RD: If you would, tell us about how you got started on It Still Moves, both from the idea standpoint and the business standpoint.
AP: I’m a huge fan of a lot of early Americana music (which I loosely define in the book as rural, indigent, twentieth-century acoustic music – so Delta blues, Appalachian folk, the Harry Smith anthology, that kind of stuff). But as a critic, I was writing mostly about indie-rock. In 2003 or 2004, I wrote an article for Paste Magazine about the places where those two genres were starting to overlap (the freak-folk trend, people like Sam Beam singing to Sub Pop, etc.) and the book kind of grew from there. I had a literary agent and we worked on a proposal and were lucky enough to find a really loving home for the book at FSG.
RD: What were some of your biggest fears or challenges?
AP: Oh man. Writing a book is terrifying, at least the first time around. I was staring down some massive, paralyzing terror. I have an MFA in nonfiction writing, and I’d written a thesis about pop music that was around 150 pages, but beyond that, this was by far the longest-form writing project I’d ever taken on – and there’s something intimidating about having that much space. It’s hard to wrangle so many words and facts and quotes and ideas. I was so used to writing 100 word record reviews. I had to recalibrate my brain to think on a larger scale.
RD: Are there any websites or other sources of reference you find particularly valuable while researching music or film?
AP: Nothing much beyond the usual suspects. The web, obviously, is a little tricky for hard research, so I stuck mostly to trade books, archives, and research libraries. There is one website I found about Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music – it’s called The Celestial Monochord, and it’s incredible. I’ve been pestering the author to write a book himself. Anyone at all interested in the Anthology should be reading it.
RD: Here’s a fun little exercise. Translate the following three sentences into music critic language.
1. Jeff Tweedy wore a pretty ugly green jacket.
AP: Tweedy was sporting a heinous emerald sheath
2. Trey Anastasio hit high notes during his guitar solo.
AP: Anastasio’s guitar squealed and squirmed like a wild hog.
3. Guns and Roses has taken a long time to release Chinese Democracy.
AP: Chinese Democracy is mythic!!!
RD: Speaking of music critic speak, what are your thoughts on the occasional criticism that music writing could be improved by more clearer straightforward language.
AP: Probably all writing could be improved by more straightforward language! Make every word do useful work, right? I mean, I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I don’t know if it’s because music writers are (obviously) huge music fans, so there’s a tendency towards really rhythmic prose with lots of extra words?
RD: Who are your favorite music writers?
AP: Ellen Willis for sure. Nick Tosches, Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, Robert Gordon. Dana Jennings wrote a fantastic book about country music called Sing Me Back Home. I think Chuck Klosterman is a great writer, and I think Sasha Frere-Jones has done some remarkable things in The New Yorker.
RD: Must read music book?
AP: Nick Toches’ biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, “Hellfire,” is amazing. Also Ellen Willis’ anthology “Beginning to See the Light,” although it’s not exclusively about music.
RD: Being largely a writer for print, what is your stance on blogs?
AP: I read a ton of blogs, every day. I think the onus is really on print magazines to step up the game. They’ve got to do stuff blogs can’t or won’t or don’t want to do – long, thoughtfully researched articles with lots of access that take months to write – in order to stay alive. But they just keep printing…lists.
RD: Any last words of wisdom you would care to impart?
AP: I find it helpful to read criticism of all kinds – film, dance, whatever. It’s a good way to keep yourself from getting too formulaic about record reviews. And, if you want to do this for a living, learn to love eating peanut butter sandwiches.
Thanks a million Amanda. Since you were so kind for participating, I will answer your question about T-Rex’s Jeepster in this article for the times Book blog. A Jeepster is the the bastard child of a Jeep and a VW Beetle and they are awesome.
Also, if anyone is out in Brooklyn on Thursday evening, drop by WORD at 126 Franklin Avenue at Milton Street in Greenpoint for a reading Amanda’s new book as well as a reading by Dana Jennings from the New York Times.