Nick Dawson, Elia Einhorn, and Ian Wheeler are part of the team behind the Talkhouse Podcast. On the Talkhouse Podcast, artists and difference-makers sit down for an interview with another artist, whether they be peers, strangers, or mutual admirers. The trio has been responsible recently for such inspired pairings as Guillermo Del Toro with William Friedkin and Nadya Tolokno of Pussy Riot with Chelsea Manning. I spoke with Dawson (Editor-in-Chief of Talkhouse Film & TV), Einhorn (Talkhouse Music Podcast Host and Podcasts Producer), and Wheeler (Talkhouse’s Co-Founder and Publisher) at On Air Fest in Williamsburg.
Where does the idea for an episode come from? Do you start by thinking of an artist you want to interview or do you first come up with a pair?
Elia Einhorn: They come together in different ways. A lot of the times there’s an artist who we think has something unique and interesting to say, and then we’ll look for a pairing. Other times we’ll find artists who are having a conversation already, sometimes online, and we’ll approach them.
When you’re looking beyond those already-established connections, what do you look for?
Nick Dawson: We’re always looking to find people who can have a different kind of conversation than a journalist and an artist would, people who know each other or are fans of each other’s work, or even longtime friends. But for me, I always just like to dig around in people’s pasts, look at who they follow on Twitter, and find weird indicators of people they’d be excited to talk to.
EE: One thing we spend a lot of our days doing is just listening to artists’ music or watching their films, reading about them, seeing what they’re interested in. I meet with three to five different artists a week for coffee, for lunch, just to talk and ask, “What are you excited about right now? What are you thinking about? Who are you excited about, and why?’ A large foundation of my work is spending time with artists, whether that’s physically or online.
One of the great things you’ve done in your interviews is pair artist of different generations. Is that something you always wanted to do, or did that happen organically?
EE: Oh yeah. I grew up reading the old British music magazines, so NME and Melody Maker, and I always loved when they would do special editions, like Paul Weller from The Jam meeting Pete Townsend from The Who, sort of the new mod generation meeting the old mod generation. That’s something we’ve done cross-genre. Nick curated an amazing talk between Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro Jodorowsky. How cool is that? To hear one of the guys at the forefront of film now meet one of the masters of the age, who’s such a receptacle of experiential knowledge, and be able to meet as peers. I mean, you can hear the way I’m talking about it, I’m just a fan of both people. Getting to be there, getting to put that on a podcast was a phenomenal treasure for me.
Have artists ever approached you all saying, ‘I want to interview x?’
Ian Wheeler: Yeah, since we started the podcast I feel like artists have seen it as a vehicle to meet their heroes or peers, and speak with them in a really natural, neutral setting. One that I love is Laurie Anderson and Tune-Yards. That was one where Merrill [aka Tune-Yards] wanted to speak with Laurie and made that clear, but to our surprise, Laurie was equally if not more excited to talk with Merrill. So it goes both ways.
EE: Definitely one of the most exciting parts of my job is when the artists go on to collaborate. Merrill and Laurie put on a huge show together after we introduced them. And now Courtney Barnett sings on the new Breeders record, and Kim Deal from the Breeders sings on the new Courtney Barnett record. Well, we introduced them; we did that at the Talkhouse. We knew that Courtney had covered a Breeders song, and we thought, these are fascinating, brilliant artists, these are brilliant women, let’s pair them. Fast forward two years, and they’re on each other’s records. And we’ve got a dozen stories like that.
Was there an episode early on where you thought, this formula really works?
I’ve been with the podcast since the very first episode, and I think [it was] the second episode — the first episode was very exciting too, Carrie Brownstein with Hamilton Leithauser — but in that second episode, Carrie came back and was speaking with Patrick [Carney] from the Black Keys. Like I said, I’m an artist so I’ve spent a lot of time in green rooms, just hanging out with other artists before shows and at the bar after. And after that second podcast I realized we were essentially listening to them sit on bar stools, even though Patrick was at home and Carrie was in a studio in Portland. I remember them talking about the travails of being the opening band that nobody cares about for a huge band, and the difficulties in that. Both of these artists have transcended that status now, but just hearing the unfiltered way that they spoke to each other, in a way that you would never speak to a journalist, in such an unguarded and open way, it really felt like I was sitting on the third barstool. It really clicked.
Given that your show features interviewers who haven’t done a ton of interviewing, do you ever coach artists in interviewing?
ND: The thing I always say is, “Ask questions that you genuinely want to know the answer to, follow your curiosities — and nothing is off-limits.” We don’t run podcasts unedited, so if we feel like something is less compelling and we already have an hour of tape, we’re not going to put that in. We’re seeking a different kind of conversation, and when things end up in surprising places, that’s the stuff that gets me excited. So I never want to coach anybody or guide them in a particular direction.
Obviously your show is pretty original in structure, but were there shows you looked to as models when you were trying to figure out what the show was going to look like?
IW: When we started the Talkhouse, the idea was to have an alternative outlet for talking about art, and my background was spent in tour vans working with bands. Hearing real conversations between artists and how different those were from interviews with journalists — that’s where I was coming from.
The last episode I was really blown away by was Mark Frost of Twin Peaks talking to Sam Esmail of Mr. Robot. As a Twin Peaks fan that was unbelievable and the pairing just seemed inspired. Was there a lesson about storytelling that you took from that interview?
ND: That episode was so dense. I’m not sure it’d be just one thing I took away. I’d been talking to Sam for a couple years about doing something with the site, and then I was just like, “What if he were to talk to Mark Frost? That could be kind of amazing.” That’s a special episode. It’s great when you can get two people you know are going to get on well together and just let them take it from there.
How about for you, Elia and Ian? Is there a creative lesson you’ve taken from a podcast recently?
EE: There’s an episode featuring Kendra Foster from D’Angelo’s Vanguard and X Ambassadors front man Sam [Harris], and they talk about co-writing. He’s written for Rihanna and she’s obviously written for D’Angelo and won Grammys, but one thing that Kendra said really echoed what I took away about storytelling from Sam and Mark, which is: just doing what people expect and what’s been done is so incredibly boring. Following your muse, however weird that is — and the weirder the better in certain ways — creates the most astonishingly brilliant art. You look at both of those shows those men created and co-wrote, and you look at D’Angelo’s Black Messiah — and Kendra also works with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic — those are indisputably some of the weirdest shows and musical acts, and also indisputably some of the most important.
IW: I take lessons from all of our podcasts, on every level of what we do, of what I do, of how I talk about art, of how I speak to artists. Ultimately, the mission has always been to gain a greater understanding of art, and through that, of ourselves. From day one with Talkhouse, I’ve always said this is an experiment. We launched the year that banner ads died, so it’s always been an experiment of how we create something that’s authentic, real, and honest, and that’s also a sustainable business.
Jake Greenberg is a culture writer based in Brooklyn. He has written about music and film for The Mac Weekly, and blogs for RealClearLife. Feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org