Brisbane-based music journalist and zine maker Bianca Valentino has posted a long interview with me on her blog, Conversations With Bianca. Here we speak about freelance journalism, interviewing, and goal-setting. Excerpt below.
To me Australian journalist Andrew McMillen is without a doubt a success. His work has been published in/for Rolling Stone Australia, The Weekend Australian, QWeekend, Mess + Noise, The Vine, Triple J Mag, The Courier-Mail, Australian Penthouse, Gamespot, BrisbaneTimes.com.au and Junior. Andrew has managed to make freelance journalism in Australia pay the bills, not an easy task! Here Andrew and I discuss interviewing, challenges facing freelance journalists in Australia, his career goals and aspirations as well an insight into how he’s made writing a full-time gig. I give you a chat with two writers that deeply care about their craft…
I get a little nervous before my interviews, just a little. Good nerves though I think.
ANDREW MCMILLEN: Ha, you know Neil Strauss told me the same thing which I think is fascinating because he’s pretty much at the top of his game yet he still feels that way. He told me it is because of the expectations that he puts on himself to do the best interview that that person has ever done. Obviously if you are talking to some of the most famous people in the world then that is a pretty tough ask most of the time.
Do you get that way yourself?
AM: Yeah, in the moments leading up to an interview. On the phone it’s usually worse because of that anticipation – you’re walking around in the morning or whenever it is and you know it’s coming up ’cause it’s in your schedule and you know you’ll be fine once you start doing it but it’s just the planning and waiting that increases my anticipation for it. Once you’re actually in the moment I find that you’re fine.
There have been moments in my interviewing career where I have had almost a constant anxiety attack throughout the whole interview and then because I wasn’t in the moment when I got off the phone I was like, damn! I wish I hadn’t been so worked up I didn’t see the opportunity to ask an awesome question.
AM: Do you think that came down to a lack of preparation on your part?
No – I was suffering from panic attacks and anxiety at the time – I do more research than anyone else that I know for my interviews and with a lot of people I interview I have long-standing relationships and friendships I’ve built up with them over our careers, sometimes a decade or more. At times when I’ve done interviews I get an almost out of body experience or it’s almost a trance like state. I can’t quite explain it. I’ve had some amazing experiences and connections interviewing. I really, really care about what I do.
AM: Yeah, wow! For me a big part of it for me is being present in the moment. You’ve got your list of questions in front of you that you want to get through but you should be willing to go with what they want to say and change in direction if need be. I’ve done interviews where I have lots of stuff prepared but then I only get to ask three or four questions and the rest of it is made up on the spot because they go off on some tangent which interests me and then I push them on that and go down an entirely different path. Some of those interviews have been some of the most enjoyable interviews I think, the ones which don’t go how you planned at all. I think that comes down to being versatile and being able to change it up on the spot.
I’ve had some interviews where I’ve had a list of 50 questions and pretty much not even asked one of them. I also have notes on hand as well as questions. I did an interview with Dr Know from the Bad Brains – I’d loved that band for so long – once and when I started talking to him I felt it kind of fell apart. It was a really interesting interview for me where I learnt a lot from.
AM: It turned out good in the end though didn’t it?
Yeah in the end it did but at the time when I got off the phone to him I burst into tears – it’s the first and only interview that’s ever happened with. I thought I’d really failed. It meant so much to me because they were one of the first overtly spiritual hardcore punk bands and those two things mean the world to me. Reading the interview back though I realised it was awesome!
AM: I love that reflection of how you might not realise it in the moment but then you type it up afterwards and awesome stuff comes out, it speaks a lot about the person, it speaks a lot about your talent to get that kind of thing out of them. I like when people say ‘I’ve never told anyone else before but…’ and then they tell you.
That makes your heart stop a little and you’re like ‘hell yeah!’
I wanted to clarify, is writing your sole work that you do?
AM: Yeah I’ve done it full-time since June 2009. Up until October 2010 I was doing a bunch of copywriting and web project management, client management stuff for a small business called Native Digital. I was doing that as well as journalism so I wasn’t fully concentrating on journalism. Since October last year my full energy has gone into pitching, researching, interviewing and writing – it was a real shift in my mindset because it wasn’t just me plugging away trying to get my name out someone else [Nick Crocker] was investing time, energy and to a certain extent their reputation in introducing me to other people. We’d have weekly updates and they’d really just push me with each passing day to make sure that I was getting better—more connecting, pitching harder and pushing harder. That was the real shift for me in 2009.
Since the start of last year Nick and I started this pitching spreadsheet where every time I pitched any kind of article to anyone – it could be an album review or a feature story – I’d track it in a Google Docs spread sheet so we could both see what was going on and what the response was and what stories were worth to me in a money sense. That was a business management strategy that Nick employed to get me to be more accountable for my actions so that I could see on a daily basis what I have on, what I’ve earned and I can see how it’s changed between now and six months ago. If I look back from now to Feb 2010 the changes are just ridiculous. I was totally green back then in terms of the stories I was pitching and the relationship I had with editors. Now it’s at a much more advanced level because I have those systems in place and I’m accountable and keep pushing harder. That relationship with Nick has been a massive part of why I am where I am.
I’ve had a few conversations with Nick where he has encouraged me. I remember our first chat he asked me why I hadn’t started a blog yet. I told him I was waiting for this or for that and he told me there will never be a perfect time and to just start doing it.
AM: He is incredible in that way. He’s started several businesses, he has that entrepreneurial spirit in him obviously but he even applies all that stuff to non-business things. He had this blog called Way Cool Jnr for a couple of years that he used to push his ideas about the music industry just for the hell of it. He wasn’t getting paid for it, it was for free. It became one of the most popular music blogs in Australia for some time. I took over editing it last year and I did it for a while but I stopped that recently because I can’t give it the time it needs which is a shame. That brand, that blog called Way Cool Jnr had a good name for itself and it just shows you can start a blog and it can have an impact even if it’s not for a business purpose. I have my own blog which I’ve had for a couple of years and it was cool to have that inbuilt audience from Way Cool Jnr.