Although this Friday marks her first official appearance at the Face the Music Conference in Melbourne, legendary music journalist and radio presenter Zan Rowe boasts an incredible career spanning nearly two decades. Her keynote speech, set for Friday the 18th of November, will give fellow creatives and true lovers of music a chance to discover more when she is interviewed by fellow media legend, Myf Warhurst. With this incredible combination together on stage, Zan’s keynote is surely an event not to be missed.
Ahead of the conference, Zan took the time to chat with Music Feeds about her early journalistic aspirations, inspirations and how it felt to look back on her 20-year career.
Music Feeds: Can you tell us about the moment you realised radio/music journalism was what you wanted to pursue?
Zan Rowe: Ever since I was little I wanted to be a journalist. I studied towards that my whole high school life, and initially started a degree towards that path. At the same time, I’ve always loved music and wanted to share it with as many people as possible, but it wasn’t until I stumbled into a friend’s show during a test broadcast at SRA FM (now SYN FM) in 1996 that I got the radio bug and started following that down the rabbit hole. I switched my degree to Media Studies at RMIT and the rest is history. I’m so happy I get to do both, every day.
MF: Tell us about your first ever day in the triple j studio. What was running through your mind before you were live to air?
ZR: It was nighttime, a mid-dawn shift, and I think I was just petrified of accidentally saying “you’re on RRR”! I was broadcasting the Monday Drive show at 3RRR at the time.
MF: You’re appearing at the Face the Music Conference for Melbourne Music Week as a keynote speaker in conversation with Myf Warhurst, what are you most looking forward to chatting about?
ZR: I think I’m most excited to take a moment to take stock of the last 20 years or so. My life is so consumed every day with what is now and what is next, I rarely get the chance to look back and think about the trip I’ve taken to get here. Even going back into old clippings and pictures has been so fun, and sometimes cringe-worthy, from the early days. It’s brought back a lot of great memories and I’m looking forward to sharing them with people who’ve been with me as listeners for two months, two years or two decades.
MF: Is there any particular question you’re worried about discussing or answering?
ZR: If there was, I wouldn’t tell you [laughs].
MF: Have you ever had an “oh my goodness I shouldn’t have asked that” type moment?
ZR: Absolutely, everyone does. But that’s how you learn. And what editing is for. But yes, I prize the conversations I have with artists because I appreciate how weird it is to talk about something that can often be so intangible, and is often meant to exist as the message. Music journalism is a bit of a strange exercise when you think about it. My job is to create a space where the artist feels they can trust me, be open with me, and maybe even learn something about themselves in the process too. Asking a dicky question pretty swiftly destroys all of that.
MF: Your schedule is incredibly packed, but is there anything you’re currently aspiring to at the moment?
ZR: Always. I never want to stay still. I’m really enjoying doing more music interviews for television, with my contributions to ABC TV’s arts show The Mix. I’m also focusing on more personal writing, after recently contributing to the Hardie Grant anthology Better Than Sex. It was the first time in years I wrote a biographical piece, not about music, and it really reignited that writer flame within. Who knows, maybe this keynote will get me started on a memoir.
MF: You were recently a part of Her Sound Her Story – a photo exhibition run by Michelle Grace Hunder and Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore. What was the highlight in regard to your involvement with this project?
ZR: Working with Michelle, who I’ve worked with before, and also meeting Claudia, was the best part of it all. Two women with such passion and respect for their project and the subjects within it. They have exceptional talent to tell that story. To be able to help connect them with some of the incredible artists who feature in the exhibition, was really wonderful. I can’t wait to see the finished product when I’m in Melbourne this week!
MF: What do you think the future looks like for women in the music industry?
ZR: Strong. Take a look at our Unearthed High finalists this year? Mostly women. Our Unearthed J Award Artist of the Year nominations? Same deal. The future is female.
MF: You’re an incredibly influential individual and represent the benchmark for a lot of young writers and music journalists, but who has been your inspiration?
ZR: Well that’s an incredible compliment, thank you. Kristine McKenna is an American journalist whose work I first came across in 2004 when she published a collection of her excellent interviews in a collection titled Talk To Her. Her style taught me that the best part of a great interview is a great conversation. If you’re not inside it, not listening to what the interviewee is saying, and not following them in whatever direction they head, then you’re doing it wrong. Her conversations with artists are works of art. More recently Jessica Hopper’s writing has blown me away for the way it interrogates music with the heart of a fan but the critique of the feminist gaze. She calls to account the indefensible elements of certain lyrics in certain songs, doesn’t separate the art from the artist when it gets uncomfortable. After seeing her keynote at Big Sound 2015, I decided 2016 would be my year of calling bullshit. It’s working well so far.
MF: Is there a particular moment during your career that you’re most proud of?
ZR: Every time a stranger comes up to me and tells me that I feel like their friend that recommends music to them. Best feeling, and what I’m aiming for every day I turn on my mic.
MF: Who has been your most influential interviewee?
ZR: To me, or music in general? Well, for both I’d have to say it’d be David Byrne. As a lifelong fan it was incredible to have the chance to interview him twice, face to face. I was so nervous I almost threw up when I saw him walking down the triple j hallway the first time. As soon as we met, those nerves melted away. His whole life, David has been curious about music and art. And he’s explored that curiosity and influenced music and art the world over. He’s always hungry, always willing to take risks. David Byrne is just the best.
MF: Is there anyone left of your ‘bucket list’ left to interview?
ZR: There was David Bowie. I missed that one. I would love to sit down with Patti Smith. And Beyoncé.
MF: What piece of advice has really stuck with you, and what would you like to pass on to young creatives?
ZR: If you want to be in an industry, then be in it. Get involved in community radio, pitch freelance story ideas to the ABC, volunteer. I spent my time through university just asking different people if I could do stuff. Along the way I met lifelong friends, learned the craft, had the best time ever, and managed to score a job that is a gift, every single day.
Zan Rowe will appear this week as the keynote speaker for the Face The Music conference, in conversation with Myf Warhurst. See details below.
Face The Music 2016
Tickets available now
Thursday, 17th November — Friday, 18th November
Various Locations, Melbourne