If you’ve read a culture column with The Fader, Vogue (update: wishing I asked about interviewing with Anna Wintour), The Village Voice, or Pitchfork you may be familiar with Alex Frank. As a writer and editor, Alex has covered everything, drag character Joanne the Scammer, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, and Ye’s bizarre listening party in Wyoming. These profiles are written with the reader steadily at the forefront of his mind. Writing “like he speaks” grounds his interviews and personalizes them in a way we find to be approachable, entertaining, and real.
Turning the table, we were extremely happy to interview this interviewer. This q&a is our ninth interview in the series (see previous conversations here) and we continue to analyze and highlight those active in music and the arts community. Ultimately, we hope to bring those making, reading, and listening to art closer to the process and to collaborators.
Lastly, are we really ready for Rihanna’s reggae album?*
Q Can you define culture criticism/journalism?
It’s a carefully thought-through and deliberately written version of what we all as humans seem to do, which is think about, talk about, and debate about art. I don’t really know why humans like to do this, but they do, so I’m pretty lucky to get paid to do something so essential.
Q Why do we need critique?
We need it because while almost everyone cares deeply about some kind of art, not everyone has the headspace to sit at a computer to process their ideas about it. All kinds of people want to engage in the conversation and reading criticism gives anyone an opportunity to do so in a really focused way. Maybe these ideas have been floating around the reader’s head, too. It’s exciting for them to see them well articulated in print. I hope it can make art better, too. If artists know there are people out there paying insanely close attention perhaps it motivates them to be their best.
Q Your thoughts on the current music/entertainment journalism environment?
A big question but, for the most part, I love so much of what I see happening out there. Writers like Lindsay Zoladz, Vanessa Grigoriadis, Doreen St. Felix, Reggie Ugwu, Gayle Wald, Robin Givhan, Wesley Morris, and so many other people all do work that thrills me and makes me think in new and exciting ways.
I do read a lot of writing that seems like a strung together thread of what the writer has seen on Twitter. This is both safe (it’s less scary to put yourself out there when you’re using ideas that have already been crowd-tested on social media), elitist, and boring. I also read a lot of writing that has the influence of academia and uses jargon that I don’t understand. I much prefer people who write clearly, like they speak. I do wish there was less of all of that.
Q Per your conversation with Thora Siemsen (The Creative Independent), are your ideas on accessibility radical or rare? Generally well-received?
I’m not sure, but I just know that the rule for me is basically always to write like you speak, or a cleaned up and deliberate version of how you speak. I believe in using $1 words instead of $20 words, and I think if you read a piece of writing out loud, it should sound good. I would like to say that this is merely an ideal for me: I often fail to live up to my own standards but it’s valuable for me to do my best at this. It’s always clarified things for me.
Q Why do you think music, fashion, art needs to be accessible?
I just think writing is meant to be read, and it’s hard to read writing that’s hard to read.
Q Are your interviews generally done in person?
It’s a mixed bag but I do my best to get the best and most access I can.
Q Favorite music critics or texts?
I love Ellen Willis, because she does what I think is very important, which is thinks for herself. I love Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia. I love Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I mostly read a lot of old profile writing and essays by people like Lillian Ross, Janet Malcolm, Renata Adler, Truman Capote, and probably most importantly, my hero and the love of my life Gore Vidal. I love that high-toned New York writing from the 20th century and just wish I was as good. It’s so useful to read writers who are way better than you are.
Q What are you reading this fall?
Andrew Sean Greer’s Less and Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills, a riveting book about a murder trial from my favorite nonfiction writer. I also bought a book version of Truman Capote’s New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando in the 1950s, and it’s a masterclass in profile writing. I’ve also been reading nature writing by Gavin Maxwell because I am trying to get better at describing the scenery in my stories.
Q What title would fit best documentarian, curator, or purveyor of the arts?
I guess storyteller? It’s cheesy, I know, but it works fine.
Q What are you working on or looking forward to in music?
I will hopefully get to do some year end list writing for Pitchfork which I really enjoy doing. I love looking back on the year in terms of music and getting to write about albums with a little distance from them. Usually, you have to write about them as soon as they come out. I’m also excited for Rihanna’s reggae album*.
Q Any interest in putting out a collection of your writing?
I wish people cared that much! But I actually don’t even know if what I do lends itself to that kind of reading. Do people want to read a random collection of profiles? I’d love to find a new topic that I feel like is deserving of a full-length book. [We’ll be reading!]