The job of an interviewer is difficult: how to extract humanity from a person who spends hours being asked the same questions by dozens of people? How to get them to share something they wouldn’t share with any of these other people?
The writer Vanessa Grigoriadis has a few tricks, which she shared with fellow writer Jonah Weiner last year: get in the car with the person, or better yet, go to their house. More generally, “I just want to be liked because I want more time,” she says. “I try to be as cordial and friendly as I possibly can be, which I am as a person anyway, and try to bond my way to getting more time. And thereby make the piece better, because the more time I have, I can see those discursive moments, I can see what’s going on with this person. I really feel like, two hours, you can’t get a sense of somebody. Anybody can put up a front for two hours.”
If you can’t ride in a car with a subject, or go to his house, but must sit in a darkened room, as Charlie Rose does, or converse, sometimes remotely, over the airwaves with him, as Terry Gross does, then you’d better devote your entire life to interviewing, as both do. There are too many excellent interviews out there to count, but Gross and Rose are responsible for a few of the ten below.
And what makes these so special? I listen to interviews and read biographies, mostly of artists, because I want to be made to feel safe by the knowledge that creating something from nothing involves a certain penury suffered by every artist. Many of the subjects here have similar ways of expressing the mysteries, pain and pleasure of making art, and, more generally, of living. While some of these interviews may not be considered the “best” interview of the subject out there, something stuck out for me in each: an anecdote here, a bit of philosophy there. Each of these has continued to echo in my head, for some reason or another, since I first came across them.
10. Cat Power interviewed by The New York Times, September 2006
Chan Marshall emerged from treatment for alcoholism a few months after the release of her excellent album The Greatest, and this frank interview about her addiction and recovery was one of the singer’s many media appearances around the time she prepared to tour following treatment, the original tour having been cancelled. The questions are asked off camera, so the video has the feel of a confessional. She provides a particularly stark description of the day-to-day experience of being an alcoholic. There’s a great sense of relief that comes from watching this, that Chan Marshall came back to us.
9. Joan Didion interviewed by Tom Brokaw for NBC, 197?
This very short clip from the 1970s finds Didion, in her early late 30s or so, discussing her decision to settle down in a house on the beach near Los Angeles. She also declares writing to be the only circumstance in which she feels completely “in control” (cooking is a close second). Mostly what this clip does is appetize the new Didion fan for more of Didion’s thoughts on the writing life. Fortunately, these thoughts have a way of weaving themselves into her nonfiction work.
8. Captain Beefheart interviewed by NBC Los Angeles, 1980
A lot of filmed interviews with the late Don Van Vliet are weird and hard to follow, but if you have the patience and good enough hearing, they’re well worth it. In this NBC spot, Van Vliet addresses his fame (or lack thereof), and the idea that many more successful artists of the early ‘80s could be seen as Captain Beefheart rip-offs. Van Vliet also confesses that he never went to school. Of any kind. (He may have been exaggerating; it’s impossible to verify most biographical details about his life.) Why not? “If you want to be a different fish, you’ve got to jump out of the school.” He then explains that painting, not music, is his main pursuit in life. But, “It’s hard to talk about… painting,” he says. “It’s hard to talk about music. It’s hard to talk about, uh, it’s hard to talk.”
Sohn, best known for her role as Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire, got her start in the 1998 movie Slam, in which she was cast solely on the basis of a slam poetry performance that the filmmaker happened to be in the audience for (though she went on to be a co-writer, as well as a star, of the film). The best part of the interview is probably when Sohn tries to recite the poem she performed that night from memory (she gets pretty far). She also talks about the experience of being thrown into a career in acting, and trying to do well by this unexpected fate.
The author Nicole Krauss talks mostly about books with Charlie Rose in this interview, released around the time of the publication of her third novel Great House. Rose asks some seemingly obvious but fruitful questions about Krauss’s favorite authors, and she has this nice theory about certain authors being “one of mine,” as she puts it (Beckett, for example, is one of hers), meaning influential, or inspiring, or staggering, or inextricable from one’s view of the world. Half the work of being a writer, she seems to suggest, might be just knowing who “yours” are.
5. Grimes interviewed by Tim Kelly for Big Small, 2011
Claire Boucher, the Montreal-based electronic pop musician better known as Grimes, makes music-making look so easy. If only we could all fool around on a synthesizer and GarageBand and have it sound this good. There are far too many good (and original) interviews with Grimes on the Internet, but this sinister music video/ interview combination, produced for last year’s Pop Montreal festival, delves pretty deep into Grimes’s philosophy about art, and reminds us that DIY doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean half-hearted, or half-assed. Like Didion, Boucher talks about the idea of art as something “more physically powerful than I would be most of the time.” Specifically, her music makes her feel like “some evil queen.”
4. Bruce Springsteen interviewed for MTV, 1988
Springsteen was about 39 when this interview was conducted, and yet he sounds like a 20-year-old man, still completely wide-eyed and not the least jaded about his career. This was conducted the year after the release of Tunnel of Love, which at least partly chronicles the breakdown of his first marriage and then-imminent union with the love of his life, Patti Scialfa. The boyishness comes through when he talks of his amazement that he is succeeding at something he wanted to do from the age of 14. Many of his friends, he said, “still don’t know” what they want to do with their lives. About Nebraska, he says, “That record is kind of a mystery.” The interviewer says, “A mystery to you?” “Yeah,” he says. “You know, most… if it’s a good record, it should be. If you knew how you did it, it’s probably not that good, you know?”
3. Joanna Newsom interviewed in Paris, November 2011
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding Joanna Newsom’s work, which may be why she makes such a compelling interview subject. Interviewers are always trying to find new and clever ways to get Newsom to talk about what her songs are actually about. She never gives in, instead finding an intellectually provocative way to throw a question back in the questioner’s face. In this interview (which has several more parts), Newsom talks about the goal of a live show, the elements behind her albums, and how performing onstage is akin to “meeting a boyfriend’s parents for the first time.”
Russell Brand’s public persona is so ridiculous, seemingly identical to his breakout role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that it’s pretty delightful to realize that he is actually very wise and eloquent. Brand is particularly erudite about the psychology of addiction and the various other neuroses with which he is intimately familiar. After Terry Gross plays a clip of Jason Segel praising Brand for being, basically, cool, and appearing to not care what anybody thinks of him, Brand respectfully refutes all of it, passionately, saying he is actually “utterly tortured by introspection and self-analysis, burning the midnight oil, reflecting endlessly on traumas, what the French would call l’esprit de l’escalier, the thing you should have said but only remember on the stairs after you’ve left the room.”
1. Zadie Smith interviewed by Charlie Rose, June 2000
Zadie Smith so did not want to be in this interview, conducted when she was 24 years old, when her debut White Teeth was getting so much attention that she looked to be ready to sink down in her chair and hide under Charlie Rose’s desk, where it was safe and dark. She is “one of mine,” so I am particularly partial to Zadie Smith interviews, and this one is magic because it’s such a time capsule. She talks about appreciating being compared to Dave Eggers, but wanting “to see what he does with a novel” (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was probably being printed as she spoke these words), and proudly admits to copying other writers’ styles — in fact, several of them in the space of one book.