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The Art of the Interview

Interviewing the late Zaha Hadid

One question I have often been asked is, "what was your favourite interview?" It is always difficult to answer that question because every person I have ever interviewed brings something different to the table, whether it is perspective, energy, or style of conversation. There are those who are very much media trained and will stick to an internal script and will only answer questions in a way that fits in with their personal/company policy. Then there are those who are open to seeing where the conversation takes us. Both serve a purpose yet the latter is where it gets interesting. The irony is, whatever the reason, there is a way to still come across as personable and ready for any question. There is a way to still give something of yourself in order to achieve what is perhaps the most important thing in any work you do, and that is connection.

Connection is where you are able to tap into an extremely valuable and yet often misrepresented entity whereby you and the person watching, listening, or reading whatever it is you want to say can feel what you mean; they can understand on a deeper level where you are coming from. When interviewing politicians or CEOs, I found those who were honest about their limitations and the difficulties they were facing, instead of sticking to a PR script, were ones I was able to connect with in a conversation that would become more interesting and more on a human level; it would be where I could look beyond someone's position and see the personin that position. When you can see the person and not just the position and the brand, when you as an interviewer can bring that out of your subject, you both can develop a level of trust that is so important in any industry that needs people. There is a misconception out there that the appearance of dominance is a sign of strength and confidence. Yet in actuality, when one is authentic and open that is when people are more willing to listen, understand and (if need be) sympathise. Authenticity and humanity don't show a loss of control or power. In fact, it is the opposite--it shows you understand the needs of your audience and that is a sign of strength, security, and ultimately, confidence.

Perhaps the most interesting experiences I have had in an interview are the ones where I have just been in the moment. As a journalist, I always do extensive research on the person, subject, I am interviewing. Being prepared, in anything, is a must. The film director Deepa Mehta told me, when I interviewed her in Mumbai, that it all comes down to preparation. She said, if she is prepared and knows exactly what she wants then she is open to surprises. That preparation and outline (my version of knowing what I want from an interview) is the backbone, the foundation. Once I have that, I am open to whatever comes my way. I have a list of questions but more often than not, during the interview I rarely refer to them as I have gotten to know the person on one level so well that it is all in my head. I've always treated the interview space, that energy between me and the person I am interviewing as sacred. For me, it is a privilege to be invited into someone's world and for them to be open enough to share whatever it is they are sharing with me. Granted this all depends on the story and why they're being interviewed. For the most part, the interviews from which I felt most fulfilled, are the ones where I have learned something about that person, their story, and inadvertently I have learned something about myself through them. I often found when I was interviewing someone who was a master at their craft, or someone who has undergone a huge change or challenge in their life, that is when I felt that I was in the front seat of an incredible class soaking up as much information as I could about how to live my life as bravely, as interestingly, as openly, and as compassionately as I could. I would get nuggets of wisdom that would soak in almost like osmosis empowering me in my search for meaning in my life.

An example of one of those 'in the moment' interviews is when I sat down with Billy Corgan, most known for being the front man for the American alternative rock band, The Smashing Pumpkins. Corgan is an incredibly cerebral person. He has had the reputation for not being the easiest, or perhaps not the most cooperative, person to interview. So when I met him on a rainy morning in Hong Kong a few years ago, I wasn't sure what to expect. You see, when going into an interview, I do have a structure in mind of how the conversation could go. Yet, from the moment we sat down for the interview, it was anyone's guess how it would go. There is often a mistrust of journalists as there is a fear we will put people in a negative light, misquote them or take them out of context. For me, I am more interested in getting to know the person, their motivations and their truth. At this interview, I felt a wall up right from the start. Corgan corrected me on his name (albeit jokingly); I called him Billy, he

said "William" (I had never seen or read him refer to himself that way). From there the interview could have gone south, ie, a wreck if I had taken the correction personally. But it was one of the best experiences I had ever had because I just sat back and relaxed into that moment. I treated him as an equal and not someone famous. As a result, and because he could see that I didn't have an agenda, I didn't fluster or waiver, and through my questions he could see I was really interested in his story, he relaxed too. Our conversation ranged from his childhood, the impact the death of his mother had on him, his father, God, his (then former) bandmates, the music industry, psychology. He was as open as I could have ever asked someone who was sitting across from me to be. He was open and challenging in a good way, the way one banters with an intelligent friend. He kept me on my toes and I loved it. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

MR: What do you believe has been the means to the success of longevity of the Smashing Pumpkins?

BC: Well I have a saying, if it's crazy it's good for business. I think rock and roll is really about being a bit crazy and that sounds like a line from a Scorpion song. It's not a corporate thing. It has been turned into a corporate thing, but really, people like me, you can't invent people like me. We kind of come out of weird places and strange backgrounds and we can't be sort of prototyped or copied. Although we can be imitated, we can't be copied. I think that's really what it is. I mean people, in essence, they have to go to a live event to see this one of a kind thing and that's no different than King Kong in chains. I mean that's how I feel sometimes. There I am. I'm a flawed thing, but there's only one of me and if you want to see that one of a thing, there it is.

MR: Did you always embrace that uniqueness?

BC: No. Nor do I now. But you know when I was young, I hated my voice because it was so strange. My father has a very strange voice too and so it'd be like 'wow, why do we have these weird voices? Shouldn't we have more normal voices and stuff?' But then you realise that's at the heart of identity, which in the world of a lot of imitation, and you see imitation in fashion, in all levels of culture. So to have any level of distinction in a world that's really intent on copying, it's actually a blessing. But for years it felt like some sort of curse.

MR: I read that you came to writing the album, Oceania, I mean the album itself I understand is supposed to be taken in its entirety as a journey, not just a single..

BC: That's kind of a press line but I'm glad you read that. Honestly it's kind of a bullshit press line.

MR: Really?

BC: Yeah, because in this day and age, you're forced to make a comparative reason like whey even bother making an album and so we were like well, we made something. You're forced to listen to the whole thing. You're not going to get it and people then actually listen to it because if you fall in the other culture, it's really about just trying to come up with 12 singles.

MR: I read that you approached Oceania from actually a place of being happier than you had been in a while.

BC: (laughs) Did I say that?

MR: Was that not true?

BC: No, no, it's true.

MR: Does that in itself pose challenges when it comes to songwriting?

BC: Well there's a long established concept that misery makes for great art and if you were asking a Shinto monk, I think they would laugh at this idea because you're basically saying suffering is good for business and I don't think suffering is good for business. Crazy is good for business, suffering isn't. I think the suffering or the gestalt of 'here I am ripping my heart up...' I think that lasts for about two or three albums. Sometimes you have to mature into a deeper work. Most people are living lives of sort of survival and constantly posing an existential crisis either through fantasy or oblivion. It has been explored in rock and roll at least in the western version of rock and roll. We've sort of been through all that so I look at a sort of more spiritual evolving question; can you pose a different kind of way to deal with the existential crisis than you know, I'm staring into the ocean and I'm deciding whether or not to put a gun to my head or jump into the ocean, and I think those things have all been explored already.

MR: What are you exploring now?

BC: God....

Interviewing Pharrell Williams

And the conversation continues. What this interview (which you can watch through the link) taught me was that if I was prepared enough I can be comfortable in my own skin and space, comfortable enough to see where this conversation goes. I did my research and homework so I just relaxed into a chat where I could listen, really listen to what my guest was saying. And while it all seems so elementary, listening is the first rule of interviewing, sometimes we all get caught up in egos, expectations and nerves, we get caught up in ourselves, ultimately, not allowing ourselves to feel free. Basically, we get in our own way. I remember a while ago, when I interviewed Pharrell Williams, the singer, songwriter and producer, he told me something that has stayed with me. He said, when working with an artist, “the more I can make a person and their environment comfortable by taking my ego’s hat off and leaving it at the door, they can dive deep within themselves and we can pull out something interesting that people have never heard before.” It resonated so deeply because it was so true.

We all have an ego, some more pronounced than others. Ego, we believe, is what keeps us in control of ourselves. When put in a different environment, when meeting someone famous, controversial, or seemingly powerful, in order to not seem intimidated, we put a shield up. Yet that shield also stops us from really connecting with that person. If we step outside of ourselves, beyond that shield, even for a minute, if we are open to whatever comes our way, it is amazing what can happen. So much of what we do and see is about dealing with a perceived expectation that either is placed on us or we place on ourselves. We think we need to come across as someone who is better than anyone else, or smarter than anyone else. We also come in with a sense of mistrust. And that goes for both the interviewer and the person being interviewed. Yet the simplest questions where you are expressing genuine curiosity is such a powerful thing. That's where you could begin to discover one's truth. And while, as a journalist, you're looking for a story, you're looking for an angle, and at times, that is warranted. For me, I've always been drawn to stories about people--their growth, their challenges, their successes and failures. And frankly, all stories are about people. Even when we look at stories about wildlife and nature, we are looking for, or see, ourselves in them. And we connect to them. In business, if a brand can connect with an audience through emotions of love, loyalty, patriotism, family, legacy, unity, innocence, and pride the message resonates on a deeper level and allows that audience to feel they are part of something bigger. And as an interviewer, a storyteller, that connection is everything.

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