Maria Sherman is a freelance music writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in both online and print publications like Wondering Sound, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and BuzzFeed. As a current staff writer for Fuse TV and an occasional talent scout for UK record label Rough Trade, Maria has a lot going on these days in quite a few different places. We spoke via email about a music writer's voice, craft, objectivity, and identity in the modern music industry landscape.
Katie: How was being on the road with Joanna Gruesome?
Maria: Amazing! It was Joanna Gruesome's first time touring the U.S. properly. They played about nine million shows last CMJ but didn't get the chance to hit the road. I joined them for the East Coast stint alongside Perfect Pussy.
Were you just along for the ride or on writing assignment?
It was a little of both. I've always wanted to write a tour diary, they seem to be a dying breed these days.
Total lost art!
I'm sure a lot of it has to do with cost. I know I don't have to tell you investigative journalism, especially that which lands in an arts/music world, is often given the short end of the stick. Luckily I found a home for a long piece and it should publish later in the month.
Do you read much old music writing? It's interesting to me how both style and substance have shifted over time.
I used to, but not so much anymore.
These two have little in common, but hardly anyone writes like Ellen Willis or Lester Bangs anymore.
I think that has more to do with taste than style--I'd rather read John Jeremiah Sullivan on Michael Jackson than, say, Lester Bangs on Led Zeppelin. That could change next week! Greil Marcus will forever be an icon. I took a class with [Robert] Christgau in college so I often find myself trying to emulate his dense yet precise writing, never quite getting it right.
Is there a certain "genre" of music you tend to cover most in your writing or is your content dictated by whatever you're drawn towards?
Good question! That, too, changes. I wouldn't say I'm drawn to certain "genres," but there are definitely areas (and eras!) I'm more knowledgeable in, so I'm more comfortable/likely to write about it. Recently I've been really interested in wholly maligned music movements, especially those that exist in my lifetime. Enter: teen pop.
Do you come from a family of musicians or journalists or anything like that?
I'm always jealous of people who came from musical families. My mom would play Andrea Bocelli and my dad would play, like, Earl Klugh. There was a period where he tried to get me into classic rock but I didn't bite. I guess my story is as familiar as it gets: young kid seeks escape from the mundane, doesn't quite fit in at school, young kid discovers punk rock... or whatever can stand in for "punk rock." I do have a fond memory of trying to impress a boy in fourth grade, Zayne Riggins, with my extensive knowledge of Blink-182. I came to the realization that music is way more fun than boys. I still believe it.
How did your relationship with music start and how did your relationship with writing start?
I think I had a similar "A-ha!" moment. I remember getting frustrated with my dad because "being a thinker" wasn't a "profession" anymore. (I was too young to be pretentious, but definitely a little asshole who wanted to philosophize. To everyone. All the time). Writing seemed like a fair trade off. I could express ideas in a way that felt a bit more democratic than the academic setting. Many people have access to the internet, many people can be introduced to something new and exciting. By 16 I realized music/culture writing is the most fun thing in the world, and I hope I get to do it for a while.
How do you relate to your writing, like if you were talking about your writing (rather than its subject matter) to someone else? Are you a critic? An enthusiast? Something different entirely?
I tend to default on "writer" rather than "critic," almost entirely because the latter connotes something negative. I've never referred to myself as an "enthusiast," but it's been prescribed to me. No complaints there. There's this Dave Hickey quote where he says, "enthusiasm is no substitute for craft." I agree and disagree from day to day. Doesn't talent come from hard work? And what's a stronger motivator than passion? Aren't the two inherent in each other? My least favorite word in the english language is "settle," both for it's meaning and the way it looks, so it's hard to assign a term for what I do. In the meantime, I just go with "writer".
I tend to think "critic" has a negative connotation at this point, too. Which is really too bad! Pointless complaining is of course a waste of space, but I'd like to think "critique" could also mean "here is what I am hearing in this music and why I am listening to it and how it relates to everyone else", something not necessarily negative (or positive?) in nature at all.
Totally. I don't know if it's the misunderstood nature of certain music that I'm drawn to, but maybe the players of those creations? It takes a certain creative, dedicated, intelligent, fearless person to continuously make art that is marginalized. It's one of the bravest things a human can do. I guess I'm just lucky that it also often sounds good to my ears.
I know you've said you're pretty drawn to female-centric hardcore. (But don't let me put words in your mouth if this is at all incorrect.) Have you ever gone through a period where you just felt like you could not listen to music made by men? Maybe this sounds ridiculous or extreme but I'm actually asking because I think for almost two years I hardly listened to any music made by men, mostly read books written by women, watched movies by women, etc. I just felt so inundated and uninspired with male-centric culture I wanted to avoid it as much as possible.
I think for a while now, and perhaps always, women have just been better at making music. I definitely find myself listening to more female-fronted/created music than ever before. It's funny, growing up, I remember not listening to female vocalists on purpose. I hated the sound. My speaking voice was always referred to as "deep for a woman," and that was supposed to be a compliment, so I guess it was more of an environmental influence than anything else. It's definitely not a conscious thing, either. I'm not forcing myself to avoid male musicians. I just think the output is not as good... kind of harking back to the "settling" concept. If, say, All Dogs are the best power pop punk band going, why would I spend time on some dude band trying to do the same thing, and doing it only a fraction as well? If that?
As a freelance writer, are you "pitched" certain topics or bands to cover?
Always. Everyday. Do you mean by publications or artists or both? I'm in a lucky position where I rarely have to write things I don't believe in or don't have any investment in. It's a really freeing feeling.
Sometimes it seems like there is this "us vs. them" mentality between musicians and writers, but we're all dealing with a similar thing, involved in similar work. We all need to get paid and are wondering about where the money is coming from. I have some friends who think it's just gross to get paid for any sort of music or writing, but I always wonder, is it gross to pay a plumber or a college professor or a baker? I just wonder about this idea compared with other works for which people are paid.
Totally. It's a frustrating place to be in. I have distinct memories where a musician, or musicians, haven't given me the time of day, in an interview or some other professional setting. On one hand, I'm providing a service, on the other hand, I totally respect and acknowledge artists who think criticism is cheap.
Isn't the writer creating something just as potentially provocative and salient as the musician? Sure, it's being read by music fans who might be more interested in the subject matter than the craft, but what about for those of us who enjoy music writing? I'm being extremely leading with this question but I think there's too much deference to the subject matter in music writing and not enough emphasis on who is doing the writing, like you aren't just a warm body with fingers on a keyboard, you know what I mean? Is this frustrating to you or am I just sort of out of my element on this one as an observer? I'd love to know more about your observations on the sort of landscape of music writing from the inside looking out.
I agree with you. If the writer is fulfilling what I believe the responsibility of the music writer is, to not regurgitate but to continue important conversations and make them more prevalent... then there is an artistry to it. The best critics are the ones we can name and recognize because their style is as recognizable as a characteristic chord change in a song from a band you love. That's not to say we're angels. There are many folk who will regurgitate and I think, like the music that does the same, should be open to criticism.
You do freelance stuff for Wondering Sound, Rolling Stone, what else? Are you a staff writer at Fuse or Buzzfeed? What about Rough Trade? (Getting this info from your twitter bio right now)
I was at BuzzFeed in 2013, now I'm a staff writer at Fuse TV. I regularly contribute to / host a column at Wondering Sound and sometimes freelance for places like Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. I've started scouting bands for Rough Trade U.S., it's loads of fun. Never thought of myself as a music industry person, but sharing cool American acts with Geoff Travis is, like, the fucking coolest thing in the world.
Is Geoff Travis as nice as he seems?
Definitely, with stories to boot! When we met he was telling me how upsetting it is that kids can't squat in New York anymore, it's too expensive. He told me he used to crash on Christgau's floor. That direct contact with label/writer/what have you is something I love and try to sustain, it doesn't have to feel like a vintage thing. He also appreciated my love of boy bands, so he's good in my book.
I am really interested in the 'direct contact' thing, when there is not enough it seems like people forget they are interacting with or talking about a real person. It can become a respect issue, but also just a matter of misunderstanding an artist's perspective and intent (I'm talking about anyone in this field, here: writer, label manager, person in a band, etc). But I also recognize that it can make things sticky, i.e, "don't review your best friend's record" , "do/don't make friends with music writers/bands" or stuff like this. Are there ever times when this feels tricky for you or do you just try not to worry about it and do the best you can? I imagine you are occasionally reviewing friends' records, it becomes unavoidable to have these kinds of interactions or become friends after awhile.
You're asking a lot of interesting questions and I'm not sure I have any real answers. It's definitely sticky territory, as you said, and I truly think it's on a case-by-case basis. As a writer, or label manager, I'd hope you'd maintain a certain level of ethics to stand by and for--what those are, of course, is subjective. Like, I wouldn't feel comfortable reviewing Perfect Pussy now, after developing what I consider to be very intimate friendships with all of them. I suppose that could change by format... if I were to hit the road with them for a tour diary, that connection would make for a more interesting piece.
I'd say if something feels yucky, don't do it. If something is being met with obvious animosity, it might be because you're approaching a situation or story or signing in a way that makes others uncomfortable. And while there's value in that, you have to step back and ask, "Am I playing favorites for favorites sake?" I happen to think my friends are the most talented people in the world, and that's usually why I surround myself with them.