When the Bay Area shut down on March 11 and 12, RIFF had to quickly pivot away from concert reviews—a staple for us—to something else. Luckily, we still had features. As a team, RIFF provided more interviews with artists in our nearly five years. I certainly stayed busy, and envy anyone who was home alone. My whole family has been stuck with me.
While I became a Zoom expert, more than a few folks have had the pleasure of meeting my kids, running in for a snack or because they were bored. Apologies, also, to anyone for whom I forgot to change or remove my background. Lindsey Stirling joined me in a bathroom, for example. But it’s not what you think!
From among an amazing group of musicians like Heart’s Ann Wilson, actor Michael C. Hall and his bandmates in Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum (whom I spoke to in a haze of delirium while in the throes of what I’m not assuming was the COVID), Testament’s Chuck Billy (who definitely had coronavirus), Danny O’Reilly of the actual band The Coronas, SF Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Thomasson and the great Cherrie Currie, here’s a rundown of some of the interviews that still stick with me as 2020 mercifully draws to a close.
Below, you can also listen to a playlist of all the artists I interviewed this year.
Welcome to the before times! The year is still fresh and Lisa Loeb has huge plans for the year. There’s a tour coming, she’s about to release an album and is excited to talk music, being a mom, the history of her hit “I Do” and the difference between her adult and children’s albums.
It’s two weeks later. COVID is that thing in China. Hailey Whitters is in fine spirits. She tells me about her newfound success in Nashville after years spent waiting tables. Her grandmother is proud of her for becoming “small-town famous.” We talk about the origins of “Janice at the Hotel Bar,” a song that’s come to represent much to many young women and those they look up to.
I meet San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Mathilde Froustey at a café a block away from the company’s rehearsal studio downtown. In a week everything is about to change. The crux of this story rests on Froustey’s leading role in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It opens for one night before everything collapses. I had tickets for the second day. Luckily, we spent much of the interview talking about the French Froustey’s youth and what led her to San Francisco. Neither of us wore masks, or gloves. We weren’t socially distant. We hugged. All of those concepts sound foreign now. The story ended up holding for a few months while we were trying to figure out whether there would be any more ballet last summer. (The answer is that there’s no more live ballet until next summer… if we’re lucky).
More than a week into lockdown now. I’ve heard so much about Allan Rayman being elusive, especially around the press. Yet when we talk, he’s fully engaged and open telling me the backstory of his new album, his own lockdown in Canada and how his parents were just barely able to make it back home from Africa before flights were cut off. So why’s he talking to me? He needs his record to do well so that he could help support his road crew, many of whom are suddenly without work.
A week later, I realize that most artists have Zoom and are happy to use it. The first artist to invite me into his home is Portland producer André Allen Anjos, better known as RAC. Many of my Zoom firsts happen here. Anjos gives me tour of his home studio, lets me look out his window…. even plays me a song. These sorts of things didn’t happen on the phone. At least they didn’t happen well.
Monkee Micky Dolenz agreed over Twitter to chat about how he’s holding up at home. As far as we know at this point, people around Dolenz’s age are primarily susceptible to the new coronavirus. Would he show a brave face? Would he say he and Michael Nesmith had to get back on the road no matter what? No! Dolenz is smart, and he gave me the terminology that I’ve used to talk about COVID-19 since then: “the horrible cloud.”
In the U.S. the pandemic was still peaking, but in Germany in mid-April, it had subsided, and the country was days away from slowly reopening. James Hersey, who currently calls Berlin home, was optimistic. It was the second time we’ve talked, so we had a rapport going. Leading up to this, he’d already performed a 30-second song about me during one of his livestreams. James, if you’re reading this, I believe your studio is large enough to house my entire family when we visit Germany. Just saying.
I’m pretty sure that Lindsey Stirling made me tear up while talking about sending money to her fans impacted by the pandemic. We talked about her botched South American tour on the eve of quarantines, how the entire world seemed to change from the time she got on a plane to the time she got off, traveling to her sister’s horse ranch in Missouri, and working on her own mental health as the pandemic raged. And yes; the bathroom. I’d forgotten to remove my comical bathroom Zoom background from a previous meeting, so she met me on the toilet.
Rufus Wainwright is a multi-hyphenate, so along with his new album—his first pop record in about a decade—we talked about his opera work, his ballet ambitions… and being a stay-at-home-dad and teacher to his young daughter. For a moment he made me feel better. Celebrity dads have “moments,” too!
Several days after the murder of George Floyd, editor Daniel J. Willis and I are on the phone with Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito. We debated writing our own column denouncing police violence, but everything felt hollow. We’re largely a staff of white people. We always try to add more diversity, but there was no other way to say it. That’s when Willis and I came up with a concept where we talk with Black artists with both influence and opinion about what was on their minds. In this first conversation, Negrito talked to us not only about his own reaction to the “video,” but also about movements. Rather than describe it, I just think you should read it.
More than a month later, I’m on a call with Colombian artist Loyal Lobos, who’s real name is Andrea Silva. I have so many questions about her debut album ready. I don’t really know much about her other than that the string of singles she’s released are all terrific, breaking out of any genre to which I try to compare them. All that said, we end up talking mostly about her strong-willed mother and the risks she took, along with Silva’s dad, to take care of her family. And at some point we realized we had the same birthday.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I’m a basketball fan. Primarily, a fan of the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard has been my favorite Blazer from the moment he took the court. Lillard is an Oakland native and agreed to talk as part of the same series as Negrito. In fact, Willis and I have also spoken to Berkeley’s Rexx Life Raj and I’m currently waiting for Vallejo’s H.E.R. to pick up the phone. Anyway… I had Willis on the call primarily so I wouldn’t freeze up or say something inappropriate. That’s how important this conversation was to me. Lillard spoke about his own experiences with police, Oscar Grant and his vision of activism.
I’ve never watched “The Four,” and other than “AGT” stay away from reality show competitions. But my God, have you heard Vincint‘s voice? He’s so talented that he had to be recruited to appear on the show and negotiated his own terms. Anyway… that was several years ago. We spoke about him growing up both Baptist and proudly out by supportive parents who encouraged him every step of the way. Love like that begets talent. But that’s not the main reason I’m writing this now. Vincint Cannady is one of the kindest people I’ve spoken to in a year where kindness is missing.
The conversation with Liverpool trio All We Are was amazing. The banter terrific. The jokes… they had jokes! But I also loved the virtual tour of their “haunted” former school serving as the band’s home base. Guys, I hope the invitation for a proper tour still stands. I’ll add you to the European itinerary, right next to James Hersey in Berlin.
Like I mentioned, I only watch one reality competition, “AGT.” Every year, I pick a few favorites. This time I knew who I wanted to win after he walked onto the stage a few days after the police shooting of Jacob Blake and addressed that head-on. It wasn’t a singer, magician or acrobat, however. It was Brandon Leake, a poet. I’ve spoken to Leake twice now. The first was before he won the show about his childhood in Stockton. Then last month, we headed out to meet him at his high school, where he both attended and taught. What struck me both times was his positivity, like a beacon during a dark time. This was a day before the presidential election began, and he told me he wasn’t scared if Trump won—because he was used to living under a threat for most of his life.
The end of the year has gotten busier. I’ve had several other memorable interactions with not just artists (music and otherwise) but worried club owners and managers, business owners, chefs and fans of the arts like you and me. But I’m looking at my word count, and it’s not looking good. So I’ll close with an interview I wasn’t even sure would happen until a day prior.
I grew up around orchestral music, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that RIFF started working closer with the San Francisco Symphony. Like the SF Ballet, the 2020-21 season will be a completely virtual one. It kicked off with “Throughline,” a collaboration between numerous orchestra musicians and all-star collaborators, such as Esperanza Spalding. I got the chance to talk to the composer, Nico Muhly, as well as two of the special guests: The National’s Bryce Dessner and violinist Pekka Kuusisto. Speaking with the three of them (who were spread out among New York, Finland and France), I got the sense that I was visiting a secret club of ultra-talented creatives. They could have treated me like I was—completely unqualified—but instead they made me feel welcome.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.