For my midterm last semester for my class, Introduction to Journalism, I had to interview a Journalist from another state. I got California and I immediately googled Journalists who write about music. I contacted Randy Lewis.
Randy has been working for the L.A times since 1981 and writes about pop music, is a music critic, and editor for the Calendar section. He has interviewed most of the members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also written first-person accounts of performing the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev on clarinet and singing Mozart’s Requiem with world-class professionals. In addition, he enjoys belting out “Wooly Bully” in dive bars with his band, the Rounders (http://www.latimes.com/la-bio-randy-lewis-staff.html).
When I talked to Randy I was fascinated with all his stories. From talking to Taylor Swift, watching the Beach Boys make their album, traveling to see a band, interviewing the Rolling Stones, I was so hooked and wanted to learn more. I would love to share them with all of you. Randy inspired me to write this blog and I would like to thank you.
What is your process as a reporter when completing an assignment?
Well the process is similar depending on the different types of assignments. I have a lot of different things that I do. I write news stories, personality profiles, I write critical reviews of concerts and recordings and there are a lot of different assets to what I do as a pop music writer at the Los Angeles Times. The process typically starts by preparing as much as possible. I will pull up other stories, previous interviews or reviews, feature stories, on the person or band I am interviewing. I research around and see whats already been covered with that and my goal is to try to get a fresh angle and talk about things that they haven’t you know already have discussed a 100 times before and keep them interested in the interview process.
Their research in terms of whats previously recently been written about them and there’s also the research just into their music as much as possible with you know what they’ve done. Their new debut album and of course there’s not much of a track record but at times just looking around five, or ten, or twenty years and I listen and familiarize myself with what they’ve accomplished previously, what their road might have been or might not have been and then formulate my question areas that I want to explore with them based on that. My process is often interested in their creative process, that is the most interesting, usually. I want to explore, why they do what they do, and how they go about it. By looking at specifics in their music and I try to put that into context of whats transpired among their peers, among the pop music world music in general, and figuring out whether I can get my readers an idea where they fit in, in that world, and were their focus is and how they go about accomplishing that.
Why did you choose to write about pop music? Did you chose to write about just because it’s your favorite type of music or was it just something that’s popular in California?
Personally, I’ve always just loved music since I can remember, I have been involved with it one way or the other. I played music, taken music lessons as a kid, played in the school band, in elementary, junior, high school, and college. Like jazz, like classical music, but I was always interested in pop music because that was the thing to always the thing to listen to. As I grew and got to the point were I was thinking about what I want to do as a career, I thought it’d be awesome to involve my life in some way in proximity with some of these creative people, who’s music I’ve enjoyed and try to share that with other people and bring my experience based on that and that’s what I did. I majored in communications with an interest in journalism at Cal (California) State University-Fullerton and the theme of going into journalism was specifically to become a pop music writer.
I saw that you recently wrote an article about Brian Wilson and the cast of ‘Love and Mercy’ which was the movie about him. Are you ever able to interview all the famous musicians and bands of today?
Well yeah, the great thing about this job is that I get to interact directly with a lot of the most creative musicians in the world. Brian Wilson, I’ve interviewed many times and many of the musicians who are in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I’ve interviewed two of the surviving Beatles, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Elvis Costello, just the list is pretty long. It’s pretty rewarding, again I try to bring something fresh to conversations instead of answering the same old bad questions about how old are you or tell me about your new album. I’m really try to dig into what they are trying to communicate and express through their music and those people are pretty interested in talking about that. There’s a wide range of things: pop music, rock music, blues, folk, country, gospel, hip-hop, r&b, soul, and it a pretty rewarding way to spend your work days.
Who is your favorite person to interview?
Well, there have been a lot over the years, it’s just, you know, a very satisfying way and I feel like I establish a report with somebody that I’m interviewing. They know that fact that I’m interested and they understand half were they’re coming from. Of course for me it’s always a major thrill to interview somebody like Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr, Keith Richards. I just recently did a big piece on Keith Richards because he has a solo record out, his first one in about 23 years, since he’s always so busy with the Rolling Stones. He’s just a joy to talk to, cause there’s nothing held back, he just is who is he, and I’m happy to talk about it and say whatever is on his mind. Elvis Costello is incredibly gifted and deeply knowledgeable about pop music so you know it’s always very rewarding to talk to somebody like that who just knows their field inside out.
Country musicians, I’ve written a lot about country music at the L.A times over the years. Linda Ronstadt has sorta have been one of the most reviewed figures in country music over the last 40 years and has set into a lot of trends into the development of what we call Americano music now. She was doing that 40 years ago and I’ve just always enjoyed talking to her because she’s so art articulate. Ron Stack, again another one, is just incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable about their field and their very you know low on the ego side. Their not in this business to have their own egos up there because they love music and it just happened they connected with a lot of people and they ended up quite famous.
What was your most challenging story that you had to write about?
Most challenging story? That’s an interesting one. I mean an example that comes to mind recently, was last year when I was assigned to go to Ireland to cover Garth Brooks on his big return to tour since he had taken about 17 years off to see his daughters go through high school until they all were already to go to college and he had stopped touring. He was one the biggest entertainers, if not the biggest pop musician on the planet at the time. He stepped away so that was a pretty big deal for him and he announced a series of concerts in Dublin. He’s very close to the Irish people and he sold out five shows, at 80,000 seats, being like football stadiums, and at the last-minute officials of the city of Dublin decided they weren’t going to allow five shows, they were only going to allow three shows.
I had made arrangements to go over and cover his return because it was a big deal in the world of pop music. It was up until the last-minute there was a lot of things going back and forth of are the shows going to happen, are they not going to happen, and as it turned out they didn’t happen. They cancelled the shows at the last minute and there I was with arrangements that I had made months earlier, with airplane tickets, hotel reservations, to go over and cover this event and now there’s no event. It was sorta of one of those classic journalism stories, they’ll tell the story of a reporter they sent out to cover a concert and he comes back and says, “Oh well the theater burned down, so now there’s no story. Well there was no concert but there’s still a story.” In that case, there was still a story to write on of how this whole thing melted down and even though I went to Ireland and there was no Garth Brooks there, it turned out that one of the most important intellectual musicians in the music world, Van Morrison, who comes from Ireland, was going to be playing near his home town during the same time I was there.
So I just did some calling around and worked my way into that concert and got a different story in addition to the story of Garth Brooks. While it all happened I went and ended up with a couple different stories out of that. It was all challenging because from one day to the next, I didn’t know if this trip happening, is the concert happening, and it makes it very nerve-wracking to try to plan out what you’re going to be doing.
What’s the story you’re most proud of writing about?
There have been a lot of them over the years. Just recently I did a story that I was very happy with and there was music. I wrote about Mark Twain and his time in California and how it shaped his voice as a writer. I still think he’s the greatest author and humorous that America has ever produced. He came to the California mining country 150 years ago and discovered a story that he turned into his first humor piece that really earned him a national reputation, which a lot of people know as, “the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” It’s was his 150 anniversary of the original publication of that story and I wrote a piece about his time here and why that was so informative, informing his voice as a writer and that was quite satisfying for me to do. I love Mark Twain and when I was young I was first exposed to books like “Huckleberry Finn” and “the Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
On a musical level, one of the ones I would have to go back is a story I wrote in 2004 and has to do with Brian Wilson who you just mentioned. With the Beach Boys he was creating some of the most inventive music that anybody was doing in the 1960s. But there were a lot of things going on in his life and a piece that he was working on in 1966, that would have been his sort of Magnum Opus, winded up on the shelf because he had a lot of proposition from the other people in his band about it, the record company because he was trying to push boundaries, and he was trying to places nobody has gone before.
He and the Beatles were going back and forth on who was the most creative and they were edging each other on and inspiring one another with the different recordings they’ve made. So he had this record he was working on in 1966 that he wanted to call Smile. It was kind of concept album and he put in on the shelf and had a nervous breakdown and psychological problems. 37 years later, after just quite a bit of water under the bridge, he decided that it was time to return to Smile and finish his project he had never gotten the chance to do. I got to report on that and go in and watch him rehearse it while he was putting the finishing touches on it. This was a piece that was probably 90% finished originally and just never got the final touches put on it. The thing that’s so great about this story was the thing was just knowledgable by people and heard certain pieces out of it and how influential it was even. It was the last piece to the final four.
So, to come back 37 years later and to see the piece be finished and presented to the world was really extraordinary. I went to London to cover the world premiere of it and people came from all around the world to see the first public performance of his piece that they’ve been hearing about for almost four decades. I talked to people who said I’ve wait my whole life to hear this music and it’s something like that doesn’t happen every day and that was a real treat for me to get cover. And hearing it performed it was every bit as good or better than everybody expected it to be. The fact that the actually music turned out to be as good as it had been rumored to be was just extraordinary because a lot of times, you know over times, it builds and is always modest and exaggerated as the greatest thing in the world as long as no one has actually heard it. This actually turned out to be as good as everybody thought it might be.
Do you think L.A is the music capital in the United States?
Well there are a lot of great music centers in this country and in other countries. Pop music, rock music, as we know it, has emerged from a lot of places. Los Angeles, has been a very fertile place for music over the last 60 years and it’s what we call rock music was born in the 1950s. A lot of good music has come out from here but you know Nashville, New York, New Orleans, Memphis, San Fransisco, Chicago, Detroit. So there are a lot of places that have been great contributors to music and it kind of comes from where the people are. There no single place it has come from I would say but you can look at New Orleans where it was kind of the birth place of jazz, which is the foundation for a lot of what we call popular music during the last centuries, so that is incredibly riching area and it continues to be. Right now I would say Los Angeles is definitely the music capital of the world and that’s where most of the music companies are based and there’s so much energy and inspiration coming from.
How many concerts do you think you go to a month?
The number of concerts I go to a month varies, right now it’s kind of a busy month, we’re already half way through the month and I’ve probably been to eight shows already. I’m going another one tonight reviewing Neil Young.
I saw that on Twitter you saw, Taylor Swift. How was that?
I went to Taylor Swift and I actually went to three out of the five shows she did at the Staples Center. I thought it was a really good show! She’s a terrific song writer and she’s really an accomplished performer. I’ve been writing about her since she barely put out her first record. I met her when she was seventeen. I went to Nashville to interview her because I thought it was so refreshing that a musician who’s just a teenager was writing songs about a life of a teenager has and the adult life she imagined she had. That impressed me and I wrote about her, I was one of the first national media to write about her in a significant way and she’s always remembered and appreciated that.
I continue to have a pretty good connection with her and usually sit down with her when her new record comes out and talk about her were she’s going with this one and her plans and how she’s grown since the last one. Now that’s one of the friend benefits of approaching it from a music stand point with that being the primary consideration compared to her celebrity, who’s she’s dating this week.
Do you think your Twitter and social account gains you more readers or do you think that people view see your articles and read them?
Well it’s all part of the process these days. We have stories we put in the print edition and there’s a lot of resources, time energy you put into developing the website. We put them online, when I have a story online, I’ll also post it on my Facebook page and I’ll flag it on my Twitter to my followers for people to that it’s there. Google Plus to find relative communities and try to spread the word there. There’s just all these certain remedies today to get the word out. There’s a lot of people who don’t read a news paper at home and that’s not the primary way to find out about the stories that we’ve done necessarily. A lot of it goes through Google and we have to be aware of that and it will let people know about what were doing.
My last question is, would you recommend your career to someone else?
I wouldn’t recommend my career to somebody else since I’m still doing it but journalism and writing about music is great, I love it. I’ve been doing it professionally for almost 40 years now and I still get excited about going to shows and being with people and finding out about the news and sharing that with readers and bringing some perspective to it, to help them kind of prioritize whats worth their time and money. All the tension in this world for readers to ratify everything. I think it’s a great profession, I think journalism is a great honorable calling and I’m always thrilled when anyone goes into it. I tend to do a lot of different things and that’s when I’ve been able to get very personal into a story. Like winding up and almost crashing as a professional writer like Mozart. I’m writing a story on that and I’ve sat in with one of the biggest orchestras in California and played my clarinet which I studied and wrote about that. I’ve rode on an elephant in the circus and you just never know what’s coming your way. There are great opportunities that your are interested in and knowledgeable and passionate about. It’s all very exciting and you just have to stay with it. I got an internship my senior year with a music magazine here in L.A and that lead me to the L.A times. So there are ways to do it.