conversations with bianca

Multimedia Journalist, Zine Maker & Singer-Songwriter Sophie Benjamin: “Rolling Stone is embarrassingly out of touch and stodgy…”

Meet Sophie Benjamin. A creative lady, who works as a journalist with Southern Cross Austereo radio, has written for publications such as Rave Magazine, Triple J Mag plus more, creates her own zines and is a singer-songwriter that goes by the name of Sailormouth. Like me, she has a passion for a great story and is very inspired by D.I.Y. culture and bands like Fugazi.

What’s your story? Tell us a little bit about yourself.

SOPHIE BENJAMIN: I grew up in the central Queensland town of Emerald and went to boarding school in Rockhampton, which is around 3 hours drive from Emerald. I moved to Brisbane after school planning to spend the rest of my life as a musician, but realised I’d be much happier as a journalist. Radio, text and still images are the media I prefer to work with, but I’ll give anything a shot as long as I don’t have to put my face on TV. I have bipolar disorder which I keep under control with a strict treatment regime. I was a late convert to punk rock, but it saved my soul. I prefer dogs to cats, coffee to tea and early mornings to late nights.

Why did you decide to become a journalist?

SB: I’d been accepted into an audition only music degree in Brisbane and just loathed it. It was soul destroying and it actually really messed with my sense of self. Since I was 13 I’d seen myself as a musician and thought that was my best and most “sellable” creative outlet.

Looking back now, I think I was part of a bad intake full of computer musicians and Hillsong fanatics. The members of Ball Park Music were accepted into the course the year after me and members of Mr Maps and Skinny Jean were in the year above me.

My boyfriend at the time was in a band which was getting a lot of attention, mostly because the lead singer was BFFs with one of The Veronicas and her dad was a high profile politician. Their music was pretty average and my boyfriend didn’t even really like playing it but they kept being given these breaks. It was pretty disillusioning.

I decided to do a Journalism 101 subject as an elective at the start of my second year in my music degree. I loved it, the staff loved me and I got good marks – none of these things could be said about my music studies. I met with the head of the journalism school and transferred there and then. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

What have been some of your biggest challenges on your path to becoming a journalist?

SB: The biggest challenge was overcoming my phobia of speaking on the telephone. Seriously! When I started my degree I couldn’t make or answer phone calls without shaking or having a meltdown. And that was just talking to people I knew… imagine what I was like with people I didn’t know!

Ringing up people you don’t know and asking them questions they mightn’t want to answer is unfortunately a big part of being a journalist. I knew this, and decided I wanted to be a journalist more than I wanted to avoid talking to people on the phone. I used cognitive behavioural therapy, behavioural change techniques and sheer willpower to work through this problem.

Finishing my bloody degree was a challenge. I was working pretty much full time by the end of second year and was hospitalised for glandular fever and then bipolar disorder in third year. That was a bit of a wake-up call. I realised I’d have to be really organised and disciplined in order to work as a journalist while keeping my moods and mental health stable.

Landing jobs is a bit of a challenge. I was determined not to be a jobless, unemployable bum when I finished my journalism degree. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been employed by a major media outlet of some sort for the last two years straight, and on and off for a year before that. More important than that though, is knowing that should my job fall out from under me (like it did in Toowoomba last year, for example), I can hit the road and hustle well as a freelancer.

I graduated from my journalism degree two years ago and the media world has changed so much in that reasonably short time. The staff at QUT’s journalism school have changed the course to match that, but I still see tweets and updates from new grads who are desperately searching for jobs in journalism. Jobs are out there, but personally I think it’s important to look for stories and not get too hung up on the whole “fulltime job” thing immediately. I mean, you’ll still need to find stories if you do get a job! It’s a good habit.

You write a zine, I am Very Busy and Important; what was your first introduction to zines?

SB: A few years ago, I got drunk in Brisbane city one Friday night and must’ve stopped in to Rockinghorse Records on my way home. I woke up with a CD copy of The Fugees ‘The Score’ and a zine called Gutterslug on my bedside table. The Score is undeniably a classic hip hop album, but Gutterslug blew my mind. I don’t think I’d ever even heard of zines before, and reading Emily’s stories about growing up in state care and adventuring around Toowoomba kept me totally gripped. I went back to Rockinghorse to find more zines and picked up a flyer which was advertising the zine hub at the old Visible Ink near the Judith Wright Centre in the Valley. I was a bit burned out by doing so much work on the internet, and the staff at Vis Ink welcomed me and encouraged me to read through their zine library and use all their computers and photocopiers for free. I haven’t stopped since.

Why do you feel zines are important?

SB: I feel they’re important because I feel stories are important. You find stories in zines that you wouldn’t find in other media, particularly when you go back and read zines from the 80s and 90s. I like the tactile, tangible nature of zines too. They’re really their own artform.

Zine readers (and writers, I guess) seem a bit more invested in the content than bloggers and their audience. Maybe that’s a bit unfair, as I get so much out of personal writing on the internet. I feel safer writing about personal things in the zine than I do on my blog. Maybe I’d connect better with my online audience if I opened up more, but the internet is too harsh a place to share my fragile snowflake feelings.

I find writing and making zines more fulfilling than blogging, that’s for sure. The more issues I put out of my zine, the more I find myself making deeper connections with the people who read them. I’m always humbled and grateful that people would spend $3 and a bit of their time on something I’ve created.

My zine’s audience is smaller than my blog’s audience, but they’re much more engaged and kind-hearted. Quality over quantity, I guess.

What are some of your favourite zines?

SB: All I Want Is Everything, I Was A Teenage Mormon (both by Caitlin Constantine who is amazing), Support, Rocket Queen, Gutterslug (of course), Jerk Store, Bizarrism and J Gerlach’s Simple Histories series. I could go on for ages. Also, you can’t go past classics like Nerf Jihad, Doris, Cane Toad Warrior and Cometbus.

As a journalist you’ve covered floods, bushfires and everything in between; what’s been a story you’ve covered that’s really made a big impact on you personally?

SB: The 2011 Queensland floods, hands down. I was working as a multimedia journalist in Toowoomba and was equally horrified and humbled by the stuff my colleague and I saw and the people we met.

A very close friend of my family died unexpectedly last year, and I had to report on that. There was a bit of cognitive dissonance there. I was still shocked and a little in denial about his death, while having to announce it “officially” and professionally.

Both those experiences helped make me a more compassionate journalist – not that I was ever particularly bloodthirsty.

You’ve written for music publications such as Rave Magazine as well as music sites like Faster Louder; can you tell us about your experiences as a writer for each? How has your writing evolved with each?

SB: I have become incrementally less shit as I’ve moved on to each publication! I started writing for FasterLouder and whothehell.net simply because I knew I needed experience and the practice to improve my writing. Both those outlets gave me a platform and a bigger audience than I could’ve drawn to any blog of my own – which was a blessing and a curse.

In a way it was good to start out writing on the internet, because you either learn to accept criticism and deal with trolls or decide to pursue another creative outlet. It’s good for developing a thicker skin.

Rave Magazine was wonderful, and it’s a real shame it’s gone under. Looking at the long list of writers who started out at Rave is pretty incredible. I was given some great opportunities through Rave. They were also the first people to pay me for my writing. That’s pretty special.

Have you experienced much feedback or any kind of guidance or mentoring from editors at these publications?

SP: I haven’t received any constructive feedback or guidance from any of the music-related publications I’ve worked for, but I don’t mean this as an attack on any of my editors – past, present or future. It also doesn’t mean that my work is so good that it is above criticism – that’s absolutely not the case! The editors of most music publications are seriously strapped for time and are happy if you can submit good, clean copy. That said, the other week I was asked to re-write an incredibly negative album review that I’d submitted. It probably was a bit too harsh… but I meant every word I said! I definitely get more guidance and mentoring from editors of publications that aren’t strictly music-based. I’m currently working on a long essay as part of an anthology on Australian music, and it’s great to have an editor helping me through it.

Most of my mentoring and guidance regarding writing, interviewing and storytelling has come from my bosses and co-workers at my journalistic day jobs. My uni lecturers and tutors at QUT were also fantastic. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have skilled and talented people looking over my shoulder and pushing me the whole time. This sounds a bit wanky, but I really do relish constructive criticism. My parents are loving but very critical, so I got used to receiving criticism on my creative endeavours (and nearly everything else) pretty early on in my life.

The first few attempts at anything you’re interested in will probably suck. I think success comes when you’re either tough enough or deluded enough to push through the shit until you start improving. The other day I listened back to a news bulletin I read around this time last year and nearly cried with embarrassment. I sucked so badly! How the hell did I not get fired?! I’ve improved out of sight, but that wouldn’t have happened without my excellent boss cracking the whip on me all the time. Thanks Susan!

What do you think about the current state of music journalism in Australia? Is there anything that concerns you?

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew McMillen
    August 30, 2012

    Great interview Bianca, thanks for posting it. It’s been great to watch Sophie’s progress, and I appreciate how upfront she is about bipolar.

    I am going to pull Sophie up on the Rolling Stone comment though – every artist/band on the cover so far this year is still alive and only one (David Bowie) isn’t releasing new music! I just went through my stack of back issues, I can take a photo if you wish ;)

  2. Sophie Benjamin
    August 30, 2012

    To clarify my snotty Rolling Stone statement: I really enjoy all the writing in there that isn’t specifically about music. I viewed as a bible into another world when I was a teenager, when they covered a lot of new bands and music. It seems to have more of a nostalgic bent now.

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