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‘Do you have electricity?’ and other stupid interview questions

By far, the best part of my job is listening to people talk about their passion for art. I can honestly say that in the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted over the past three years, every single one has been interesting, largely for that reason: when you get people talking about why they’ve made art part of their lives, you eventually touch on the very things that make them tick. I’m often reminded after interviews that art is in many ways one of the purest expressions of our individuality, what makes each of us unique in a world of billions.

This past week, I had the great good fortune to get to speak with cellist Zuill Bailey for a half hour by phone, prior to his appearances this weekend in Juneau. I was intimidated, to say the least, in thinking about what to say to him. Here’s an artist who is at the very top of his field, who has been interviewed by NRP and the New York Times, among others; what could I possibly ask him that he hasn’t been asked hundreds of times already? And though I was familiar with the music Bailey is going to be performing, all six of Bach’s cello suites, I knew next to nothing about Bach or the cello. What if I sounded like a complete idiot?

But as soon as we started talking, I relaxed. The next 30 minutes flew by. Bailey is also a professor and the head of two music festivals, one in El Paso and one right here in Sitka, so he is used to talking about music, and it shows. He spoke freely and very personally about Bach’s music and how it made him feel, and about how he has changed as an artist over time. He also made me laugh quite a few times. (In fact, when I hung up the phone, my co-worker Melissa, who sits right next to me, said, “So do you have a crush on Zuill Bailey now, or what?" She had also seen his photo, I might add.)

I managed to get through the interview with only one embarrassing question: I couldn’t remember the name of the famous cellist who previously owned Bailey’s 1693 Gofriller cello (it was Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet), so I said something like “And your cello, it was owned by a cellist who died in 1985?” Ack.

Sometimes listening to the tape of the interviews is horrible torture. I still blush when I think about some of the stupid questions I’ve asked people over the years.

One I hate to remember was when I was interviewing photographer Nick Hall, known for his gorgeous, amazing photos of Alaska Native subsistence activities. We’d been talking about his time at a remote fishing camp along the Nushagak River, and then switched to talking about his wife’s family’s fish processing business in Dillingham.  Still out at the fishing camp in my mind I asked, “And do they have electricity out there?” In Dillingham? He was so staggered by my stupidity that he couldn’t even answer for a moment. I wanted the floor to swallow me up.  

If I had prepared a list of questions this kind of thing would never happen – and I usually do prepare about a dozen before I talk to anyone, particularly people who live outside of Juneau. But once the interview gets going I often let the list fall by the wayside and follow the current of the conversation. It usually works out fine. Sometimes not so much.

I once asked Nick Galanin, a Alaska Native artist from Sitka who’s become very well known for a wide range of artistic disciplines, if one of his sculptural pieces was created with a sense of humor. No. It was not.

For some crazy reason I also asked Juneau artist Dan DeRoux about his childhood in San Francisco, even though I knew quite well walking in that he grew up in Juneau (he’s been here his whole life except for a handful of years). Duh.

Those moments of shame are short lived, however. Far and away, getting a chance to talk to artists about their work is incredibly rewarding, and I nearly always walk away thinking about how generous and trusting the person is to tell me their story and allow me to reformulate it into an article. Every week I hope that I’ve done them at least a little justice.

Much more importantly, though, every week I hope I’ve encouraged others to seek out and experience the art I've written about for themselves, without the filter of words.

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