In Conversation With :
With over fifteen years’ experience in music journalism, Kate’s work has appeared on the front pages of The Guardian and The New York Times and she has written for Dazed, Mixmag and The Quietus. Her talent for seeking out unusual stories about creative mavericks has seen her travel the globe, while her new acclaimed podcast series The Last Bohemians shines a light on female outsiders like Cosey Fanni Tutti and Pauline Black, and she’s done just about everything from festival curation to brand consultancy.
We sat down with Kate to talk about how she built her career and ask for advice on juggling multiple jobs at once, going freelance and getting paid properly for work.
First of all, can you tell us a bit about what you do and the projects you’re currently involved in?
I’m a music and culture journalist and broadcaster, based in London. I’ve been doing that professionally since I was 18, so over 15 years now, which practically makes me a dinosaur! I got my break at Time Out when I was 19 and worked my way up to be the Clubbing Editor.
After that, I freelanced for NME, Q, Mixmag and a bunch of other music titles and then joined the Guardian Guide full time in my mid-20s. I went freelance nearly three years ago now and started a monthly radio show on Worldwide FM, the internet radio station started by Gilles Peterson, where I play music from here, there and everywhere, and have interviewed guest musicians like Anoushka Shankar, Floating Points and Seun Kuti.
I also created a podcast series called The Last Bohemians in 2019, dedicated to profiling maverick and fearless women in the arts and culture, and I do lots of assorted bits and bobs like voiceover, editorial consultancy and DJing. I’ve put on parties and events and booked line-ups for brands and talks tents for music festivals – a bit of everything really. I’m really terrible at sticking to one thing but I genuinely enjoy waking up every day and doing something completely different.
Did you go to university?I did, but I wouldn’t say it was the be all and end all for a journalism or writing career. I went because I knew I wanted to be in London – that was, as far as I was concerned, where the action was – and I had done the classic of “watching Almost Famous” and wanted my life to be going on tour with bands and taking acid. Back then, just before top-up fees came in, university was a bit of a rite of passage and not as expensive as it is now, so I applied and got into City University to do a BA in Journalism and Sociology. I did learn some important skills there but most things I learned on the job at Time Out, where I was working part-time during my degree. And when I say learned on the job, I mean: going out clubbing for a living. I do think that the name “City” may have initially opened some doors but, equally, it was the amount of writing and work I’d done before even starting my degree.
How did you get your first job at Time Out?
I’d been writing about music since I was 16 – not very well, mind, but I knew that was what I wanted to do professionally. I used to go into all the pubs back at home and pick up the freebie magazines and contact them with reviews I’d written. I would write for blogs, the local paper – anything, as long as I could get published and get a portfolio together. I started my own fanzine for my hometown ‘scene’ (about five bands in total, all terrible but brilliant at the time). I was almost certainly very obnoxious. Then I started writing for music magazines like Big Cheese and for the BBC, so when I came to apply for Time Out I already had a good bit of experience. I can’t say I was any good, but I had dogged enthusiasm and I ended up writing a lot about subcultures that started on the clubbing underground and emerging sounds like dubstep, instrumental grime and ‘future garage’ (although I may have made that name up). I was there for about seven years in total, including when the financial crash happened: suddenly people were being made redundant and everyone had to do three jobs instead of one. It made me realise that you can never rest on your laurels or really rely on anyone for work in this game: you always have to be nimble, keep on your toes and never take anything for granted. Things can change at any minute, as we are seeing now with the pandemic and publications closing at very little notice.
It seems to be a growing norm that music writers don’t get paid for their work. If you’re just starting out, how can you make sure you’re properly compensated for your writing?
That has always been the case, sadly, especially since the dawn of the internet: I wrote for free for years, both before I had a full-time job and afterwards (I got the opportunity to interview PJ Harvey for the now defunct website Drowned in Sound and I weighed up the access against the lack of fee). Looking back, perhaps I should have asked to be paid more often but I was just a kid and happy to get experience. I would not pay now for what I was writing back then, to be honest, it wasn’t very good, but by contributing to freebie papers and magazines I was able to learn more about writing and put good interview names in my portfolio.
I was in a lucky position to be able to write for places for free while I was at university but even now I would say to people that in order to get to a place where your writing is good enough to earn a living from and to get enough experience, write in your spare time, whether that’s in evenings and weekends, around your education or your job, whatever job that is. Doing a job means you can pay your rent and survive; the writing is where you can exercise your creativity and work on what you want to be doing as a career, to get you to the next step.
This isn’t the only way to do it but when you’re regularly writing for a few places and have some decent pieces in your back pocket, then you can start pitching to places that pay for writing. And then when you’ve got a few of those regularly, so you know you’ve got regular income, then you can leave your job and become a freelance writer. It takes time and patience to build that up (and perhaps a few too many people expect to jump a few steps, with the advent of, say, personal writing, when anyone’s own story could potentially make a Vice column). Although I would say that to subsidise doing the fun and often lesser-paid jobs, you need to be doing something on the side: copywriting, lecturing, DJings… very few journalists, even really established ones, are completely full-time writers.
Aside from the usual album / live review pieces, what kind of stories interest you? Is there a particular angle that excites you?
I look for stories of pioneers and radicals and outsiders – people that are fighting about something, rebelling, and changing culture. I grew up in a boring suburb outside of London and I was always drawn to stuff that was more exciting than my life: people that lived really unusually, in a way that I couldn’t imagine myself living.
I also look for the stories that full-time staff members won’t have. If everyone is receiving the same press releases and the same information from social media about certain stars, I try to think: “how can I find the story that they don’t have time to find?”. For example, I took myself out to East Africa for a month and found music stories that people in the UK, US and Europe were writing about but hadn’t experienced first-hand. Most places don’t want interviews anyway, they want trend pieces, so try and dream up the take on, say, Normal People that no one has thought of yet.
A universal rule for freelance journalists, is that if you’re pitching to an editor and you want that editor to commission a story from you, then don’t pitch a piece on Beyoncé or a review on Glastonbury because they already have their established writers who will do that for them. Pitch what they don’t have.
Your podcast series The Last Bohemians shares stories of older non-conformist women in the arts, some of whom are in their twilight years. How did the idea for that come about, and what’s the importance of sharing their stories now?
I started the series because I felt like the professional audio world was very closed off and I wasn’t just going to get handed a documentary to produce and present, so the only way to create something exciting was to do it myself, and I also wanted to curate stories about older women that I didn’t think anyone else was really doing very well. Podcasting is a brilliant, emerging platform that enables DIY creators. Anyone can do it, but I wanted to make something of real quality that you could imagine hearing on Radio 4.
Usually a podcast is produced by one or two people but I chose to work with a different person for each episode, which led to it becoming a sort of loose collective of women in audio who either had full-time jobs and wanted to do something creative on the side, or who were freelancing and hadn’t made much narrative work before. I brought together various people and made an informal A-Team of amazing women.
I love working with women and I feel like the most exciting people to interview are older women who are outsiders – erotic novelists, painters, wild creatives who are subversive and radical. I don’t like the idea that only older men get to be radical. I wanted to try and represent these women and find out their stories.
I also went through a period of being super anxious and lost all my confidence and so being able to interview women who don’t give a fuck was really inspiring.
How can we ensure these women are canonized in the way their male contemporaries are?
I think it’s changing, like how we’ve seen the Viv Albertine memoir and the Cosey Fanni Tutti memoir. In the literary world there are a lot more stories about women, but I would also like to see more intergenerational content about older women being given the same credence on the radio and in other formats. If Iggy Pop can host a Radio 6 Music show, why can’t Chrissie Hynde? Someone in their 80s can be just as cool as someone in their 30s, it’s just about retooling the way we see women over the age of 60. From the feedback that I’ve had of the podcast, I can see that there is a massive hunger for these stories.
Lack of female representation in the music industry is well documented. How does the world of journalism compare?
In terms of the male to female ratio, it’s got loads better. We’ve got a woman editing The Financial Times now and a woman editing The Guardian and generally more women in higher editorial positions. There’s always been a lot of women but, like in the music industry, they were less likely to be in positions of power.
The real problem is still diversity in terms of race and class. Across all aspects of creative media that’s a serious, serious issue that needs to consistently and constantly be addressed. Not just by running internships and grants for people from low income and diverse backgrounds – although those really help – but just by hiring diverse in the first place and also by giving those people raises and promotions. That’s the only way we’ll see a true tipping of the scales.
Do you think there are enough affordable / inclusive training schemes available to people who want to get involved in broadcasting and journalism in the music sector?
Gal-dem started one that’s super amazing. They teamed up with a scheme which pays for people to live in London so they can afford to do an internship. Then there’s the Scott Trust Bursary at The Guardian, which has been really instrumental in bringing through journalists from diverse backgrounds. In audio, Spotify has a bootcamp where they give training to female podcasters of colour and then there’s a £10k reward to those with the best ideas.
So there’s a few popping up and in terms of finding them, Gal-dem and The Dots are really good portals for jobs and schemes. I mostly see these things on Twitter, so my advice would be to follow these platforms, follow the writers on these platforms and when they share them you’ll see it. But of course, there could and should be way more, across the media and entertainment industry!
How do all the different disciplines you work in inform each other? Do you think it’s advisable for people to immerse themselves in multiple mediums or concentrate on one?
I think it’s really admirable if you are a specialist but I’ve always found it better to be a generalist who can do a bit of everything with a specialism on the side. I specialise in dance music of all kinds, from around the world, but I hope that I could write about any type of music with some authority. As for interdisciplinary skills, if I hadn't done interviewing for as long as I’ve been doing it then I don’t think I would have been able to do my podcast with the same incisiveness. Broadcasting has really helped my live DJing in terms of curating and sense of tone, and finding stories in journalism has helped me see what people are interested in, which has in turn helped with everything from booking radio guests to promoting my podcast because I understand better the kinds of things that will resonate with people. All these things feed into each other.
You hosted Rebel Radio during the Extinction Rebellion protests in October last year. What was that like?
Rebel Radio is a satellite radio station for Extinction Rebellion and when they were planning to do their Westminster takeover last November, they got in touch with Soho Radio and suggested teaming up and doing something. So two producers called Seb and Dolly got brought on to programme a series of shows all themed around the event and the climate crisis and I was asked to do a daily show called the “Don’t Drive Time Show”.
I got thrown in the deep end: I got asked to do the show three days before it started and, like most people, I was aware of and worried by the climate emergency but I didn’t have a firm grasp on the facts and figures. But I do think it’s good to challenge yourself and do what you’re scared of, so I just went for it. I remembered that Gilles Peterson once said to me “the best way to take the temperature of a city is to turn on the radio” and I think this was a really good way to take the temperature of what was going on in the protests. The Extinction Rebellion movement can sometimes feel a little bit intense and confusing, so this was a space where non-XR people like myself could come together and say “I don’t really understand this” and then we could demystify the questions around it. I had various guests come on like Simon Amstel and George Monbiot and it was really fun.
Finally, what advice can you give to young people who are looking to build a career in music journalism?
I would say, try to write for as many different places as possible to figure out your style and to get your name out there. Don’t just think “I want to write for the Guardian”. Also, read as much as you can and familiarise yourself with the different styles of each publication and what writers and writing you like and don’t like so much. Try to spot the gaps in their coverage. Both these things will help you figure out your voice. Be brave in sending editors your ideas but don’t be disheartened if they get rejected. I try to worry less about being turned down or people not responding to my email pitches. You’ve just got to move on and keep trying and not take it personally. Also, invest in a dictaphone. Phones get lost and the software is risky; a solid dictaphone is like a trusty sidekick that rarely lets you down.
It’s tricky to manage all the different aspects of the job and any advice I give out, I should listen to myself! I’m a really unhealthy worker. I can wake up at 7am, work solidly and not remember to shower until midday. My advice to others would be to not do that, because your mental health will suffer. Instead, my suggestion would be to create a routine, no matter how loose, which means you leave the house once a day or you do something positive like make a healthy lunch from scratch or call a friend. Something that takes away from looking at your laptop. It’s really easy to feel like you’re not doing enough, but you have to remember that it’s okay to take a break. The best time to find ideas is when you take yourself out of your working situation. I find that I get loads of good ideas when I’m relaxed, like in the shower!