| Home | Q&A With Christopher John Farley, Wall Street Journal, October 2000
September 16, 2014

Christopher John Farley is the Wall Street Journal’s Senior Editorial Director, Digital Features and oversees’s Speakeasy culture blog. He’s the author of two novels, “My Favorite War” and “Kingston by Starlight” and a number of nonfiction books including the national bestseller “Aaliyah: More than a Woman," and the biography “Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley.” When this interview took place in Oct. 2000, Farley was a senior writer and the pop music critic for Time Magazine. He spoke with about his experiences covering the music industry. How did you get interested in writing about music?

Farley: I've been interested in music for a very long time, from the time my mother enrolled me in piano lessons back when I was in grade school. I also played trumpet, baritone and clarinet in high school, and I was terrible at all of them [laughs]. In college at Harvard I was on the Harvard Crimson and Harvard Lampoon staff and covered cultural issues and also wrote freelance stories for the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe, reviewing music and talking to musical artists. So it was a natural progression to go from all of that to reviewing music. After I graduated from Harvard, I went on to USA TODAY, then a very new newspaper that was struggling to sort of find its place, make its mark, get some respect. And it was a good place for a young journalist because it was a meritocracy.... [At USA TODAY] if you had the talent, if you're doing the job, if you're getting the interviews, if you're writing the stories well, they wanted to push you because they needed talent to sort of light the fires over there. It was a good place for me to do interesting interviews and to talk with people like Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, and Halle Berry, before she become a star. Are you ever in awe when you interview big name artists?

Farley: I've talked with a lot of top artists -- everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan to Lauren Hill to Aretha Franklin to Joni Mitchell and Prince -- some of these people who are sort of the most reclusive stars of the world and some people who have had the biggest influence in pop music. I'm actually more in awe of the smaller artists like [Canadian folk rocker] Sara Harmer, or people like Alana Davis, who I think is a terrific pop rocker. She's not rich, she's not super well-known by any means. I'm just constantly in awe of people who are willing to sort of put themselves out there and do it for a love of the art and not to become famous. And that's what impresses me the most, not hanging out with Dylan backstage, which I've done. Who are some of the more interesting artists you've interviewed?

Farley: Now and again you meet people who aren't as interesting or as nice as you might have thought. For example, Whitney Houston. When I interviewed her some years ago down in Miami, every other word out of her mouth was an "F" word. She cursed more than Snoop Doggy Dog... And then later, as your more untrustworthy stars are apt to do, she denied what she said to me in Entertainment Weekly. Luckily as a journalist -- if you're a good journalist -- you tend to tape your interviews, your big ones. So I had the whole interview on tape, and I played it for anyone who wanted to hear it. And that was put to bed. Now and again you'll run into artists like that who really aren't like the public image.... That was not as pleasant an experience as one might have thought going in to interview Whitney Houston. Some of the coolest artists I've interviewed are "The Roots," a terrific hip-hop band, and "Rage Against the Machine." Do you look for undiscovered artists who you feel are doing quality work but are not getting the recognition?

Farley: I'm just looking for music that sounds good, not necessarily someone I want to be pals with. You're never pals with these stars. The movie "Almost Famous" kind of depicts that in a smart way. There are a lot of journalists who become sort of friends with rock stars who sort of get swallowed up by the world. As a journalist you've got to remember that all you are is a journalist. You're just a little weasel walking around in their world. You're there to sort of report facts and make the story sing, and not to become pals with people or hang out at their summer homes. I really don't have much personal contact with them other than the stuff that will help make the story more interesting and better for readers. What type of music do you prefer to write about?

Farley: I really don't have any particular preference with music. I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, raised in upstate New York, and now I live in New York City. Given all those kinds of disparate influences, there's not a single kind of music I like the most. I like all kinds of stuff.... I tend to be all over the map. If it's good, that's the kind of music I like listening to and I like writing about. Who was your journalistic idol growing up? Who did you model yourself after?

Farley: Unfortunately, I had no mentors, and there weren't any particular journalists who I really looked to say, 'oh, that's the way you do it.' Because I think most journalism writing is incredibly bad. I think the young journalists out there shouldn't read the newspapers and magazines to get an idea about how to write. I think they should read them to keep up on what's going on, but it's a better idea to read novelists. People like Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, or Ralph Ellison, or George Orwell, Tolkien -- those were all the writers when I was growing up who I really admired and drew inspiration from. Those are the writers who younger writers should read if they want to become great writers. And they should also read poetry. Poetry is helpful in making your writing sing. Pablo Neruda and Derek Walcott are great poets to read. Young journalists should also make sure they don't become too pegged or too linked to one particular subject. You certainly want to be a specialist and an expert in a field you really love, but it's also good to keep your hand in other issues so you can do them. Why are we seeing more reunion tours -- more groups making a comeback?

Farley: There are a couple of reasons for that. One is, VH1's "Behind the Music" series is very instrumental in getting a lot of bands that people have forgotten about back in the public eye. If you watch that series, you watch bands that you don't care about. And 'Styx' comes on, maybe you've never listened to a Styx album, maybe you haven't thought about them since the 80s, and suddenly you're drawn into the drama of their lives. Then you go out and buy a Styx album. If they're in town you'll check out their tour. That show alone has helped rejuvenate a lot of interest in some of these long-forgotten bands. Two, bands tend to have secondary lives as a touring presence, long after their lives in stores have waned. A group like the Rolling Stones is still one of the biggest touring acts in the world. They sell more tickets per year than groups like Matchbox Twenty. People's tastes tend to stop changing after age 30 or 40. They settle on the music they like. They really don't want to buy any new music, but they do want to hear the old hits they knew growing up. Over and over again they'll still go out and see Bruce Springsteen. They'll still go out and see the Rolling Stones. Groups realize that they're really not going to sell any more records, their older albums are not going to keep on selling. They want to generate some income, so it's time to hit the road. How are music industry publications doing? Are there too many?

Farley: It's hard for me to comment because I haven't had a financial look at the books of these music magazines. There might be some shakeout coming soon. But right now because the music industry is doing pretty well, because there are a number of labels that have generated new stars, from Christina Aguilera to Britney Spears to the Backstreet Boys. As long as that lasts, people are going to want to read publications that talk about these groups. What is the most interesting story you've worked on?

Farley: The most interesting piece I've done for Time magazine was a piece I worked on with [my colleague] James Willwerth. It was about this kid named Shareef Cousin. He was a 16-year-old on death row in New Orleans. The story I came up with is the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that puts juvenile offenders on death row. The story we wrote was that he was probably not guilty of the crime that he had been charged with. So along with exposing this larger issue of juveniles on death row, and the problems associated with that, and that they cannot really defend themselves, and that they may be too young to be held responsible for their crime, we may have also done some good in an individual case. In part because of that story, he got a new trial and he escaped those charges. He was still in prison for another charge, but he was not on death row.

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