Writers on Writing: Sean Michaels

Sean Michaels is a writer and music journalist based in Montreal. He runs his own successful music blog, Said The Gramophone, writes a weekly column for the Globe and Mail, and has contributed to countless magazines. His first novel, Us Conductors, was published last year. Inspired by Léon Theremin, inventor of the theremin, an electronic instrument, and musician Clara Rockmore, it went on to win the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, as well as the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. Michaels’ writing, which brings a literary approach to music journalism, is known for its vivid, imaginative prose, and dreamlike descriptions.

For years you were a music journalist, and then just last year released Us Conductors, your first novel. What made you want to write a novel?

Well, it was actually the other way around in that I always wanted to be a novel writer, a fiction writer, and I kind of stumbled backwards into being a professional, wage-earning music journalist.

Oh yeah? How did that happen?

More than anything, I got into music journalism to get free CDs when I was a teenager. I couldn’t really afford all the music I was interested in hearing or the concerts I was interested in going to and, so I started writing with a pretty mercantile aim of really just getting some free music. So Said The Gramophone eventually kind of spun out of that in 2003. And, over the course of writing it, not much time had gone by before there were other reasons that I was maintaining the blog, besides free records. But really, my whole music journalism career came out of a hobby.

In all your writing, Us Conductors included, music is a constant theme. What about writing about music appeals to you?

What I became really interested in is that there’s a lot of music journalism, especially historically, in magazines and in print, where the focus and the main job of the music critic was to describe the music, to literally describe it — describe the instrumentation, the sound of the players’ voices or the sound of the instruments, the genre, the pacing, you know, those kinds of things. And, maybe secondarily, also to tell people whether it was any good or not. I got into music writing primarily online in a format where the song is posted along with my text. And so I’d write about a song, and it’d be there for anyone to listen to.

Suddenly, that relieved me of the responsibility of describing what the music sounds like, because any listener can hear it right there. And I was also increasingly disinterested with me, from on high, declaring whether it was good or not. But rather, I started writing about the really unique event — I could start describing the unique encounter that is every instant somebody hears a piece of music. Every time you or I or anybody else hears a piece of music, that is a unique encounter. And even if we’re hearing the same piece of music, all of our memories, and personality, and taste all inform that encounter.

And so for me, it was about trying to narrate that encounter, talk about some of the personal experiences that music would evoke in me or start writing kind of dreamlike stories that come out of hearing the music in that moment.

If they’re not meant to be descriptive or critical, what do you consider the goal of your reviews?

I really just want to figure out how I am engaging with this music, figure out a way to engage with this music, and then describe what that engagement is to the reader. I want to figure out a way into a piece of music that makes it interesting to me or is able to unlock something in me, and I want to convey that to the listener … More than anything, I really just kind of want to write from my own perspective of the way that this is shaking me around.

Do you have any favourite genres of music to write about?

Not at this stage. I mean, that’s the other thing that’s become really interesting about writing about music: I think that different kinds of music do different things. They have different functions, but they also offer different pleasures. If you’re listening to old blues music or folk music, you’re looking for this authentic, earnest, lived experience — someone saying exactly how they feel in that moment, in this way that feels really strident and true. But if you’re listening to shinier, commercial pop music or hip hop or even rock, that’s not the function at all. Funk music is about making you want to move, and heavy metal music is about something different, and so on. And not just genre by genre, but also song by song.

By describing the unique experience of a song that you love, you can narrate the way into that song for you. And so for me, writing about music has helped me figure out the pleasures I know how to take from songs, and reading other people’s music writing has helped me figure out what they see, what pleasures they’re taking from the music that they love. And, as a result of that, at this point, I listen to really almost everything on a regular basis — from classical music to rap and commercial hip hop, underground hip hop, non-English language hip hop, I listen to a lot of African rock and folk music and even some pop music. So, I don’t know if I have a favourite genre anymore.

Photo by John Londono courtesy of  Sean Michaels