duminică , 19 septembrie 2021

Paul Leslie: “You have to have a little bit of an ego to be a good interviewee”


Do you have any rituals before doing an interview?

Increasingly, I have some coffee. It gets the brain flowing. I like to take a walk before I do it. If it’s a musical guest, I might listen to the song that most inspires me from their discography. I might listen to that song and try to carry that inspiration into our conversation. Obviously, I like to do research.

Do you do a lot of research?

It depends. Usually I like to read about their back story.  And I like listening to the rarer songs if they are a recording artist and finding out that person’s history. But sometimes I don’t. It’s rare, but sometimes there is not that much that’s known about my guests. And I do less research because I figure whoever listens probably doesn’t know that much about him or her either. So, if I know too much, I might not ask a question that everybody would want to know the answer to. But research is a lot of fun. I consider myself a digger. I like to extract information, to track down things like old books and albums. It’s always a satisfying thing to me when I ask a question about something many people would go over.

One of my favorite interviews was John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful. I asked him a very obscure question about something that he had appeared on – I think he played guitar on a certain album many years ago. I remember he raised one eyebrow and was really surprised that I knew about it. That’s important, because you don’t want to ask questions that people have heard the answer to a hundred times.

Why did you choose the Moon as a symbol to represent you and what you do?

I’ve always had a fascination by looking at the Moon. For whatever reason I feel this relationship with the Moon, I can look at it for a long time. There have been many times when I just stared at it for a long time, because it’s intriguing.

There have been interviewers that I have interviewed, like Elliot Mintz and Larry King, that have used the word “conduit” – the interviewers are the conduit for the guests to express themselves, to tell their story. So I looked at the Moon and I thought the interviewer is like the Moon. There are different people who are like the Sun – their work shines so brightly that you almost can’t look at it. And the interviewers are a reflection of that light, they interpret and allow these different people to explain whoever they are. Whether they’re very famous or not, their creative work has touched a lot people. Sometimes, they are such geniuses they don’t have a way to express themselves that is always completely understood. The interviewer poses questions, gets out of the way and allows them to speak. And sometimes asks a question of something they had never thought of.

I remember interviewing Charles Strouse, the famous composer. He wrote the song “Tomorrow” that appeared in the musical “Annie”. I asked him a lot of questions on the optimistic side of life. And he seemed he was looking at his life with scrutiny, with all his amazing accomplishments, he still maybe didn’t grasp what a genius he is. He said: You know, this interview that we did really makes me feel good. I thought it was amazing. His music stands by itself; we can listen to “Tomorrow” or any number of Charles Strouse’s compositions and be moved by it, but we maybe don’t understand where the artist is coming from. He was able to express himself, and in that instant it felt like I was the moon. He is so bright, his work lit up this world. There is actually an interesting story about that.

After I had interviewed Charles Strouse, I was walking around a grocery store and I was having this really bad day. I was walking around and thinking: What am I doing? We all have questions about that sometimes, when we doubt ourselves or we may be harsh on ourselves. Then I heard this little girl and she was singing “Tomorrow” from “Annie”. And not just a line or two, she was singing the entire song, from start to finish. I thought about how miraculous that was. It almost seemed unbelievable that 30 minutes before I was talking to the very man who wrote that melody, and here was this song that everybody knows. I had the opportunity to speak to that man and I felt very humbled and honored that he would speak to me.

Sometimes it feels like this world is almost a dream because of the number of times that I get to talk to people who write songs or appear in movies, people that have touched us that much. That’s why I think the interviewer is like the Moon and that’s why I use the symbol of the Moon so much.

Do you think this is a good way to position yourself? Like they are the so-called “celebrity” doing you the favor?

I am not impressed at all with someone if they are famous. It’s not fame that I’m fascinated with, or wealth. I am fascinated with people who create something that is so emotional and it’s so easily remembered in our collective minds. It’s their creative ability that gets me.  I like people who create value.

You take some of these songs and you think about how many different people can hear three or four notes of the song, or you can recite one line of lyric and they know exactly what you’re talking about.

There is nothing quite like music to me. As much as I like talking to all different types of people, I know that music is my first love. I get your point: it’s not exactly a good idea to worship people. But I don’t think that I worship them, I respect them so much. Especially when someone is able to communicate a very positive message. There are so many negative things in the world that we can attach our attention to, but you take a song like Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” – it’s a very beautiful song, it’s got a little bit of sadness and heartbreak in it, but it has soul. And whenever I’m in a bar or restaurant that has a jukebox, that’s one of the songs that I pick, because I know that almost everyone likes that song. I am in awe of Percy Sledge for having the ability to sing a song like that and for coming up with a song like that.

Same thing with the song “Stand by Me.” You can play just a couple of seconds of that song and you will watch the room change. “Stand by Me” endured for so long because the message in it is so beautiful, it’s a message we all need to hear. We’ve listened to that song a thousand times because we can’t hear enough of it. It’s not because it doesn’t satisfy us, but we listen to it again and again because it continues to satisfy us. These are the messages that don’t go away. And there are certain songs that have that magic, that make people feel a certain way, they make people feel peaceful. And certain artists that have that ability. I can’t imagine anybody going to a Barry Manilow concert and getting in a fight. The same thing goes for a lot of artists. I can’t imagine going to a Simon & Garfunkel concert and deciding afterwards that you’re going to start an argument.

I am in awe of people that are able to communicate a certain message, I broadcast that and let it shine and let everyone see it. So it’s not worshiping, it’s intense admiration. I love it when people are able to get a good message out there and when they’re able to make someone else feel good. I think there is something to that: people who are able to make someone else feel good are making this world a better place. Giving someone some encouragement, no matter what your method of communication is. You and I are just talking right now, but some people communicate through different ways. Everything that you say, everything that you do, the slightest thing is communication. So, what message are you putting out there? Make sure it’s a good one!

What was the most enlightening thing anyone has ever told you in an interview?

It’s really hard to choose just one, because there have been hundreds of these and I hope that there’s a lot more of them. But I will try to think about one of them. It was something that Marty Panzer told me: that we should be living with passion and that we should be about things that last. His songs have lasted a long time, but that’s because of the man himself. He’s not about making friends for a week-end or friends for a month; he’s about friends that last your whole life. I hope that I can become a person who is about things that last.

That’s just one of them, but there are so many that I could talk about. I remember asking David Lee Roth, the lead singer for Van Halen: What do you look for in a woman? And he started to laugh, saying he could go really funny, but then he answered the question. He said: “I am looking for a woman who can look at someone else that has a tattoo or maybe he wears a cowboy hat, or whatever it is, I am looking for the kind of girl who can look at them and say, OK, maybe I wouldn’t get a tattoo, but let me talk to that person, let me find out.” That’s another thing that I thought it was very interesting. You don’t really know somebody until you know what they want, that’s for certain.

Also, what Larry King said: Don’t stop asking, don’t stop wondering, and the best word you could ever use is ‘Why. Or when Elliot Mintz told me we should turn off the machines. I’m guilty as anybody of using all of the social media, but I have the intense desire to make our communication as powerful and as personal as possible. I also remember when I interviewed Maya Angelou, when she said that no matter how abrasive somebody is, no matter how nasty you think somebody is, they still have a capacity somewhere within them to be good. They still have a desire for goodness. Maybe they don’t listen to that desire, maybe they don’t seek goodness, but somewhere in them there is that longing.

It’s hard to pick the wisest thing I’ve heard in my interviews. I’ve gotten a bit of wisdom from every single interview that I’ve done. There is nobody that I haven’t learned from.

What did interviewing teach you about people?

It taught me that we are more alike than unalike. We pretty much all want the same things. I think everyone out there wants to be appreciated. There is nobody who wants their work to go unnoticed. I believe that wholeheartedly. And when you talk to so many people, you see that purpose and work is really what drives us as people, without that we don’t have a life, so I’ve gotten to see how important purpose is. I’ve looked at all the people that I’ve talked to and a lot of them have created things that are amazing. There was something driving them to create what they created. And in a lot of cases it was recognition. I think it’s that, that we have a purpose that guides us. It’s the most impotant thing that we have.

It has also taught me that in people’s lives, collectively, through the stories that people have told me, the greatest artists – actually anyone who has ever created anything – first suffered. Almost universally. I got to interview Irving Burgie – he wrote many of the songs that made Harry Belafonte famous. He started out as a really poor man and I asked him, now that he has all this money and acclaim and that he’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, does he still write songs? And he said: No. I rework my songs occasionally, but the motivating factors are gone. So in other words, once he got the wealth, once he got the success he’d been looking for, the internal compass that was driving him to create these brilliant works of music dried up. He didn’t have the motivating factor anymore.

I don’t want to suffer, I don’t think anybody wants that, but I see some of the beauty that suffering has created. Interviewing has taught me that suffering is what, in many cases, drives people to make something really great.

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