SOPHIE BENJAMIN: I always thought that “music journalism” is a bit of a misnomer. There’s not a lot of what I consider journalism going on, but that’s not a bad thing. Journalism deals with facts, and music is such a subjective thing. I could write a long article on why I think Brand New’s “The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me” is a beautiful and perfect album, but my mate Reece would still be right when he describes it as music for pretentious wankers who wear hoodies in summer. Top-down criticism is pretty much redundant now that people can access most music instantly and make up their own opinions. That said, it’d be nice to see a middle ground between that sort of criticism and “OMG this band is great!”.
I think Rolling Stone is embarrassingly out of touch and stodgy a lot of the time – sorry, I know you write for them! I think The Presets are on the cover this month, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a band that a) was still putting out new music b) had most of its original members alive on the cover. Their recent article that broke the story of Tom Gabel coming out as transgender and becoming Laura Jane Grace was fantastic, but that’s a ripper of a story that could’ve gone in any number of magazines. Same goes for the “music” sections in most major newspapers.
There’s a lot of shitty writing out there, but that’s probably because a lot of baby writers (like myself, obviously) start out writing about their favourite bands. I’d love to see music writing (not just reviews) published and paid similarly to articles like the ones churned out on dailylife.com.au and other lifestyle sites. The Vine.com.au does it sometimes.
Having done quite a number of interviews, what are some things that you think make both good and bad interviews in your experience?
SB: I prefer interviews to feel like a conversation, but there are some situations where that’s just not going to happen. Press conferences with politicians, for example. Do your research, but don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if they seem dumb. Actually, I take that back. Ask “dumb” questions like “can you explain that to me?” or “was that weird?” – not actual dumb questions like “So how many people are in your band?” or “so, do you do crazy stuff on tour?” Having points of conversation rather than a list of questions you churn through is a good way to go. More importantly, LISTEN to the answers your subject gives you and don’t be afraid to change tack and ask follow up questions based on those answers.
One of my lecturers once said it’s important to never strip your subject of their dignity. I try to abide by that rule. When I started in journalism I swore I never wanted to work for any company that required me to chase interview subjects down the street while shouting questions at them! That’s not journalism – that’s harassment. I love listening to Conversations with Richard Fidler, which is broadcast on ABC Local Radio from 11AM every day and put up as a podcast almost immediately afterwards. He speaks with so many different kinds of people and makes them all sound so fascinating. I’d love his job, but I’d also love to be as good an interviewer as him.
Recently I really enjoyed your “big-ass conversation with Lochlan Watt” (your questions were great). I wanted to ask you a couple of the questions you asked him. Of all your endeavours, what has been a) your biggest achievement b) your biggest failure c) your steepest learning curve d) the most ridiculous?
SB: a) Managing to stay continuously employed as a journalist. Never working for a company or boss whose ethics and principles clashed with my own.
b) Every deadline I’ve ever missed.
c) My current job. The workload can be summed up by saying “do a million things, do them quickly, do them well and if you don’t do them by a certain time you’ll be breaking the law.”
d) I feel like my whole life and career is ridiculous! In a good way, obviously. I get paid to talk to people, listen to music, write, edit audio, shoot photos/video and learn things. Tell me that’s not ridiculous!
And…Tell me your thoughts on ~the music industry~, particularly the Triple J indie and Big Sound part of it.
SB: I find myself alienated by it. I understand that it is an industry, and that it’s important to a lot of people. I don’t want to bash that, because there are good people with integrity who do good things within the industry. I’ve been to Big Sound twice – once as an artist and once as a suit. That first Big Sound filled me with utter dread and despair, a real “holy shit there is no way I can do all these things all on my own”. The second one was a lot more fun, mostly thanks to the great chats I had with people in the foyer outside the actual sessions. My stint studying music at uni and that first early exposure to “the industry” killed the joy of music for me. Discovering punk rock and the whole Fugazi DIY thing in my late teens helped bring it back to life. Long story short – it’s not for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s shit and worthless. I am just being precious, I guess.
As a radio presenter yourself, what are your thoughts in relation to Triple J presenter Tom Ballard’s recent holocaust ‘joke’ and ‘apology’?
SB: You know what I do think is funny? The fact that people are quick to call Ballard out on making an anti-Semitic joke, but reluctant to point out he’s actually not a very good comedian. The joke wasn’t funny and his apology was lame. It was more “I’m sorry you got offended” than “I’m sorry I said something insensitive”. Why bother apologising if you’re going to be churlish about it?
Jonno Seidler wrote an excellent piece over at The Vine about this whole thing.
You’re currently based in Rockhampton; what’s the music and arts community like there?
SB: Vibrant but fragmented. There are dozens of small groups doing really fantastic stuff with music, visual art, theatre, dance and photography, but they’re all quite separate. I’m not sure if it’s possible to bring them all together, but it’d be great if there was a bit more communication and cohesion.
The previous state government threw a bunch of money at the region last year in hopes of turning it into a cultural mecca, but there’s been a bit of grumbling over how that’s been distributed.
There’s often a misconception that everyone in regional areas spends their free time sculling Bundy and cokes while shooting feral animals and listening to Barnsey. That’s absolutely not the case.
You make music yourself. Tell us about Sailormouth.
SB: I am trying to embrace the fact that I am a female singer-songwriter (even though that description makes me groan) and that pop rock is the type of music I write best. I spent my high school years singing Missy Higgins and Michelle Branch covers for money, while wishing I was Brody Dalle or could play in a band like Deftones. Nowadays I read the news for money and wish I could play in a band like Mastodon or The Bamboos. Anyway, discovering Hot Water Music and Jen Buxton’s solo acoustic stuff made me realise that I wanted to write music that hits you in the feelings whether it’s delivered solo acoustic or with a full band.
In terms of lyrics, I write about the stuff I don’t feel I can express anywhere else or in any other way. Sometimes it’s issues in my relationships with other people, but fortunately my songwriting is now less of an angst outlet and more of a medium for story telling.
I didn’t write any songs for two whole years after I left my music degree. I guess I was burned out and had my confidence in my own abilities totally destroyed. I’m a bit gentler with myself and music these days. If I’m not enjoying what I’m writing or playing, I don’t do it.
Who are you favourite females in music (performers, industry etc.)? What is it about them that make them so ace?
SB: Patti Smith, for her work ethic, sense of humour and commitment to making art for art’s sake. She also has a wonderful eye for ideas and aesthetics. I recently read her memoir Just Kids after two good friends wouldn’t stop hassling me about it and got inspired all over again.
The Dixie Chicks – Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. They’re incredibly talented and skilled musicians but more importantly they stick to their principles. If you haven’t seen the documentary about what happened when they spoke out against George W. Bush invading Iraq, you should get on that.
I think PJ Harvey, Bjork and Fiona Apple are all fantastic. I really like that they’ve embraced collaboration as a way of continuing to put out wonderful and interesting music nearly 20 years on from their respective debuts.
I mentioned Jen Buxton before, but she’s worth mentioning again. She played in the Newcastle alt country band Like… Alaska and released her debut solo album Don’t Change Your Plans last year. I actually can’t listen to it if I’m feeling emotional or even a little bit fragile – it’s just that devastatingly raw and good. Basically, she makes being a female solo acoustic singer-songwriter look like the most badass thing possible.
Outside of music, I really admire artist Hazel Dooney. She’s tough, driven, fierce and totally devoted to being an independent artist – including the business and promotion parts of it. She made her name as a visual artist, but I actually prefer her photography and writing. Her blog is also excellent.
Other than music and writing what’s something else you feel really passionate about?
SB: I love rural and regional Australia, particularly the Northern Territory. The people and the lifestyle in these places are wonderful, and it really bothers me that they’re often misunderstood and almost always offered second-rate education and medical services.
Other than that, I believe in trying to live as freely as possible, being honest and hardworking and treating others with kindness and respect.
Lastly, what’s next for Sophie Benjamin?
SB: Toowoomba, Ballarat or Melbourne. More tattoos. Maybe studying photography. Stalking Shirley Manson at Soundwave next year. Getting my manual car licence. More writing and music.