if you’re there to purely inform people, you want to entertain them as well.

Yes! – this is criticism not a lecture – I’m not providing someone with information with which to write an essay. I think it was different forty years ago, pre-Wikipedia and everything, when you did have to spell out a little who people were and what they were doing. I see my job as having to think as hard as I can about a thing and then turn that into something that is honest and a pleasure to read. Criticism is unavoidably personal. Well, actually all writing is. I feel this with interviews as well: you’re constantly told to remove yourself, but I think there’s a disingenuousness to that because every interaction is about both people involved. The other person becomes themself through you, and they become a different themself through someone else. I think over the last few years, I have been allowing myself to creep into pieces a little bit more for that reason.

Do you think the music press has a responsibility to make sure that they are employing both genders? Or do you think that risks tokenism?

I think every workplace has that responsibility, I don’t think its tokenism! It would only be tokenism if women were empirically shitter than men.

This is a bit of a personal question not knowing your age or life plan, but were you to consider parenting or starting a family, what impact do you think this would have on your journalistic career and getting back into the world?

Well, I’m 29. It’s a huge question; it’s more abstract that the pure practicalities of it, it’s about fulfillment. My own time is so precious to me and I adore being freelance for that reason.

Would you not go back to 9 to 5 office work now?

No, never. I couldn’t do it. I mean, I loved doing it then but now I feel like it’s no way to live. Again, this might sound pretentious, but I think as a critic you have an obligation to be reading and listening all the time, it’s your job. When I’m reviewing an album or a book, its not just that thing I should be considering, I should be engaged in a much bigger thing in culture, listening and reading all the time. And if you have a 9 to 5, or a kid that’s really hard to do. And I would hate to give that up.

Do you think being a woman there is a conflict of interest when it comes to reporting on music that is particularly feminist, sexist or sexually charged? Miley Cyrus is a good example, and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines as well, lots of the journalists upset about it are women, and most of the men are commenting on it musically and how catchy it is. Do you think it’s hard to detach yourself from it?

One of the reasons I love writing about music is that it’s porous, it takes in everything. When you’re thinking about music, particularly when it’s pop, it takes in art and fashion and politics and everything. So, writing about how questionable something is in its gender politics is just as valid as writing about what a banging tune it is. They can co-exist. People with despicable politics can make amazing art, and it’s fine to appreciate that and at the same time call them out on it. I found this with Odd Future, I found them really fun in this adolescent, puerile way, but all those lyrics about rape were just unconscionable. It’s okay to feel those two things.

Do you feel any moral obligation as a woman to point out misogyny and whistleblow sexism?

I absolutely do. But I think it’s a moral obligation as a human, not just as a woman. Similarly if stuff is racist or homophobic – I’m not black or gay but as a human I consider it my responsibility to call people out on it. Whether it’s in their art or in their behaviour.

Would you be comfortable in calling yourself a feminist?

I would be desperately uncomfortable with not calling myself a feminist! I think anybody who rejects that term, male or female, is a cretin. I just do not understand that. The British journalist Rebecca West, I think she died in the 1980s, but she had this wonderful phrase – “feminism is the radical notion that women are people too.” That’s it, it’s as simple as that. I just don’t understand a tentativeness over identifying with that term. It’s like asking ‘Do you consider yourself a non-racist? A non-homophobe?’ What kind of person is going to pussyfoot over that? Racists and homophobes!

Why do you think there is this stigma?

Because we live in a sexist society. It’s still patriarchal and I think there is a fear of female power and agency.  For uneducated men, a woman calling herself a feminist is frightening. I think it’s frightening and depressing and wearying that it’s still a question. You see it a lot in interviews, where the journalist asks the woman, never the man, incidentally, whether they’re a feminist and they um and aah over it like it’s a tricky, delicate thing. My friend Sarah wrote this great piece called “Is Taylor Swift A Feminist?” for the New Inquiry. It’s just a list of names, basically – “is Taylor Swift a feminist, is Hillary Clinton a feminist, is Bill Clinton a feminist” and so on and each question is a link to a piece that asks that question. It’s an absurd piece to meet the absurdity of the ubiquity of that question. I feel like I’ve been a bit blasé or facetious about gender politics, so let me stress I am fully aware of how fucked up shit is. Rape convictions, the prevalence of domestic violence, the pay gap, all this stuff. A friend of mine, a male friend in fact, said recently, “feminism isn’t Miley and Beyonce: it’s cleaners and nurses.” Which I think is so fucking true: we spend a lot of time worrying about famous women’s bottoms, but our priorities are fucked – the socio-economic injustices are way, way, way more pressing. And also, you know, I get the rage about street harrassment or whatever, but then remind myself that in other parts of the world women are stoned to death for getting raped. So…perspective.

What do you think it will take to get there?

I don’t know. I think policy and representation can change, but the more insidious, attitudinal things are harder to change. I’m ashamed to say I can’t even read about reproductive rights in this country because I feel like I’m in The Handmaid’s Tale or something. It just makes me crazy with fury and disbelief, so I don’t engage with it because I can’t handle it. But I am really grateful that bolder woman I know do – Irin Carmon and Hadley Freeman for example.

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conversation with Tracy Letts



I have an interview with Tracy Letts in the Telegraph today and you can read it here. Please do, he has things to say. Too many things to fit the piece, so here is the (only lightly and slightly) edited transcript of our conversation.

So thank you so much for this.

My pleasure. Do you know anyone else here?

Sort of. I just had lunch with a kind of professional acquaintance. Before that I was working in Intelligentsia – I was disappointed they were so friendly to me. I like my baristas in snooty coffee places to be full of disdain.

[Laughs] – Midwesterners.

So perhaps we should start with the movie. I wonder whether you’ve had a degree of detachment creep in – because I know it’s a long time since you wrote the play, movies take a long time to make, there’s a lot of cooks in the broth…

Well I don’t feel [sigh] especially detached – I think it’s just too personal for me to ever feel detached, you know? It’s personal material and it still gets me, it still impacts me when I watch it. People’s reactions to it still matter. So I don’t think I feel that detached. I mean there’s a certain finality about a movie, when it’s done it’s done, when it’s locked it’s locked. It’s frozen. Whereas plays always feel more malleable, more flexible in a way.

Right. And playwrights can be constantly rewriting them.

Though I don’t even do that, because a play only lives as a blueprint for a performance on any given night, it’s never going to be a fixed, set thing, whereas with the movie, it’s locked – ‘ok, that raised eyebrow in that moment will always be that raised eyebrow, it will never change.’ I mean none of my pieces that were written for the theatre were written with an eye toward them coming a movie.

Yes, but this is the third time it’s happened.

I know and it’s kind of odd it’s happened so much. Because they weren’t constructed with movies in mind and they’re not particularly cinematic. They’re contained in a single set and they have a limited number of characters and, like most plays, they’re very talk-y. So they don’t feel especially cinematic to me but people have always said from the beginning, from the first plays, well it seems like a movie and I think it’s because they’re very actable, they’re friendly to actors, they’re…they’re story, right, movies loe story and theatres doesn’t always. And also perhaps the subject matter is contemporary or seems at least in the case of the first two, Killer Joe and Bug, genre exercises. Not to mention sex and violence which is always good for the movies. So I think that’s one of the reasons people thought they’d make good movies but when you’re actually in the process of trying to turn it into a film you have the usual challenges. You’re trying to adapt the piece for film…but in addition I just know how they live in the theatre. I mean they were created for the theatre, I’m very accustomed to the way an audience receives a play, participates in a play, in a way that they don’t participate in a film. There’s a reason you can eat popcorn and watch a movie and you can’t do that in the theatre. Theatre you have to lean in, you have to tune your ear to the stage; the audience affects any given performance. So…they just work very differently in the cinema than they do the theatre and I don’t think I’ve ever been completely reconciled to that. I don’t think I’ve ever been totally comfortable…I always want to say to people after they’ve seen the movie, well it’s very different to the play, it works on you in a very different way than the play does. They are different. But. You know. They’re different, so they’re different.

In this instance what do you think those differences are?

Well one of the amazing things about August is that from the first time we performed it was that we were aware of a kind of…conversation in the audience. People who didn’t know each other in the audience were having a kind of cross talk regarding what they were seeing on star – laughing at the experience and then checking in and saying, oh you’re laughing too, so this is also your experience.

So there were moments of kinship…

And then it becomes just like popcorn, the audience just starts to bubble with that feeling, of, we’re all in on this together. It’s very moving actually and very gratifying as a writer to feel you’ve tapped into that. It works differently  in a movie, you’ve got a distance from them that you’ll always have which allows people to step back from it and say that is me, or that’s not me. And if it’s not me then you sit there and go, ‘these people are crazy, I don’t know these people.’ That’s an early reading of it, you know? That’s one way it strikes me as a little bit different. But then you know…I talk to people who love the play, they’re familiar with the play, they have their problems with the movie, but then I talk to some other people who saw the play just once, weren’t part of the whole business, didn’t feel like they were insiders necessarily, just happened to see the play and now they’ve seen the movie and they say I preferred the movie. I actually….I enjoyed getting out of there in two hours instead of three and a half hours, and, you know, they respond to people like Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in a way that perhaps they don’t respond to strangers. You know, different strokes.

Do you believe that there is something just more inherently edifying about seeing a good play than seeing a good movie?

Well…maybe. Maybe yeah. It maybe true. It seems to me it’s harder to make a good play than it is to make a good movie. Right? Because…well I don’t know if that’s true or not.

One of the thrilling things about the play’s transfer to Broadway was that it retained – all of its original cast, almost all?

Well, all but two.

That kind of felt like a fuck-you to the star system – it’s very rare that that happens. Did it feel like a triumph?

Well it just felt like we had made the thing in such an organic way here at Steppenwolf that it wouldn’t have made any sense to disassemble then reassemble it with inorganic parts. I don’t think…there were multiple producers looking at the play and I don’t think any of them were thinking well we need to get some stars in these parts. I don’t think we ever heard that. I think even the producers from the earliest moment realised it’s not just a play, it’s also a moment for this theatre company which has somewhat of a national reputation. And so that’s part of the event of the night.

Are there things about the movie that don’t work for you, or that surprised you?

I like the movie.

So do I by the way. I should state that.

Oh thanks. I love the movie. It’s preserved a lot of the play, every word up there I wrote, which I’m happy about. Some of it is straight out of the play. I lost a lot. And I hated to lose a lot because…what happens is in a movie those things that are not part of the central conflict, those things that are a bit more on the margins, they…they’re deemed for the cinema not as essential. I suppose they’re not. And so they get eliminated or they lose some of their depth. And I hated to lose depth. It wasn’t length, it was depth, you know? So when we would get paste notes, for our two hour and ten minute movie, I would say we didn’t get any fucking paste notes when it was three and a half hours long in the theatre. I think this is one of the things we’re sacrificing by losing some of the scope. So I lost things not just because they were dear to me but because I had seen the way the piece worked with that depth so I was loathe to lose that. But, you know, more than one person pointed out, there’s never been a movie made where stuff wasn’t cut, shot and then cut…We had both. We had stuff cut out of the screenplay as well as cut from footage.

I read an interview where someone quoted Hilton Als at you and you said, “Fuck Hilton Als”.


But to go from slightly facetious to more serious: it seems to me that as a white writer you’re criticised if you don’t write non-white characters, but if you do, you’re so often accused of a kind of cultural trespassing. Which isn’t to discredit the legitimacy of those criticisms, but tell me what you think about that. 

I think it’s tough and I think it should be tough. There’s no easy response to that, nor do I think there should be an easy response to that. Our theatre company, when we did August, Osage County, we had maybe 32, 35 members, and we had one African American member of the company. And August, Osage County is about old white people for the most part. I mean that’s what our company was for the most part. We made some changes in the company which were way overdue and diversified a great deal. now we have 43 members and quite a few African American members of the company. I felt as a guy writing for this company, and in the instance of writing Superior Donuts, writing about the city of Chicago, that that was one of the challenges, to try and write about the community I live in. This black and white community. And for the ensemble that I’m not only part of, but a spokesperson for. I thought it was incumbent on me to try and write black characters. And we’re very fortunate to work in a company where I could sit down with those actors who were playing those roles and say what do you think about this. Is this a conversation we can have? Let’s talk about this. It’s hard. It was hard to do. It’s hard to write in that voice. For me. But that’s my job. I can’t just sit around and write 48-year-old white guys, I have to write other people as well.

Yeah. I think if you adhered to that “write what you know” maxim you’d become an incredibly myopic writer.

Yeah. Unless you’re writing from a single point of view. But as a playwright you have to be able to…empathy is one of the big parts of the job, you really have to be able to walk around in other people’s shoes.

And how did you get into Franco’s shoes? What kind of things were at play in your mind as you were writing him?

I don’t know. It’s just pretend. You just make it up! How would I feel if this was my set of circumstances, how would I respond… That’s why they all lined up to see. They’re all some version of me, hopefully some honest version of me so it’s not just an idealised version of me. Versions of me that encompass good behaviour as well as terrible behaviour.

One of the things that really struck me is that his novel is this physical bundle of paper, messy and stained, and obviously there are the references to DVD rental and even donuts themselves being tinged with archaism. And I love that that message was being put across in a <ital> play <ital> , which some people would also say is an outmoded form.

Right, right. Well…

I mean I guess the question is why still write for the theatre.

Well I love it, I’m a theatre guy. I love movies, I have a big collection of DVDs and I love ‘em, but the technical aspect of making movies is very boring, I mean being on a movie set is a very boring place to be. I think that as a writer, talking about some of my detractors finding it’s a bit much, I think as a writer I respond to heat. And blood. And humanity. The cold experience is not for me.

Dionysian  not Apollonian?

Yeah. I’ve always enjoyed all the real people in a room together in the theatre. More so than coolly observing [mimes circumspect smoking of a cigarette] while they smoke cigarettes. And even in the case of Killer Joe and Bug which use certain genre elements as a jumping off point, I think what gives them depth is the humanity, is that they’re some real people bumping up against each other. That’s why I like the theatre. You know when I wrote Donuts I guess I had in mind that I’d written this big thing, three storey house, thirteen characters, and I wanted to write something small for storefront theatre, which is what we have here in Chicago. There are theatres that range from twenty seats to two hundred seats perhaps and they literally are storefronts, some old retail shop that’s now been converted into a place. So that was the idea behind Superior Donuts, but because of the success of August – we did it on the main stage at Steppenwolf, that show went to Broadway and it was one of the more popular shows we’ve ever done in our theatre, it was very successful, people in Chicago liked seeing Chicago on stage, they got a kick out of that. Later, a smaller company here in town did it in a store front and they had a very successful run with it. I was very happy to seem them doing it. And I’m very happy that this company in London is a small, pub theatre, I think. It’s the right fit for the show.

Just to return to things being outmoded. As I was thinking about DVD s and Donuts it occurred to me that culture is moving faster than it ever has before – I wondered how you think that changes the job of a writer. Because I imagine it’s the writer’s job to kind of assimilate what’s going on, digest it, and then create something. But if things are moving so fast, then the thing that you create will already be an outmoded artefact. I mean, do you feel excited to be alive now, dealing with the world now in its…um…velocity.

I don’t know about that. Like most thoughtful people I’m looking around and what’s going on with these goddamn phones and iPads and all the rest – I have all this stuff too – and worry about what it’s doing to us. I moved back to a typewriter a few years ago in fact, because of that very reason – I started taking a hard copy of the newspaper again

-Thank you!

- I got a turntable. I became a little more analogue in my life.

And why?

Because I don’t like what it’s doing to me and my own attention span. I got to the end of a year and looked back over the year and realised I had read…my list of books I’d read that year was really short and I was like, this isn’t good. I’m a writer for godssakes! I gotta read more than this. So I made some changes. But I don’t know….how important it is to reflect that in writing? I don’t know. I don’t know….I never know what the hell I’m writing about, I never know what the next thing I’m writing about is, I never have a plan. They all seem to be very different from the one that came before. I have a new play, hasn’t been done yet. Very different from everything that’s come before.

Can you tell me about it?

Well I can’t tell you a lot about it. I can tell you that it’s…ninety minutes long and has forty characters. So it’s very expensive to produce. So finding production for it’s going to be difficult. I may in fact have to write it again with some practical considerations in mind. You know some of that’s just about the world economy right now. You know when we did Donuts on Broadway it was…2009, fall of 2009. Nobody was buying tickets. I think if we opened that show now it would run for a year. Because I was in the auditorium, listening to audience response to that play and people were loving the play. But in the fall of 2009, nobody was buying tickets, everybody was struggling. So, you know, sometimes the real world…you have to deal with that.

Right, the world deals with you rather than you dealing with it. Tell me about the phrase and the idea of The Great American Novel. Do you believe in that?

I don’t think so. I believe in the attempt. I believe in the idea that you can write something that encapsulates some of the ideas of what it is to be an American and you can do so in a grand or broad narrative. I’m working on Grapes of Wrath right now, I’m doing a screen adaptation of Grapes of Wrath with Steven Spielberg and that’s a great American novel. Might be The Great American novel. So yeah. I believe in the idea of it. I don’t think it gets written very often.

Do you think a 21-year-old could write it?

No. I don’t.

August, Osage County is often lauded with the phrase, “Great American Play” – does that feel like a burden, or an absurdity?

Um. I had a story to tell and I considered for many many years how best to tell that story. It seemed to me that the right container for that story was the big American play, not necessarily the Great American play, but the three act, three storey, thirteen character, three and a half hour long, sort of capital letter, Big American Play. And that it would have big sloppy American feelings and history in it. You know? Great American play no, that’s different. You just gotta..I mean you can’t…I couldn’t as a writer be like, now I’m going to write the Great American Play, I couldn’t do that.

You’ve talked about seeing it as a political parable, do you still see it that way, and you see the movie that way, or do you feel the play has changed with time?

I think they change. I mean they’re written…You know Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf holds up now but it can also be seen as an absolute time capsule of the time it was written as well. We don’t understand what Martha was going through in 1962. And the lack of possibility for a woman like that in 1962, we can’t even identify with that any more. And yet, if you’re going to do the play you better get your head around that idea because that’s something that’s absolutely fuelling the whole thing – that she has no opportunities, no avenues for expression. Similarly, August was written in a pretty dire period, as far as I’m concerned, of decline in this country. And I don’t think you have to be in that moment to know that’s what was going on. Nor do I think when you watch it now you have to be aware of that. The piece exists with or without that, just like Virginia Woolf exists with or without its context.

In reading Superior Donuts I was reminded of a Gawker piece that ran at the end of last year called The Year In Racial Amnesia, which is this horrifying kind of litany of all the young African American men who were killed by police. Would you ever take what is really happening in this country, directly, and make it into a play?

I don’t know. You know my plays have all been personal. Superior Donuts was supposed to be an exercise in writing something no so goddamn personal. August had taken such a goddamn chunk out of me, I was like jesus, some of these other playwright write their play, stick it in an envelope and send it off to their agent and they’re done. And I thought well I wonder if I can do that. Well I can’t. And the fact is Donuts was very personal, as personal as anything else I’ve written. So, I sort of sign up for that. I go, ok, I write about the personal. Hopefully the personal has some resonance beyond it. But in the play Superior Donuts the idea of personal versus political. And Arthur even says at some point, it’s the same thing. So I think that idea…similarly in August, Osage County, when Barbara’s father is talking about, “this place used to have some promise and now it’s a shithole” she doesn’t know if he’s talking about the country or if he’s talking about the family. It’s the same thing. Is it personal or is it political. I don’t know. We don’t write a lot of political theatre in this country. We never have. People talk about the family play like it’s an especially American phenomenon. People have asked me why that is and I throw my hands up and say I have no idea.

I noticed this is the third time you’ve had a young man who’s hunted and in trouble.


With apologies for a straight-up autobiographical question, but….were you a young man who was hunted and in trouble?

Oh. I don’t know. I don’t want to bullshit an answer for you…I’m sure there was…I’m not an easy person. I’ve had years of therapy. Yeah [performative exhale.] So yeah. I don’t know. I was a troubled young man, I’ll put it that way.

I think being in your early twenties is just…

It’s terrible isn’t it?

Hideous. Maybe we should talk about medication. You’ve said we’re a pill-popping nation. That Violet is this metaphor for the rottenness of American society.

I didn’t say that. [laughs]

Well you used the phrase pill-popping nation.

Well it’s true isn’t it?

Do you feel pessimistic about America?

Sure! Sure I do. How could you not. I mean there’s a lot to be pessimistic about. But I mean I…I’m kind of perverse in that I think that’s helpful. [chuckle] I think that pessimism is helpful. My pessimism is my own kind of patriotism. My dissent. I’m also a terrible drunk, I’ve been sober twenty plus years. Certainly that’s in my work. And a part of August, Osage County. But you know most people I know have some relationship to addiction. Or, if not addiction, then distraction.

Yes, and it’s a fine line between the two.

And I don’t know if that’s a particularly American problem. It’s universal.

There does seem to be a tendency to medicating, making everything palliative. I was looking at water bottles in a bodega and there are, you know, waters to help you focus, waters to calm you down and so on.


Tell me about Homeland, were you a fan and what drew you to the show?

Like I say, when you live in Chicago you take a vow of poverty because like I say we don’t make a lot of film and TV here. So, you know, you can work in the theatre but you’re not going to get paid any money. But you can work here. I’m a shameless booster of Chicago theatre, I think it’s the best theatre in the country. There are advantages to New York theatre and one of them is you’re in the marketplace in the cultural capital of the Western World. Apologies to London. [laughs] And the truth is though it has largely priced itself out of the culture business, [New York] is still the marketplace, there’s still a hell of a lot of media there and people who make TV shows like Homeland go see theatre there. I don’t think Alex Ganza who made Homeland ever would have come to see a play here in Chicago, he wouldn’t have had any reason to. But he was in New York, he decided to come see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and he put me on his TV show. It was that simple. I had seen the first season and I had enjoyed it. I’ve never been a big TV watcher but in the last few years with DVRs and the kind of serialised nature of television, I’ve tried to keep up with what’s going on. He approached me, I very quickly watched Season 2 and I actually declined the audition that he originally proposed. It was for the character I played in the first episode of Season 3 and he called me and he said why are you turning it down and I said because it’s a guy in a suit in front of a committee and I don’t think I want to do that, it’s just not what I want to do. And by god there’s no better feeling in the world than turning down work, it’s a great, great feeling. And as a broke-ass actor most of my life I’ve not been in that position so the last few years being able to do that feels great. But we had a conversation about it where he talked about the changes that the character would go through over the course of the season, the kind of theoretical disagreement that would take place between my character and the character Mandy [Patinkin] plays, as being representative of a conversation about our secret service and the way they behave in the real world. Whether or not I embraced that discussion was kind of beside the point, I just wanted to work with a  guy who was thinking along those lines, a guy who wasn’t just making a spy show for TV but was thinking about the bigger world and that his show had some kind of responsibility to it. So I said yes. I auditioned and they asked me to do the thing and I did the thing and I’m so glad I did it, I had a great time. The show’s really well-written and almost all my stuff is with Mandy and Murray; they’re old men of the theatre so we had a great time. Everybody was so sweet. They shoot the whole thing in Charlotte, North Carolina, I’d never been to Charlotte, it’s a great little town. I just had a great time, I’m really glad I did it.

When people talk about this being a great age for TV, that’s one of the shows that tends to be mentioned. Have you never been tempted to write for TV?

Not really. Talking to Alex and the other writers of that show, they talk about the way they create that show as a staff and they refer to this hive state they have to be in in order to write a group, I’ve never written like that. I couldn’t write under that kind of pressure I don’t think. John Wells who directed August is a TV writer and in fact when we were at the Toronto film festival we were going out one night and he had to go back to the hotel room and work on his script for Shameless because episode one was due. He had to write it. He said I have to write eighteen pages tonight and I said my god, how do you write under that kind of pressure and he just shrugged and said sometimes it’s not that good. That’s sort of the mentality of a TV writer and I respect that. So when the juices aren’t flowing you just have to lower your standards and turn it into a script. That’s the nature of television. When I first went to work with Alex I said I’m a big fan of the show, you guys do a great job and his response was, sometimes we hit it out the park, sometimes we don’t. You know. That’s the TV biz. I like it, I like to watch it, I don’t know how lasting it is. But then I don’t know how lasting anything is.

What do you watch?

I watched Top of the Lake recently, that’s Jane Campion with Elisabeth Moss. It’s a six part series that was made for BBC and that was terrific. Oh I watched all of Breaking Bad. I watched it all.

Did you enjoy it?

Yeah, sure.

You said, “I watched it all” as though it was something to dutifully tick off a list.

Well, I have felt a bit like that with some of them. Just keeping up.

I feel like that too sometimes. Especially since we’re meant to believe it’s the foremost medium of our time and all that.

Yeah who knows. I don’t know about that. I get the addictive nature of this kind of serialised television that they’re making these days. And again, because of DVRs…you know before DVRs, I’ve always worked in the theatre, I was working six nights a week – you can’t keep up with shows if you’re working six nights a week. So people talk of the TV shows of the last twenty years and I say I don’t really know what you’re talking about, I was working. Now you can actually DVR that stuff and watch it. And the reach of it amazes me. I mean, I’ve been acting my whole life, I’ve done all this work for forty something years and now I’m in an airport and people come up and say I hate you, or you’re such a bastard on Homeland. People watch that show.

Is that kind of scary?

A little bit, a little bit. William Friedken, who made Bug and Killer Joe – we had lunch in Los Angeles not too long ago and I told him, I said, I don’t know I’m that comfortable about giving up my anonymity and he…[chuckles] he just totally busted my chops and said, well you’ll get over it.

Ha. He wasn’t sympathetic.

Not at all. He said, we’ve chosen public means of expression, that’s part of the deal. He was like, if it bothers you don’t do it any more, but otherwise get over it. He said it’s all about how you deal with the public anyway. Again, I’m from the Midwest – I smile, I’m grateful – it’s automatic.

Yeah, auto-pilot. Autopolite – Sorry.

[laughs] “Auto-polite”.

I just want to know what excites you in contemporary culture, either generally or specifically – what’s getting you going right now?

That’s a good question. Because I’m so fucking critical.

Oh good. Well my next question is what’s depressing you and pissing you off so we can start with that.

That’s such a good question. [long pause] God dammit. You’ve really stopped my brain.

I write about music and every time someone asks me what I’m listening to I draw a complete blank. So…sorry for doing that to you.

I’m starting to get to that age…I have friends and the music they listen to is Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, people sort of stick themselves at a certain time and place. And I think I’m starting to get to that point myself, where I find myself listening to the old stuff.

To your personal canon?

Yeah and not…you know what I started watching which was helping was Jools Holland’s show, and I started DVRing that and just keeping it on when I was around the house.

Did you follow any leads from that?

I did, but…which is nice, right? I mean, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, I discovered her through Jools Holland actually. So fantastic. So just trying to broaden my horizons a little bit but my god, your question is so…diabolical. The other night I was watching one of the awards shows and I was watching with my friend Bob and as we were watching, I wasn’t even aware that I was particularly critical or sardonic while we were watching the programme but a trailer came on for the new Muppet movie and it was a very clever trailer and I laughed and Bob turned to me and said, see? There’s something you like. And I felt awful! I thought, I’ve become this grumpy guy who doesn’t like anything.

You’ve become the one in the trash can…

[laughs.] Oscar the Grouch….So I don’t know.

I’d love it if your answer to the question, “what excites you about contemporary culture” could just run as “The Muppets.”

[laughs]. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t gave a good answer.

So what was pissing you off as you watched this awards ceremony?

[long pause] It’s not the work itself. There’s nothing wrong with the work. People talk about this great year of movies. Yknow what’s pissing me off? Lazy journalism is pissing me off. That’s what pissing me off. I’m watching this year of movies and i’m saying I like all these movies. There are none of these movies where I think, that’s terrible. I like all these movies. I think they’re all flawed, I think most of them are pretty deeply flawed, and yet somebody, somebody bothers to write down, “it’s a great year for movies” and then I feel like everybody else just rushes out, “it’s a great year for movies”. There’s no examination of that idea! Maybe it’s not a great year for movies!

But I also feel like every year is a great year for everything and a terrible year. Because what changes are industries and all the stuff around them, but, you know, the quality of human expression isn’t itself going to decline.

Right. I’ve been showing my wife a lot of movies from the early 70s because I’m of that generation that believes that was the great period of expression in American films – all those young directors – Friedkin and Spielberg and Scorcese and Coppola, that was a great period. But what I’ve been finding, is the movies from the 80s, are a lot fucking better than I thought they were in the 1980s. And we found ourselves looking at a lot of movies from the 80s and I’m sitting there going goddamn, this was made in the 80s, it seems so personal. A lot of personal films made in the 80s – Repo Man, Sid and Nancy…. Jonathan Demme…Something Wild…oh god and now of course they’re now escaping me. But it just seemed like everything we were watching was made in the 80s and, you know, independent movies were really reaching their zenith in the 1980s. People working outside the studio system. And so I guess what I really respond to is the personal. I don’t care if it’s art or it’s exploitation, just as long as it’s not commerce. But once something becomes completely packaged and commercialised and everybody’s weighed in on it and you feel this sort of art by committee, then I really start to lose interest.

This is a really important distinction – between art and entertainment, right? Art can be entertaining but pure entertainment probably can’t be art.

Right. Right.

Are you concerned about being entertaining when you’re writing a play?

Sure. Sure I am. I even used to have a quote from Ingmar Bergman over my desk that said, “thou shalt always be entertaining” and that’s Ingmar Bergman for godssake! The truth is, if you’re not entertaining what the hell’s the point. You’ve got to stay hooked in for some reason. You know more than one person criticised August, Osage County for being too funny. They said it’s too funny. For something that was taking on some big ideas, it can’t be that funny or people aren’t going to take it that seriously. And I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I just felt like, but if they’re laughing they’re listening and that’ s how I’m going to keep people hooked into this thing for three and a half hours. And it’s also my sense of humour, it’s a very personal sense of humour. So yeah anybody who manages to pull off something personal and get it out into the world – I’m admiring of that.

I also think with humour it’s like the dart with which you can drive in the message – you can sneak it in there – a vessel for it.

When people would compare my play to Long Day’s Journey Into Night – by the way not a hell of a lot of people compared by play to Long Day’s Journey Into Night – though I’m very flattered by it, I’m not fit to lash Eugene O’Neill’s shoelaces, nor have I ever claimed that. At the same time, if you told me you have to go watch Long Day’s Journey Into Night or August, Osage County, I’m going to go see August, Osage County, because there are no laughs in Long Day’s JOurney Into Night. [laughs] And I like a few laughs! Again, that’s just my own bent. I have to be entertained myself, you know?

What kind of got you going as a teenager or young man? Were there certain books or movies that ignited you?

Yeah I was a pretty macabre sense of humour for as long as I can remember. There’s a story, I caution you about it because it’s been written about in the press more than once.

About you writing a story about a psychopath?

Yes the story when I was a kid. And that holds true. . I was always drawn to horror and the macabre and pulp fiction and Jim Thompson. I got in trouble for having a copy of Clockwork Orange in my desk when I was fourteen years old. My teacher was bothered by some of my influences. My parents were very liberal. I remember them taking us to see Serbico when I was maybe six or seven. The only movie they ever took me out of was Taxi Driver. I was ten and we were at the drive in movie theatre and I think they just got uncomfortable in the car with us. So I always had that…that was always my inclination. And then, coming to Chicago and doing theatre, I liked the gritty, in your face stuff, the stuff that was kind of scary – a little punk in some ways. And Killer Joe I think was written very much with that visceral, in your face, shocking idea. I wasn’t trying to surprise people – we x-rated the play, so people wouldn’t be too…

I mean it’s also called, Killer Joe…

Yeah we were letting people know you were in for a black time. So I was always drawn to that kind of stuff. But then what I found, again, when I started working in those….and every time I sit down and think I’m going to work within this genre, or I’m going to work within this framework, I just think…it’s just less interesting than what’s going on inside of me and what’s personal to me, you know? But I think the best genre pieces do that, the best genre pieces are made personal in some way. So as a teenager, I don’t know, I was a weird teenager, I liked weird stuff.

Did you have comrades in the weirdness?

Not a lot. I was growing up in a small town in south eastern Oklahoma. Twelve thousand people, there wasn’t a lot of outlet for that kind of stuff. You know, this is before cable and before…I guess video stores were just becoming popular, were just in vogue. I was a voracious reader as a kid of course.

What do you particularly remember reading?

Oh I don’t know. I read a lot of the classics. But…I did always gravitate back towards the violent or disturbing…

I sometimes wonder this with actors who play fucked up, frightening characters – when you’re writing scenes like the chicken leg one, do you feel as though you’re in danger of being poisoned by it? As if you have to preserve a sort of distance from this nasty shit – do you know what I mean?

I do know what you mean and in some ways I think it’s kind of the opposite – it’s kind of like, you’ve just got to get the censor out of your head – the person sitting there going, oh you can’t write that, don’t you dare write that, do you know what people will say about you if you write that. You’ve got to get rid of that voice and write whatever the hell’s bothering you. And sometimes, in my work, it does take on a kind of…I was talking to Elvis Mitchell about this, I did his show, The Treatment, on KCRW in LA, and I don’t think this made the cut of his interview, but we were talking about this – something happens in the pieces, in all of them when, towards the end, in the fifth, they hit a kind of new gear that’s a little hallucinatory, they suddenly become a bit more…I don’t know, unrealistic, in a sense. I don’t know what that is. I mean I told him, I said, I haven’t drilled down to what that is, that wants to subvert the moment or take it up a pitch.

I feel like it’s the moment taking itself up a pitch. It feels like that’s just the trajectory.

Right. And suddenly they go a little…


Yeah, they go a little batshit…they get a little schizzy. A little weird. It’s cool because it’s not conscious. All of those things were stumbled upon. It’s in my newest play too. It gets very bizarre at the end.

Speaking of very bizarre. I read an interview in which you mentioned filming your grandmother in a Pscyh Ward on a Super 8. Can you tell me about that.

Oh you’ve done your research haven’t you. Tell me about your name Hermione.

My parents were English teachers and they liked the Winter’s Tale. But I still don’t know why I’m named after a character who’s turned to stone for sixteen years.

You’re the first Hermione I’ve ever met.

Good. I get very territorial about the name.

Uh, what was the question?

Filming your grandmother in a psych ward.

Well she would lose her mind on drugs and she would call the cops and tell them there were people in her back yard and accuse people of stealing, whatever the fuck – she was out of her mind on drugs. And then when she would sober up my mother would tell her do you know what you did. And she would always deny it – laughingly deny it. ‘No I didn’t. That’s crazy, I didn’t do anything like that.’ So once she was totally blitzed out of her head and she was in the psych ward and I’d been making movies with my little Super 8 camera.

How old were you?

Sixteen, seventeen. And again, this is before video cameras – nobody had those. So mom asked me if I would bring my camera to film my grandma. And she said, this isn’t going to be pleasant, I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t think you could handle it. I took it out and I filmed my grandmother lying in this bed in this horrible yellow light, very dimly lit room, and she’s just making nonsense sounds and doing things in the air with her hands. And uh. It’s, you know, at the time you could only load three minute mags into the thing so I only shot two of them, six minutes worth of material. We never showed it to her, mom backed down from that idea for whatever reason. But yeah, it’s about the most depressing six minutes of film you’ve ever seen. It was purely documentation.

At what point did you move to Chicago?

It was 1986. I first came here in the summer of ’85, liked what I saw, and then came back in the summer of 86. And I turned 21 that summer.

What’s kept you here.

Well. Theatre’s kept me here. I’ve liked making theatre in this town. And it’s also the right temperament for me. You know, probably when I first came here I was scared of New York and Los Angeles, being from a small town in Oklahoma and probably something about still being in the Midwest appealed to me. Something about it seemed more manageable, more liveable, in spite of these ridiculous winters. But I didn’t care so much about the winter. And I found a community here very quickly that I liked and that embraced me. And so I stayed and was here about eleven years before I left and went out to Los Angeles for a few years. But gladly came back, because I was finding in LA, even though I would get a little work on a TV show, a Seinfeld episode there, but I wasn’t expressing myself the way I needed and I thought, jeez, these should be some fertile years as an artist and I’m just kind of sitting around waiting for the phone to ring and I didn’t want to do that. Then they added me to the company at Steppenwolf and I had a real artistic home at that point. So that’s why I stayed. And now I’ve been here so long I’ve just gotten really comfortable with the place. And it’s convenient. Well not convenient, but it’s in between New York and Los Angeles, so I can get to either of those places and can afford to go there and stay for a while but can always come back here and be home here. So nothing fancy, I don’t have a fancy answer to that question. Our audiences at Steppenwolf…wherever you may be making theatre, subscribers will always complain and say, we want to see Streetcar Named Desire, we want to see Shakespeare, we want to see things we know. Our audience at Steppenwolf will complain even more loudly if we’re not doing new plays. They want to see new work. In this weather, right now, people will go out tonight and see a play that they know nothing about, just because it’s a new play. And you can afford to do that here in a way that you just can’t afford to do in New York any more. It’s just too expensive. You know, Scott Morfee who runs the Barrow Street theatre in New York, he’s a dear friend of mine, he produced both Bug and Killer Joe in New York….Bug was a big big hit in New York and it ran for a year – and he broke even. Our Town, was perhaps the biggest hit off Broadway in the last twenty years. It ran for a year and a half. And he broke even. You know…you just can’t afford…so you understand why producers don’t take risks on new work, without guaranteeing it somehow – you know, if we get this person in we can guarantee we’ll get our money back. So the work suffers. The craft suffers. One of the best compliments we heard when we were doing August, Osage County was the actors who’d come see the show in New York and they’d say wow I went to the wrong city – if you were doing work like this I should have gone to Chicago. Now granted, not everything here is as good as August, Osage County, but there’s an ethic about the work here that I’ve always admired.

Well, I’ve got to go get on a plane so I think we’ll have to end there. Thank you.

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