There was a time when a journalist would be granted fly-on-the-wall access with a band for days (and nights). Today’s interviews are regimented and scheduled. The interviewees will likely be media-trained and on message. A typical interview with an artist will last between 30 and 60 minutes, the latter onlyif requested.
At best, you’ll establish a connection with a person who snaps out of autopilot mode and says something meaningful and quotable. At worst, you’ll interview them for 15 minutes in a round-table format with other European journalists asking forehead-slapping questions (“So bassist from Kings Of Leon, what’s your favourite colour?”). Worse still, is interviewing an artist over the phone, who is clearly not listening to you and who very possibly, intentionally hangs up repeatedly (I’m looking at you, Q-Tip).
As an arts and culture journalist with The Sunday Times and now TV interviewer on TG4's music show Ceol Ar An Imeall, it is Eithne Shortall's duty to get the best out of her subject, whatever the conditions.
Shortall’s penchant for asking probing questions is immediately apparent once you meet her in a social situation but her questioning started when she was younger, via self-recorded cassette radio shows and a newspaper in her Drumcondra primary school interviewing the girls who covered Spice Girls songs at lunchtime. Shortall describes her question-asking as “some kind of destiny”.
Preparation is key
So what does a good interviewer need? Shortall says preparation is key.
“I always read existing interviews,” says Shortall. “I don’t want to be regurgitating the same stuff over and over and old interviews also allow you to skip the necessary. I will always spend a few hours researching a subject before I interview them. They’ll warm to you much more easily if they think you’re familiar with and interested in their work.”
Shortall has never conducted an email interview for a feature, and has only done three by phone. One of those was U2, who she made an exception for. She says a good interviewer should be genuinely interested in what people have to say.
“I learnt about interviewing from watching and reading,” says Shortall. “I still do. I teach an arts writing class at the Irish Writers Centre and I can tell the students who will do well, because they’re the ones who pay attention. Not to me, but to everyone else. If you don’t read/listen/watch interviews, why should you be paid to do one?”
Shortall says the best thing during the interview is something that seems obvious but is something that inexperienced interviewers don’t do - listen.
“The main things I’ve learnt is to listen carefully. I get annoyed at myself when I’m distracted during an interview and, listening back to the dictaphone later, I realise there was something I didn’t pick up on. Also, I’ve learnt not to write out a rigid set of questions beforehand.”
Let that awkward silence hang
Other things to remember include not restricting the flow of the conversation by interrupting, share your own experiences because interviews are a two-way process and let that awkward silence hang.
“I read something by Joan Didion where she said the way she got things out of early interviewees was with awkward silences,” Shortall says. “The interviewee would feel so awkward that eventually they’d just fill it in - often with something good.”
Shortall's interview process have taken on a new dimension recently via her role interviewing musicians on camera for TV show Ceol Ar An Imeall (Cian Ó Cíobháin is presenting, taking over from Una Mullally who both presented and interviewed for six seasons).
This season’s guests include St Vincent, Mark Ronson, Everything, Everything; Chvrches, The Staves and José Gonzalez. Shortall interviewed the artists but secured the time with them.
“That was the real learning experience for me,” she says. “I’m always putting in requests and lining up interviews for print, but television was more complicated. You need release forms and people are more cagey about how often they’ll be broadcast and how they’ll be portrayed.”
What can you do about notoriously difficult interviewees? Shortall advises paying attention to body language.
“With tough subjects, you often have to make a snap judgement at the beginning. Will this person respond better if I match their gruffness? Leave silences after unsatisfactory answers? Or stroke their ego til it purrs?
“Sometimes your snap judgement is wrong - like when I thought Colin Farrell would be totally cool about me opening our 15 minute interview with an immediate question about his wild early days and how was he surprised he ever got work again? Morto for me. I panicked! But most of the time reading the situation has worked.
“Always remember they’re there for a reason. They have something to promote and nobody is holding a gun to their head, so while they might act like they hate your guts - they had a choice not to do this.”
Unless they manage to cancel, as Shortall recounts of the plans to interview Manic Street Preachers for the show. Red Shoe Productions who make the programme had hired a whole crew for the day before the Manics cancelled.
“Apparently someone was sick,” Shortall recounts. “Now, I’m not calling anyone a liar, but there was Welsh football on at the same time, which they were tweeting about, and they were on stage full of life a couple of hours later.”
Shortall says her general life motto of “there are a million ways to live,” contributes to her approach to interviewing.
“I am reminded of it constantly by getting to talk to such a cross-section of interesting people - often people who made a decision, at some point, to go against the grain or to take a risk. That’s the kind of stuff that gives me sustenance. You’re talking to people about their work but, ultimately, you’re also learning about their life. That’s an endless source of fascination to me.”
- Ceol Ar An Imeall airs on Thursday nights at 10:30pm on TG4. Watch the first two episodes here