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The Curious Cat Blog is all about writing, for writers, by a writer.

 

An Interview With Paul Cantor, Music Producer and Writer

Carina Sitkus

Like some of the CCP's other interviewees, I came across Paul Cantor's writing on Medium. Cantor, a former editor at AOL Music, is now a music producer and writer whose work has appeared in places like Rolling Stone, Billboard, MTV News, and many, many other places. In addition to being a prolific writer, Cantor is also a tweet machine, with over 114K tweets and 11.2K followers. 

Below, I ask him more about his work, advice for pitching and getting writing assignments, about interviewing technique, and his philosophy on social media. 


Out of your 2015 list of interviews, which one was your favorite? (Pssst, curious cats: the extensive list includes celebrities like M.I.A. and NBA star Damian Lillard, just to name a couple.)

PC: This is like asking a father which one of his children he likes best — I love them all. But I have three favorites.

My first is the one with the Native American man, because that wasn’t an interview per se, but rather just he and I talking. I was driving through the Arizona desert, somewhat aimlessly, with the eventual goal of getting to Monument Valley, when I stopped.

I was in that part of the country because I was due to be married the following week; in lieu of a debaucherous bachelor party, I decided to hike as much of the Grand Canyon as I could, solo. I was sort of lost in thought for a few days, dealing with a lot of complex emotions — pre-wedding jitters, and just thinking about life, generally — when that conversation happened. There was a lot of warmth in that man, and it wasn’t because it was 90 degrees outside. He wound up reinforcing a lot of things I believe, but hearing it from him, it was like he was saying the stuff that had been bouncing around in my head. Thinking back, I may have been a little emotional after we finished talking, and I definitely didn’t know I was going to write that piece on him, nor did I record what he was saying — I just remembered it, because it meant a lot to me, and I thought it might mean a lot to others too.

The second favorite is Damon Dash. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. This piece originally didn't have its central narrative thrust, which is that he and I got into this heated argument in the middle of the interview. It wasn’t in there because I didn’t want to include something that I thought made both him and I look bad. I also couldn’t write it without acknowledging, in that moment, that I was ready to get physical with this man, that I would likely get my ass kicked, but that I was willing to go to that length. I just couldn’t write it and lie for the sake of ‘keeping it professional,’ because anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I’m not a person who is ever going to get pushed around, period. Journalism really just doesn’t pay enough to have to deal with shit like that. But through some convincing from the editors at VICE, I rewrote it and included that stuff, and it turned out really good. For what that piece became and what it was originally supposed to be — basically, a short Q&A-style interview — I think it said a lot about me and my skills. I was really happy with it.

Third favorite is M.I.A. A) Because I conceived the idea for the article on my own, dealt with her people, dealt with her — it was a capital E Exclusive — and then brought the concept to Rolling Stone, at which point we executed it. It’s not like one of my friends works at Rolling Stone and he/she hooked me up with an assignment, as is the case with most writers. I didn’t even know anyone there. It’s rewarding when you can sell an idea. You feel like you can do anything after that. And B) Because she decided, for whatever reason — but I’d like to think because I asked the right questions — to divulge a lot of personal stuff, things that, as a woman in the entertainment industry, it takes some degree of courage to talk about. That was an interview where the comfort level was really high, the rapport was good. We could have chatted for hours.

It’s not like one of my friends works at Rolling Stone and he/she hooked me up with an assignment, as is the case with most writers. I didn’t even know anyone there. It’s rewarding when you can sell an idea. You feel like you can do anything after that.

Honorable mention: Glenn Beck. Super difficult to get — he’d already turned down Rolling Stone directly — and it took a lot of hand-holding to pull off. This, because he basically never does interviews. The last things he’d done were a massive CNN television profile and a New York Times Magazine story. But I got him to say yes. At the end he was like, dude, thank you for not coming into this with a whole bunch of pre-conceived notions and bullshit, and just asking honest, straightforward questions. Whether you agree with his politics or not — and I don’t think enough people even look into his politics before they make judgments — the guy is hands-down one of the most dynamic personalities in the history of broadcasting, a true legend. For him to say that, it was really rewarding.

 

How do you prepare for interviews with high profile musicians/celebrities? Lots of prep, combination of prep and off the cuff? Curious about your process. And what about the logistics of the interview. Do you use a laptop? Tape recorder? Pen to paper? Something else?

PC: It depends on who it is. The past few years I’ve really tried to focus exclusively on bigger, hard-to-get interviews. The biggest exclusive I ever had was with Suge Knight, in 2013; I don’t think anyone has topped that yet in my little corner of the world. But there have been others — Paulina Gretzky, when nobody could get to her; Kim Dotcom, not that long after the Megaupload raid; Megahertz, a one-time major rap producer who mysteriously disappeared; heck, even getting Marvin Gaye’s wife on the phone was, at the time of the “Blurred Lines” thing, kind of a coup. For things like these, I tend to prepare pretty relentlessly. M.I.A., I spent about a week preparing for, reading everything I could find, even things I’d already read. I listen to the artist’s music endlessly. Depending on who it is, I may call people who know them, sources, ask them a little about the person, try to get a feel for what they’re like when the cameras and tape recorders are off. If it’s a profile, the goal is to paint a portrait of them; an interview, the goal is to allow the questions and answers paint the portrait. I just try to do as much homework as I can so I have enough to work with towards making the subject feel at ease.

Interviewing people is about disarming them, making them feel comfortable. A comfortable person will tell you everything you want to know without you even asking. They will volunteer it. So, it’s a little like seduction — man or woman or otherwise, you’re kind of hoping at the end of it that the person kinda wants to f*ck you (although, as a general rule, I would strongly advise not f*cking your interview subjects). The point is, the interview subject should feel something. And through that, they should be able to establish that they can trust you. What you do with that trust is up to you, but if you’re doing your job right, you will never use that information to purposely make them look bad or good. In your piece, you will be truthful and honest, and however they look is however they look. Now, acquiring the people skills to be able to do that, it takes a lifetime. You can’t learn them in school and even if you could, everyone would get different results. Interviewing, when done properly, is the art of dealing with people.

Interviewing people is about disarming them, making them feel comfortable. A comfortable person will tell you everything you want to know without you even asking.

Another thing I wanted to say about interviewing is that I do a lot of studying of acting techniques, psychology of acting, the types of methods they use to get into character, channeling certain emotions. I think there are a lot of helpful tips and tricks from acting that can be applied to interviewing. Because again, when you're interviewing, you are in — in a way — doing a lot of acting, trying to convince your subject, and also convince yourself, that you actually care about what it is they are talking about, going through, etc. You are trying to pull something out of them that they don't know is there, because it's buried very deep and they are automatically on the defensive, because they know it's an interview. You have to find ways to cut through that bullshit and there are so many hidden layers of communication, from body language, to tone of voice, language you use, slang, sequence of questions. It's a lot of reading the situation, reacting, and altering the situation, to fit what you want; but then, also, just dealing with what you have, too. It's supposed to be journalism, after all.

But yeah, it's all very complex stuff. And even the acting, it helps with music too. If you are writing songs for people, you need to put yourself in their shoes. It's like method acting. You become the character. In interviewing, you become the person you are interviewing. So that they see themselves in you, and it becomes a situation like they're talking into a mirror.

 

You are prolific... really, really prolific. What's your secret? Is there a secret? Have you ever had writer's block or gone through a period of time when you weren't writing?

PC: Life, at its best, should be a really thoughtful conversation; the kind of stuff people talk about at 5 AM, when the sun is coming up, transcribed for the world to read. That is where one can find some of life’s greatest truths. What I do now on the internet — this kind bloggy writing — is really just an extension of that. Some of it is inner monologue, some of it is from actual conversations I’m having with people. I can’t say I take it very seriously. In my career and life, I’ve done far more serious, more stressful things, stuff that requires much more heavy-lifting, with significantly more at stake; this, I kind of look at like practice, really. It’s like I’m on a basketball court by myself, waiting for someone to play. Not that nobody else is playing but, well, a certain degree of tunnel vision is required. That, in a sense, gives you a profound sense of loneliness. Not loneliness in the physical way or emotional way — I’m married, after all — but a sort of ever-present, creative loneliness. It's a loneliness that is hard to describe, but writers or anyone attempting to perform at peak levels — like say, ultra-marathon runners — can be prone to it. It's a loneliness only they'd understand. Sometimes it manifests itself as a loneliness of thought or feeling; like they are alone in their head. It's essential, too. It's what makes them, them. I experience that a lot, which in turn helps me get them onto the page.

As for periods of inactivity, even though I displayed a talent for it, I wrote very little as a child. I didn’t even know I could be a professional writer until I was in college and a teacher said being a journalist was a good way to get paid for writing. I majored in journalism but my heart was in music, so that was what I primarily focused on (and even today, it still occupies a good portion of my time). Through music, I made connections in music journalism and wrote sporadically in my early twenties — got paid pretty well, too. Eventually became an editor, lost that job, got another one, lost that one, got another one, and on the cycle went. I eventually got hired as a blogger at XXL magazine, back when blogging was still blogging and not just writing on the internet, and that is where I started to find my own voice. I blogged for many different outlets — but through it all, outside of a little personal journaling and some stuff on my website, I only very rarely wrote for personal satisfaction. That was a pretty long period of writer’s block.

 

Similarly, I remember reading something on Medium about how you looked back at your Twitter posts and it was cool to see your own progression of thought. I think we've all posted or written something stupid...do you ever go back and delete stuff? Is that part of the creative process... just getting it out? You tweeted about getting laid off from AOL music as it was happening. Is there anything you wouldn't feel comfortable posting?

PC: I was cagey about not deleting things for a long time, but over the past year I’ve tried to delete old things; similarly, I delete newer tweets that don’t make sense out of context. As for it being used as a creative tool, sure, at one time it was good for note-taking and thinking out loud. Many people benefited from using it in that way, especially comedians. Sometimes it’s still helpful from a creative standpoint, although I probably couldn’t pinpoint how or when it has been, exactly.

As for comfort, I used to be more free-flowing — to wit, I once tweeted, jokingly, about wanting to cut my neighbor’s head off and eat her brain, which people still ask about— but now, I think more before I tweet. My wife says that when she first met me she looked at my Twitter feed and thought: this guy is f*cking insane. Which may be true, but it’s not something I’d like confirmed or denied by tweets, which people seem to read way too much into these days. All jokes aside, I’m just older now and am far more cautious about over-sharing. The first step towards being a king is playing the part.

 

Who do you want to interview (and haven't yet)?

PC: So many people, but honestly I don’t really keep a laundry list. I kind of just think of them sporadically. A lot of what I’m interested in is situational, meaning I probably wouldn’t interview a person unless I needed to. In other words, the interview would have to be applicable to something, have a real purpose. I don’t think I’d ever want to interview Kanye West just to talk about bullshit, because, I dunno, that just wouldn’t feel right to me. I’m a little more interested in story and personality than celebrity. That Native American man is just as interesting to me as Beyonce is, if not more so. I did a story on homeless people a few years ago, talked to a bunch of bums, and I found what they had to say was often a lot more illuminating than the average celebrity. I do find the celebrity stuff to be a lot of fun though. Or maybe funny is the better word for it. 

 

What is your favorite part about being able to tell other people's stories? How is working for yourself better/worse than working at one company?

PC: My favorite part about being able to tell other people’s stories is getting paid for it. I’m only halfway joking. No, but seriously, my favorite part is making the connection with the subject, even if the subject is just putting me on for however long we’re together. I get an emotional high off that experience, that little bit of bonding, understanding one another. And then, well, I get to come home and turn that into some kind of painting, only with words instead of paint. People read it and react. It’s kind of a beautiful set-up.

Working for yourself, working for a company, it’s all the same — it’s work. Media companies are really not what they once were, so working at one these days, you really need to be rather entrepreneurial and ambitious. There aren’t a lot of layers of bullshit, and everything is kind of what you make of it. So whether you’re on your own or in an office, you’ll likely be utilizing the same skills.

Personally, knowing what kind of grit and resourcefulness goes into being a successful freelancer — there are very few, and most people go back to work within 6 months after striking out on their own — if I was hiring someone I’d look very favorably on that kind of person. Right now, I’m into the idea of working for a company again. There are obvious benefits to being around more people, having additional resources. After a while, truthfully, unless you’re doing super major shit, the novelty of working for yourself does wear off. Contrary to the myth, it can be quite depressing.

 

This was helpful. More nitty gritty advice you're willing to share? How did you land your first gig? Advice for getting responses to pitches? Getting assignments with media companies? What's the best way to network and get gigs (without feeling/sounding like a tool)? How long should you be willing to write for free?

PC: My advice: always have an angle. I landed my first paying freelance gig through a consortium of factors, but mostly it came down to the following. In 2004, I was making beats and trying to be a record producer. I was also interviewing upcoming artists for free for a popular website. My music manager at the time knew an editor at a magazine who was trying to break out of editing and into music management. He was repping an artist who liked a beat of mine, wanted to use it on a project. I also wanted to interview him for the website. We connected and sort of did a trade — he’d pay me for the beat by letting me write something for the magazine. That one thing not only turned into a writing career, but also got me a brief mention for the music work on MTV News, which was a pretty big thing for a 22-year-old kid from Staten Island.

Best way to get responses is to have good pitches. Come up with stories outlets don’t already have. Find the sweet spot between what an outlet publishes and what it is they’re not publishing, and try to fill it. Don’t halfway sell the idea, fully sell it — i.e. this is what it’s on, this is how I’ll do it, this is why I’m the person to do it, and this is why it’s important you let me do it. It’s probably bad business advice, but try to make money the last thing you talk about. Money confuses people. If someone is excited about something, they’ll pay you whatever the hell you want, within reason.

Best way to get responses is to have good pitches. Come up with stories outlets don’t already have. Find the sweet spot between what an outlet publishes and what it is they’re not publishing, and try to fill it.

Networking, not a thing I subscribe to. Networking is for computers. Humans form relationships. And if you look at the whole “it’s all about you know” thing, you’ll really see that it’s hard-won relationships, sometimes forged through many years, often through varying layers of contact — perhaps through family, business, or social institutions (places of worship; athletic teams; clubs at school) — where who you know actually matters. It’s not always about having direct relationships, but it’s definitely less about contacts and connecting,  since we’re all connected now. My advice for creating good relationships, relationships that have real value, is not to ask what people can do for you, but rather, what you can do for them, unprompted. Be kind, be genuine, and give relentlessly. If you do, the relationships, the networks — all the stuff you desire — will find their way to you.

As for free writing, I would write for free until I could display to a person who has money to pay for writing that I’m worth paying. To be honest, to be a writer you have to go through a bit of shitwork — things like transcribing, and not getting paid — which may make no sense at first, but will probably make sense much later on down the line. To me, it’s worth doing things for free to gain experience. Or, to do things you’re passionate about. Unless you have millions, when you die, nobody is going to give a shit about how much money you made anyway.

 

Willing to share what you're currently working on? What would your future book be about?

PC: I can’t give too much away, but I’m working on a handful of exciting nonfiction, reportage-type stories. Two, specifically, I'm very geeked about. One is in fashion, the other is in sports, neither of which are subjects I've ever really written in. So that's new for me. I’m also working on a lot of jokes, humor writing, drama: stuff for screen and stage. Books — which I am very eager to break into and begin working on — there are a few ideas bouncing around. Like most writers these days, I’d love to do something in memoir — all my personal writing is extremely well-received — but I’m also happy to do something in long-form nonfiction too, just for the sheer challenge of it.

 

What book is dogeared and sitting by your bed?

PC: There are many, but the one with the most dog-ears is The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I bought it from a tramp who looked like he’d had it for at least a few years, in at least a few states. He wanted a dollar for it. I gave him five. For Emerson, and for him, it was the least I could do.

 

Because it's the season... tax advice for freelancers?

PC: Unless you’ve got a billion things to write off, take the standard deduction. Also, don’t be afraid to do your own taxes. You’ll save money and it’s really not that difficult.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Something I should have asked?

PC: I’m a writer but I don’t consider myself just a writer. I’m also a musician and I don’t consider myself just a musician either. Same with my work in the music business, or the media business, or any business.

I’m always going to do a lot of things, because the nature of all creative work now lends itself to being multi-disciplinary. If Leonardo da Vinci were alive now, he’d have a laptop and iPhone and be racking up a million likes on Instagram. So, whether it’s writing, music, journalism, work for brands, things I’ll eventually do in film — it falls under the rubric of creative services. Next week, I could be writing/producing songs for TV shows (which I’ve done); six months from now, I could be writing on those very same TV shows (which I haven’t done).

Often I don't know exactly how to bring the two of them together — conversationally, that is — as writing and music don't always work in concert in a way that it is easy to build a narrative around. It's more a comprehensive thing, like just being well-informed, well-versed in other areas. For example, I learned a lot about business and negotiating the space that exists between being creative, giving people what they want and actually getting things done, from being a producer. That stuff easily applies to writing too. It also pays a lot better, which is why sometimes when writing is slow, I can more than make up for it with music.

I don’t know where this life and these talents will take me. I just know I’m here right now, I’m still trying to get better at what I do, and I’m still very hungry. I don’t feel like my life or career has even started yet. No matter what I’ve done or what I go on to do, I hope I always feel that way. It’s the only way to live.


Many thanks to Paul for sharing his story and advice. To read more of his writing, visit him on Medium or follow him on Twitter.


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